Qobuz, the French streaming-and-download service, has a new top tier called Sublime+. And it’s safe to say the company is bullish about it, calling it “the best music subscription in the world”.
Although we’ve expressed reservations about its interface, about the depth and breadth of its catalogue, and about its price, we’ve been fundamentally positive about Qobuz since it became an international brand in 2013. And this despite its well-documented tribulations.
Our positivity peaked towards the end of 2016, when we reviewed Sublime, Qobuz’s hybrid streaming-and-download tier. Combining CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) streaming with hefty discounts on hi-res (24-bit/44.1kHz – 24-bit/192kHz) downloads (which could be streamed natively once downloaded), it made off with the full five stars.
Since then, rival Tidal has upped the hi-res streaming ante with its Masters tier, which utilises MQA technology to stream an extensive catalogue in better-than-CD quality.
Apparently, Qobuz doesn’t consider Tidal a rival, even though on the face of it, they are in more-or-less direct competition.
Each would like to relieve you of a substantial sum of money to bring high-quality audio streaming to your desktop or mobile device. It seems, to us at least, Tidal isn’t a rival to Qobuz in the same way BMW isn’t a rival to Mercedes-Benz.
Ease of use
Now Qobuz is back on the offensive with Sublime+. It’s the Sublime service we’ve enthused about, now with hi-res streaming smarts – 24-bit/192kHz audio files don’t need buying and downloading before you can stream them in all their big-numbers glory.
Qobuz isn’t particularly forthcoming about how it’s managed to shoehorn 24-bit/192kHz audio files into packages small enough to be reliably streamed.
Certainly MQA has been on a far bigger mission to educate and enlighten. All we’re told is that Qobuz can squeeze all that info into a FLAC-format file and stream it without compromising sound.
The Qobuz catalogue of hi-res audio tracks (for Qobuz’s purposes, ‘hi-res’ means 24-bit/anything from 44.1kHz to 192kHz) is now 70,000-strong. And 90 per cent of these are available for Sublime+ customers to stream, with the promise of more to come imminently.
And while there’s no shortage of the eclecticism we have come to expect from Qobuz (jazz and classical are as strongly represented as ‘pop’ music, and there’s a worthwhile spoken-word section too), the high-profile attention-grabbing acts are coming on stream nicely.
From the new Gorillaz album Humanz (24-bit/96kHz) through hi-fi staple Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me (24bit/192kHz) to David Bowie’s swansong Blackstar (24bit/96kHz), the Qobuz catalogue caters for everyone who isn’t a hip-hop or EDM obsessive.
(Even then there’s a bit of A Tribe Called Quest (We Got It From Here… Thank You For Your Service, 24-bit/88.2kHz) and Aphex Twin (Syro, 24-bit/44.1kHz) about the place.)
Starting well within our comfort zone, we cue up The Velvet Underground’s What Goes On (24-bit/192kHz) and Grace Jones’ Pull Up To The Bumper (24-bit/96kHz) using the desktop app on a MacBook Air, a Chord Hugo DAC and Bowers & Wilkins P9 headphones.
What’s immediately impressive about the sound (aside from its stability, which is only really affected when the computer is multi-tasking in the background) is the remarkable level of detail Qobuz describes.
The lascivious Grace Jones tune is a multi-layered affair, but Qobuz gives the bass guitar, rattling percussion and idiosyncratic vocal ample subtlety and nuance. It’s an entirely convincing presentation in that respect.
The Velvet Underground song is a much more rudimentary recording, and Qobuz makes that plain.
There’s tape hiss. Lou Reed’s endearingly approximate vocals sound immediate and heart-felt, while the relentless repetition that was the band’s stock-in-trade has its tiniest variation – in rhythm guitar strum, in organ chord-change – made obvious.
The song is presented on an explicit soundstage, wide open for examination at your leisure.
Switch to something a little more challenging (Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, Gustavo Dudamel and Wiener Philharmoniker, 24-bit/96kHz) and the story remains the same. Instruments attack and decay convincingly, loaded with detail and locked securely on a stage that gets no less easy to understand even as it becomes filled with competing players.
In this respect Qobuz is more than a match for any of its rivals (even non-rivals). But that’s not the full Sublime+ story.
For all its poise and insight, there isn’t the sort of drive or dynamism to the Qobuz sound that we’d like. What Goes On is a spindly, trebly recording, so we’re not expecting seismic low-end presence, but Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (24-bit/44.1kHz) most certainly is not.
Yet Sublime+ neuters the album’s bass presence somewhat, rendering what should be an implacably hard-hitting recording a little tentative. Kendrick Lamar may be many things, but ‘tentative’ isn’t usually one of them.
The same recording also exposes the other chink in the Sublime+ armour. Timing is not all it might be, and that’s as obvious when listening to Kendrick Lamar as it is Modest Mussorgsky.
For all the detail in a Qobuz stream, and for all of the space and openness in its presentation, instruments and frequency areas do not knit together seamlessly.
From the lower midrange down, there’s a definite lack of unity to the sound when compared to the same recordings delivered by Tidal Masters. The founding principle of MQA is that the time domain is more important to the way we hear than frequency information is – and, on the basis of this comparison, we’d have to agree.
Then, of course, there’s the price. £350/$525 a year is a fair whack for a streaming service, even one with such huge numbers attached to it as Qobuz Sublime+.
It’s pretty much 50 per cent more expensive than Tidal Hi-Fi (the tier in which Tidal Masters become available) and has to be paid up-front in one go. It’s mobile as well as desktop (Tidal Masters is desktop only), which may sway some waverers, but it still looks quite steep to us.
If Sublime+ was unarguably “the best music subscription in the world” then we’d probably say you’re best off just sucking up the cost.
But it isn’t, not definitively, and so our recommendation must be qualified.