The streaming music market is a crowded one indeed, but it’s still dominated by one very big player: Spotify. With over 100 million users worldwide, Spotify enjoys a commanding lead over all rivals. But does that mean it’s right for everyone? Despite its many advantages, Spotify doesn’t necessarily have everything music fans are looking for, which is why we’re putting it head to head with one of its biggest competitors: Tidal.
Tidal couldn’t be more different from Spotify, offering a unique set of features you won’t find anywhere else. So grab your smartphones, your wireless speakers, or your Bluetooth headphones and check out our feature-by-feature comparison of these two on-demand music streaming services so you can pick which one is best for you.
For individual users, Spotify has two tiers of service: The free, ad-supported tier which gives you access to the full library of Spotify content, but severely restricts how you can interact with it (not to mention the ads). Its full-featured Premium plan is $10 per month, which is pretty standard for the industry at the moment. Spotify also offers a student plan at just $5 per month and a six-person family plan (with parental controls) for $15 per month.
Students get a particularly good deal; a student Spotify premium plan entitles you to a free, ad-supported Hulu account, plus Showtime access too. If you’ve never signed up for Spotify before, the company recently announced that it’s giving new members a three-month free trial period — a substantial boost over its previous 30-day free offer. All of its paid plans let you download up to 10,000 songs for offline listening.
The biggest initial difference between the two is pretty simple: Tidal offers no free, ad-supported tier. But there’s a lot more to it than that, of course.
Tidal plans are initially based on streaming quality. Its Premium plans give you full access to Tidal’s catalog of content and all of its features, but limits the quality of streams to 320kbps — the same quality as Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music, and many others. The HiFi plans are identical to the Premium level, save for one important difference: They let you stream the entire catalog in lossless, CD quality, and give you access to a smaller selection of tracks in a hi-res format that bumps up the quality even further (more on this below).
There are also multiple other plan options for Tidal’s catalog, listed below:
- Premium (individual) — $10 per month
- HiFi (individual) — $20 per month
- Premium (family, up to six users) — $15 per month
- HiFi (family, up to six users) — $30 per month
- Premium (student) — $5 per month
- HiFi (student) — $10 per month
- Premium (military) – $6 per month
- HiFi (military) — $12 per month
All of the plans let you download tracks on five different devices for offline listening and use these devices simultaneously. While there is no free subscription level, Tidal offers a 30-day free trial for new subscribers.
With a free, ad-supported option, plus a student offer that trumps any other service out there, Spotify takes this one.
Tidal has apps for all the big platforms, including Windows, MacOS, iOS, tvOS, Android, and Android TV. With an emphasis on the audiophile crowd, it also supports some very high-end streaming components from brands like Astell & Kern, Devialet, Denon, Harman Kardon, KEF, Martin Logan, and Meridian, to name a few. Its support for more common devices like game consoles or even the Roku platform is more anemic. Users that want to get Tidal streaming on these devices may need to sign up for a Plex account.
You can add your Tidal account to Plex, and from there you can use the Plex client on a wide variety of media streamers and game consoles.
Spotify not only has the major platforms covered, but there are also very few connected audio devices that the service doesn’t support. From smart speakers to smartwatches, and even some of the audiophile brands that Tidal covers, Spotify’s device support is arguably the best among all of the music streaming services.
Music variety and catalog size
This might be the toughest category to judge. As of August 2019, Tidal claims a 60 million track library and Spotify claims it has 50 million tracks plus 450,000 podcasts. We have yet to find an independent source that can verify these claims, so we’ll take them at their word for now.
Music variety can also be tricky to determine. The general sense is that Tidal’s catalog skews toward rap and hip-hop artists, especially young and relatively unknown ones. This is in keeping with Tidal’s ownership structure, which largely consists of successful musicians such as Jay-Z, who have an interest in promoting other talents. However, this perception may be biased through Tidal’s editorial and recommendation processes, both of which also tend to surface these genres more than others.
For its part, Spotify’s catalog appears to be more balanced, though again, this might be a reflection of how the service automatically starts to tune itself to listeners’ demonstrated musical interests. We do know that some artists have actively refused to let their music be carried by Spotify over concerns about inadequate royalty payments (most of which stem from its free, ad-supported tier). Taylor Swift famously boycotted the company in 2014, though she has since added some of her albums back.
With claimed catalog sizes that are among the biggest in the industry and no objective way to evaluate any of this, we’re calling this one a tie.
If it was difficult to assess the kind and amount of music on each service, determining sound quality is easy. Spotify’s compressed, 320kbps streaming quality sounds very good on most audio devices, and for casual listening or in locations with lots of competing noise, it’s probably more than adequate. Tidal’s Premium plan is essentially the same. But if your ears yearn for something better, it’s hard to beat Tidal’s HiFi tier with its double-whammy of lossless, CD-quality streams for the entire catalog and its smaller but worthy catalog of hi-res tracks.
There is a small caveat here: To get the most out of Tidal’s higher bandwidth streams, you’ll need a compatible device. Virtually all of Tidal’s supported devices can handle its lossless CD-quality streams. But mobile users, take note: These streams will eat up your allotment of data at a much faster rate (up to four times faster) than the Premium tier, and its hi-res tracks will gobble it up even faster.
Speaking of hi-res, Tidal uses the MQA format to deliver 24-bit audio for its Masters hi-res tracks. Some Tidal devices will let you play MQA streams but limit the quality (Apple devices), while others can play MQA in its full, studio-quality depth. Here’s a handy list of all of the devices that work with MQA.
Videos, podcasts, and more
These days, music streaming services are about more than just music. Videos, podcasts, interviews, and live concerts are all becoming important parts of the mix. Tidal has chosen to focus on videos and live concert recordings, some of which are exclusive to the service. It has a catalog of over 240,000 videos, some of which are portions of live concerts, live concerts in their entirety, or exclusive shows. For mobile users, the ability to download any of these videos for offline viewing is a big help for avoiding data charges.
Spotify has videos too, but the company appears to be coy when it comes to promoting them. You won’t find a video category when you browse, and even the search filtering options such as “see all artists” lack a “see all videos” item. Spotify’s help page on the topic is just as unhelpful, only offering these facts: You find videos by searching for them, and you can’t download them once you find them.
Podcasts, however, are a different story. Spotify has been investing heavily in the medium for the last two years, and it shows. Not only does it boast a catalog of some 450,000 podcasts, it has been developing its own original podcast content along with new ways to sell advertising within them. Podcasts are even beginning to make their way into curated playlists, Spotify’s most popular feature. Tidal had a grand total of 21 podcasts when we checked as of the publication of this article.
As impressed as we are by Tidal’s video catalog, you subscribe to a music streaming service primarily because of audio. With the huge increase in the popularity of podcast listening, we’re giving this one to Spotify.
For most folks, Spotify’s extensive music catalog, its enormous device support, and its variety of both paid and free plans make it the obvious choice. It’s no accident it’s the world’s most popular streaming music service. For these reasons, we’re declaring it as the overall winner.
However, in a universe of compressed digital files, Tidal’s HiFi tier is one of the few options that die-hard audiophiles have to get truly high-fidelity music from a subscription service. If you find yourself in this small but distinguished category, you owe it to yourself to give Tidal HiFi a shot.
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