Dr. AIX's POSTS — 04 February 2015

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The trend towards streaming better quality audio just go a little more interesting thanks to an offer that Jay Z, the rapper and very serious entrepreneur made last Friday for Swedish company Aspiro better known by audio enthusiasts as Wimp/Tidal. One of his companies has offered a reported $56 million for a service that only has 512,000 paying users. The cost of streaming CD specification audio (of as Tidal has erroneously termed their content “high-resolution”) is $20 per month or about twice the cost of other streaming services from Spotify and Beats.

You can read about the business deal and the other competitors in the space at the New York Times. The gist of the deal according to a spokesman for Jay Z said the acquisition, “offers great potential for increased entertainment consumption and an opportunity for artists to further promote their music. Panther’s strategic ambition revolves around global expansion and up-scaling of Aspiro’s platform, technology and services.”

There was no discussion of the higher fidelity that Tidal has been promoting on its website and via a Coke vs. Pepsi type challenge, which turns out to be another example of hyping one set of files over the other by boosting the bass and tweaking up the treble (it reminds me of the MAX D fraud that I wrote about months ago).

This new brings a couple of questions to mind. Is Jay Z looking for an opportunity to bring Tidal to a wider audience through his fame and connections? Or is the fact that this streaming service, which is one of the first to bring “standard CD fidelity” to the streaming world, an important enough component of the service that Jay Z had to jump on the train that Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine rode to a $3 billion plus deal with Apple?

My personal opinion is that Jay Z couldn’t care less about higher fidelity streaming. I’d be willing to bet that he couldn’t tell the difference between a really good MP3 file at 256 or 320 kbps and a CD res file. Moving to 96 kHz/24-bit would be even more of a stretch. It’s clear that streaming will soon abandon the lowly MP3 and rally around CD spec audio as the “floor” as Neil Young says. Getting past lossy audio in portable audio devices and home systems is a very welcome development. But it will have no impact on audio/music enthusiasts that are already in the CD fidelity camp and waiting for something better…the world of high-resolution audio. I don’t think these people care about streaming. They want physical discs (Blu-rays or vinyl LPs), they want packaging, they want ownership, and they want what they’re used to in terms of process and playback. The rest of the audio consuming world may be entranced by streaming but I think true blue audiophiles won’t accept streaming music any time real soon for active music listening.

That leaves the question about Jay Z and his empire. He knows the music business and accepts that streaming services are the future on his side of the fence. It’s a reasonable assumption that Tidal will gain marketshare with his name attached to the venture. Is there another Apple out there willing to throw excessive (way excessive!!) amounts of cash at a standard resolution streaming service? I don’t see one…but I’m willing wager that some company will acquire Tidal/Wimp from Jay Z somewhere down the line for more than his initial $56 million.

Here’s my final question. Do regular music listeners care at all about better quality audio (regardless of whether is comes from a disc, a file, or a piece of vinyl) or are they fixated on portability, ease of use, price, and selection? You can pick for yourself…but my experiences over the past 15 years of doing real HD-Audio is that we’re small niche and likely to stay that way.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(17) Readers Comments

  1. Irrespective of Jay-Z’s audiophile credentials, or lack thereof, it’s for sure he can’t do worse than what Tidal has already done at launch. No offline mode for its desktop app (unbelievable) and stuttering streaming widely reported by many users – read the computer audio forums.

    I was so excited for this service, hoping to run it alongside my Qobuz account. Sadly, however, it just didn’t perform in the streaming dept. while Qobuz totally excels. I will watch for developments, but so far not impressed enough to pony up 20 bucks a month for something that’s so flawed.

  2. Do regular music listeners care at all about better quality audio (regardless of whether is comes from a disc, a file, or a piece of vinyl) or are they fixated on portability, ease of use, price, and selection?

    My reply is “both” (I can only respond for myself, perhaps I am not alone).
    1. I listen to MP3 streaming most of the day as background music and sometimes in the evening when I have guests. I don’t mind about audio compressed music then or in the car.
    2. But, when I want to do serious listening, I want the best because I can (or at least I feel I can) hear the difference. I marvel at listening to well recorded music. I rarely buy CDs anymore: I prefer trying to get better than CD; surround sound on Blu-Ray, DVD audio and even SACD.

    • Édouard, I agree with you, but I still say Mark’s right, guys like ‘us’ are truly a Niche audience. I think eventually with memory sizes getting larger and less expensive, the portability issue will lend itself more easily towards FLAC/ALAC etc. Some day, hopefully sooner than later, MP3’s will fall by the wayside for even the general population.

      I myself use FLAC even with portable audio. I only use mp3 if I absolutely have to.

  3. I tend to agree that higher quality music as Dr Aix is proposing will be a niche for some time. Convenience seems to outsell everything else in this country, so until one has HD audio, in a convenient and ‘cheap’ form (or delivered inexpensively), it will be a novelty rather than mainstream. So sad. I still am haunted seeing people watch movies on a phone sized screen in (at best) 720 resolution with ear buds, while I have a 58″ plasma TV at home with Blu-ray player to enjoy the best I can get (for now). Same has been true with watching people spend $400+ on IPODs and save the audio in the lowest level format and then listen through $5 earbuds that came with the unit (okay, they might have cost $15, I don’t know), when they could at least (at the very least) have spent $120 on a set of good ear buds to improve the listening quality. I vote for HD audio for music. And I doubt I’ll hear many examples of the type of music I like in an HD quality anytime soon.

  4. Stimulating comments for sure. Yes, as I’ve previously written, establishing CD 16/44 as “the floor” for the genral public can and should be seen as a 100% positive development.

    As for the hi-res picture, whether it’s 1975 or 2015, the issue of hearing/choosing the difference between ok sound and great sound is in the end largely a matter of exposure. This is what you find out when you sell good hi-fi for over thirty years. Talking, reading, wondering about the worthwhile-ness of hi-res will do nothing.

    People have to have an emotional experience that is driven by great-sounding music that they love. This is where discounting high-quality analog recordings as non-hi-res will hurt you too Mark. Folks would rather hear/purchase music they know, sounding better than they’ve ever heard it, much more than they will buy a small independent label that has great sound but not artists most can identify with. Just another catch-22 in the audio/music world.

    • There is no shame in acknowledging that audio formats have capabilities and limitations. If realizing that analog can sound great but that it doesn’t rise to the new high-resolution standards is hurting anyone…it’s the people that are consuming it after paying $300 per album or $5 per track.

  5. Mark, IMHO To answer your last question first, I do believe that the regular user will care about a higher quality source as soon as savvy marketers convince them they need it. When Apple gets around to selling CD level files believe me their genius marketing department will convince their huge customer base that they need to cough up a few extra bucks a month for the CD level files. The problems of download speed and storage space are rapidly a becoming a thing of the past and no longer a roadblock to larger downloads.

    My question is what will be the future of CD sales when someone like Tital offers off line saving of files to a PC. If for $20 a month I could download just about any album I want why would I ever by another CD? Tital currently offers offline mode for Android devices and claims they will make it available for PCs in the near future.

    • This whole “offline mode” is worthy of an entire post…it basically allows customers unlimited access to the catalog for $20. Not a fan…musicians deserve better.

      • I agree and would enjoy reading a post on the finatial side of the streaming model. How if at all are the artists compensated for their work?

        • I’ll put that idea in the hopper…it’s a mess for artists.

  6. Maybe Neil should have said “highER” resolution instead of “high” resolution. Would have saved a lot of arguments…

    • I’ve been saying that since the start of the “High-Resolution ” audio marketplace.

  7. Dr. Waldrep, I strongly disagree. Tidal has changed my listening life. Now I can hear music, recorded and/or streamed at a high enough quality, that I wouldn’t have initially purchased; like the GoGo Penguins. When I read reviews in magazines, I can now listen to the music. In the world of MP3s, this was disappointing. Lastly, audiophiles can start with a streamer or their laptop combined with a decent DAC, amp, and speakers as a start before collecting HRA. This is wonderful.

    • Disagree with what? That Tidal is a streaming service that is providing “high-resolution” streams? I have no problem with Tidal or any others streaming CD quality audio…I applaud that. Just don’t tell it’s high-res.

  8. I commented on a another blog recently about the importance to me of streaming services.

    They save me lots of money and also give me access to recordings otherwise difficult to find, let alone even knowing they exist.

    Yes, there will be CD-quality only recordings or less, but my love of music extends beyond the need for Hi-Res, for example, being able to listen to a re-mastered 78rpm recording with all its limitations can bring me so much joy when compared to, say, Hi-res material played by less-able artists.

    My perfect world is coming ever closer, i.e. classical piano recordings + Hi-Res (PCM and DSD) + Offline storage of streamed music.

    Thanks to everyone who is helping to bring this closer, including Mark and, yes, Tidal

    • The David Pogue test was a joke, Brent’s piece and previous pieces doesn’t account for provenance…I don’t understand the continuing confusion.

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