SO you have now subscribed to Tidal Hifi. The next step is to get it playing on your beloved audio set-up. We will deal solely with the home set-up rather than a headphone system (which is a separate ball game altogether), along with various source options to connect to your amplifier.
The diverse equipment options will be benchmarked and referenced with a physical CD player, specifically an old and trusty multi-bit Quad CD66.
The simplest way to get into streaming will be via the phone. This is done by connecting the phone’s 3.5mm audio jack using a 3.5mm-to-RCA cable into the line input of the amplifier. You will need a phone/tablet with a headphone jack or a USB/Lightning 3.5mm jack to which you will connect the 3.5mm audio cable to the amplifier. This option will use your phone’s internal DAC to convert the digital signals into electrical signals to your amplifier. The portability of a phone means that you can take your music selection to the car or listen on the go via headphones.
The downside to this is that most phones have terrible DAC chips in them. In a decent set-up, the failings will be very obvious. The sound will be tinny, muddled and lacking in weight. Not as apparent with headphones necessarily, but even in a modest home set-up, the inadequacies will be obvious.
A step up from the phone internal DAC would be to get a USB DAC dongle. This can cost from around RM100 to RM1,000-plus. A cheap RM100 China-made dongle DAC bought online will give an immediate overall improvement compared with the internal DAC.
If you want an all-in-one solution, then a specialist audiophile-targeted phone may be the answer, like the LG phones – G6, G7, G8. V10. V20, V30, V35, V40 or V50. All these models have a 3.5mm jack and carry LG’s Quad DAC which contains various incarnations of the ESS Sabre chip. Notable ones are the V30 to V50 models as these models had their DAC “tuned by Meridian” and will play Tidal Master MQA files natively. They can also play hi-res 24/96 files and like most Android phones, they have a micro SD card memory expansion which enables you to load up your own CD rips or hi-res FLAC files easily and cheaply. There are really cheap refurbished units in the normal shopping apps that cost less than RM500. These phones are proper standalone portable media servers!
With the LG or any Android phone (using an external USB-C dongle DAC), you could just use the Tidal app on the phone and play it that way. The problem with this simplest of set-ups is that you cannot control the Tidal app remotely and you will need another app to play your own files outside Tidal. As such, unless it is near-field listening or a really long RCA cable (which has other problems), you will need to get up and change the tracks and swap apps manually on the phone. Not ideal.
Countering this (which also improves sound quality from the standard Tidal app) would be to purchase an app called USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP). This app costs US$7.99 (one-off) on the app store and bypasses the Android software limitations in dealing with audio files. There is an obvious audible difference compared with the original Tidal app. UAPP also manages your own music files which are stored in the phone and makes the experience of searching through your own files and the Tidal library seamless. UAPP also has a UPnP function which will allow another app to remote control it if on the same Wi-Fi network. To do this, there is another app called MConnect HD on the play store (free with ads or RM25). This will allow the “player” phone to be controlled by another phone remotely.
Using an old LG V30 with UAPP controlled with MConnect HD, the results are surprisingly good. With the phone volume set at maximum, there is a clear and defined soundstage with enough detail and separation which does not embarrass, considering the modest outlay. Not earth-shattering low end but for the money, it is much better than you would expect.
However, when comparing with the Quad CD66 CD player, the limitations can be heard. The LG V30 sounds dynamically constricted and lacks the micro detail when pushed. The LG V30 is akin to a base budget CD player 10 years ago with the benefit of access to the vast music library in Tidal, and is much better suited to a small room set-up or close monitor listening where the volume will be lower. When used on a desktop environment running through a Quad 34/306 via a pair of Leema Acoustics Xero, the limitations are not obvious. It is a decent set-up with the ability to provide proper insight into the music and a nice channel separation without the harshness usually associated with digital sources.
Another option is to use a laptop or desktop as the source via the 3.5mm audio jack. However, like the phone, the computer’s built-in DAC is not optimised for outright sound quality. It can also be noisy, digitally and physically. The fan and the hard drive produce mechanical noise which is bad for the audio signal to the amplifier. A desktop with a separate sound card will be better but you may have to contend with noisy fans.
To go down this route, it’s best to have a fan-less laptop with a solid-state hard drive. Something like an Intel Core-M or Atom-based laptop is good. It is silent on its own. Playing music is not terribly taxing on the CPU if the laptop is used as a dedicated music streamer. The audio difference when comparing an i7 laptop (with fans) with a cheap old Microsoft Surface 3 (fan-less intel Atom CPU, 4GB RAM, 128GB drive and microSD expansion) is obvious. The i7 laptop can get physically noisy when the fan kicks in and the sound out of it is grainier with a brittle and harsh tinge to it. The Surface 3 produces a more refined sound with a blacker background.
For the PC as a source, you can use the Tidal app on its own but you will face similar limitations as using Tidal on the phone. So-so sound quality and the convenience of remote control. This is where a proper software to undertake this task is recommended.
There are two main ones in the market, Roon and Audirvana. Both are marketed as a media server and music player for audiophiles. Both have a trial period for you to play around with.
Roon is a subscription-based model software. It costs about US$10 per month billed yearly or US$700 for a lifetime version. Roon is a connecting, streaming and music management software which acts as the brain of your music collection. It also integrates your Tidal or Qobuz subscription into it. This is known as the Roon Core. So when you search through your music collection, if you don’t have a particular track in your collection, the Tidal track will play instead. Roon can also act as a multi-room server to enable music to be played at various endpoints (Roon endpoints) in different rooms. So when you see any equipment that has the Roon Compatible blurb, then your Roon Core can stream music to that end-point if you are on the same Wi-Fi network. Roon also does the first level unfold for MQA files. You control your Roon core through the Roon app installed on your phone or tablet. Roon transmits via Chromecast what is playing on a separate screen.
Another feather in Roon’s cap is the musical information built in. It’s a rabbit hole that will keep you occupied for hours listening to your favourite music and discovering more. Ever wondered how many versions and covers there are for your favourite song? Who the producer was and what else was produced? All this information can be followed via links which can take you to the deepest nooks of a song or an artiste. A brilliant way to understand, learn about and discover new music. This feature alone is worth the high price of admission/subscription.
For the purposes of this feature, I have used the Roon Core as an endpoint directly. The Surface 3 laptop is connected directly to the amplifier via the 3.5mm jack. The recommended way of doing it would be to set up the Core away from the system and access it via an endpoint, i.e. another dedicated streamer connected to the amplifier. This is due to the RF noise that may affect sound quality but since we are using a generally quiet Surface 3 laptop with no moving parts, noise would not be an issue.
Roon’s competitor would be Audirvana. This is a French company which markets its software directly to audiophiles with the tagline, “Hear The Difference”. At the date of writing, Audirvana is sold via a standalone licence at about US$100 a pop. The company announced that it may go via subscription model moving forward (to the disdain of many of its users) (* see note at the bottom).
Similar to Roon, Audirvana acts as a manager for your music collection with integration to either Tidal or Quboz subscription. However, it lacks the music information feature. It’s a simple music manager and an audio player without the fancy interface of Roon. It can play hi-res files and also do the first level of MQA file unfold.
Audirvana’s USP is its claim of higher fidelity This is achieved by making the audio playback a priority on the computer, and the DAC is fed with a ready-to-play audio data stream using the shortest possible path. When compared with Roon, surprisingly (since both are bit-perfect), there is a difference in sound. Roon leans towards the warmer side of things whereas Audirvana has a slightly more forward and detailed presentation. For example, Lianna De Havas on Say a Little Prayer (Live) sounds more “mic’d” up compared with the smoother presentation via Roon. It’s different rather than better. A question of taste.
As stated earlier, running a 3.5mm directly out of the PC is not optimal. The merely “sufficient” internal DAC and the limited output of the 3.5mm jack of the Surface 3 has its limitations. However, compared with the LG V30 above, there is an overall improvement especially in a larger listening room environment. The outright detail retrieval and bass definition may not be as good as the Quad CD66 but to be honest, it is perfectly acceptable. It also loses out on scale and pinpoint soundstaging but it is an acceptable compromise considering the huge library available with a single click.
However, the main benefit of the PC route is the USB port. This allows the PC to channel bit-perfect digital signals out via USB to a separate DAC. This opens a whole new world of fidelity with the choices of extremely good DACs in the market, elevating it to flexible future-proof high-end source at relatively little money.
In the next instalment, we will look at using the PC as a source with a separate DAC vs ready-made all-in-one box solutions. Stay tuned!
*As at the date of publication, Audirvana has changed to a subscription model via the new Audirvana Studio which now includes online radio and podcasts. Audirvana is US$69.99 per year or US$6.99 per month.
Shaikh S. cultivated a love for music at an early age but his lack of talent killed any ambition to be a rock god. The hi-fi journey started during his student years in the UK in the early 1990s when he stumbled across an old copy of What Hi-Fi magazine. From that day, his fate was sealed, with all extra bits of money going to music and hi-fi. The interest turned to an obsessive passion with a humble Aiwa XC300 CD player, Rotel 920AX amplifier and Mission 760i speakers. This continued when he returned to Malaysia to start his legal career. He also became a contributing reviewer for a magazine. Life then put pause to the passion. Now middle-aged with big kids, he can afford time to attend concerts, listen to music and continue dreaming of being a rock god.