This experiment started out innocently enough. You see, my "ancient" (in Silicon Valley years) iPhone 5 died a sudden and tragic death just before I had to make a recent trip across country. So I was kind of forced to make a quick decision on a replacement; I bit the bullet for a top of the line iPhone Xs. It is a good phone and with relatively little pain I've been getting acclimated to it (with help from ever-supportive Apple Care, which eased the transition significantly).
So now that I have effectively a hot rod computer in my pocket, I wanted to experiment with some features of the Tidal streaming music service which I'd not really had an opportunity to do with my old iPhone. Now, I'm more or less OK with the notion of streaming as a music discovery platform for home use. Tidal coupled with a MQA-capable DAC can make for a nice sounding streaming system.
Full disclosure, I use a Mytek Brooklyn DAC which I have on loan from the company to enable my music reviews; its a good sounding unit that has worked fairly effortlessly. I also get a complimentary subscription to Tidal so I can have access to the full database of albums there for potential review.
So I was curious to see how Tidal would work on my new iPhone for use in the car. However, I don't want to incur cellular data charges for streaming media on that grand scale (that would be costly I suspect). But when I discovered that I could "pre-download" album streams for offline listening via Tidal, my ears perked up.
So, yes, you choose an album and download it ahead of time to your device and then set the Tidal service for offline listening (Side note: I'm dreading seeing my phone bill next month as actually I forgot to do this for the first couple hours of play, so I suspect it was pulling the actual streams and not playing a pre-downloaded file...yikes!).
For my non-scientific tests I chose a cross section of musics I like and am mostly deeply familiar with -- including a 12-song Frank Zappa playlist I made for a friend as a sort of toe in the water introduction to his music, more on the instrumental side (click here for that). I also chose the latest Flaming Lips album in MQA (Master Quality Audio) format, Kings Mouth, Music & Songs (which I reviewed here from its Record Store Day vinyl only preview edition. btw).
I also chose an album I was surprised to find on Tidal (or anywhere for that matter), Color Blind by The Glitterhouse (which I also reviewed here long ago) in standard CD quality. The other albums were all by The Grateful Dead, again in MQA format : Wake Of The Flood, American Beauty and the legendary live concert from Cornell University on May 8, 1977. Each of these streams sound really great played on my computer.
These album downloads took up about 3 GB of space on my new iPhone (confirmed by checking storage on my Tidal app within the phone). While I'm not 100-percent sure those Gigabytes are attributable to the downloaded streams it seems likely as that amount is roughly equivalent to six average albums at 16 bit resolution (using AIFF format) which -- if my math is in order here -- are about 500 Megabytes each, or half a Gigabyte. Some of these albums are shorter but some are longer such as Cornell which is equivalent to three CDs.
Accordingly, I am assuming that Tidal is probably putting mostly 16-bit, 44.1 kHz quality data on my phone for streaming offline. And that is OK. If the file size was a lot less I would be concerned that it might be a lower fidelity MP3-level stream I was being fed.
The process of setting this up was easy -- just choose the album you want to play during your travels and click the download button. The only downside is that I never really knew if the whole albums had completed downloading, but it seems that they did as I left it on overnight connected to WiFi. You have to plan things out a bit to do this.
While traveling I ended up renting a 2019 Nissan Altima which was outfitted with a nice entertainment system for the most part and it lets me use the new Apple Car Play system. It works seamlessly and when connected via USB it puts my whole phone on a big touch screen in the front of the car for easy access... including Tidal! It is quite cool!
The albums I played generally sounded solid as far as car stereo sound goes. The only question I still have is that I am not entirely sure what I was listening to! I poked around on the Tidal site and didn't find the answers and checked some forums found in web searches but didn't get any solid answers.
At my editor's suggestion I posted on some of the related Facebook forums for all things MQA and Tidal and started to get feedback. Lots of it... much of it vague and passionately earnest, yet not revealing specifics. The most significant detail is that at minimum when playing a downloaded stream I'd be hearing the first "unfold" of MQA. Someone suggested that if I had a portable DAC I could play the downloaded stream file at 96/24 fidelity or higher if encoded accordingly. I don't have a portable DAC, alas.
I kept asking around about what I'd be hearing without the DAC and didn't really get much clarification. One person suggested that the streaming files are based on FLAC and would be 16-bit, 44.1 kHz.... this makes some sense, but again this being a non-scientific article, I don't know for sure.
If that is the case, then that is an acceptable minimum for me for car audio listening. At least its not MP3 quality (which I probably would have noticed even in the car stereo)! In general the basic mobile offline Tidal stream sounded respectful towards the music, which is probably the highest complement I can offer without getting into anything deeply technical (again, that is beyond the scope of this article).
That said, if any of you readers out there have insights into specifically what is happening when we play Tidal via our phones into the car stereo without a DAC, let us know in the comments section below.
We're all ears!