High-quality vs. HiFi

At their amusingly named ‘normal’ settings, Spotify and Tidal are a bit rubbish, spitting out 96 kbps that’s only good for mobile. Maxed out, the £9.99 premium options provide broadly comparable 320 kbps, but Tidal’s HiFi subscription (£19.99 monthly) offers CD-quality 1411 kbps FLAC.

Apple Music’s settings aren’t public, but sources reckon they’re 256 kbps AAC on Wi-Fi and 128 kbps on cellular connections. There’s no manual override.

We spent ages flicking back and forth between the top tiers of each, initially wondering whether our ears were defective, because it was hard to tell the difference between them, bar Tidal being, without fail, louder.

But with the right music (most notably Aphex Twin and some classical), Tidal HiFi is a touch clearer and punchier, while the others are comparatively soupy, although never to the point our ears got sad.

You might also argue there’s a certain subjectivity regarding which you’ll find better, especially if you’ve spent years listening to MP3s, but we’re nonetheless giving this round to Tidal.

Winner: Tidal

Give us yer money

Spotify has two tiers: free and £9.99 per month. For free, you get annoying ads; on mobile, there’s also enforced album shuffling and limited track skips (six per hour). On premium, this goes away, and the maximum audio quality is ramped up from an iffy 160 kbps to a rather good 320 kbps.

Tidal also has two tiers, the cheapest of which essentially matches Spotify’s premium offering. The more expensive, the £19.99 per month HiFi, is where you get FLAC quality. Apple Music costs £9.99 per month, too (can anyone say ‘cartel’?), although for free you can still use risible social network Connect and listen to Apple Music radio, including the fairly decent Beats 1.

Things get a little more interesting price-wise when families are involved. With Spotify, each additional account costs £4.99. Tidal was once apparently aimed at loners, with no offers, but has now announced the means to bolt on four extra accounts to any ‘primary paying user’ account, at half price. But with Apple, a single extra fiver nets you a six-person family plan, which seems comparatively generous.

All the services are also trying to figure out what lies beyond music. Tidal’s got music videos, some of which are exclusives and interview-based. Spotify’s shortly rolling videos out, too, along with podcast support. And there's a new system for runners that matches pace with song tempos. Spotify’s also got plenty of social clout in terms of playlist collaboration and sharing, and support across a wider range of devices, plus a whole bunch of integrated value-added apps.

Apple Music has videos (can you spot a trend?), and the aforementioned social network and radio. If you’re a dedicated diehard audiophile who’s rolling in money, Tidal HiFi will be the only choice you’ll be able to live with, regardless of the extra outlay.

For everyone else, it’s a toss-up between Spotify and Apple Music, with the latter winning out fractionally, due to its family plan. That said, if you refuse to pay anything, Spotify at least has its ad-supported option, versus Tidal’s locked door and Apple’s miserly leftovers.

Winner: Apple Music

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Winner: Spotify

Tidal’s a decent service, with a lot to like about it. We’re fond of the editorial curation and the audio quality. But the apps aren’t as mature nor as usable as Spotify’s, the catalogue seems smaller, (admittedly infrequent) buffering is annoying, and to get HiFi, you’re splashing out an extra ten quid per month. Tidal’s main differentiator is also, ultimately, a single feature. If Spotify switched on a FLAC option tomorrow, Tidal would be nowhere.

Apple Music is an audacious land-grab that doesn’t offer an awful lot that’s new, but nonetheless lays the groundwork to swallow up the streaming industry. The playlists and recommendations are especially impressive, and with a three-month free trial, you’d be mad to not give it a go. But it’s still very young, quite buggy, and very messy from an interface standpoint. 

So unless compressed audio makes your ears hurl themselves out of the window (in which case, sign up to Tidal), we reckon, by a whisker, Spotify’s the best streaming music giant around right now.

Still, expect any gaps to narrow rapidly as each service copies bits of the other, until you wonder if they should all be called Spotapplidal. Either that or Apple will properly get its act together, squash all of Apple Music’s teething problems, and obliterate everyone else in the industry by 2016.

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