Here’s the inside track on the three hottest options for high-resolution celestial jukeboxes...
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Tidal - From £9.99 per month
Until recently, Tidal was the only way to stream music that sounded great, partly due to its commitment to lossless (i.e. decent quality) audio but mostly because it delivers proper hi-res tunes. To achieve this, Tidal relies on an audio format called MQA to provide what it calls ‘Master’ files and these make up a credible proportion of its 70 million tracks.
These Masters sound impressive as they are but for the full Tidal experience, you need a dongle for your phone or laptop that fully decodes MQA. The good news is these dongles also boost the calibre of any other digital music and, frankly, it’s more important to have decent playback kit than it is to obsess over the technical quality of the tracks. While Tidal’s entry-level package is only a tenner per month, this option lacks appeal. The reason is that although Tidal has a solid catalogue, curated playlists, and polished apps, these aspects are delivered better by rivals.
The reason people swim towards Tidal is for tiptop sound – and you must pay twice as much for the HiFi tier to enjoy these sonic sensations. Tidal remains a fine choice for audiophiles but with Apple (and others) starting to stream music with comparable audio creds at lower prices, the water level is rising fast.
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Apple Music - From £9.99 per month
Apple Music gives you a rock-solid catalogue, spiced up with exclusives, such as the Apple 1 station, plus clever music-curation tools. Yes, these are powered by computers but they’re so spookily effective that it feels like someone is personally picking tunes you’ll like. Apple has clearly listened to the critique that rolled its way since this service launched in 2016 and has buffed up its apps. Yet the real progress is in the sound quality.
Even the standard Apple Music package is morphing every track into genuine CD quality, rather than the heavily compressed approximations of the past. Better still, Apple is gradually boosting its music up to high-res and starting to offer spatial audio, too, all at no extra cost. And with student packages at £4.99/month or £14.99 for a family of six, it’s superb value.
Confusion reigns as to how to best playback the high-res tracks, with even Apple’s own headphones not currently doing the job – so you will need a wired dongle to enjoy these songs fully. For those who exist in the Apple ecosystem, this is now a great deal, and if audio quality makes your heart sing, there is plenty to get excited about.
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Amazon Music Unlimited - From £7.99 per month
Surprise surprise. Amazon attempts to undercut its rivals by piling high and pricing cheap.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, as you get unfettered access to 75 million songs, many of which are genuinely high-res. Just note that what Amazon calls ‘HD’ is, in reality, only CD-quality and the ‘Ultra HD’ material is where the sweet stuff resides. This is a moot point because the monthly subscriptions from £7.99 (for Prime Members) give you full access to everything within the Amazon Music locker.
This is a serious bargain, and even fruitier is the six-person family bundle, which costs less than double this amount. In a refreshing change from most streaming services, you can easily see the technical audio specs of each song as it plays. But that’s where the good news ends. The app itself is, at best, utilitarian with few frills to make the whole experience feel like fun. Amazon Music is most certainly not the glamourpuss option.
Those on a tight budget will undoubtedly celebrate what it brings to the party. Others, much less so.
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Words: Alex Pell