Seven years ago I wrote about why I preferred the now defunct Rdio to Spotify. I thought Spotify’s design was too dense (it still is) and liked how Rdio allowed you to control the same play queue through any device (something Spotify eventually adopted). But most of all, I liked that Rdio allowed you to organise the music on their platform to a greater degree. It wasn’t particularly revolutionary, but by allowing you to create a collection of albums, the experience was closer to replicating the feeling of having an actual music collection. Spotify by comparison was fixated on everything being a playlist. Spotify won of course, but not before it borrowed the collection concept from Rdio, placating those of us who had argued it was a missing a critical feature.
Prior to streaming if you wanted to listen to music you had to have some sort of collection. Just a few random CDs was a collection. If you owned an iPod you had a collection. If you had downloaded music from the iTunes Store (or a P2P network) and just left the files in random folders on your computer it was a collection. If you took it really seriously (as I did), you probably had an alphabetised CD collection and a couple of portable hard disks full of ripped CDs and mixes you’d downloaded from Oink. You took pride in your metadata too, dutifully filling in the gaps so you could always efficiently search across artist, label, genre, release date etc.
I’ve long wondered if managing a collection in the way I used to was on Spotify’s roadmap, even as a set of “Pro” only features. But after about a decade of waiting I figured that they were more interested in focussing product innovation on their, admittedly very good, recommendation algorithms, and signing up celebs to do exclusive podcasts. It has dawned on me that Spotify is more like Amazon.co.uk than it is like Google Photos. Each track you play is a sale, and not all sales are equal. Spotify’s job is to push you to the content the makes sense to them, not help you manage the music you want to listen to. It’s their music to rent, not yours to organise after-all.
So with some free time on my hand I decided to take a look at what the competition had to offer. Unfortunately, the short answer is, that, unless you want to abandon streaming altogether and go back to ripping CDs to media server, none of the streaming services offer the kind of customisation that I crave.1
It wasn’t time wasted however. I was pleasantly surprised by Tidal and as of last month it has become my primary music sub. I was drawn in by the offer of significantly higher audio quality – a feature they touted over Spotify at launch – but when Spotify introduced 320kbps files too I assumed the game was up. Not so. Tidal now serves in ‘HiFi’ (CD quality) and also ‘Master’ (MQA certified) files. You’ll need to use some wired headphones (bluetooth is pretty lossy) or to stream over wifi to some decent speakers to hear the difference, but it’s worth it when you do. The UI also has a lot more breathing space than it’s given on Spotify (again the shop front analogy is key here) and the focus is on the artists and music I have added to my collection. Sure it doesn’t provide the level of granular control I am after, but it’s an improvement. It’s also worth noting that after two weeks of pretty heavy use I have yet to run across any server issues. For those of you familiar with the dreaded “Spotify couldn’t play this song” error you’ll know what I mean.
Tidal isn’t cheap mind you. In fact to get access to the high quality files you’re going to pay double what you do for Spotify and 50% more for lossless services from Deezer (less tracks) and Amazon (good luck with that UI). Plus Tidal comes with Tidal Connect which allows you to stream directly to a wifi enabled speaker with no loss of fidelity.
After a pretty miserable year I’ve found music to be a vitally important crutch. It’s helped me remember better times, hope for more, and just drown out the sounds of a noisy house while trying to work. Tidal has helped me enjoy music more by encouraging me to actively engage, rather than just passively consume. And for that alone it’s worth the extra money.
1 If you are seriously considering a return to CDs then the Vault 2i from Bluesound looks like a good first step. After that you’ll need to invest in a new digital audio player, for that John Darko has a good list to check out.