When Jay-Z and the Knights of the Billboard Hot 100 took the stage in New York yesterday to announce Tidal, a high-quality music streaming app owned by the musicians themselves, many outraged Internet denizens lashed out against the price of the service.
$20 per month for unlimited streaming? Why would I pay that when I can get the same service from Spotify, Google, or Rdio, or — soon — Apple and Beats Music, for $10 per month? Who am I, millionaire country star Jason Aldean?
That’s a little disingenuous: First, no one is Jason Aldean except Jason Aldean, and second, comparing Tidal’s $20 tier to Spotify’s (or anyone else’s) $10 tier is misleading.
You can pay $10 per month on Tidal and get the same quality you would on Spotify; they offer the same service, at the same price. When you pay $20 per month, you’re paying for a higher-quality stream –– so-called lossless music, which is music that sounds the way the artists and the producers want it to sound, not compressed for digital services like iTunes and Spotify.
This is a bit like complaining that the iPhone is more expensive than the Galaxy S6, when you’re comparing a 64GB iPhone to a 32GB Samsung phone. If you want to pay $10 per month on Tidal, go ahead: It’s just like paying $10 on Spotify.
To me, $20 per month seems like a fair amount to pay per month for unlimited music. I don’t have a problem with shelling out twenty bucks to a service that I use for (seriously) hundreds of hours per month.
However, after testing Tidal, it’s clear that while there isn’t a problem with the price, there is a problem with everything else. As a music service competing against polished competitors, Tidal seems either incomplete, unrefined, and lackluster.
Call it a Working Tidal, because this thing feels unfinished.
1. Search is weak. Searching for music tends to get better when the service has lots of searches to learn from and perfect the search algorithm. Spotify has 60 million searchers; iTunes has hundreds of millions. Tidal has somewhere in the hundreds of thousands. Its search proved inaccurate or frustrating a number of times. This is not a good feature for a service that you want to use on the go.
Not what I’m looking for.
2. Discovery is nonexistent. If you don’t know exactly what you want to listen to on Tidal, you’re basically stuck. There are playlists, created by both the artists backing Tidal and an editorial staff, but there aren’t enough.* There is no “mood-based” listening like you’d find on Songza or Spotify. If you just want to work, go to sleep, or rage into the night with music playing, you’d better have an artist or album in mind.
Finally: The playlists that the Tidal team has made aren’t even that good. A microcosmic example: Tidal lets you sort out music by “genres”; there are exactly 21 of them, which is far too few, but whatever. Anyway, one of the genres is called “retro.” Here are the first seven songs in that section:
Elvis Presley? Retro. Jimi Hendrix? Maybe. Oasis? NOT SO RETRO.
3. I kept on getting logged out. Clicking the “Home” button on the Tidal website –– where the Tidal Web Player lives –– consistently logged me out of the service. Why?
4. When I log into Tidal, this is what I see:
Every. Time. Why am I taken to the Settings menu when I log in? Why not to the music player? Is it really expected that I am logging into my music service multiple times per day to redeem vouchers?
5. The design is limp. One Tidal competitor, Rdio, boasts gorgeous design, typefaces, and color schemes –– not just beautiful for a music app, but beautiful for an app, period. Spotify has improved and modernized its design in the past year, as has Google’s music player. In some places, Tidal looks like the designers forgot to input cleaner typefaces. The home screen looks like it was ported over from a Web app into the App Store:
6. Lossless music is not a killer app. As with Neil Young’s high-fidelity PonoPlayer, it’s difficult for the average listener to distinguish between lossless music on Tidal and lower-quality music on a service like Rdio or iTunes. I played identical tracks on Tidal at the highest-quality, and Spotify, at a lower quality, to a few friends yesterday; they could not identify the higher-quality version with any reliability. Musicians and audiophiles might go wild for FLAC-streaming; the rest of us are probably fine with something else.
Tidal isn’t necessarily dead in the waves, though. This stuff can be added, tweaked, and improved, to catch up to competitors. If Tidal’s new owners are really invested, the service should have amended all of the above long before its competitors offer lossless music. And it already has contracts with the major record labels and an impressive library of music that can go toe to toe with the big guys.
But there’s no doubt that Tidal is currently playing catch-up, both in terms of subscriber numbers and service quality.
The potential for exclusive streams –– Taylor Swift’s albums can be heard on Tidal and not Spotify or many competitors –– could elevate Tidal above the fray. Audiophiles may likely be willing to pay for the higher quality. The addition of high-quality music and concert videos is a clever differentiator.
Fair or not, though, my money is going to the service that offers me the best listening experience, the apps with the best design, and the easiest and most effective ways to find new stuff. Right now, that’s not Tidal. The tides may turn at some point, but right now Tidal looks like it’s being carried out to sea.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Tidal did not feature a Pandora-like Radio mode. It does.
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