High-Quality Audio Service Tidal Enters the U.S. Market

Will audiophiles pay $20 a month for better-sounding songs?

Will audiophiles pay $20 a month for high-quality audio service Tidal? Credit: Uwe Krejci/Getty

Trying to draw in audiophiles with money to spend on costly sound systems, Tidal launched last week as the first U.S. streaming service to offer CD-quality music — other than month-old Deezer Elite, which requires a Sonos hookup to get the high-quality songs. Tidal's hi-fi files are "lossless," which means they aren't as compressed as those offered by rivals Spotify, Beats Music or YouTube.

"With MP3, which is the dominant format for streaming, somehow people have accepted that as OK," says Andy Chen, the Norwegian company's chief executive. "We're saying, 'Maybe that's not OK.' Shouldn't it be the same level it used to be? Why should we accept less?"

The catch is Tidal costs $20 a month, twice as much as most premium streaming services, and its desktop hi-fi function is available, at the moment, only via Google Chrome. Also, because Tidal's FLAC files stream at 1,411 kbps, as opposed to Spotify Premium's 320 kbps, they can slow down an Internet connection and make for a more difficult user experience.

It's unclear whether Tidal, Deezer Elite and others will generate enough customers to make for a cost-effective business model. "A few guys doing it can support it," says David Chesky, co-founder of HDtracks, a long-running download service that specializes in high-end audio. "But if you're giant companies, I don't think so." Tidal's 25 million-song catalog is comparable to Spotify or Beats and contains a few exclusive tracks, such as Bruce Springsteen's "We Take Care of Our Own," that are unavailable via Spotify. 

Given Tidal, Deezer Elite and download services such as HDtracks and Neil Young's yet-to-launch PonoMusic store, audiophiles are pleased the pendulum is shifting back to sound quality after years of MP3s and earbuds. "I'm cautiously optimistic that what they're doing is going to be an improvement," says Andy Mendelson, owner of Georgetown Masters, a Nashville studio that has worked on recordings by the Rolling Stones, the White Stripes and others. "It couldn't be a 'de-provement' over what exists in sound quality right now."