Lumin & Tidal MAX explained

This month (October 2023) Lumin have delivered free firmware upgrades for all their players which allow a dramatic improvement in playback quality. We explain just what you’ll hear and the significance of this.

Tidal have recently expanded the formats in which they deliver music; up until recently most of the Tidal library was at ‘CD Quality’. But quite honestly, in 2023 why are we still listening to a format that’s 40 years old? Yes, there has been a lot of progress made over the decades but it’s been iterative and incremental. The promise of streaming has also been held back by bandwidth and cost constraints. 

The new Tidal MAX format is now available to all new and existing subscribers who opt for the HiFi Plus option. Go to the Tidal explainer page to get more information on this

As you’ll be well aware with digital music there’s a big difference between software (the stream of music coming in) and firmware (the control system of the physical electronics that play it). So right now every digital audio manufacturer will be scrambling to see if and how they can implement Tidal MAX.

The good news for all Lumin owners (no matter how old their player) is that Lumin have already made this work and the results are spectacular. 

We’ve been listening to 3 different Lumin players that have all had the new version 17 firmware upgrade in several different systems. Here’s what we have found;

We’ve been browsing Tidal looking for albums we know in the MAX format. Given that it’s just been made available you’ll understand that not every title will be included but it’s surprising what is. 

Tidal is our primary source for streaming, but where we had a choice, a downloaded version from Bandcamp stored on a network drive was our preference, these often being Apple Lossless and 24 bit. The difference between this, and Tidal  was worthwhile and we attributed this as being as much due to having the file resident on the network, as the difference between 16 and 24 bits.

But now using the upgraded Tidal (we can do this either entirely within the Lumin app or via Tidal Connect), the improvements are considerably more obvious.

Going from 44.1/16 to 44.1/24 gives a significant improvement in detail and smoothness. Most of the recent Nick Cave catalogue illustrates this nicely. The new ‘Live Carnage’ album literally comes alive and really captures the feel of a real performance. The vocals are making a lot more sense, carrying more emotion and many of the instrument touches that were previously buried suddenly become obvious. Some of the Cave/Ellis soundtrack albums are even better at 88.2/24 with broad orchestral sweeps. ‘Skeleton Tree’ becomes more layered and involving. At this point we’re up to the standard of a very well set up and more costly analogue system.

As a local contribution, the Avantdale Bowling Club’s new album ‘Trees’ which is already a beautiful piece of production (especially on vinyl) is considerably better at 24 bit resolution. Tom Scott has a lot to say and you get to understand a lot more of what he’s telling you with the improved quality.

This confirms the significance of moving from the CD standard of 16 bits to 24 bits.

It’s when you get newly recorded 96/24 material that it all comes together. Bass is dramatically improved and the projection of music out of the speakers and into the room is vastly better. Sound-staging goes from a spread across a plane to a full 3-dimensional field. Recordings that were dense and sludgy last month are suddenly a lot more listenable and involving. The Chelsea Wolfe/Converge collaboration being a case in point. 

Scandi folk/metal is a genre that does a lot with production and can have some wildly varied textures within the same album or even song The new Mykur album ‘Spine’ and earlier ‘Mareridt’ benefit greatly from the improved resolution and dynamics inherent in 96/24 transmission moving from delicate to downright scary in moments.

192/24 is the maximum available resolution from Tidal. Lorde’s first album ‘Pure Heroine’ is 192/24 and what a revelation. The bass become seismic and the production sounds better here than the newer (and considerably more costly productions), simply by virtue of the vastly improved resolution. Sonic Youth are a band we’ve followed for decades and it’s great to see around half of their albums turn up at this standard.

Obviously your taste in music will be different – the key point is that there is already a wide and varied library of Tidal Max music to choose from and this is only going to get better.

So – as you step up through the available levels, it’s immediately obvious. The differences we are hearing (especially if we do a back to back with the same album in ‘High’ level, which is effectively CD), are of a level that you only get with significant and often expensive component changes. But outside of the existing monthly cost for Tidal, these upgrades are free!

We’ve never before had the differences in digital so clearly laid out. In some cases with Tidal it’s possible to listen to differently formatted versions of the album ‘High’ MQA or MAX.

The better source signal is also making it much easier to differentiate between the levels in the Lumin range. Yet at the same time it’s made the little trade in D2 we have (Lumin’s entry level) sound vastly better than it did originally. Again – I’ll reiterate that this firmware upgrade from Lumin is free and works with all older models. No one else can make this claim and I suspect a few much more costly designs are going to come up short on this.

But you need to have a Lumin to make this magic happen. As of now, no one else that we know of has components that support Tidal Max, and there’s been a lot of work involved for Lumin to deliver this compatibility so quickly. This amply proves that Lumin are leaders in caring for their existing clients and ensuring future compatibility for all their components. And right now, given a Tidal MAX recording, there are no better sounding network players.

Because it’s the source that’s changed and you are getting more information through, there is no other type of upgrade that does what we are hearing; even vastly more costly speakers can’t produce a sound that isn’t there in the first place.

It’s easy to be a bit sceptical as to how much of an upgrade this is, but the scale of change is significant. A CD standard recording is 44.1 kHz and 16 bit – the data speed is 1.411 Mbps – that’s over 1 Million bits per second. Even just going from 16 to 24 bits takes you up to 2.117Mbps – a 67% improvement. A 96/24bit recording is blasting the data through at 4.608 Mbps – that’s around 4x more information coming through! You can hear the difference of an amplifier that’s 4x more powerful or speakers that are 4x bigger. This is the scale we are talking about. While you don’t want to conflate quality and quantity, there is no denying that there will be a significant quality improvement as well as quantitative improvements – bass and dynamics especially.

So where does this leave the MQA format? This was a big selling point for Tidal. The whole idea behind MQA was always to deliver better quality in a bandwidth efficient format. And it has been a credible way to address some of these issues, but the end effect is subtle by comparison. MQA has had both it’s adherents and detractors. But the whole bandwidth problem really has gone away in the last few years with great 5G coverage, fibre, far lower costs and unlimited data plans. So we no longer have the problem MQA set out to solve. That said, there is still value in MQA for many albums in the Tidal library that may not become available in MAX and we expect to see this maintained – so Lumin and many others will retain this format.

Looking at the bigger picture, where do we see streaming going from here? For us, Tidal MAX is an absolute game changer. We have already found a lot of our favourite new music is available at considerably better than CD quality and love what we are hearing – it’s like new albums, and the improvement is as great as any of the recent physical changes we have made to our system.

For the most ethical option we’ve long been Bandcamp fans – it’s the best platform in terms of return to the artist and encourages you to buy and download albums. Many already come in at 24 bits, the streaming app is great and sounds good via airplay, and and we’re not going to stop having our own little ‘Bandcamp Fridays’ where we listen to the recommended feeds. The ownership though, has recently changed (yes, another billionaire) and half the staff have ben laid off… 🙁

Spotify has always been a non-starter for us – it might be cheap but the quality is limited and it’s just been announced that Spotify will no longer distribute royalties to songs that do not meet a minimum number of annual streams starting in 2024.

Qobuz is an option but the selection isn’t quite what we’re after. It does offer FLAC and is supported by Lumin so if Tidal doesn’t quite do it for you with it’s US roots, the European alternative is still worth investigation, especially for classical enthusiasts.

Back to Lumin. Their family of network players offer exceptional value and performance and this has just got considerably better. They are continually proving to be leaders in client care, with numerous free firmware upgrades, improved functionality and performance for all their models, both past and present. Being first with Tidal MAX is the perfect example of this. There’s a Lumin model for everyone and we’ve even got some great trade-in options that are all loaded up with Version 17.0 and Tidal Max capability.😃

All the Lumin models will allow you to hear the full potential of Tidal MAX. And the better the model you can get to, the greater the improvement you’ll hear. And you don’t need a super expensive system to get into Lumin. The new entry level D3 player will run straight into the giant killing NuPrime STA-100 power amp and any affordable, quality speakers, which when playing Tidal MAX albums, will give you sound quality that simply was not available to anyone at twice the price, even a couple of years ago. This is the progress we have made.

So, if you are an existing Lumin owner, make sure you check out Tidal MAX – Lumin’s players update their firmware automatically so you should be ready to go, if not already be into it.

If you don’t own a Lumin, there’s never been a better time to upgrade to one. We have a good range here and hands on experience with all the models. Talk to us now.

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