Tidal: When better isn't good enough
On May 1st, Tidal billed my credit card for the first month of music streaming. Yesterday, my subscription to Google Music ended. I should be satisfied with the switch, given how much more I enjoy 1411kbps lossless listening over the more typical 320kbps compressed streaming music. But recent, recurring service problems put my customer continuation into question.
Quality of content, or available selection of it, isn't the problem. I find plenty of music to enjoy, and the default playlists are smartly curated. The high-fidelity is just that. But slow starts, drop-offs, and song skips disrupt the listening experience -- and for a service costing twice as much as major competitors, like Beats, Rdio, or Spotify, I expect more but get less. There is no customer support option that I can find, either.
If the problems hadn't started before last week's switch from Cox to AT&T for Internet, I would suspect cause there. The problems' consistency raises questions about the service, whether cause is far-away server or how Tidal caches content locally. For example, trying to listen to one of the default playlists day before yesterday, Oasis song "Wonderwall" wouldn't start. The obnoxious spinning circle that appears over the play button stared me down. More than a minute later, the song finally started, played about 10 seconds, then stopped again.
I wrongly presumed the problem might be with Chromebook Pixel LS. Sometimes, Adobe Flash crashes. So I pulled out my Nexus 6 smartphone, launched Tidal's Android app, and tried to play "Wonderwall" there. What the frak? The song, and others, behaved the same way, freezing the same place after playback finally started. Ah, yeah. Thirty minutes later, I made another attempt, and Tidal smoothly streamed.
That brings me to yesterday's catastrophe. Hey, for $19.99 month the description applies to my dissatisfaction. While Nexus 6 charged, I listened to Tidal on Nexus 9 for the first time. One of many Tidal playlist sections is History, where I found an Elton John playlist. I hadn't listened to the old boy for awhile and thought: "Why not?"
Problems started with "Rocket Man", the second song in queue. The Tidal app skipped to the next track before finishing the one I listened to; near as I can estimate, maybe 30 minutes from the end. The same thing happened when listening again -- and to every other song in the playlist. Consistency must mean something: The skips all occurred around the same places.
Pay More for What?
Tidal offers no online support forum that I can find or meaningful Help section. If I'm wrong, please correct me. For a premium-priced service promoting premium-quality content, I expect something to assist subscribers when problems arise. I instead looked to other sites for assistance, like this forum from Computer Audiophile, but found no resolution. Streaming problems are common enough, however, to disturb.
When you pay more, you expect more. Number of streaming problems using Google Music: Zero. Same applies to iTunes in the cloud, when I had a Mac. Both services cost considerably less and will host my content in the cloud.
If problems persist, and Tidal continues with limited customer service options, I will be compelled to cancel the service and withdraw my review recommendation for it. Lossless is useless if content doesn't play.
I can't express how much more I enjoy Tidal than other streaming services. I hear the difference, but concede not everyone will or will care.
Yesterday, when listening to "Rocket Man" on Nexus 9 something about the song sounded flat. When "I'm Still Standing" started, I could really hear the difference. Opening the Tidal app, "HiFi" was grayed out for the track -- and all others in the playlist! I wasn't lossless listening.
Then I remembered: The app's default streaming setting is "Normal" not "HiFi", which I don't fraking understand. I hadn't used Tidal on the tablet before, so the default was active. Why, why, why would a streaming service promoting lossless as differentiator, charge more for it, but then give customers less out of the box, so to speak? People can't hear the difference if there isn't any.
Last month, I cajoled music aficionados, or anyone else, to take the Tidal challenge. Listen to nothing else for a few weeks, then go back to 320kbps MP3 or 256Kbps AAC. I hear the difference, which is why the Elton John songs sounded flatter before I changed the setting to "HiFi". These old songs were shockingly fuller after changing the setting, presenting great separation and soundstage. They are excellent for comparing Tidal's Free Lossless Audio Codec to other compressed formats.
If the music even plays.
I won't cancel Tidal yet, and service separation will be disappointing. But if the saying "You get what you pay for" is true, I'm not getting my money's worth -- not for twice as much when other services smoothly stream. Sigh.