Posted Apr 3rd, 2015 (5:00 pm) by Matt Felten

On Monday, rapper and business tycoon Jay-Z announced the re-launching of Tidal, a premium subscription streaming service that he recently purchased for $56 million. Backed by a posse of celebrity artists including Deadmau5, Kanye, Jack White, and others, the new service is built around exclusive content and high-fidelity audio. Tidal will not have a free version, as other streaming services such as Spotify do, but rather a two-tiered system: compressed audio for $10 per month, and “Hifi” CD quality streaming for $20/month. Though this more expensive hi-fidelity offering is an intriguing business model, you have to question whether this is just a marketing ploy to suck another $10 out of gullible consumers.

In case you aren't familiar with different music file formats, let us give you a short overview. There are essentially two categories of music file format: lossless and lossy. A lossless format means that no “audio quality” has been compromised due to the compression process; in essence, the original source has been maintained. WAV (uncompressed), AIFF (uncompressed), and FLAC (compressed, but not lossy) are the most common lossless formats, and although they maintain quality, they do take up a fair amount of space. MP3 and AAC are the two most common lossy audio formats, and they are both very compressed for portability, but do not maintain the entire original source.

Currently, Tidal offers 3 different sound quality settings: Standard Quality (96 kbps, AAC+), High Quality (320 kbps, AAC), and HiFi (1411 kbps, FLAC). You can learn more about kbps and bitrates here, but essentially the higher it is, the higher the quality. The two AAC formats are included with the $10/month subscription, while the FLAC is only available for the $20/month users.

One thing immediately seems fishy here: the two AAC format options. The iTunes standards for AAC files are 128 kbps and 256 kbps, and there is little debate that iTunes set the standard for compressed audio. Why would Tidal, which is claiming the highest quality of audio, offer an AAC kbps as low as 96? Sure, they offer a slightly above industry-standard format of 320 kbps, but why not 128 or 256 instead of 96? And furthermore, they call it “Standard Quality,” and if iTunes set the standard for compressed audio at 128 kbps, this simply isn't true. Perhaps they are trying to make the “High Quality” 320 kbps option(which is not much higher than 256 kbps) look better, while simultaneously adding a third option for audio. Who doesn't like a good triad?

Okay, this isn't grounds for damnation. But it is suspicious, and something that seems intentionally done for the purpose of creating a marketing illusion. But let's get to the real action: whether or not the “Hifi” format that Tidal offers really does enhance the audial experience for the average listener (i.e. not an audio engineer, professional composer, etc.) enough to warrant a $20 price point. Is the difference even perceptible?

In 2009, a small scale study was conducted by trustedreviews.com to see whether listeners could distinguish between both 192 and 320 kbps compressed audio and FLAC. You can check out the actual parameters of the test here, but essentially they had seven subjects listen to four songs, each in two formats. Massive Attack's “Small Time, Shot Away” and Radiohead's “There There” were listened to in both 192 kbps and FLAC, and Maxwell's “Ascension” and Yumeji's “Theme” from In The Mood For Love Soundtrack in 320 kbps and FLAC. Of the seven subjects, only one chose the correct file type for every listen, while three picked out the lossless FLAC on two occasions, and the last three only made 1 correct choice. What's more, in the 192 kbps vs. FLAC test, more of the subjects went for the lower quality file.

Yes, this study was small and there are various factors that could have swayed the outcome, but the results were interesting nonetheless. Is it possible the obsession with high quality audio is with the idea itself, and not the actual audible difference between formats? If this is the case, then a huge part of Tidal's business plan is based upon a false perception of quality, rather than a legitimately superior listening experience. With a smart businessman like Jay-Z behind Tidal, you have to wonder whether this top dollar “Hifi” offering is just a well thought out and cleverly devised marketing scheme latching on to a fad.

Can you tell the difference between heavily compressed audio and FLAC? Take Tidal's High Fidelity Test and see for yourself.

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