When it comes to comparisons between music streaming services, Qobuz might argue that it’s not all about the numbers.
It doesn’t have the most subscribers, nor does it have the biggest catalogue or the most affordable subscriptions. But on the other hand, it can claim to be the most advanced.
Like Spotify, the French service has been around since 2007, but only left its home borders in 2013, becoming the first CD-quality streaming service to hit the UK before Tidal joined the ranks. Tidal might have arrived at hi-res streaming first, but it didn’t take long for Qobuz to reach an equal footing.
The launch of its Sublime+ tier last summer saw 70,000 24bit albums (from 44.1kHz to 192kHz) available to stream (alongside its catalogue of 40 million CD-quality FLACs) to anyone willing to cough up the not-insubstantial sum of £350 for a year’s subscription.
That also comes with 30 to 60 per cent off a large part of Qobuz’s expansive and competitively priced download catalogue, with downloads then available to stream in hi-res.
Our previous review earned the tier four stars, as we praised its extensive catalogue (greater than Tidal’s 30,000-strong hi-res library).
However, we also had criticisms about the size of the financial commitment required (particularly as Tidal offers hi-res under its £20 per month package) and the fact its streams don’t sound quite as good.
Below Sublime+ there's another combined streaming and download tier: Sublime, which offers unlimited CD-quality streaming with the same download discount initiative for £220 a year. This tier received a glowing five-star review.
Like its rival services Tidal, Deezer, Spotify and Apple Music, Qobuz has a £10 per month ‘Premium’ tier for 320kbps MP3 streaming - but there’s no free, ad-supported tier below that.
Qobuz’s download store sits next to its streaming one on Qobuz.com, which is where you can access Qobuz’s web player or download its PC or Mac desktop apps. There are also iOS and Android mobile apps, plus support from (and integration into) a wide range of hi-fi products.
Hi-res streams for Sublime+ members are available on both web, desktop and mobile platforms, as well as several networked products with Google Chromecast or DTS Play:Fi built in, from the likes of Yamaha, Sony, Bluesound, NAD, Linn, Devialet, Samsung and Mark Levinson.
Some manufacturers with Qobuz integration only support up to CD-quality streams - such as Sonos - but a full list of device compatibility can be found here.
Whichever platform you choose, you’ll have access to an expansive catalogue of some 40 million tracks.
Qobuz has traditionally focused more on classical and jazz genres, and French artists – and even today the experience is still not quite the pop-heavy one you get from Spotify, Tidal or Apple Music.
There’s a more agreeable balance now, though, with pop and rock living in harmony next to other genres – and that refreshing eclecticism stands Qobuz apart from its more mainstream rivals.
From the new Simple Minds and Justin Timberlake albums through to old fare from French saxophonist Sophie Alour and soul-blues band The James Hunter Six, to back catalogues of hi-fi mainstays David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Norah Jones, the Qobuz catalogue caters for pretty much every taste.
Naturally the hi-res pool is comparatively small - but the diversity is still there, and should appeal to anyone who isn’t exclusively into hip-hop or EDM.
At the time of writing, around a third of the 135 newly-released albums were available in hi-res, ranging from Nils Frahm’s All Melody (24bit/96kHz) and Don Broco’s Technology (24bit/96kHz) to Turin Brakes’ Invisible Storm (24bit/44.1kHz) and Glen Hansard’s Between Two Shores (24bit/44.1kHz).
Older releases make up the bulk of its hi-res offering, with the focus on classic artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Aretha Franklin, R.E.M and Tom Waits - but it also includes the rather more modern likes of Biffy Clyro, Perfume Genius and Ryan Adams.
Ease of use
Hi-res albums are flagged up with the familiar ‘Hi-Res Audio’ logo, both in the library interface and playback bar (which you can click on to change the stream quality).
However, we find some albums featuring the logo – such as Hookworms’ Microshift and The Soft Moons’ Criminal – can only be played back in 16bit/44.1kHz, which is somewhat misleading.
Searching for ‘hi-res’ brings up a list of (mostly) hi-res albums - although, as with Tidal, we’d prefer a dedicated section.
Another option would be to have special hi-res playlists, as Tidal does – especially as Qobuz’s curation team already creates lots of useful playlists, including those based on genre, mood and current affairs, and those by music artists (‘listening with’) and music labels (‘label stories’).
We do like that bitrate and frequency are displayed in the playback bar, though – it's something we wish other streaming services would include.
The interface is a joy to navigate across the PC and mobile platforms, and nails the balance between space and content density.
Rather than having the left-hand side menu widely adopted by its rivals, Qobuz uses a top-bar menu, beneath which is a banner of featured content and several sections such as ‘new releases’ and ‘Qobuz playlists’.
‘Panoramas’ (features on particular artists and genres) and ‘The Taste of Qobuz’ (including Qobuzisimme: music that has received an award from Qobuz’s magazine team) also feature on the home page. Other headers are gateways to your playlists and favourite music, as well as purchased music and offline content.
French artists are given more prominence than on other services, but overall Qobuz is far less Francophile than it used to be. In the ‘top 20’ Qobuz albums, for example, a handful of French artists sit beside the Nils Frahms, Fleetwood Macs and First Aid Kits of the global music world.
Our only general criticism is its omission of top tracks on artist pages. Instead, a bio is immediately followed by a list of tracks by album – which doesn’t help us decide where to start when approaching an artist we aren’t familiar with.
We stick to the familiar territory of our What Hi-Fi? playlists during our listening test and find Qobuz’s 320kbps streams are in similar territory to those offered by rival services.
Its CD-quality streams are greater sticklers for detail than Tidal’s, although such discrepancies are hardly discernible when we listen through budget headphones plugged straight into a laptop.
But when it comes to hi-res streams, Qobuz is distinctly second best. In our previous review of Sublime+, we noted “a lack of unity to the sound when compared to the same recordings delivered by Tidal Masters”, and eight months later that hasn’t changed.
We play the Qobuz (24bit/96kHz) and Tidal Master (sampling and bitrate unknown) streams of Don Broco’s Technology, and the latter is more convincing, communicating the rhythmic structure of the opening drum pattern better.
The thumping presence beneath the jangly synths plays a bigger part in driving the instrumental forward, and there’s a harder kick to the electric guitar melody to carry it through the vocal.
With Gregory Porter’s reading of L-O-V-E, the Tidal stream shows a greater handling of the track’s intended timing and dynamic flurries, organising it into more distinct layers without compromising its delivery as a cohesive whole.
But while Qobuz’s hi-res streams may not be the most timely or driven, they still offer a marked step up from the CD-quality tracks. And the fact they allow such sonic quality to be streamed on a mobile device can only be celebrated.
For anyone willing to spend no more than £10 per month on 320kbps music streaming, there probably won’t be many meaningful reasons to choose Qobuz over Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal. Qobuz’s real selling point lies in its upper downloads-included CD-quality or hi-res streaming tiers - and at that level, its nearest rival is Tidal.
However, Tidal is more affordable, has more flexible payment options and boasts better-sounding hi-res streams. Its interface may also sway those whose tastes are slanted towards pop, hip-hop and R&B.
But with Tidal having far fewer hi-res streams available than Qobuz, not to mention the fact they aren’t available on the mobile apps, then Qobuz will no doubt appeal to anyone into CD-quality or hi-res streaming, perhaps with portable or smartphone-based hi-fi set-ups, who are also interested in downloading hi-res tracks.
Apart from that rather niche group, however, most people’s preferences might well lie with another service.
See our all Qobuz reviews