What is Tidal? The hi-fi streaming music service fully explained

Simon Cohen
·11 min read

Most big-name music streaming services have a lot in common. Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Pandora, and YouTube Music all have similar choices in music and quality — it’s just a matter of picking your preferred platform.

Tidal, on the other hand, breaks the mold. The business structure emphasizes the artists having more control over the platform, and it offers higher-quality audio in comparison to the big names. We have all the details on how this service works so you can decide if it’s right for you.

What is Tidal?

Tidal is a music streaming subscription service with a catalog of about 60 million songs, some of which are exclusives. It also has a variety of podcasts, music videos, live concert recordings, and professionally curated playlists. As with most streaming services, it’s accessible on a wide variety of devices, including computers, smartphones, tablets, smart speakers, and platforms like Apple TV and Android TV. But two major elements let Tidal stand out in the streaming music space.

First, Tidal is owned by a group of musicians, not a corporation. Currently, the service lists Alicia Keys, Arcade Fire (Win Butler and Regine Chassagne), Beyoncé, Calvin Harris, Clifford “T.I.” Harris, Coldplay, Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Jack White, and several other “artist owners.” Tidal claims this ownership structure not only helps to deliver exclusive music and events to its member but also lets it pay artists more money: “Tidal pays the highest ratio of royalties vs. revenues to music creators of any streaming service, and equal rates are paid to artists regardless of whether they’re signed to a major label, an indie label, or not signed to a label at all,” the company claims.

Second, in addition to its Premium base subscription level that lets listeners stream audio at 320 Kbps (about the same quality offered by Spotify, Apple Music, and others), Tidal has a more expensive “Hi-Fi” option that bumps up the entire catalog to lossless, CD-quality audio, and a limited catalog of hi-res music it calls Tidal Masters. For a while, this feature made Tidal one of only two hi-res streaming services available to U.S. subscribers — the other being Qobuz. However, as of September 2019, Amazon Music is also in the CD-quality and hi-res audio space with its Amazon Music HD service.

Tidal and Amazon Music HD are now locked in a battle for the title of the highest quality streaming service. We’ll explain the differences below.

How much does Tidal cost and what’s included?

Tidal has two tiers: Premium and HiFi. The price for each tier depends on whether you qualify for one of Tidal’s discounts. There is no free subscription level, but Tidal offers a 30-day free trial for new subscribers, and for a limited time, you can get a whole six months for just $4, and that goes for the HiFi tier, too.

The Premium plan gives you unlimited ad-free music across multiple devices as well as access to exclusive live Tidal X events. You can create new playlists, import your existing playlists, and download songs and videos for offline listening/viewing.

The HiFi subscription gives you all of the same features as Premium, but with lossless CD quality for all tracks streamed using FLAC 16bit/44.1kHz, and access to the hi-res, Tidal Masters recordings. It’s also the tier that offers a limited selection of Sony 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos Music tracks (more on these formats later).

An individual Tidal subscription, regardless of plan, lets you stream music to one device at a time (online mode); however, up to five devices can be used in offline mode simultaneously. Family plans give you a total of six user accounts.

Individual plans

  • Premium: $10 per month

  • HiFi: $20 per month

Family plans

  • Premium: $15 per month

  • HiFi: $30 per month

Student plans (U.S. only, ages 16 and up, with proof of student status)

  • Premium: $5 per month

  • HiFi: $10 per month

Military plans (U.S. only)

  • Premium: $6 per month

  • HiFi: $12 per month

First responder plans (U.S. only)

  • Premium: $6 per month

  • HiFi: $12 per month

Tidal Masters on iOS
Tidal Masters on iOS

How does Tidal Masters work?

Tidal Masters

is a collection of tracks that can be streamed in hi-res audio, using the MQA codec. It starts with the same 24-bit/96KHz audio that lossless FLAC files use, but the MQA codec employs special compression that dramatically reduces the bandwidth needed to stream such a high-quality file.

This is where Tidal’s hi-res option differs from that of Qobuz and Amazon Music HD. Both of these services use FLAC 24-bit/96kHz to deliver hi-res audio and these files are enormous. If you intend on streaming hi-res audio over a mobile data connection (and you don’t have unlimited data) Tidal will let you stream more before you hit your limit.

To listen to Tidal Masters at full quality, you need a device and software that supports the MQA format. The Tidal app for iOS, Android, and desktop operating systems is an easy way to get started, but for a true audiophile experience, you’re better off looking to a third-party audio system that’s compatible with Tidal/MQA, like BlueSound, Meridian, or Roon.

Keep in mind, true hi-res audio quality is very much dependent on the last pieces of the audio delivery chain, namely the digital-to-analog converter (DAC), the amplifier, and the speakers/headphones. If any of these elements aren’t high-quality or are not compatible with hi-res audio, you won’t get the full hi-res experience.

What is Sony 360 Reality Audio?

Sony 360 Reality Audio is a new surround-sound music format that debuted at CES 2019. It uses object-based sounds across multiple channels, much like Dolby Atmos Music. For music fans, it offers a more realistic sound experience, which Sony characterizes as being more lifelike, giving you the impression of attending a live show, even for studio-recorded music.

Though there are only about 1,000 360 RA tracks available at the moment, that number is growing. To experience this new format, all you need is the Tidal app, a HiFi level membership, and a set of headphones. For an even more immersive experience, Sony recommends its newest headphones along with its Headphone Connect app, which can further fine-tune the 360 sound.

What is Dolby Atmos Music?

Dolby Atmos Music is the same object-based audio system used in cinemas and home theaters to create incredibly immersive sound experiences, but it’s been adapted for studio-recorded and live music.

You can access a selection of Atmos Music tracks on Tidal HiFi from Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group. To hear Dolby Atmos Music tracks at their full quality, you need an Atmos-compatible streaming device, such as an Apple TV 4K, Fire TV Cube, or Chromecast with Google TV, and an Atmos-compatible A/V receiver, TV, soundbar, or wireless speaker.

For more Dolby Atmos Music options, see the speakers, devices, and software section below.

Can I buy music through Tidal?

Yes. In addition to streaming service, Tidal has a

Tidal Masters

that sells downloads of songs and entire albums. Prices vary considerably, not just by the artist but also by the file type. Each album or track can be downloaded as a 320Kbps MP3, or lossless FLAC 16bit/44.1kHz, but at the moment there is no hi-res option. You don’t have to be a Tidal subscriber to buy music via the Tidal store, but you do have to create a free account to keep track of your purchases.

Which speakers, devices, and software work with Tidal?

With an active Tidal subscription, you have lots of choices when it comes to listening to or watching Tidal content.

Tidal

Tidal Masters

for use on:

  • iOS devices

  • Android devices

  • Roku devices

  • Macs and PCs

  • Apple TV

  • Android TV

  • Amazon Fire TV

  • Samsung Smart TVs (2017 and newer)

Tidal’s mobile apps are also compatible with Chromecast devices for casting audio and video.

There’s extensive support for the Tidal music service on third-party sound systems, like Sonos, Denon HEOS, BlueSound, Yamaha MusicCast, and many more. Within the dedicated apps for these systems, Tidal can be added as a streaming music source using your Tidal account login email and password.

You can also integrate Tidal content into popular media player/server software, like Plex and Roon, plus there’s a Tidal add-on for Kodi.

In October 2020, Tidal announced Tidal Connect, a new way of casting Tidal audio to compatible wireless speakers. Using the Tidal app as a controller, you can select a specific speaker for playback and send it the highest-quality stream possible, whether it’s lossless FLAC, MQA, or even Dolby Atmos.

Tidal Connect is similar to using Chromecast or AirPlay, but these casting protocols do not support Connect’s higher-quality audio streams. Here’s a look at the devices that currently support Tidal Connect.

One area where Tidal falls a little short is support for smart speakers. In 2018, it added support for Amazon’s Echo line of smart speakers, but it did so using an Alexa skill, not by joining the list of supported music services within the main Alexa app.

The only way to play Tidal on Apple’s HomePod is via AirPlay from your iOS device. The same is true for Google’s Home line of smart speakers — you can cast Tidal to them from a mobile app, but there’s no native support for Tidal, so you won’t be able to say, “Hey Google, play Nipsey Hussle on Tidal.” On Sonos’ two smart speakers, the Sonos One and Sonos Beam, you get a choice between using Alexa or Google Assistant. If having voice access to Tidal matters to you, you’ll have to run Alexa (with the Tidal skill), because Google Assistant on Sonos does not play with Tidal for now.

Tidal extras

Beyond its extensive music catalog, Tidal also offers some noteworthy extra features.

Playlists

You can create, edit, and delete your own playlists from Tidal tracks. Using a third-party tool called Soundiiz, you can import your playlists from other music services like Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play Music. Tidal also publishes and maintains its own collection of playlists, organized by mood and genre. Moods are often activity-oriented like driving, focus, relax, or party, while genres are the more traditional categories like dance, metal, jazz, and rap.

But the really good stuff is found in the human-curated playlists. These are more than a collection of songs by a genre or theme; they’re musical education. Each one is accompanied by an article-length description, like The History of Bluenote by Evan Haga, which includes not one, but five individual playlists. Tidal Rising is a human-curated list that features rising artists that might not get visibility with audiences otherwise.

Articles and interviews

Just as impressive as the human-curated playlists are Tidal’s collection of articles and interviews. These range from album reviews like Patterson Hood’s take on Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars to Alan Light’s deep dive into the forces that shaped Prince’s obsession with perfection. These aren’t just hot takes on the latest trends — they’re considered posts by those who know music best: Musicians, producers, and expert journalists.

Podcasts

Tidal features several audio podcasts, though it’s a fairly small collection compared to services like Spotify. On the other hand, it also produces a number of original video podcasts, like Next Level with Jorge Bernal, and Live at Made in America 2018.

Videos

Speaking of videos, this is one area where Tidal really shines. With over 250,000 music videos, live concert recordings, and special shows like In Praise of Prince, Rough Draft, and Fresh Cuts, it’s worth downloading the Tidal app to a video device like Apple TV or Android TV so you can experience these videos on the big screen.

MyMix

MyMix is Tidal’s answer to Spotify’s recommendation algorithm. After a few days of observing your music preferences, Tidal will build up to six MyMix playlists. The playlists pull from your most heavily represented artists and tracks. At the same time, MyMix integrates recommended new songs from matching genres. If you tend to be a devotee of a single genre, you may only get one of these MyMix lists. But if your tastes are varied, you’ll get more. MyMix likes to give you the chance to stick with a type of music while still experiencing new — and potentially catchy — tracks.

Interactive credits

Interactive credits give you a new way to explore the music you love. Within every artist page is a list of tracks and albums that can be filtered by songwriter, musician, or production. The name of each person who is credited with these various roles is linked to yet another page dedicated to that individual. It’s a clever feature that rewards you for your curiosity by showing you music you might never have found otherwise while revealing musical connections you might not have known about.

Tidal is just one in a long list of available streaming services, and there are plenty of arguments for choosing others when it comes to playlists, interface, etc. That said, if you’re looking for higher-quality streaming, or just something different than the norm, you may want to give Tidal a shot.

Tidal Masters