Our TIDAL review for 2021: Is it worth it?

Joe Supan

Dec 27, 2019 — 13 min read

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TIDAL review summary

  • $9.99/mo. for Premium plan, $19.99/mo. for HiFi
  • No free version
  • Over 60 million songs
  • Hi-Fi streaming plan includes Master Quality Authenticated albums
  • Discounted for students, military and first responders

“There is no free tier and we’ll pay the highest royalty percentage,” TIDAL owner Jay Z said when the service launched in 2015. “That’s how we’ll change the industry.” 

Both of those things still hold true four years later, but that’s not how TIDAL changed the industry. It became the first service to truly popularize high-fidelity music streaming, offering its entire library in a file format unsquished by compression.

To our ears, it really does sound better than Apple Music or Spotify. Whether it’s worth an extra $10/mo. is another question. If you’re interested in Hi-Fi streaming, TIDAL’s 30-day free trial should be plenty of time. 

TIDAL vs. Spotify and other streaming services

Most music streaming services are virtually indistinguishable. They have almost exactly the same music, almost always cost $9.99/mo. and sound about the same to most listeners. 

TIDAL is different. Its Premium plan checks all the above boxes, but its HiFi plan ($19.99/mo.) is what really makes it unique. This gives you access to TIDAL’s 60 million tracks, all in high fidelity, lossless audio (more on what that means below). If you’re willing to pay more for great-sounding audio, TIDAL, Amazon Music ($12.99/mo.) and Qobuz ($14.99/mo.) are the only streaming services with a Hi-Fi option.

TIDAL plans and pricing

TIDAL’s Hi-Fi plans are almost always double the price of its Premium ones, regardless of which discounts you apply for or whether you choose a single or family plan. You’ll have to pay a lot more for Hi-Fi no matter what.

TIDAL family plan

TIDAL’s family plan goes for $14.99/mo. for standard sound quality, the same price as Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora and Amazon Music. And like all those services, you’ll get to add five other people to your account, for six total. If you want everyone in your family to enjoy Hi-Fi audio quality, that price jumps to $29.99/mo. 

TIDAL Premium vs. HiFi

TIDAL Premium streams audio at a bit rate of 320 kbps, the same as the “very high” quality audio setting on Spotify. Like Apple Music, the Premium tier streams music in AAC, a “lossy” file format that sacrifices some details from the original recording when the file is compressed.

TIDAL HiFi, on the other hand, streams entirely in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). This is a “lossless” audio format, so it doesn’t compromise in order to get the files smaller. We’ll explain what this means in more detail below, but you can generally expect to hear music more as the artist intended it to be heard with FLAC.

TIDAL discounts

While it’s Hi-Fi plans are some of the most expensive out there, TIDAL is also more generous with its discounts than any other service. It was the only company we saw that offered discounts to both military members and first responders (Apple Music and Spotify offer neither).

If you want to take advantage of the student discount, you’ll need to verify your status as a student enrolled in a “Title IV, degree-granting college/university.” TIDAL then requires you to reverify your enrollment every 12 months. And unlike the other student discounts we saw, TIDAL’s also applies to “select US High School attendees aged 16+.” 

TIDAL sound quality: What is Hi-Fi audio?

TIDAL’s HiFi plan streams all of its music in FLAC, a lossless file format that doesn’t sacrifice (as much) sound quality during the compression process. Because the original files are so big, all music needs to be compressed when it’s uploaded to streaming services. But in that process, some details are sacrificed. FLAC sacrifices the least. 

“It’s the same way that if you were editing an image in Photoshop, exporting them is like a large JPEG: still good, it’s just not quite as good as it was,” said Sam Wale, vice president of creative production at ALIBI Music Library, a leading provider of music and sound effects.

“The compression is less severe with FLAC. It’s a file format that still compresses the sound to be smaller in size, but it preserves a lot more of the original recording.”

Because the compression is less severe, the file sizes tend to be larger. Bitrate refers to how much data is required to transmit a file, which in turn tells you how big a file is. As you can see in the table above, TIDAL’s maximum bitrate is more than four times the size of Spotify’s “very high” audio quality setting. That doesn’t necessarily mean it sounds four times better, but it does illustrate how much more information is contained in each of TIDAL’s tracks. 

Master Quality Authenticated music

TIDAL’s Master Quality Authenticated music has a small “M” next to the album or song.

While all of TIDAL’s 60 million songs can be streamed in Hi-Fi, its real trump card is Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) music, which it introduced in 2017. 

MQA is a method for digitally storing music that uses the original master recordings. It’s complicated, but it essentially means that you’re getting music exactly as the artist intended it to be heard. (You can learn more about how MQA technically works here.) 

You can access TIDAL’s Masters collection through its HiFi plan, but not its $9.99/mo. Premium plan. Here’s how the technical specifics compare for each format:

MQA audio delivers much larger files — requiring an internet connection around 3 Mbps — with a higher bit depth and sample rate. Here’s what all of that means: 

  • Bitrate: How much data per second you need to play a track. This also tells you how much data is stored in each track. The higher the bitrate, the more details it contains, and the better it can potentially sound.
  • Bit depth: This tells you the range between the quietest and loudest moments of a song. Music recorded in 24 bit instead of 16 essentially has more room to breathe. While it’s only an 8 bit difference, that increase is exponential. 16 bit recordings can store up to 65,536 levels of information, while 24 bit can store up to 16,777,216. 
  • Sample rate: Think of an old animated film. The more still images they use, the smoother the animation will appear. Sample rate is like the number of frames in the movie. A higher rate theoretically captures a more realistic listening experience for music fans. A 44.1 kHz sample rate means there were 44,100 samples taken every second.

While the numbers are obviously larger in every category for MQA tracks, there is a ton of debate in the audio community about whether or not it actually makes any difference. 

For one, it’s quite uncommon for music to be recorded at 96 kHz. “Some recordings would be recorded at that quality, but from my experience, if an album or a single is recorded at 48 khz and 24 bit, there’s not much point in playing it back at 96 kHz,” Wale told us.

The human ear can only hear up to 20 kHz. To replicate that digitally, you need a sample rate of at least double the highest frequency, which is why the standard for recording is typically 44.1 kHz. 

“If you were to record at 96 kHz, there would be some improvement, but it would be so minimal, even the best audio engineers would struggle to actually hear the difference. Our ears don’t reproduce sounds up that high,” Wale said. 

And if the music isn’t recorded at 96 kHz, there’s not much reason to play it back at such a high sample rate. “It would be a little like watching a 4K movie on a 1080p screen,” Wale said. “It’s technically better, but the result is no different. You can send 4K signal to a 1080p monitor, but it just looks the same.”

The bit depth is a little different. Most music is recorded at 24 bits instead of 16, so TIDAL’s MQA tracks are able to play back that expanded range.

“24 bit allows for a much higher dynamic range recording, so it will sound smoother,” Wale said. “It’s almost inaudible, but the quality is technically better at 24 — that’s why we always record at 24 bits.”

TIDAL doesn’t currently reveal exactly how much MQA music is in its library, only saying it has “a large number of tracks.” That’s probably on the generous side. Back in January 2019, it listed the number at 165,000 — a small fraction of its 60 million tracks. In our testing, we found them to be few and far between. From Pitchfork’s list of the 200 best albums of the 2010s, for example, TIDAL only had Masters of 21 albums. 

So, does TIDAL really sound better?

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We think so. Audio is extremely subjective — see the many people who still prefer vinyl to digital files — but TIDAL sounded better to our ears than Spotify and Apple Music, especially on its Masters tracks. We can’t say for sure that it’s technically superior — one study argued that MQA’s “factually and objectively wrong” sound is what some listeners found “subjectively pleasing” — but we can say that it sounded better to us.

To test it out, we made three identical playlists on Apple Music, Spotify and TIDAL, with a mix of MQA and Hi-Fi tracks on TIDAL’s mix. We used songs we knew inside and out, with the hopes that we’d be able to pick up on any subtle differences. In testing, we alternated between a pair of Sony WH1000XM3 noise-cancelling headphones, an old pair of Apple EarPods and a Bose SoundLink III from 2015. 

TIDAL sounded fuller and more immersive in most cases, particularly on its Masters tracks. It was like having the band playing right in the room, while Spotify and Apple Music often sounded brittle and harsh by comparison — something we’d never noticed until we compared them head-to-head with TIDAL’s Masters.

That gap lessened somewhat when we weren’t using $300 headphones connected by a cable, especially on non-Masters songs. But we could still hear a clear difference. TIDAL just sounded a little more expansive to our ears, a little less squished.

Missing more music than Spotify and Apple Music

TIDAL boasts more than 60 million tracks in its library (according to TIDAL). That’s 10 million more than Spotify says it has, but we found far more gaps in TIDAL’s collection.

To compare each service’s library, we used three lists: Albums that have sold more than 20 million copies (74 in total), Billboard’s top 100 songs for the week of December 14, 2019 and Pitchfork’s Top 200 albums of the 2010s. That gave us a good mix of newer and older music to look for, along with some of the more obscure artists that Pitchfork highlights. 

Here’s how each streaming service stacks up:

The good news is that every streaming service has just about everything these days. The bad news? TIDAL still has more gaps than Spotify and Apple Music.

Of the top-selling albums of all time, TIDAL was missing the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks and Metallica’s self-titled album, and it was the only service that didn’t have Sheer Mag’s Compilation (I, II & III) from Pitchfork’s list. TIDAL is also missing Garth Brooks (only on Amazon Music) and a handful of Dr. Dre albums (only on Apple Music).

No social aspect

Of the major streaming services, TIDAL has by far the fewest users. The company hasn’t released a subscriber count since 2016, when the number was only at three million.

Even if it has gained users since then, you wouldn’t know it from using the app. You can’t follow your friends on TIDAL or connect with other users. If you like to see what your friends are listening to or share playlists, Spotify and Apple Music have much better social features. 

Decent discovery and recommendation features

To gauge how well TIDAL recommended new music to us, we listened to its radio stations for about five hours, changing genres every hour or so. We then scored how often it played music that we liked, how often we skipped to the next track and how often it played songs we already knew.

Overall, we thought TIDAL did a pretty good job of introducing us to new music that we actually enjoyed. It mostly played songs we hadn’t heard before, and we ended up liking about 70% of them. We appreciated how it seemed to match the mood of the song we started with and not just the genre. 

That said, Spotify and Pandora both scored higher in this test. If you’ll primarily be using the radio function on your music streaming service, you can probably get by with the free version of these — as long as you’re willing to put up with the occasional ads. 

Custom playlist never worked

One of Spotify’s most popular features is its personalized Discovery Weekly, Daily Mix and Your Daily Drive playlists. TIDAL aims for a similar level of customization, but we never actually got to see it. We used TIDAL as our primary service for about two weeks, and it still never populated our “My Mix” playlist. As far as we could tell, that’s the only customized mix TIDAL makes for its users.

Mobile app experience can be frustrating

TIDAL’s design is very similar to Spotify’s, but our experience overall was a little more frustrating. Songs would occasionally stop playing without notice, and TIDAL would sometimes forget which song we’d left off on if we exited the app for a bit. Overall, it just felt a half step slower than both Apple Music and Spotify. 

TIDAL’s mobile app (left) used a very similar layout as Spotify’s (right)

If you know exactly what you want to play when you open it up, you’ll have an easier time. But its Recently Played and Recent Activity sections didn’t stay as up-to-date as Spotify’s, and we found its home page completely overwhelming. 

We counted 25 rows of categories on its home tab, compared to only 20 for Spotify and 11 for Apple Music. It wasn’t just the volume, either. Only eight of TIDAL’s 25 rows were based off music we’d listened to. The vast majority were simply what’s popular on TIDAL overall or picks from its staff. It was so overwhelming to digest, with so many irrelevant recommendations, that we largely steered clear of the tab altogether.

TIDAL’s home tab was cluttered with mostly off-the-mark suggestions

Desktop app

TIDAL’s desktop app left a lot to be desired, too. It was just as cluttered as the mobile app in the Home section, but Explore was a little easier to digest. Our biggest complaint was that the desktop and mobile apps never synced up with each other. If we came in to work and wanted to switch over to our computer, for example, we’d have to find the song or album we left off on all over again instead of just clicking play. 


Can I import my playlists from Spotify or Apple Music to TIDAL?

TIDAL recommends using Tune My Music or Soundiiz to import your playlists to TIDAL. Once you create an account with either service, you’ll have to sync both of your music streaming accounts on their platforms. For Soundiiz, this means authorizing them to do things like “upload images to personalize your profile or playlist cover, add and remove items in Your Library and create, edit, and follow private playlists.” We recommend doing it manually, if possible.

How much does TIDAL pay artists?

One of TIDAL’s calling cards is that it’s artist-owned, and therefore, better for artists. And it actually is. According to an annual study conducted by Digital Music News, TIDAL pays out more per stream than almost any other streaming service, including Apple Music, Spotify and Pandora. If you want to make sure more of your monthly subscription goes into the pockets of the artists who actually make the music, TIDAL is one of your best options.

How much data does TIDAL use?

Because it uses file formats that don’t compress audio as severely as other services, TIDAL also eats up a lot more data. Its Premium plan is the same as Spotify’s “very high” setting, but everything above that increases significantly.

If you’re on a mobile plan with a data cap, we recommend choosing a lower quality setting when you’re out and about, and higher setting for when you’re connected to Wi-Fi (My Collection > Settings > Quality > Streaming).

You can also download music for offline listening if you’d prefer not to use wireless data at all.

How do I cancel TIDAL?

You can cancel TIDAL using either the desktop or mobile app, as well as through the website. On either app, go to My Collection > Settings > Edit Profile > Manage Subscription. From there, you’ll find an option to Cancel Subscription.

Through a web browser, log in to your account on my.TIDAL.com and click Subscription. You can then choose Cancel My Subscription to confirm your cancellation. 

How do I download music from TIDAL?

To download albums or playlists on TIDAL for offline listening, all you need to do is flip the Download switch near the top of the page, directly above where the tracks start. This will add all of your download music to the Downloaded section of your My Collection tab. If you only want to access downloaded content while you’re out, you can switch over to Offline mode in your account settings.

Is TIDAL compatible with many third-party integrations?

TIDAL is compatible with many of the third-party integrations that we looked for. Here are some of the biggest names that it works with:

  • Apple CarPlay
  • Amazon Alexa and Echo devices
  • Sonos speakers
  • Plex media player

The biggest name missing from that list is Siri. TIDAL still doesn’t work with the popular Apple voice assistant, so you’ll have to control your music manually on iPhones and iPads. It’s also currently unavailable on Google Home devices.

Is TIDAL worth it?

If you’ve already invested in a nice pair of headphones or speakers, it’s absolutely worth paying a little more for a Hi-Fi music streaming service. Playing Spotify or Apple Music on a high fidelity sound system will probably still sound great, but you won’t be taking advantage of everything it has to offer. 

Think of it like putting premium gas in a high-end sports car. You’ve already invested in the best equipment — don’t skimp on what you put into it. If you don’t have a great pair of headphones or speaker system, it’s probably not worth paying the extra $10/mo. for TIDAL HiFi over Spotify or Apple Music.