Riding the High-Res Tidal Wave

on March 31, 2015

Yesterday’s re-launch of the Jay Z-owned Tidal music streaming service was notable on several fronts. As has been widely discussed, music streaming services have come to the fore over the last several years, thanks to the popularity of Pandora, Spotify and other web-delivered models that let consumers get a wide sampling of music in a more convenient manner than the purchase-and-download model first popularized by Apple’s iTunes.

Arguably, one of the more interesting aspects of the announcement was the bringing together of numerous high profile artists, not only to support the service, but to participate in its ownership. A-List musicians including Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Kanye West, Usher, Deadmaus, Madonna, Rihanna, Chris Martin of ColdPlay, and Jay Z’s wife Beyonce, among many others, were introduced as co-owners of the service. Of course, it’s somewhat easy to scoff at the notion of an artist-owned entity, but it’s hard to deny it was an impressive turnout.

More importantly, the concept of a musician-owned business distributing the work of artists is something that could definitely appeal to a relatively wide range of other musicians. Certainly, Jay-Z is counting on that intra-industry appeal. His announced intentions of getting exclusive early releases from numerous major artists is going to be dependent on other artists’ willingness to join his experiment. Given his reported influence and reach in the music business, he might just be able to pull off a compelling set of content.

As has been discussed elsewhere, there does seem to be a growing sense among artists that streaming services are not paying them what they feel are fair rates. As a result, regardless of how these artists (or you and I) feel about Jay-Z or the significantly smaller size of the Tidal audience, that could prove to be a compelling difference in getting additional artists to come aboard.

Another difference in the Tidal service is the option of high resolution audio streaming. While this won’t be a mainstream option, the ability to hear music in uncompressed CD quality is something that does matter to some people — especially musicians. As a group, musicians are more particular about music formats and the ability to offer their music in high resolution on Tidal could prove to be more compelling to artists than many people realize.[pullquote]Combining the convenience of streaming with the quality of uncompressed audio is going to be a dream come true for many hard-core music fans.”[/pullquote]

In addition, there are a lot of consumers who care about higher music quality. There’s been a renaissance of interest in higher quality, over-the-ear headphones among many young music listeners. Also, the audiophile crowd—while not huge—does tend to come from higher income brackets and is willing to spend money, both on listening equipment and content. Companies like Pono and Sony in fact, have started to build a business catering to the FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec—a high resolution audio format) crowd. In addition to high resolution audio players, Sony has even built a set of high resolution audio headphones with a digital input that can take full advantage of the Tidal high resolution offering.

Admittedly, there is a great deal of controversy around the real benefits of high resolution audio, with several reviews from respected sites and publications reporting they couldn’t tell the difference between compressed and uncompressed source material. Scientifically, a waveform comparison between compressed and uncompressed music will show differences, but listening to audio is highly subjective and therefore subject to much debate.

One key factor is that several of the recent comparisons used higher quality compressed formats and not the lower 128kbps standard that likely form the vast majority of most people’s music libraries. I’d argue a wider audience of people probably can hear the difference between 128kbps files and the uncompressed audio found on hi-res audio players and the Tidal service. Ultimately however, it’s almost completely dependent on the quality of the entire listening chain—particularly the speakers or headphones.

Getting a music service to succeed is going to take more than just compiling a large musical library from an influential set of artists and offering unique time-limited exclusives for some content (although doing so will certainly help). In addition, offering high resolution formats will only appeal to a certain group of consumers. Nevertheless, combining the convenience of streaming with the quality of uncompressed audio is going to be a dream come true for many hard-core music fans. It’s certainly a wave that bears watching.