Qobuz tends to do things differently to most of its rivals in the music streaming world.
The French service has been around since 2007 – that’s the same amount of time as Spotify – but only left its home borders in 2013, becoming the first CD-quality streaming service to hit the UK, before Tidal joined the ranks a couple of years later.
It was also the first to offer hi-res streams, via its Sublime service, before refining its offering with Sublime+, 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.
The main sticking point for us at the beginning, despite it also sounding a little less sweet that its Tidal equivalent, was the service’s high price. But things such as that are quite fluid when it comes to subscription-based streaming, and Qobuz’s most-recent discount has seen it rise quite significantly in value.
With MP3 streaming dropped entirely – a loyalty to high-quality files that is nothing but admirable – there are now two packages from which users can choose: the Studio Premier plan (£14.99/$14.99 per month or £149.99/$149.99 per year) for streaming of Qobuz’s 50 million-track library; and Sublime+, offering the same discounted purchases but now costing £249.99/$249.99 for the year.
It is worth noting that Qobuz has outlined this discounted access to the web’s biggest streamable hi-res catalogue as temporary – the Studio Premier price is available to 100,000 subscribers who join by 31 May 2020 – but we predict this early tempter will be carried on if it achieves any considerable success.
It's a bold move, but it isn’t without compromises.
Qobuz's comparatively high price has always been partly justified by its exhaustive library of hi-res music (FLAC 24-bit up to 192kHz). 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.
On the flip side, however, we often find albums on Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer that aren't available on Qobuz at all – which we would 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. In fact, the last time all 20 of our picks were available was in January 2019 – 15 playlists ago – with numbers ranging from a high of 19 last October to only 13 five months earlier. Our collective taste, though far-reaching, is by no means the rule, but it paints a picture.
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).
Naturally, the hi-res pool is comparatively small, but it is bigger than that offered elsewhere. That offering is 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 and labels.
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, regardless of this or any future drop in price.
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