Qobuz

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What is all the buzz about Qobuz?
In a nutshell: Think Tidal—but for the connoisseur.

Qobuz is a subscription based digital music provider/streaming service that is quickly gaining attention by offering lossless streaming of high-resolution (Hi-Res) 24 bit FLAC audiophile quality music files up to 24/192 PCM in addition to CD 16/44.1 resolution (and MP3). Yes: flawless lossless streaming of even native 24/192 FLAC files. Crucially, their files are curated carefully and thoughtfully from the best original sources they can get their hands on. And they have over two million 24 bit Hi-Res files; already twice as many as Tidal’s MQA collection (more about MQA below). A Qobuz mantra is, ‘Qobuz: quality sound, always’. And they mean it. As such, Qobuz maintains a large and diverse selection of music in many genres; even their classical selection is given close attention.

Many of the albums include the names of musicians, the producers, and the lyrics, and they publish weekly interactive online articles. Qobuz also allows you to import native Hi-Res music FLAC files onto a desktop computer for offline listening (they are unique in allowing/enabling that) and to purchase Hi-Res downloads. For example, at an audio show (where the internet might be too slow or unpredictable), a company can download onto a desktop a library of native Hi-Res Qobuz files to use instead of streaming them over the internet. As an exhibitor, I’d think that was cool. You can also download a Hi-Res library on your iPhone/iPad and play music while traveling (one just has to login on a web browser and download).

A French company founded in 2007, Qobuz has been first in many things involving streaming. However, it has only been available in a few countries compared to the giant Tidal that operates in over fifty. Qobuz now has a USA headquarters based in New York City, and expects to offer its services very soon: According to Qobuz Chief Hi-Res Music Evangelist David Solomon the launch date is February 14, 2019– Valentine’s Day!

Some beta testing in the USA began in Fall of 2018. I had the pleasure of hearing some of their files at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2018 and the 2018 New York Audio Show. Suffice it to say, I was very impressed at what I heard. Adding more buzz: Just the other day some pleasant and important news was announced: Qobuz was incorporated into the Roon Labs player software (just as Tidal has been for some time). Roon Labs has evolved into the preferred music player software for many audiophiles.

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When the collaboration was announced, I was immediately ready and excited to dive into Qobuz. I am very grateful to Hannah Schwartz (Shore Fire Media Publicist for Qobuz) and Eric Benoit (Qobuz US Marketing & Operations Manager) for quickly getting me up and running with Qobuz for this review.

Are we closing in on digital heaven?

How I used Qobuz in this review

I used Roon, with its Core (new version 1.6 at this writing) on my music server (Mojo Audio Deja Vu Music Server) connected to my DAC (PS Audio DirectStream with Bridge II ethernet card, and recent Snowmass OS upgrade). The music server is connected to the internet with an ethernet cable into my router as is my DAC. So in effect the music player and DAC are connected via ethernet cabling and connected to the internet.

With a subscription to Qobuz, one can login to Qobuz on the Roon Remote App from (say) an iPad/iPhone. Then, all the Qobuz music in your subscription is at your fingertips to play on your music server—along with extraordinary Roon metadata support. All your other libraries (internal on the hard drive of your server and Tidal) are there, too. You can click on any one of them to browse; they are listed on the front page of the Roon Remote app. So, I did that. Qobuz album covers have a small circular Qobuz logo on their left top corner just as Tidal has its small logo there for its albums. (Your own internal albums have no logo.) This way I could play all three possibilities (internal, Qobuz, Tidal) via the Roon Remote App on my iPad, and when checking the signal path on Roon, it mentions which of the three the source file is from. When I spoke to Solomon on the phone about my setup, he expressed his enthusiasm and excitement of Roon’s inclusion of Qobuz as a major event by saying, ‘It offers the one thing that completes Qobuz, your own library and Tidal’.

Roon’s Radio Mode includes the Qobuz library and, of course, your own library (and Tidal’s if you also have a subscription). When Radio Mode is turned on, Roon continues to reach out on its own accord (an example of ‘machine learning’) to consecutively choose and play other tracks of music for you from among all libraries it has access to. One major way I took advantage of Radio Mode (in addition to personal selection and comparisons not using Radio Mode) was to have only the Qobuz library turned on for it; that way I was able to listen to an enormous sampling of Qobuz music—by just keeping Radio Mode on for hours at a time. If I wanted to change genre or another attribute, I could simply intervene and insert a chosen track to cause the music to drift in a new direction. As a reviewer, this was golden.

Note:  Just as with Tidal, my own preference for using Qobuz is Roon and that is how I used it in this review. You need not use Roon to use Qobuz. There are many other options such as downloading the Qobuz software on a computer and/or using iOS/Android apps such as mconnect. In short, if you have been using Tidal, then you will have no problem quickly setting up Qobuz in similar ways and with similar devices that you are already comfortable with and are convenient for you. Qobuz is compatible with Mac/iOS/Android/Windows/(Linux very soon) operating systems and support for Sonos.

The Qobuz subscription model

Qobuz US will offer four (4) subscription plans (lowest to highest in price) and except for the last they can be tried for free for 1 month:

  1. Premium:
    $9.99/ month or $99.99/ year

    MP3 QUALITY STREAMING

  2. HI-FI:

    $19.99/ month or $199.99/ year CD QUALITY STREAMING FLAC 16-Bit / 44.1 KHz

  3. Studio:

    $24.99 /month or $249.99 / year HI-RES QUALITY STREAMING FLAC 24-Bit up to 192 KHz

  4. Sublime+:

    $299.99 /year
    Hi-Res quality streaming
    +
    Purchasing advantages
    Hi-Res downloads at reduced prices

(For (1), I think they should change the name Premium to Basic.)

The HI-FI plan should be of particular interest to Sonos users since Sonos supports CD quality, 16/44.1–not just MP3 as many users think (but it does not support 24 bit).

I would think that the Studio Plan is probably going to be the most popular overall.

Why the Name Qobuz?

According to the website, Qobuz ‘borrows the namesake from the ancient, symbolic and sacred “Kobyz” instrument which originates in the heart of Central Asia, and primarily Kazakhstan. Linked to the shamanic ritual, and therefore endowed with supernatural and magical powers so as to ward off evil spirits and disease, the Qobuz is a two-stringed viola made from horsehair and played with a bow.’

Why no MQA files?

The simple answer is that there is no need for MQA files with Qobuz. And the simple reasoning is as follows: Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) was developed primarily so that a high-resolution (hence large) PCM file such as 24/96, 24/192 could be streamed over the ethernet by first ‘folding’ the file into a much smaller file (24/48), and then ‘unfolding’ it upon arrival to your system back to its original high resolution before playing. Clever indeed. However, the speeds and bandwidth available on the internet have increased to such an extent that this is quickly becoming a moot point—and Qobuz has proven it. As I write, I am listening to a native FLAC 24/192 version of the Nora Jones album, Come Away With Me streaming from Qobuz. I also have it on my hard drive where it has been as a reference for years. I struggle to notice any difference in sound quality. Ditto for Miles Davis Kind of Blue at 24/96. Pretty damn impressive.

There are other controversial reasons for leaving MQA out: (1) The MQA process is not lossless, (2) MQA is claimed by its promoters to sound better than non-MQA (even at CD resolution), and (3) the MQA process is a protected proprietary technology (e.g., it is not open source) requiring even proprietary hardware/software to be installed in a DAC for its optimal playing capability, hence causing various well-regarded high-end audio manufacturers to give it the finger.

Tidal allows MQA, and since it does not offer native streaming above CD resolution (16/44.1 PCM) it’s their solution for high-resolution streaming. I use Tidal and I really do like it. And I do listen to MQA files that sound fantastic on Tidal. But, I do think that ultimately MQA may not be needed anymore if you have sufficient bandwidth for your ethernet and outstanding original source high-resolution files—the raison d’etre for Qobuz.

Sound Quality?

I’ve already commented (above in the MQA section) how native 24/192 Flac files streamed on Qobuz sound versus playing reference files of them direct from my own library—I could not tell the difference. Here, I will give a handful of examples of using Roon Radio Mode to control the streaming choices of Qobuz files in general.

As one example, I wanted to switch to some classical music, so I chose a piano piece played by Lucas Debarge. About 20 minutes later I was rewarded with a magnificent 24/96 recording of Martha Argerich playing two Brahms piano Rhapsodies,  No. 1 in B minor and No. 2 in G minor. It reminded me of a funny story from perhaps 20 years ago: I had bought three tickets to hear Martha Argerich perform in a small ensemble at Carnegie Hall. My father and his wife joined. The tickets I had been able to purchase were not good (way out yonder in the back of the hall), so when I arrived and went to the main ticket office I asked if I could upgrade due to any cancellations. The man said, ‘I have good news and bad news, which do you want first?’. I said, ‘What is the good news?’, at which he replied, ‘I can give you very fine seats in the 3rd row’. I went for it, amazing seats. My Dad was beaming at the news. ‘So, what is the bad news, then?’, I asked. ‘Well, Argerich cancelled, another pianist we found at the last moment will replace her’.

As another example, I chose the track Wildwood Flower from the album Ghost Town by Bill FrisellMinutes later Roon Radio played a 24/88.1 track from the album Lebroba by Andrew Cyrill, with Cyrill on drums, Bill Frisell on guitar and Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet. Exceptional recording. Shortly after that it chose a piece from the ECM album Absence with Kristjan Randalu on piano, Ben Monder on guitar, and Markku Ounaskari on drums. What a fine album; impressionistic with such a rare combination of three musicians meant to play together.

Roon allows you to look for all other versions of an album you are considering from all your libraries, and I did come across many that were at native 24/96 FLAC on Qobuz, but at only 16/44.1 (with no MQA version) on Tidal, confirming the Qobuz claim that they do have a larger Hi-Res collection than Tidal.

Summary

Hi-Res digital audio streaming is here to stay. Qobuz adds a very compelling platform to established Tidal proving this. Its purpose is not to replace Tidal, simply a different way of enjoying the wonderful world of digital streaming. Try Qobuz out for yourself. Very highly recommended.

Further information: Qobuz