Words cannot express the sheer joy I experience a couple of times a week, hiking up Rocky Peak, Bluetooth headset in my ear, listening to podcasts and enjoying the exercise and the views of the San Fernando and Simi Valleys. Yet words may also fail to express the dismay I think audiophiles may feel if they listen to the podcast I heard during last Wednesday’s hike: “The Music Streaming Wars are Already Here,” from the public radio show On Point. If what host Tom Ashbook and his guests had to say about streaming reflects what the general public thinks — and I believe it does — I have to wonder if audiophile-grade streaming has long to survive.
Ashbrook’s program focused on the recent relaunch of Tidal — a streaming service that provides lossless CD-quality sound with 16-bit/44.1-kilohertz sampling — by the company’s new principal owner, rapper Jay-Z. Tidal initially debuted as a service targeted at audiophiles, and I think it’s fair to say it took the industry by storm as numerous audio manufacturers raced to incorporate it into their products. Jay-Z has completely different plans. His idea is to compete primarily on two points: 1) exclusive content, including artists such as Taylor Swift that are unavailable on other streaming services, and 2) paying the artists more money, which should help facilitate more of #1.
Where does quality fit into all this? Tidal is still offering its lossless streaming service at its original $19.99/month price, but it’s also offering a $9.99/month service streaming 320 kbps AAC (96 kbps on mobile devices). Ashbook and his guests devoted what I’d guess was less than 15 seconds of the program to talking about Tidal’s sonic advantage. In that 15 seconds, Vox reporter Kelsey McKinney referred to the lossless streaming as a “shtick.” The only listener comment on the subject insisted that higher data rates aren’t important, and that what’s important is that the stream not “choke” or buffer when the music is playing. His suggestion? Stream in mono.
What’s the future of Tidal’s lossless streaming? There’s little point in asking the company, because all you’ll get is an official position statement — and anyone who’s ever worked at a company acquired by another company knows such statements aren’t worth the electrons required to carry them across the Internet.
The numbers for lossless streaming aren’t impressive. According to Wikipedia, only 17,000 of the company’s 580,000 paying users are using lossless streaming; that’s less than 3%. Originally, the service was launched with audiophiles in mind, but I would guess that Jay-Z cares as much about audiophiles as audiophiles do about Jay-Z.
This is why I wonder if audiophile-quality lossless streaming can survive. If Jay-Z’s Tidal pays the artists 70% of revenues as Spotify does (which given the $19.99/month price would double the paltry sum the artist gets), that gives the company about $1.2 million per year of revenue on the lossless service before they pay a single employee or electrical bill. Jay-Z might be better off opening a Menchie’s.
This isn’t a disaster for audiophiles, though, because typical lossy audio delivered over the Internet is very good, literally many times better than it was back when sites like MP3.com sold 128 kbps MP3 downloads. Considering that the $9.99/month version of Tidal uses 320 kbps AAC, it’s about as good as lossy compression gets — one of the best lossy codecs available, running at almost half the data rate for lossless. At this level of streaming quality, there isn’t much audible information being discarded. When I recently did a level-matched, mostly blind shootout of Tidal and Spotify for JazzTimes, comparing Tidal’s lossless stream to Spotify’s 320 kbps Ogg Vorbis stream, I could only occasionally hear a difference, and only on high-quality recordings with complex instrumentation … and it was subtle at that.
I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent listening to Tidal, but I bet Jay-Z’s accountants didn’t like what they saw when they ran the numbers on the lossless service. Maybe they’ll keep the lossless streaming for bragging rights. Otherwise, Jay-Z’s got 99 problems but an audiophile ain’t one.