Tidal has begun serving up high-res audio as a (currently) free addition to its ‘HIFI’ level of streaming, and you can (usually) 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!
At first Tidal wasn’t good at listing files by quality, because prior to the introduction of Masters, everything was the same.
Two things have changed that recently. Firstly on the home page you can go to the 'Albums' or ‘Playlists’ section and there is a ‘Masters’ tab at the far right (above) — click this and then ‘Show More’. On our most recent visit this yielded a list of over 500 albums, yet Tidal has stated there are “thousands” available.
Still more usefully Tidal is now putting an 'M' next to Masters albums, as below, thereby distinguishing which of several versions will play at high-res for those with a Masters-level subscription. (The 'E' next to Presence on the right indicates 'Explicit', which has us stumped, unless Plant transgressed by daring to mention cocaine in For Your Life.)
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
Go to Tidal’s ‘Settings’ and make sure your stream is set to Master (see below); this used to be a combined Hi-Fi/Master setting. 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. If you have such a DAC, you can select the 'Passthrough MQA' option under the cogwheel settings for your DAC in Tidal's desktop.
Increasing numbers of streamers and DACs allow direct access to Tidal, of course, but in many cases they seem only to retrieve a 24-bit/44.1kHz or 24/48 version of the file, not the fully unfolded highres. You may be better using the desktop Tidal program and outputing via USB to your system.
That, for now, is the easiest way to enjoy access to streaming high-res audio from the MQA Masters of Tidal — desktop app direct to DAC... once you’ve got all those options correctly sorted out...