Audio: Listen to this article.
What's this? What's this?
There's color everywhere
What's this? There's white things in the air
What's this? I can't believe my eyes
I must be dreaming, wake up, Jack, this isn't fair
What's this? What's this?
There's something very wrong
What's this? There's people singing songs
What's this? The streets are lined with little creatures laughing
Everybody seems so happy
Have I possibly gone daffy? What is this?
In the spirit of Halloween, I think the lyrics to Danny Elfman’s What’s This? are fitting. What follows actually started as a Tweet, then I decided that I’d rather own the content, so I started a forum thread. Then I realized I had much more to say, so I turned it into an article.
I’m actually OK with the new Tidal labeling scheme, and would actually prefer the company takes it a step or two further.
At first blush the new Tidal labels of Max, FLAC, or High seem too opaque for audiophiles like ourselves. What’s this, we NEED to know what we’re playing! What’s this, we need to know the exact bit depth (16 or 24 bit) and sample rate (44.1, 96, 192, etc…). Don’t we? With one exception, we really don’t need this.
That exception is MQA. If an album is MQA encoded, we really do need to know that because MQA audio needs to be decoded properly, avoided, or written about endlessly online (only kidding about the last one, for you lovers and haters).
A funny side note about this topic is that an early goal of MQA Ltd. was to get rid of showing sample rates. In fact, many MQA capable DACs just display the three letter acronym rather than a sample rate. The company said sample rates didn’t matter and shouldn’t be such a focus. Who’d have thought, I’m close to agreeing with the MQA representative who told me that. But that’s neither here nor there for this discussion.
All the other stereo content on Tidal can say Max, without technical details and I’m totally cool with that. For example, the newly released Replacements’ album Tim (Let It Bleed Edition) says Max on the main album page and FLAC on the now playing screen to signify it isn’t MQA or CD quality. I wouldn’t even care if it only said Max on both screens because the file format matters not, to me. Max or MQA labeling would suffice because I can do something about that distinction. If it’s just Max, and the album is 16/44.1 or 24/192, I will treat it the same way, try to squeeze every ounce of fidelity out of it, and enjoy the music.
Note: One thing that got me on this kick is Atmos. On streaming services it’s labeled Dolby Atmos. No sample rate anywhere in sight. It’s actually a nice feeling to not even think about sample rate changes and to know everything in Atmos is the highest resolution available for the format, 24/48. (Studios can work with Atmos in 24/96, but that isn’t delivered to consumers).
If the music is pure PCM and the Tidal iOS app says Max or 24/192 or 16/44.1, I’m not going to do anything differently. Sure, my beloved AudioQuest DragonFly only goes up to 24/96, but it’s high time AQ updates the DF series now that macOS, iOS, Windows, and Linux all support UAC2 DACs natively (no need for drivers). If I play a 192 album to my DF Red, it’ll get downsampled for now and I’ll live to see another day.
What about albums with versions for each sample rate? Don’t get me started. I’m OK with doing away with all but a single sample rate for an album. Give me the best version and call it a day. Or, call it Max.
Have I gone soft or am I loosing my mind? Must I give up my audiophile credentials now? Nope. I’m just over getting caught up in things that don’t matter. Sample rates matter. Sample rate displays in Tidal don’t. Just tell me that I’m playing the maximum quality possible and it’s all good. If Oscar Wilde were alive today, I have a feeling he’d say he has the simplest taste in sample rates, just give him the best. I couldn’t agree more.
Perhaps if we as audiophiles focus on details other than the sample rates in which our music is delivered, as long as we’re getting the best version of course, our adjusted focus will help improve sound quality in other ways. Improved upsampling algorithms, room correction, or god forbid immersive audio.