Remember the days of popping a CD into your chosen player and listening to a single album? For many people, that’s a thing of the past. Streaming music is now the primary way that folks listen to their favorite tunes. Spotify currently rules the roost as the streaming service you can listen to anywhere, with its rock-solid catalog that caters to your audio needs. The service has successfully fended off competitors from Amazon, Apple, and Google.
Another competitor is Tidal, which received a big push in 2015 when it was acquired by hip-hop icon Jay-Z. It launched as a bit of a joke, but in recent months, Tidal has carved out space as the music connoisseur’s streaming service. If you’re an audiophile, Tidal has become the rare, high-profile place to listen to Hi-Res Audio. Plus, its live streams give you a chance to see artists in these trying, socially distanced times.
Both services are terrific, so making a choice between the two may prove tricky. Fortunately, we’ve put the rival music services to the test to help you decide which is best for you.
Spotify’s catalog caters to mainstream and niche interests.
Money, Money, Money
An entirely free service tier played a major role in Spotify’s road to domination. This lowered the barrier to entry, letting anyone access the entire Spotify catalog. There are drawbacks with the free tier, though. First, the service limits the number of songs you can skip per hour. Second, albums are limited to standard or shuffle play—you can’t play songs on demand. Finally, Free users find their listening sessions interrupted by ad breaks. Pay $9.99 per month for Spotify Premium, and all those restrictions go away. You also unlock the ability to cache songs to your device for offline listening.
Tidal only has a 30-day free trial, not a free tier. After that trial period, you can subscribe to Tidal Premium for $9.99 per month. This gives you features similar to Spotify Premium: a library of 70+ million songs, unlimited skips, offline listening, and a host of exclusive livestreams and events. The real money is on the Tidal HiFi tier. For $19.99 per month, you get Tidal Premium, plus lossless CD quality HiFi and the ultra-level, high-resolution Masters tracks.
High resolution audio is meant to bring the users closer to their favorite music as it was recorded in the original studio. Of course, to get a full use of lossless HiFi and Masters tracks, you need high-end audio equipment that can reproduce that sound. That said, some folks are skeptical of Hi-Res Audio’s ability to truly reproduce the studio recording experience.
Outside of the standard subscription options, both Spotify and Tidal offer alternate, discounted plans for families and students. Spotify has Student, Duo (two people in the same household), and Family (six people in the same household) plans for $4.99, $12.99, and $14.99 per month, respectively. If everyone in your home is a Spotify fan, it’s a huge cost savings to go with the Duo or Family plans.
Tidal has alternate subscription options for families, students, and military members/first responders, each with their own Premium and HiFi price points. With the Premium tier, a full family of six pays $14.99 per month, while HiFi for mom, dad, and the rest is $29.99 per month. Active students can get Tidal Premium and HiFi for $4.99 and $9.99 per month, respectively, while current military and first responders pay slightly more at $5.99 and $11.99 a month. If you fall into any of those categories, it’s worth getting those discounts for the bumpin’ bass of Billie Eilish’s “Therefore I Am.”
If your digital wallet is running low, Spotify is the way to go. If you have money to spare and want to listen to Run the Jewels’ Cyberpunk 2077 title track “No Save Point” in full, high-res quality, Tidal is your only option. You have several options in terms of pricing on both services, letting you to dial in exactly how much you’re willing to pay for streaming music. It is hard to beat “free,” though. Spotify gives you that option.
Tidal’s home screen is similar to Spotify’s.
Magical Sound Shower
Spotify offers four levels of music quality: Low, Normal, High, and the Premium-only Very High. Low is equivalent to 24Kbps, Normal is 96Kbps, High is 160Kbps, and Very High tops out at 320Kbps. That’s good enough for the average listener, but doesn’t approach lossless music in any way, shape, or form.
Tidal starts at 320Kbps for its standard streaming playback, offering AAC quality at its lowest level. HiFi kicks things up to lossless 1411 Kbps, which is great for the budding audiophile. It also offers the Masters level, Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) recordings at anywhere from 2304Kbps and up. The company says these tracks are typically 96kHz/24-bit and authenticated by the artists themselves. It doesn’t get much better than that, unless you’re in the booth when they’re recording.
Tidal’s device support leans toward high-end audio gear.
Taking Music Anywhere
A streaming music service isn’t worth anything if you can’t listen to your favorite tracks on your device of choice. Spotify is available on nearly everything under the sun. There are mobile apps for iOS and Android, desktop apps for Windows and Mac, and a web player on major browsers like Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Edge, and Opera. That’s only the beginning, though, as you can play Spotify on a host of different devices for mainstream users, including Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Nest Hub, Amazon Echo, Google Home, Sonos Play 1, Apple Watch, Fitbit Sense, Garmin Forerunner 645, Samsung QLED Smart TVs, LG OLED Smart TVs, and much, much more. The full list of Spotify-compatible devices is available here, and it’s truly stunning. And that’s before you get to Spotify Connect, which lets you wireless cast your music to devices like Google Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV Stick.
With a focus on audio quality, Tidal is a bit more limited. There’s little reason to jam on lossless HiFi audio through your Apple Watch. Despite that, Tidal has made great strides in app availability over the years. There are currently apps for iOS, Android, MacOS, Windows, Amazon Alexa, Samsung Gear, Android TV, Apple TV, Fire TV, Chromecast, Roku, and Vizio. There is also Tidal support on high-end audio devices from various manufacturers, including Sonos, Cambridge Audio, Onkyo, Harman Kardon, Electrocompaniet, and Cabasse. If you have the money for high-end audio equipment, Tidal is the music streaming service for you.
Spotify still offers the latest and greatest music.
Competing Music Libraries
Spotify boasts a catalog of 60 million tracks from around the world, and Tidal has one-upped that with a full list of 70+ million songs. While there’s a ton of overlap in terms of available artists and albums, both services offer their own flavor. Spotify offers a bit more for niche tastes, with video game soundtracks or singles from smaller worldwide artists. Tidal tends to be focused on larger artists, to the point where it offers a number of early exclusives from the big names; Beyonce’s Lemonade and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo launched first on Tidal before expanding to other platforms.
Overall, both libraries tread the same ground for many music listeners. The exclusives that once defined Tidal, like the Prince or The Beatles catalogs, have made it over to Spotify in due time. And those exclusives tend to be exclusive for weeks, not years. Tidal edges ahead, but Spotify eventually catches up.
Winner: Tidal (slight lead)
Tidal has many non-music extras.
Gimme Some More
Spotify isn’t as strong on bonus content. Open up the app on any platform and you’ll find music recommendations, curated playlists, and current music charts. The company has also spent a great deal of money, up to $500 million, to bring more podcasts to the platform. That means you’ll find not only your favorites, but a host of Spotify-exclusive podcasts to listen to while shopping for (or ignoring) your family this holiday. The Joe Rogan Experience becomes a Spotify exclusive in late 2020, and the company also acquired Gimlet Media, Parcast, and The Ringer to beef up its podcast chops.
Tidal is entirely about the music though. You get the same curated playlists and recommendations, but there’s a whole lot more for the musically-inclined here. The service has created podcasts wholly-focused on music culture, like Elliott Wilson’s Rap Radar or Fat Joe’s Coco Vision; they’re not exclusive, but it does highlight Tidal’s focus. In addition, you’ll find in-depth articles about musical artists, livestream concerts, music videos, and other content. Take Alicia Keys’ recent album Alicia. You could listen to it on most services, but only on Tidal could you go through the track-by-track visual commentary or fire up her Credit Due episode, a show that highlights the album’s contributors. If you want to go all-in on your favorite artists, Tidal offers the extra content that matters.
So, Which Service is Best?
At the end of the day, the answer depends on how much you really care about the music. Back in the day, you could turn to VH1 or MTV to watch music documentaries like Behind the Music or acoustic concerts on Unplugged. Today, you can hop on Netflix to watch Hip-Hop Evolution or Rapture as they dive in hip-hop history, or take in behind-the-scenes K-pop looks with Blackpink: Light Up the Sky. Tidal is the answer for those that tune in for such shows, the people who buy coffee table books about classic hip-hop and rock. If you bleed music, Tidal is absolutely the service for you, especially if you’re spending $9.99 per month.
Spotify, however, is the Netflix of streaming music. It’s got something for everyone, with mainstream hits joined by world music artists and anime soundtracks. Spotify fits the definition of “good enough” technology, and for most people that’ll do that job.
Most folks don’t have an amazing audio system or expensive headphones that’ll offer crystal clear sound, especially in this economy. For many people, Spotify’s free, lower quality audio is all they need, and they can play the service on damned near everything. One guy installed it on his automated vacuum cleaner. Spotify goes where you go and won’t break the bank, so it edges out as the winner here.
Overall Winner: Spotify