As of January 8, 2019, Qobuz, the French streaming/download service became available to United States-based audiophiles for late-stage beta testing, with a final release date forthcoming. The elevator pitch is if Tidal and HD Tracks had a baby, it would be Qobuz. Like Tidal, Qobuz offers tiered subscription streaming but adds the option to purchase downloads of anything you can stream.
Qobuz’s three tiers of price and audio quality go like this: for $9.99 a month you can stream 320kbps MP3-quality streams; for $19.95 a month you have access to “16-bit streaming”; for $299 per year ($24.91 by month) you get “full hi-res streaming” and substantial (40-60%) discount on downloads. These prices are roughly equivalent to other streaming services’ fees with one exception: that $19.95 monthly tier is only $4.91 per month less than the full-tilt hi-res Qobuz option which offers far more in resolution and download options. One can only conclude that Qobuz really wants to be a yearly rather than a monthly charge.
There are technical differences between Qobuz and Tidal. All of Qobuz’s hi-res streamed offerings are in FLAC format. Tidal utilizes MQA for its hi-res files. Audiophiles who prefer FLAC files due to their open-format that does not require a decoder in their DAC will be pleased by Qobuz’s FLAC format choice. And as of Jan, 22, 2019, Roon will also integrate Qobuz within its master libraries. Adding Qobuz was as easy as entering your username and password.
For those audiophiles concerned with how much compensation gets back to their music’s creators, published comparisons have Tidal delivering better per-stream rates than Apple, Google, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon, or YouTube. When asked about Qobuz payouts, a representative responded, “The main difference Qobuz makes in terms of royalty payment is that it offers—and promotes—its download option. Song downloads pay out a much higher percentage than song streams, so Qobuz helps to keep money in artists’ pockets.”
I’ve had a subscription to Qobuz since the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I also have a subscription to Tidal. Their respective apps are quite comparable in terms of their ergonomics and the sites themselves. Both require some “mine detection” (that is, clicking on stuff just to see what happens), and the Qobuz heart icon on top was a puzzler at first; it turns out that’s how you get to the music you’ve “favorited.” Speaking of favorites, one issue for anyone who already has a Tidal subscription: How do you export your favorite albums and tracks that you’ve found in Tidal over to Qobuz? This problem can be solved with Soundiiz which is a platform that transfers playlists and favorites from one music service to another for a small monthly fee.
Obviously Qobuz’s catalog offerings differ from those of other streaming services. According to its website, Qobuz has 40 million tracks and over 2 million hi-res files, but its offerings are not as deep into urban pop or and do not feature it as heavily as Tidal. Qobuz’s weekly email newsletters include new jazz, classical, folk, and international titles. As you might expect, Qobuz does not have exactly the same library as Tidal. When I ran Soundiiz to transfer my favorites, Qobuz only had about 85% of them. If I want to listen to the new remastered Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet, I can only find that on Qobuz, while The Beatles’ White Album is only available in hi-res via Tidal.
As to the thorny question of which service’s hi-res tracks sound better, once you level the playing field by using a DAC that is equally adept at handling FLAC or MQA files, the sonic differences, when I have heard them, have been a result of different masterings rather than one streaming service’s hi-res delivery being inherently superior to the other’s. How good is hi-res via Qobuz? Good enough that I could hear the print-through from the original tape via Qobuz’s 96/24 version of “Walking Blues” from Taj Mahal’s first album, which is something I’ve never heard from prior its masterings, be they digital or analog.
Giving audiophiles another hi-res streaming option can only be a good thing, and Qobuz certainly delivers hi-res streaming with elegance and continental verve. Bonjour, Qobuz. And good luck…