Qobuz has been around for almost as long as Spotify, but was largely unknown until it launched outside of its home country of France in late 2013.
Even now, it’s not a service that you’ll find trying to appeal to millions of subscribers. Instead it focuses on attracting a somewhat more niche audience from the audiophile world.
As the first CD-quality streaming service to hit the UK, that made sense – but with the launch of Tidal, there’s plenty that needs working on if Qobuz is going to become a global streaming service to be reckoned with.
Of course, you’ll have to pay for the privilege, with the ‘Qobuz Hi-Fi’ FLAC-quality subscription costing £19.99 per month – double that of most other services. And if you want hi-res streaming up to 24-bit/192kHz via Android or iOS devices, you'll have to pay £220 up front for an annual subscription to the top-tier Sublime service, which also gives you discounts on hi-res music downloads.
The good news is that it does sound head and shoulders above its nearest rival when it comes to out-and-out sound quality – and it shapes up pretty well in other areas too. If hi-res audio is important to you, the Sublime download/streaming service - reviewed separately - is very good indeed.
Platform support is pretty extensive, with both phone and tablet apps developed for iOS and Android.
Qobuz is also available as an app on Windows 8 devices, and there’s web and desktop support, as well as playback through Sonos speakers. An English language Kindle app is in the pipeline too.
Currently holding around 28 million tracks, Qobuz’ catalogue is much better than it used to be. When we ran an availability test on Qobuz last year searching for some of our favourite albums it scored only six out of ten, missing releases from Beyoncé, The Libertines, Lupe Fiasco and Led Zeppelin. Since then the catalogue has been updated and all those artists now feature.
We find the search function to be rather temperamental, not finding tracks when searched for by name, which we later manage to uncover by searching by artist. Since it was taken over by new owner Xandrie at the beginning of this year, Qobuz has announced plans to improve the site's search algorithms, playlist and recommendation tools, and social and sharing functions.
More after the break
On the main Discover page, the majority of suggested playlists are in French, and there are more French albums suggested throughout the various genres than you would find on other services.
Speaking of music discovery, Qobuz loses marks here too, lacking popular features like artist radio, suggestions for similar artists or recommendations based on your listening habits.
You can browse by what’s new and what’s popular, in general or by genre, but even then the results are mixed. A search for new music brings up only two matches with Spotify’s top 10 new album releases, as Qobuz offers more jazz and classical picks than Spotify’s more contemporary options.
This focus on more traditional genres, not to mention its classical-only subscription tier, certainly gives a hint as the audience Qobuz is aimed at. If classical or jazz is your thing, then you’ll probably be prepared to overlook the interface for a catalogue that suits you.
Many will put up with the glitches mentioned for the sound quality Qobuz offers. It is good. Music sounds bigger and more spacious than elsewhere, with stacks more detail and subtlety across the board.
There’s texture to vocals that goes unheard on other services, and it does a better job of communicating the quieter moments in music and contrasting them with louder ones.
It’s an accomplished performance that immediately shows up lower bitrate services, uncovering details you probably didn’t even know you were missing – but could now struggle to go without.
It even pips Tidal’s CD-quality streams for fine detail and dynamics.
Qobuz is working to expand its niche catalogue, but there's still a distinct Francophile flavour to the music on offer with its Top Tens mostly including French artists.
Despite offering the best sound quality of any streaming service out there, we’d still take Tidal over Qobuz for CD-quality streams due to the former's broader choice of music.
Qobuz’s interface quirks and lack of some features are frustrating, but the company says it is working hard to fix them. The homepage is at least easy to navigate.
Classical music and jazz fans should definitely take a look, but Qobuz needs to up its game if it wants to compete with the likes of Tidal around the world. Given its new impetus under its new owners, there's a good chance the service will further improve in the coming months.
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