About a year ago I installed Roon Audio and began using it without Tidal. In my original configuration, Roon Audio ran in a VM hosted by my FreeNAS storage server. It delivered audio to either an Apple TV or a Google Chromecast Audio. Both were connected to a Cambridge DACmagic converter by TOSlink. For the first year I passed on the Tidal subscription, assuming that it, like Apple and Amazon streaming, sounded horrid. Then I got curious.
Tidal offers two levels of service: Tidal Premium and Tidal HiFi. The first is a decent sounding lossy service that doesn’t have that ’70’s bad solid state harshness so many lossy compression encodings have. The second is 44 KBPS 16 bit FLAC but occasionally Master Quality Authenticated (MQA), FLAC plus secret sauce.
Tidal actually sounds good. It doesn’t appear to have quite the sense of space heard on the best recordings like Thile-Melhdau or the Joey Alexander Countdown record. On these the piano notes dance in space before your years. Masterful micing and mixing of the piano. It’s there on the CD and ALAC and FLAC transfers keep that sense of space. I’ve not played these from Tidal, something I should try.
Tidal lets you add tracks and albums to your library. Tidal also integrates with Roon audio through the Roon controller user interface. Searching a title or artist in the Roon controller searches both your library and Tidal library. Roon provides an integrated view of the two and considers both for Roon Radio streaming.
Tidal HiFi sounds very similar to locally served FLAC versions prepared using XLD. It appears that Tidal is doing little if any equalization or compression of the original recording before FLAC encoding. MQA versions sound identical to the standard FLAC to my ears.
Tidal offers out of print titles. Not as many as I’d like but it has things I wish I had bought back in the day. This is a benefit but not transformational. Tidal also has symphonic music titles that are hard to find and some out of print. Sadly, many of the great recordings from the 50’s and 60’s are not available and recent recordings in the Tidal inventory compare well to the golden age recordings performance or sound.
What is transformational is that Tidal lets me explore music and artists met in a chance encounter. For $20/month, I can take a chance on a new artist or new record risk free. When I hear a snatch of something or someone on NPR, I can investigate in depth, something the iTunes store samples does not permit.
Live From Here, the bastard child of A Prairie Home Companion, has become the premier live music radio program in the US. And it has become my primary introduction to new artists and music. Host Chris Thile and Music Director Mike Elizondo (yes, they both have day jobs) round up a smorgasbord of musical talent for 26 two hour shows per season of live music, stand-up comedy, and sketches in a fast paced show. After the show, I look up the artists who caught my ear, audition their works on Tidal, and add them to my library. If I find I’m playing an artist or album frequently, I wish list tag the album and buy it on media from the artist website or from Amazon. This pattern is new to me but many millennials have been following this practice for some time.
My purchase guidelines
For example, Jon Batiste appeared on the 12/15 show. In passing, Jon told a McCoy Tyner anecdote. I did a Roon search and picked up the 5 star McCoy Tyner albums for the library. (Jon is an old music friend and I’m up to date.) After an album has a few plays, I consider it for media purchase. That same show also featured St. Vincent so I did the same for her and added her recent MassEducation album. For purchases I give priority to living artists, particularly those who are elderly or those building a following. McCoy Tyner’s more influential albums will definitely go on the to purchase list.