My father’s McIntosh tube amp

Apple Music: Better Than Tidal (and Spotify)

I spent the weekend with my father and his $30,000 stereo system so I took the opportunity to compare Tidal to Apple Music (and Spotify) to see who has the best fidelity.

tl;dr: The clear winner was Apple Music. But I’ll get to that. And hopefully it goes without saying that we used the paid, premium version of each service.

I grew up with an audiophile father who spent probably too much on high-end audio equipment, despite having to work two jobs to make ends meet. Then again, I’ve always respected his musical priorites. After all

Life ain’t nothing but a good groove
A good mix tape to put you in the right mood

and

Without music life would be a mistake. —Nietzsche

I’m grateful for the ways in which my dad exposed me to music appreciation. My childhood was infused with constant stream of prog rock, jazz fusion, post punk and early electronic and ambient. It’s why music has always been a hobby of mine, from DJing at a few college stations, to DJing parties, to messing around with electronic music composition on Ableton Live/Push.

In the past few decades he’s really upped his audiophile game. The equipment we used to test:

My dad’s setup
  1. Legacy Focus SE ribbon tweeter speakers
  2. Aperture Signature speaker cables
  3. McIntosh MC 275 tube amplifier
  4. McIntosh C-2500 tube preamp
  5. Custom Blue Jeans interconnection cables

Here’s the playlist I used to do the testing. It’s pretty eclectic. But the unifying thread is that all of these songs are really well-engineered and recorded. There’s plenty of bass and lots of dynamic range.

After an evening and an afternoon basically doing this:

The classic Maxell ad circa 1979

The three of us were unanimous: Apple Music was the clear winner. It sounded the cleanest, the least compressed, really crisp. Spacious. Vocals that were mixed well were front and center, floating into the space above our heads as if the singer was in the room. The midrange never got lost in the mix. Bass was deep and wide but not muddled. In short, everything sounded like it was intended to sound, as it was engineered.

Strong, by London Grammar, one of the test tracks

For some songs, we couldn’t hear a difference between Apple and Tidal. For others, Apple sounded better than Tidal, less compressed. Tidal claims it’s lossless but in other places cites a 1,411 Kbps FLAC compression rate. In any case, it certainly isn’t CD or vinyl quality.

Besides being 60% cheaper, Apple has a larger music library. We couldn’t find about 10% of the playlist on Tidal.

As for Spotify, despite encoding using Ogg Vorbis, it was very disappointing, which was no surprise to me since this has been a long-running complaint of mine about Spotify. Compressed, muddled, lost detail. Spotify’s only real advantages are its social features and its extensive music library.

Every time I Tweet to Spotify they offer tech support, as if it’s my fault

I’m not a recording engineer by any means. But my theory about why there was such a noticeable difference is this: Apple’s audio compression codec is better. Somehow AAC beats Tidal’s “lossless” FLAC encoding. How else can you explain it? Maybe there’s a crucial difference in specific app implementation? Or maybe Apple is favoring its own service on its platform?

I’d be curious to try this test using Android but during my brief Android stint, I could never get anything approaching audiophile quality from any app on Android.

The lead and backing vocals on this track are just heavenly

To be clear, we compared the services using the same device and native apps; it was all very scientific. (I’ve also compared the same service on different devices. Spotify doesn’t sound good on any of them.) Ultimately, I don’t know the reason for Apple’s superior audio quality. But I can tell you what we heard.

Sure, Apple Music isn’t perfect. There are no social features beyond playlist sharing. So for now I’ll continue living in the two dedicated music nerdery Slacks I’m part of, until Apple catches up on the social front.

A note on the music embeds above: All the music links and embeds in this post are to Apple Music. I thought about using Spotify links because 95% of my readers are probably using Spotify. But it seemed inconsistent with my position on Apple Music. And it would have meant more work. But here’s the Spotify playlist anyway. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Update: I probably should have mentioned that we were streaming from an iPhone 6, an iPad Pro, and an iPad Mini to an old Airport Express connected to the preamp with an optical cable.

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