By now, most audiophiles are well aware of the launch of Tidal HiFi, the 16-bit-/44.1-kilohertz streaming service based out of Oslo, Norway. Tidal boasts a catalog of some 25 million tracks and 75,000 videos. When one considers this catalog, it's hard not to wonder why an audiophile would need anything else.
I had a friend who was an audiophile for many years. He had a fantastic system. Like most audiophiles, he was always thinking about how he could improve his system's sonics. We used to have the typical digital vs. analog discussion (argument) and I usually sided with digital if only to spur a lively debate. Actually, I like both.
But my friend would always tell me that one reason he preferred analog was because of the physical connection of the needle to the record. Being a purist, he simply could not accept that a laser reading a computer disc was the sonic equal to the physical contact provided by a stylus. Many audiophiles today feel exactly the same way. Tragically, my friend passed away about eight years ago -- well before the streaming revolution. I cannot help but wonder what he would have thought about services such as Pandora, Spotify and Tidal.
I recently read a comment on a blog where the respondent termed streamed music as a way to further segment the music business. His response posited that the music delivery business now has three segments: physical media (LPs, CDs, Blu-ray discs), downloads and streaming. Frankly, I think that assessment is wholly accurate.
It is reasonable to expect that not all audiophiles will buy into the idea of a streaming service. There are undoubtedly audiophiles (likely more than might be expected) that are devoted to LPs, CDs or both. Convincing them, like probably convincing my late friend that music is listenable when derived from cyberspace, might be wildly difficult. There will obviously and expectedly be those who, quite naturally, think exactly the opposite.
The notion that streamed music is simply a way to segment the music delivery business does, on some level, seem reasonable. There will always be purists whose passion for LPs is resolute. For still others, the physical CD will be the method of choice. But who among us cannot admit, or accept, that a streaming service has its merits even if hardcore audiophiles have no intention of subscribing?
Streaming offers a world of possibilities to the music-loving listener. How could anyone not find something enjoyable out of a collection of 25 million available tracks? If the service is delivered with CD quality, does that not therefore satisfy any questions about sonics?
OK, sure, the next obvious comment will be "What about high-resolution downloads?" All in all, a perfectly reasonable question. What about the playback capability of the system itself? While I do have a Sonos system, its sound quality pales in comparison to that of my music server and DAC or my turntable. Were I to make a comparison solely on the side of sonics, I'd choose the server/DAC combination or turntable any day over Sonos.
And there it is in a nutshell. On which do we place a higher value: playback integrity or convenience?
As with so many other facets of our hobby, I just don't see one answer that fits all needs. Like my friend, there will always be purists who side with analog. So don't even bother talking with them. There will also be those whose investment in digital, analog or both is of sufficient magnitude that they simply cannot ignore either one in favor of something else. They will be hard pressed to be convinced that the Internet will ever equal their hugely expensive turntable and/or server/DAC combination.
There will also be those who will legitimately prefer a streaming service. Based on their system cost, listening habits, convenience factor, or any other number of worthy reasons, a streaming service will be the optimal choice.
And finally, there will be those that will use them all. Count me in that group.
I do plan to subscribe to Tidal if only out of innate curiosity. Do I expect the sonics will equal what I hear from a CD copied to my server and upsampled to DSD? Or maybe a high-definition download? Or perhaps an audiophile-grade, 180-gram, half-speed mastered, specially plated and pressed LP? No, I don't. Do I see value in a service such as Tidal? Absolutely, on a number of levels. Convenience, finding new music and casual listening come to immediate mind. I'm sure there are other reasons that have equal merit. I also don't see streaming as an absolute one way or the other.
Segmenting the music delivery method with streamed music is a reality that cannot be ignored or dismissed as a "fad." Streaming is a reality and one that will be around until something new brings obsolescence. I also don't see the hastened elimination of all other forms of media, but there will be shifts in market segmentation. As always, the decision boils down to personal preference. Rest assured, however, that there is an interesting future ahead for streaming services. Like them or not, they are here to stay.