Qobuz tends to do things differently to most of its rivals in the music streaming world.
Like Spotify, the French service has been around since 2007, but Qobuz only left its home borders in 2013, becoming the first CD-quality streaming service to hit the UK, before Tidal joined the ranks.
Tidal arrived at hi-res streaming first, but it didn’t take long for Qobuz to get in on the act – with an annual-only subscription of £350. The Sublime+ tier gave subscribers a 30 to 60 per cent discount on much of Qobuz’s expansive and competitively priced download catalogue, but we couldn't help but criticise the service's high price, and for sounding a little less sweet than its Tidal equivalent.
But that was then, and Qobuz appears to be undergoing a period of rationalisation that involves ditching its Spotify- and Apple Music-rivalling MP3 tier and offering only hi-res and CD-quality streaming. It's backing this up with a bigger hi-res catalogue than offered anywhere else.
It's a bold move, but it's not without compromises.
While the Premium (MP3) and HiFi (CD-quality) subscription options still appear (at the time of writing) on the Qobuz site, they won't be long for this world. Soon you will be able to choose only between the Studio and Sublime+ subscriptions.
Each of these gives you access to Qobuz's full catalogue of CD-quality and hi-res music, with Sublime+ attempting to justify its higher price and annual-only payment model with discounts on music purchased from the download store.
That makes Qobuz £25 / $25 per month at its most affordable, and £300 / $250 per year at its most expensive. There's no free tier, soon there won't be an MP3-tier, and the hi-res tier is significantly more expensive than that offered by Tidal and Amazon Music HD.
Qobuz's comparatively high price is partly justified by its exhaustive library of hi-res music. Recent figures put the total number of hi-res tracks at over 2m, while Tidal claims 'only' over 1m. Numbers rarely tell the whole story, but we regularly find hi-res albums on Qobuz that are available in only CD-quality on Tidal.
But on the flip-side, we often find albums on Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer that aren't available on Qobuz at all, which you could argue is a far bigger issue. While it's inconvenient to discover that the latest album or track by your favourite artist isn't available in hi-res on your chosen streaming service, it's downright annoying if it isn't available at all.
New music seems a particular issue, with Lane 8's Brightest Lights and The Band Royale's eponymous album both missing (at the time of writing) from Qobuz, but available from Tidal, Spotify and Deezer. But established music is missing, too: we put together a playlist of test tracks each month and Qobuz is always the service with the most gaps.
Qobuz is now available on lots of devices. There's a web player as well as desktop (Mac and PC) and mobile (iOS and Android) apps, plus support from (and integration into) a wide range of hi-fi products. Google Chromecast is a big deal here, as it means adding Qobuz to an existing 'dumb' hi-fi is as simple and affordable as adding a Chromecast dongle, and many hi-fi companies are now adding Chromecast support into their streaming components, thereby increasing Qobuz's availability.
Broadly speaking, most devices that support Tidal also support Qobuz and vice versa, and both services are available only in CD-quality via some streamers (Sonos, for example).
Whichever platform you choose, you’ll have access to a catalogue of over 40 million tracks. Qobuz has traditionally focused on classical and jazz genres, and French artists – even today the experience is not quite as mainstream as the one you get from Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music or Amazon Music HD.
However, there is a more agreeable balance now, with plenty of rock and pop added to more specialist genres – and that refreshing eclecticism stands Qobuz apart from its more mainstream rivals.
Naturally, the hi-res pool is comparatively small, but it is bigger than that offered elsewhere, with Qobuz's claim of more than 2m hi-res tracks comfortably trumping Tidal's claim of over 1m. It remains fairly diverse, too, and should appeal to anyone who isn’t exclusively into hip-hop or EDM.
The selection includes all of the usual hi-res suspects, from Fleetwood Mac to R.E.M, but also includes hi-res versions of albums that Tidal offers in only CD-quality – Tool's Fear Inoculum and Field Music's Making A New World, for example.
So, while the overall pool of music is smaller than most, the hi-res offering is bigger.
Ease of use
Hi-res albums are clearly flagged 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). 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 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 an aesthetic leap above its rivals that 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.
Disappointingly, while most services have now heavily moved to a discovery model that uses algorithms to recommend new music, Qobuz has barely dipped its toe in such personalisation. Despite rebranding its 'Home' tab as 'Discover', Qobuz simply isn't as good as its rivals at introducing you to new music – and that's without taking into consideration that it doesn't have as much new music in its library.
We stick to the familiar territory of our What Hi-Fi? playlists during our listening test and find Qobuz’s 320kbps streams (while still available) are in similar territory to those offered by rival services.
Its CD-quality streams, meanwhile, 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 the Sublime+ tier, we noted “a lack of unity to the sound, compared to the same recordings delivered by Tidal Masters”, and that remains the case.
We play the Qobuz (24-bit/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 that there are (comparatively) so many of them is to be strongly applauded.
For anyone willing to spend no more than £10 per month on 320kbps music streaming, there's never been a compelling reason to choose Qobuz over the likes of Spotify or Apple Music, so the loss of that subscription tier isn't a major blow. Qobuz has always been about 'hi-fi' streaming, and here it is the king of content, conquering its rivals with the comparative comprehensiveness of its catalogue.
But that doesn't tell the whole story. Tidal sounds better than Qobuz and both it and Amazon Music HD offer hi-res at more affordable rates. While Qobuz has more hi-res tracks, both its rivals boast bigger overall music libraries. As much as we are fans of high-quality sound, not having an album at all is worse than not having it in hi-res.
The core of music streaming's appeal is that it puts all music at your fingertips. By not quite doing that, Qobuz prevents itself from being your only music streaming source, and you will need Spotify or Apple Music to plug the gaps. That's a problem, particularly when you consider that Qobuz is more expensive than its rivals.
Pay for Tidal or pay for Qobuz and a second, more comprehensive streaming service on top? We know which we'd choose.
- Performance 4
- Features 3
- Ease of use 5
Read our Tidal review
Read our Deezer review