Review: Qobuz High-Resolution Music Streaming Service

Qobuz desktop app screenshot

For busy executives, big kahunas, and shot-callers who don’t have time to read reviews, this one’s gonna be 4.5/5 stars, so just go ahead and sign up for a free trial of the Qobuz Studio Premier High-Resolution Audio streaming plan right now. Not Tidal or Amazon Music HD, their only High-Resolution Audio streaming competitors in the USA. Qobuz. Sign up. Do it now.

For those of you who have a few minutes and want to know why, read on…

Qobuz (pronounced CO-buzz) is arguably the first full-featured music streaming service for audiophiles (certainly the only fully lossless audio service), debuting in 2007 in Europe (2019 in the USA). Qobuz sports 50 million tracks of lossless CD-quality music, and also boasts the world’s largest High-Resolution Audio library with more than 215,000 albums.

One would think that Qobuz streaming music competitors would be Apple Music, Spotify, Napster, Pandora Premium, and Google Play/YouTube Music. Not so; these services stream at lower-resolution MP3/AAC quality, maxing out at 320 kilobits per second (kbps).

CD-quality streaming, which Qobuz does at minimum, doles out more than four times that much musical information, at 1411 kbps. Qobuz High-Resolution Audio files stream at up to 29 times the data of an MP3. (If you’re wondering, what is High-Resolution Audio and why would I want to pay more for streaming it, please read my article here.)

Qobuz has only two High-Resolution Audio competitors in the USA. (However, those two also deliver low-res “lossy” MP3s, whereas Qobuz is lossless CD-quality at minimum.) One competitor, Amazon Music HD, a true 800-pound gorilla, debuted in September 2019. When Amazon Music HD nails High-Resolution Audio, the sound is good — but they frustratingly mix in MP3s at will when they don’t have access to a lossless track.

The third Hi-Res service currently in the game is Tidal, which debuted in 2014. Tidal indeed offers “thousands” (their stated number) of High-Resolution Audio albums. However, those tracks are encoded with a proprietary technology called MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) which reduces the larger High-Resolution Audio file sizes for more efficient streaming. I won’t comment on the endless MQA sound quality debate or the level of vitriol leveled at MQA by audiophiles (one forum thread slamming the technology has a staggering 18,914 posts). Personally, Tidal isn’t for me, as MQA requires additional decoding equipment for each device to play back the highest-resolution MQA-encoded tracks — whereas Qobuz plays all resolutions with no Qobuz-specific software or hardware purchases required.

Qobuz sound quality is unassailable — to my trained ears, it’s the most consistently spectacular of all services. In addition to having the largest library of High-Resolution Audio tracks, Qobuz is dedicated to ensuring that audiophiles get the most from those tracks. For computer audio, Qobuz provides the option to properly isolate the soundcard from the computer’s other apps and the pedestrian-sounding Windows Audio Mixer. The result is that the Qobuz desktop app plays directly through the soundcard to your audio system, and the sound quality difference is astonishing. For audiophiles who want to squeeze the last bit from every, uh, bit, Qobuz also supports ultra-high-end software players such as Audirvana, which employ special sauce to isolate music even further from the PC’s electronics.

Living room audiophiles are also front and center, as Qobuz plays through Sonos streamers (up to CD-quality), Google Cast (up to 24-bit/96Khz), and High-Resolution Audio streaming devices by HEOS, BluOS, and Yamaha MusicCast, among many others. Portable music lovers aren’t left behind, with support for AirPlay and Bluetooth.

There are audiophiles, and then there are music lovers. You can be both, but there is a difference. Audiophiles seek fidelity, the truest representation of a performance. Music lovers are fans — of artists, songs, instruments, albums, concerts, even radio stations.

Qobuz curators are as equally focused on music lovers as they are on audiophiles. In the app, the Discover page is a living museum, a magical place to pass the time. There you will find new releases, human-curated playlists, and a Qobuz exclusive: “Panoramas,” mini-documentaries on select artists, genres, and watershed musical events. (Current Panoramas as of this article include “The New British Jazz Scene in 10 Albums,” “The World According to Peter Gabriel,” “Old Blues and New Technology,” “the Prince of the 80s,” and dozens more. You can sort New Releases, Qobuz Playlists, and Panoramas by genre to descend a rabbit hole of your favorites.

You can create, name, sort, share, and collaborate on personal playlists, and “heart” favorite artists, albums, and tracks to create a personal library. On the iOS and Android apps, you can download as many tracks as device storage will allow, in any resolution, to play offline and eliminate mobile data use.

While perusing or playing an album or song, you can deep-dive into the artist bio, the composer, the label, and all the major players involved in the performance. Many albums feature digital download booklets with artwork and liner notes that mimic the vinyl record album experience.

Unique to Qobuz, you can purchase and download High-Resolution Audio tracks to own forever. If you upgrade to the Sublime+ service, those purchases are 30% to 60% off.

The apps themselves are clean and stylish. The Android and iOS apps feature both light and dark modes, making them ideal as living room controllers. The PC/Mac desktop apps are bright, with ample white space, extraordinarily pleasing to the eye as compared with the gloomy Tidal and Spotify apps. The desktop app does a great job binding your keyboard media keys so that Play, Pause, Skip, etc. work whether or not the app is in focus.

Crucially, unlike any other service, you can play High-Resolution Audio from any Qobuz app — Mac/PC desktop, browser, iOS (with a DAC), and Android (some recent models).

The paint is barely dry on Qobuz’s US debut. So, are there any gaps in the offering? Any feature wishlist? Absolutely. Qobuz soft-launched with a short beta period beginning late 2018. Early in the beta, Qobuz’s French origins poked through everywhere — the Discover page was thick with obscure (to US audiences) European artists, recommendations, and stories. And there were gaping holes in the catalog.

Throughout 2019, Qobuz did a fantastic job Americanizing the service, and the work continues at a feverish pace after the official launch. Now, the Discover page feels every bit as homegrown as any other American service.

However, comparing Qobuz with my previous service (Google Play/YouTube Music), I see that Qobuz still has a bit of work to do filling out its catalog — especially in reggae. To their credit, the gap is reduced daily as Qobuz inks the necessary US licensing deals with the thousands of independent record companies that round out the Big Three already there and everywhere else (Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group).

The wishlist also includes algorithm-generated genre “radio stations” similar to those made famous by Pandora (I read at audioxpress.com that it’s on the Qobuz roadmap). It would open the service to vastly more discovery if we could tell the app to play songs related to, for example, Fat Freddy’s Drop or Leon Bridges, or to play an endless assortment from a specific genre or subgenre.

I also miss the ability to, when searching, segment albums I already saved as Favorites. I’ve saved only two Jimi Hendrix albums to my Favorites. But if I search “Jimi Hendrix” wanting to get to those two, I have to wade through the same dozens of releases every time.

I hear a family plan (multiple simultaneous users) is in the works, but it doesn’t exist as of this article. Users are only allowed to play Qobuz on one device at a time. And finally, full Apple CarPlay integration isn’t here, but it’s on the way.

Knowing what Qobuz offers and what it’s missing, only you can tell if it’s the service for you. If you’re an audiophile, there is no substitute. If you’re a music lover, Qobuz Discovery is a tour through the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame of past and future. Your decision gets murkier if you’re a family looking to play on multiple devices, or you’d like a Pandora or Google Play Music-style station to surprise you with today’s entertainment. For me, a music geek from way back and an unrepentant audiophile, it’s a no-brainer. Qobuz is a little slice of heaven.