This is part two in a series exploring some of the more intriguing features of streaming services which might be appealing to certain listeners, especially for those who enjoy listening on-the-go with minimal hassle (ie. no added DACs 'n dongles). We are basically talking about just turning on your phone and listening and hoping it sounds decent.
For those of you who missed my earlier article on this relative to the Tidal streaming music service, I'll try to recap a little as to why I'm doing this quazi-review-of-a-sort now. It all revolves around my recently expired trusty-crusty old iPhone 5 and the sudden (costly) investment I made in a spiffy new iPhone Xs. Rather than mope, I am embracing the changes, exploring the unit's capabilities and sharing some of those observations with you, Dear Readers.
Given the sizable storage space on this phone -- 256 GB! -- and considerable processing power, I can now experience the newer high end streaming services on-the-go (which I really couldn't do on my old iPhone5)!
If you want to read part one of this series, please click here to jump to it.
For a relatively apples-to-apples comparison of the two services -- again, Tidal and Qobuz -- I am employing a pair of parallel playlists I made of mostly instrumental Frank Zappa music. This music isn't Zappa comic weirdness but some of the best of his very melodic and accessible instrumental material, music that might surprise some of you. When I was assembling the playlist, I jokingly called it "Frank Zappa Music For People Who Hate Frank Zappa." If you click here you can jump to the Qobuz version of this stream if you subscribe to the service.
Called simply "frankly," this list draws heavily on the late 1960s and 1970s, a period when Zappa was at the peak of his powers.
This is arguably his musically most inventive period with tracks from his pioneering "jazz fusion" album Hot Rats as well as the sequels Wakajawaka and The Grand Wazoo. In all you get 13 deep album cuts from those albums as well as Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Sleep Dirt, Orchestral Favorites and even Joe's Garage!
Setting up the Qobuz playlist for offline streaming was super easy, arguably easier than Tidal. Just click on the little down-pointing arrow under the playlist title and it begins to download quickly to your phone.
The thing I like about this Qobuz interface is that it gives you visual progress of how the tracks are downloading, something Tidal doesn't do. And it is fast! So I didn't have to nervously leave this overnight as I did with Tidal to ensure it was all downloaded. That is a super helpful design feature.
As with the CD quality Tidal version of my Zappa playlist, Qobuz streamed everything smoothly offline as well. Visually the only difference was minor in that Qobuz didn't have album art for the Wakajawaka album, but otherwise everything sounded ok in its own right.
However, when I compared it to the same playlist on Tidal -- switching back and forth between the two apps for as close to an A/B comparison as might be possible while sitting in my car -- I felt that the Qobuz CD quality stream of my playlist was ultimately not quite as "nice" sounding as Tidal's version. And, yeah, I know that "nice" is a relative term and not especially audiophile-like, but that seems a fair way to acknowledge variations in how the music is presented.
If I had any specific critique it is that I noticed an occasional phase-y woosh-i-ness (if you will) on the high end (particularly cymbals) and an overall harder edge to how the music was presented. To my ear, Tidal sounded a bit warmer.
There are any number of reasons for this, answers to which I have yet to find out (and ultimately I may not!).
For example, this variation could be due to the source material Qobuz is using for its streams. If they obtained the files direct from the current record label handling the Zappa catalog, then in theory they are using the current masters. However, if they ripped the catalog from older CDs, well then not only might they not have current remasters for their CD-quality streams but digital anomalies might have crept in during the ripping process. Stuff happens, folks.
I also do not know if Qobuz or Tidal do any sort of additional processing on its core CD-quality streams,but that might impact the sound as well, especially if some level of compression and/or equalization was employed.
One curiosity I noticed was that the physical size of the stream I downloaded on my phone initially seemed significantly larger on Tidal version than for the Qobuz stream. I wrote to Qobuz to ask if they could explain the variation and ultimately it turns out that there are too many variables to make any sort of significant judgement based on the available data.
Qobuz's Chief Hi-Res Music Evangelist David Solomon pointed out that the basic App size without data might be larger in one vs. the other. And he'd also noted that there might be different levels of meta-data filling up the storage spaces. Indeed, when I started digging deeper in other sections of my iPhone I found that not only were the file sizes variable but also that some of the numbers my unit was reporting in different sections of its back end didn't quite add up. Also curiously, when I turned off the "offline streaming" mode of each app, the relative size of each App grew much closer to one another in the iPhone's storage section.
So... all this amounts to the reality that I couldn't make any judgement based on the data offered within my phone. In a way, its kind of refreshing to come to this sort end of the road moment where -- at least in this one little corner of the tech universe -- so called "big data" is fairly irrelevant.
Ultimately, one has to use one's ears to decide what sounds best and in this case I liked how Tidal handled the music a bit better but even that must be presented with caveats as it is is just for this particular playlist.
The tables could easily flip the other way around with a different batch of music. And again, please remember that this exploration does not even consider the Hi Res and MQA versions of music on the streaming services played through a proper DAC and enjoyed on a good quality home stereo system. We'll dig down into that in later articles.
For now, I encourage you to simply take the time to experience the Zappa music I've curated in this playlist on both platforms and let us know what you think about the streams in the comments section below. You can click here to jump to the Qobuz version of this stream and click here for the Tidal version.