From today South Africans can subscribe to high fidelity streaming service Tidal for $9.99 (R120) per month. The service offers users access to more than 25 million tracks, over 75 000 high-definition music videos and a range of curated playlists. Users can try the service for a week for free before committing to the monthly fee.
Tidal aims to set itself apart by offering higher-quality content than its rivals, albeit for a higher fee. The service faces plenty of competition in South Africa from the likes of Simfy Africa, Deezer and Rara, each of which have comparably extensive libraries and offer similar features at roughly half of Tidal’s monthly fee.
That said, at $9.99 a month, Tidal’s South African offering is substantially cheaper than in other markets. The service costs $19.99 a month in the US, CAD19.99 in Canada, and £19.99 in the UK. This pricing puts it in line with Spotify which, although not officially available locally, is used by many South Africans via virtual private networks or by purchasing vouchers for the service online.
Kristin Eldnes, Tidal’s head of PR and communications, says that while other forms of media have gotten better in recent decades – particularly video – when it comes to music consumers have come to accept lower quality in exchange for convenience. She says Tidal hopes to change this.
The service lets users stream audio at three quality levels: Standard (96kbps AAC+), High (320kbps AAC) and HiFi (1411kbps FLAC Lossless). Eldnes says the highest quality files are roughly four times the size of the best quality files on competing services.
Tidal offers dedicated applications for Windows and Mac, mobile apps for Android and iOS, access via the web and supports a range of high-end home audio equipment. Unfortunately, unlike the mobile apps, the desktop apps don’t yet offer the ability to store content offline, but Tidal says this feature will be added soon.
We were suitably impressed with the Tidal’s audio quality when we tested it on a Mac with a pair of Sennheiser Momentum headphones. We listened to everything from pop and rock to classical and opera and found ourselves revisiting favourite albums because the experience was so good – regardless of genre, tracks sounded richer and somehow more rounded.
Not every track in Tidal’s catalogue is available in HiFi, but the bulk of tracks we listened to were, and without fail their bass felt richer, snare drums cracked and popped, vocals sounded unprecedentedly detailed and intimate, and somehow each instrument or part seemed separate and individually distinguishable in a way that the same tracks on the rival services we tested alongside Tidal didn’t.
However, when we tested the service using the earbuds supplied with an iPhone the difference was far subtler. So much subtler, in fact, that many people we forced to listen to the same song on Tidal and a rival streaming service were unable to tell them apart.
And therein lies one of the biggest challenges Tidal faces in South Africa (or any other market): getting people to care enough about an often almost imperceptible improvement in quality that they’re willing to pay more for it. Further, to get the full benefits of Tidal one really needs high-end audio gear. Using a wireless speaker in the Stuff offices we couldn’t tell Tidal’s tracks apart from competitor services, nor could we distinguish them when playing music in a car.
Another obvious challenge for Tidal is going to be the increased data usage incurred when listening to HiFi-quality tracks. Mobile data remains expensive in South Africa, and uncapped Wi-Fi isn’t readily available, making using four times the data for the same song a hard pill to swallow.
Tidal’s target market is clearly the consumer with access to high-speed, uncapped internet and high-end audio equipment, but many of these users may well have already committed to a rival service, which makes getting them to defect all the more difficult.
Also, for those people who are using a rival service, moving is made even less appealing because of the friends and family that may be using that same rival service. One of the perks of streaming services is the ease with which you can share music with other users, and as Facebook continues to show with its dominance of the social media space, people want to be where their friends are.
That said, for newcomers to streaming who want the best possible audio available, Tidal performs admirably, and its selection of local content is excellent thanks to deals with all of the major labels. We managed to find tracks from the likes of Sipho Mabuse, Teargas, Desmond and the Tutus, Felix Laband, Jack Parow, Hip Hop Pantsula and even recent releases from the likes of Petite Noir and Lunatic Wolf.
Further, Tidal’s mobile apps are beautifully designed and intuitive. Sadly, the same can’t be said of the desktop app, which feels and looks dated thanks to its lack of support for Retina displays and rather dull layout and navigation.
On the whole, Tidal is a great addition to the South African streaming landscape, but in a market this price sensitive and where data remains costly it’s going to face an uphill battle growing its user base, particularly with three existing services on offer for half the price and rumours of Spotify coming soon.