Notes to self from the conference presented by NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, November 7th, 2014.
Session: “TIDAL, the first platform agnostic high fidelity music streaming service, soon to launch in US and UK”
Presenter: Daniel Green, Head of Global Marketing, TidalHiFi.com
Tidal is the latest streaming incarnation for improved music immersion. Notice that I did not say “listening experience” because (1) it is archaic and cliched, and (2) from key points revealed so far by Mr. Green it really could become an enveloping environment for the sheer pleasure of music. Finally. At least 25 million songs are licensed for delivery on *any* mobile device or in the home. That in itself puts Tidal leagues beyond Pandora’s library. There is also curation, and it is not reliant on algorithms. Yet the big payoff is improved sound: lossless encoding—not lo-fi MP3, not mid-fi Apple iTunes AAC or Spotify—broader spectrum hi-res at 1,411 kbps. Heard on high quality equipment, this should make life a little lovelier.
Neil Young’s Pono system may become largely irrelevant beyond the well publicized startup buzz it has received. Not that Pono is such a bad idea in terms of encoding—why not give fans the best you can provide after all?! (although there is plenty of contention surrounding the perceived benefits of ultra-res uncompressed audio)—or even the exceedingly awkward albeit innovative design of the portable player. It is simply an issue of having higher fidelity available than we generally have now, balanced against available bandwidth and portability—downloading/transferring ultra-res to the proprietary Pono player versus streaming hi-res to any phone or home stereo—and, most significantly, we need to remember the failings of human hearing.
How much audio resolution can the population perceive? I’m not talking about ultra-sonic signals filtered out of original full-fidelity recordings that lossy encoding entails or compromised sampling rates that may affect the most audible frequencies. I’m talking about the pervasive hearing loss of Americans (and I’m not randomly excluding other nations; just highlighting the largest and most prominent world market for casual music consumption).
Life in the U.S. is LOUD. Take New York City as a for instance. Cars honking; trucks revving; busses squealing; subways barreling through stations at jet engine decibel levels; retail stores and restaurants and many places of business insisting on setting a brand or marketing mood via music and environmental ambience; and people speaking loudly just to be heard above it all. And then there are portable devices and mobile phones each plugged into via usually inferior earbuds that can’t be adequately heard unless the volume often grossly exceeds safe exposure limits that are nonetheless required to overcome all that ambient noise. Even if we have the latest Bose or Beats as we seek to escape the din all around and cocoon ourselves in our own private sanctuaries, we are more likely than not blasting our eardrums with excess sound for much longer than is healthy.
We don’t hear so well. And we, as a general population of music lovers, simply don’t know that 24-bit at 96kHz or more is “better,” because in the world which we live now we simply can’t tell. Check the scientific and medical studies and books and periodicals on this topic yourself.
So we love—LOVE—music but so many of us just can’t tell the difference between sound that is OK and the best sound available. Believe it or not, 256kbps iTunes AAC, or even 320, is now the defining tipping point. Some of us can hear the benefits of 44.1kHz CD quality (which I’ll call super-res in the context of these notes—and as for LPs and their inherent biases, let’s not even go there). Some musicians, producers, engineers and music enthusiasts can appreciate the subtleties that 24-bit/96kHz audio reveals. But you ain’t gonna hear any difference via the ubiquitous earbuds we carry nor via the substandard Beats type of ear appliances.
There: I’ve said it. Some may disagree but there is ample evidence that I have heard from the experts and read in audio journals, periodicals, books—all written by or with citations of the sharpest minds in audio recording, production and mastering. I leave it to you to discern for yourselves with your own ears.
I look forward to the Tidal shift and possibly retiring my highly manicured iTunes library of over 20,000 songs. It may be the last mass-market music service we’ll ever need. Until the next big thing.
Note that I have done my best to accurately represent my experiences, interpretations and impressions. These are my words and transcribed notes and are not the verbatim ideas of the presenters unless quoted directly within the text. Therefore, the conference’s participants should not be held accountable for any misstatements of fact or intention that may occur on these pages.