Thoughts on Tidal Masters

Tidal recently rolled out “Tidal Masters” is it worth it?

Tidal Masters uses MQA .  MQA stands for Master Quality Authenticated – a new audio technology developed by Bob Stuart, co-founder of Meridian Audio.

Most music services, such as Spotify and Apple Music, offer standard, lossy compression music streams, whether 256kbps or 320kbps, AAC, MP3 or Ogg Vorbis. While some, such as Deezer Elite, Qobuz and Tidal also offer higher, CD-quality lossless streams.

Tidal has become the first to deliver hi-res audio streaming on desktop, launching its Tidal Masters service at CES 2017. And it uses MQA technology to make it possible.

So what is MQA?

I’ll let them explain that to you:

MQA has it’s problems though

  • Tidal Masters is only available through the desktop app
  • If you don’t have a compliant decoder, you can be left with as little as 13-bit 44.1 khz audio
  • MQA degrades the quality of the audio for users who do not have an MQA decoder.
  • MQA won’t work for you if you employ any sort of digital room correction
  • MQA isn’t at all necessary. It provides no provable  benefits over other high-resolution formats.

Their selection is diverse but not massive.   No electronic artists excluding the Postal Service whose album I listened to first knowing it the best.  Listening to the 10th Anniversary remaster of The District Sleeps alone tonight is the same as when I first listened to it on a desktop PC I built with an X-fi Titanium.  The problem that’s going to be recurring in this article is even listening to the original version of the album, listening to it on Spotify is it’s like comparing 95% to 100%.

This is in placebo range since this is just casual listening and not a double blind.

Listening to the intro of “Such Great Heights” there is no difference observed.  The vocals are more full bodied but this is still 97% for free vs 100% with the $25 a month Tidal. With only the Postal Service to base this on there isn’t too much I would say a person is “missing” with Electronic and certain kinds of Pop.  Going to try some old school.

I started with Curtis Mayfield’s Little Child Runnin’ Wild from the Supa Fly Soundtrack, that through Pusherman there were no observable differences.

Listening to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps now and my DAC indeed shows that it is steaming at 96khz. It sounds quite good in all honesty, but that’s just one album.  One that sounded good in just about every situation I’ve listened to it in from dinner parties to on my headphones.

Listening to Jay Z’s American Gangster sounds like Tidal is on a whole ‘nother level as far as volume goes vs spotify.  Instruments also possessed more body. With more meat on dem bones. At the very least I could tell you these are two different masters and you are getting the better version with Tidal.

Overall the record feels like how albums USED to be mastered, for stereos before ipods and those shitty headphones took over driving all loudness into the mid range better stereo separation, no muddled mid and bass tones. It’s funny the album with the most observable difference so far is Jay-Z  owner of Tidal so I’m going to need to do some thorough investigating regarding this.  There’s no information as to how to submit ones music to be featured on Tidal Masters or what qualifies a user.  My music is on Tidal and I submitted the WAV exactly as it was mastered.  I will actually test listening on Tidal later.

Listening the the begininning of Codes and Keys by Death Cab for Cutie made me laugh audibly on comparison to spotify.  It was like listening to an old Sound Blaster midi card replicating it the difference was so vast.

Ok it’s not that bad, I can definitely hear a HUGE difference between Tidal Masters, Spotify & (ugh) youtube but is it a $25 a month difference for consumers?  These things are kind of like saying if every PC came with a GTX 1060 free and could stream every game 30 fps who is going to buy the 1080? …The hardcore…

So what better way to conclude this old school sessionthan listening to an album in Mono. Aretha Franklin’s  “I never loved a man the way I love you” As a child I used to listen to this on Saturday mornings, hiding under the covers, pretending I didn’t hear it because I knew I was going to be cleaning with my Grandmother when I woke up.

No difference.

Moving on to rock listening to Linkin Parks hybrid theory the loudness came like a bat out of hell!  Almost overwhelming, Spotify sounds more flat.  The interesting thing is I think the resolution betrays the album a little bit, maybe it’s the DJ in me now but I can literally hear this song is a collection of samples.  I always liked  Joe Hahn’s work and he was one of my inspirations.

Alright on to  Motörhead…why did I pick this? It’s even louder than Linkin Park and no offence  but I don’t think anyone is listening to  Motörhead through an audiophile’s lense.  It’s loud and fast as you want  Motörhead to be.   I was astounded at how much more colorful and undeniably brutal the sound was with MQA engaged. The full impact of heavy metal came through in ways that I would have thought possible only in live performance. 

Overall with Tidal Masters you get a louder sound stage, better instrument separation, I haven’t experience the supposedly “better than CD quality” sound yet.

So if you have a decent hi fi set up, speakers, headphones a compatible DAC, yeah it’s worth checking out to get your money’s worth out of those devices.  Tidal hi fi in general is superior enough to warrant a purchase, and “Masters” just makes some CD’s better for free on top of that.  It’s a better buy than youtube music or Spotify in my opinion…but both of those services have free options that suit probably 85% of music listeners.

For a bonus I’ll review my own EP on both Tidal and Spotify(you can click play in the sidebar!) Overall it’s clear Tidal is working to bring you higher resolution files.  How often that plays out or noticable benefit to the listener is going to be subjective but  I can definitely say on Tidal you are getting 100% of the file I submitted.   Using ASIO loopback and comparing the waveforms to my FLAC versions of identical masters and I found no differences.

With Spotify  I found chopped peaks on waves that ended well short of the max, even though my FLAC had a peak on that wave. And some waves looked smoother and flatter than the FLAC.

It’s bit-perfect matches as  good as downloading from Bandcamp. So Tidal isn’t selling snake oil.   Spotify provides a very close approximation, like I said  honestly, you will not hear that much of a difference but it is still lossy.  How much that matters is up to you to decide.

I tried listening at a couple different stations and on headphones the differences were miniscule to nonexistent let me know what you think!

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