Tidal has begun serving up high-res audio as a (currently) free addition to its ‘HIFI’ level of streaming, and you can enjoy 60 days of free trial to give it a listen.
BUT there are a good few extra steps to make sure you’re hearing what they’re offering, especially on a Mac.
DESKTOP APP ONLY
First up, the high-res ‘Masters’ albums will only play from the desktop version of Tidal, available for Windows 7+ and OS X 10.8+. Playing Tidal on your smart device or through a browser won’t deliver high-res results.
For Mac OS, you download the app, open it from your Downloads folder to mount it, then click that to open the window shown right and drag Tidal into your Applications folder as prompted. Then go to Applications and open it.
FIND THE MASTERS!
Tidal isn’t good at listing files by quality, because normally everything is the same. So there’s no way to see which albums are high-res and which aren’t. We hope this will change!
For starters you can go to the ‘What’s New’ section and on the ‘Albums’ list (but not the ‘Tracks’ list) there is a ‘Masters’ tab at the far right — click this and then ‘Show All’. This yielded a list of 191 albums, yet Tidal has stated there are “thousands” available.
But searching is impossible by file quality, so how do you find them? We've put some of our favourite tracks here (a personal music choice as much as a source of sonic prowess, it includes tracks at both 96kHz and 88.2kHz): tidal.com/playlist/3c71df11-2933-43bc-8197-9907808ad51a
There is further confusion — for example, the ‘What’s New’ list shows 7 out of 10 Led Zeppelin albums available (the recent Deluxe editions), and omits the others, including Zep IV. Led Zep I is there and plays at 24-bit/ 96kHz, but if you were just searching Tidal for Led Zep I, you’d find three versions: the ‘Remastered’ version (older, at CD quality), and two separate ‘Deluxe’ versions, one at CD quality, one at high-res. There is absolutely no way to tell which is which from the listings, so far as we can see (the two listings are below). Meanwhile Zep IV, Houses of the Holy and BBC Sessions appears to be available only at CD quality, despite being remastered with the others at 24/96. Why?
CHECK YOUR OUTPUT QUALITY
Go to Tidal’s ‘Settings’ and make sure your stream is set to Hi-Fi/Master (see below). This will ensure Tidal outputs high-res when it plays a high-res file. Note that the MQA encoding used for these 'Master' files can be 'unfolded' to 24-bit 96kHz (or 88.2kHz) by Tidal's desktop app, but any further expansion (to 192kHz, say) will require an MQA-equipped DAC.
NOW FIX YOUR MAC
But Mac users haave an extra task, since Macs do not automatically adjust their output frequency for your USB DAC when the file-type changes. If you leave it on the default, it'll output 44.1kHz CD quality regardless of what Tidal is playing.
Open the Mac’s ‘Audio MIDI Setup’ utility (it’s in Applications/Utilities, or just search for it), select your output device and the Output tab, and you’ll see what’s currently going out (as on this screengrab). It’s most likely showing 44.1kHz regardless of what Tidal is playing, so you won’t be hearing high-res audio. Your choices are to change this manually every time you play a different format (inconceivably inconvenient - and prone to error since some albums, such as Richard Hawley, are at 88.2kHz rather than 96kHz, with no way of knowing), or to use a frequency-following program such as Amarra Tidal to do it for you. But Tidal can help through its own settings…
Use Tidal’s settings and switch the Streaming/Sound Output option to address your DAC directly, rather than through System Default audio (above).
Then click the little ‘cog-wheel’ settings icon which will appear next to the name of your DAC, and select ‘Use Exclusive Mode’ (below). This gives Tidal exclusive access to your DAC, and it will automatically change frequency — you can see this happening if you keep the Mac’s ‘Audio MIDI Setup’ utility open.
The disadvantage here is that you can’t simultaneously output any other sound from your Mac — you won’t hear email alerts, you can’t hear a Youtube video without disabling this setting in Tidal. (In fact the easiest way is just to close Tidal entirely — it lets go of your DAC and remembers your settings and playlist when you reopen it.)
AS FOR MQA...
Tidal is using MQA for its high-res streaming — it is lossy by conventional definitions though MQA Inc and its original development team at Meridian go a long way out of their way to avoid the term, since it claims to be so clever at eliminating unused ‘space’ that it avoids quality deterioration (of course most other lossy codecs claim this too, but MQA has a better basis for argument). And its attempt to ‘authenticate’ the files has benefits of both reliability and potentially quality.
You need an MQA-equipped DAC to get the best of this, though MQA claims improved results through any DAC, and Tidal's desktop app does the first bit of work for you. For any further 'unfolding', as MQA calls it', you need an MQA-equipped DAC.
Meridian’s Explorer2 DAC (above) is one such equipped (our review is here), as are Bluesound products that have firmware of BluOS 2.2 or above.
But for now, most of us will just enjoy access to streaming high-res audio from the desktop app direct to DAC — once you’ve got all those options correctly sorted out...