Tech Advances Open Door for Qobuz Audio

Another music-streaming service is joining the quest for premium audio quality. This week, Qobuz, a France-based streaming service and high-res audio pioneer, announced its U.S. debut, joining niche players Tidal and Deezer.

Founded in 2008, Qobuz (“ko-buz”) offers a lossy, MP3-level base plan competitively priced at $9.99, and a lossless, CD-quality premium plan for $19.99. This is its first move into the world’s largest music subscription market and first outside the European Union.

Lossless audio is a compressed audio format that produces streamable CD-quality music.

“We’re going after audiophiles in the U.S. who are eager to have high-resolution options for music streaming, especially after seeing their friends in Europe have it,” said Dan Mackta, the managing director of Qobuz’s U.S. operation. “Then, we’re building out to regular music fans who haven’t experienced songs in high resolution yet.”

Like Tidal and Deezer, Qobuz uses lossless audio files to stream vast song catalogs. “There are lots of things about Qobuz that make it different from other streaming services, but the most important differentiator is that you can stream high-resolution FLAC files: Up to 24-bit resolution and sampling rates as high as 192kHz,” said Michael Hive, Executive Editor at TechHive.

Premium Audio Finds Footing, and for a Price

Industry analysts say Qobuz and other premium audio services face pricing challenges. At more than the double the baseline price of lo-fi plans, users must acquire high-res audio gear for a purist experience. The segment will have to woo casual listeners, they say.

Qobuz’s move dovetails an estimated 51 million people in the U.S. now paying for monthly streaming plans. Services like Qobuz are itching for them to trial high-quality digital sound. Estimates say that in the U.S., Tidal’s premium hi-fi plan has so far won over 30,000 subscribers. 

Table: Premium High-Res Plans

Qobuz HiFi16-bit 1,411 kbps
CD quality, lossless audio
Tidal HiFi16-bit 1,411 kbps
CD quality, MQA audio
Deezer HiFi16-bit 1,411 kbps
CD quality, lossless audio

“The top 10% of music buyers spend $10 on recorded music, so the only way in which a larger base of consumers will be unlocked is by changing mass market music fans’ spending habits,” said Midia Research. “That’s a tall ask, especially when music is ubiquitously available for free on YouTube, Soundcloud, Spotify and Deezer. A more practical solution is to bring down the main price point and introduce more mid tier products.”

High-res champions like Geoff Martin, senior sound engineer at Bang & Olufsen, say the time has come for premium audio: “For a time streaming services, in general, made quality worse. But that time has passed. And that’s because the way that streaming services work has changed. Initially, they were sending out low bitrate MP3 in the same way that Internet radio works these days. But what’s happening now with services like Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz is that they are pushing a FLAC file out to the player.”

High-res Digital Audio: What to Know

  • Bit rate. Digital audio quality is determined by bit depth and sampling frequency. The more bits used, the wider the dynamic. The higher the sampling frequency, the more accurately music can turned into digital data that produces better sound quality.
  • FLAC. The FLAC file format, also known as lossless audio and CD-quality audio, compresses file data to lower the bit rate between 50 and 70 percent of its original size. It produces a nearly identical copy of the original audio data and there is no loss in digital sound quality or audio fidelity.
  • MQA. Master Quality Authentic is a a new digital-music format designed to deliver high-resolution sound at a much reduced bit rate. Audio quality is comparable to a high-res music file based on traditional pulse-code modulation encoding, which has been the standard for CD-quality audio for decades.