Wednesday, 8 July 2015

What sounds better: Apple Music, Tidal, or Spotify?

Sameness pervades all the major streaming music services these days, but there are still many, many differences once you look into the details: take Spotify's lack of Taylor Swift content, for instance, or Apple Music's substantial bet on reinventing the radio station with Beats 1. There's also the matter of audio quality — you might think that all of these services would deliver the exact same digital stream to your ears, but you'd be wrong. Tidal's claim to fame is that it delivers true lossless streams at 1.4Mbps — legitimate CD quality, for all practical purposes — while Spotify tops out at 320kbps. Apple Music runs at a slightly lower 256kbps, but it uses a better encoding scheme, AAC, than Spotify's Ogg Vorbis. (Note that in the video, I misidentify it as MP3, but the two sound very similar, especially at higher bitrates.)
But what does this all actually mean in the real world? We wanted to find out, so we put a bunch of Vox Media staff in front of the camera for a blind test between Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music.
The methodology was straightforward: subjects listened to the same segment of the same song back-to-back on all three services set to their maximum streaming bitrates. We used Sony's MDR-7506 headphones — selected for their popularity, neutral sound, and non-outrageous price tag — paired to an iPhone 6 Plus. Subjects judged a total of three songs covering a spectrum of genres and audio characteristics: Kendrick Lamar's "Complexion (A Zulu Love)," St. Vincent's "Digital Witness," and Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" off the Copland Conducts Copland compilation. After listening to each song, we asked them to just say whatever was on their mind — if one service sounded notably better, notably worse, or if all three were about the same. the results were very, very surprising to me. It was generally random across the board, though Spotify fared slightly worse than Apple Music and Tidal overall. In roughly 29 percent of the tests, subjects couldn't tell any notable difference at all. Tidal — which wants you to pay more for lossless quality — most definitely didn't take the crown, and in several cases, subjects actually identified it as the worst-sounding of the three.
What are the takeaways? Having been a longtime Tidal subscriber and run blind tests on my laptop between Tidal and Spotify in the past, it seems possible that the difference in quality is particularly irrelevant when you're using your phone — maybe it's one thing to use better components, headphones, and speakers, but a phone's hardware creates a baseline that renders Tidal's advantage totally useless. (That's good news if you mostly listen to streaming music on your phone, since Tidal's lossless service is $10 more per month.)

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