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Qobuz takes on Spotify and Tidal by banking on sound quality

Streaming music service Qobuz launches in the US with high-quality music streams and a unique download store.

qobuz
Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Spotify and Apple Music have another competitor today, music streaming service Qobuz has announced it is now available in the US.

French company Qobuz -- pronounced ko-buzz-- has been available in the UK and Europe for years. Its focus is on sound quality rather than the breadth of its catalog. The company offers hi-res streams (without the need for proprietary equipment) as well as a download store, making it part HD Tracks  and part Tidal.

Qobuz is offering four plans at launch:

  • Premium: $10 per month for 320 kbps MP3 quality streaming ($100 annually).
  • Hi-Fi: $20 per month for streaming including 16-bit CD quality streaming ($200 annually).
  • Studio: $25 per month for unlimited Hi-Res (24-bit, up to 192 khz) streaming ($250 annually).
  • Sublime+: $300 per year for full Hi-Res streaming and 40 to 60 per cent discounts on purchases from the Qobuz Hi-Res (up to 24-bit, 192 khz) download store.

Competitor Tidal soft-launched in late 2014 as an audiophile streaming service but relaunched a year later  -- after Jay Z bought the company -- with a focus on "stars" and urban music content. Tidal uses the MQA format for hi-res delivery (which needs a specialized decoder) but Qobuz offers non-proprietary 24/192 FLAC streams making it compatible with more people's audio equipment. It's worth noting that Tidal doesn't charge extra for hi-res content, though.

We at CNET have been testing the Studio tier for several weeks using its Roon software integration. The catalog caters to most of our needs while also offering some hi-res content that Tidal doesn't have. For example ex-Beta Band singer Steve Mason's excellent About the Light by is available in 24-bit while Tidal's version is 16-bit. Beirut's new Gallipoli (24/44.1) album sounded clear and full when I streamed it through Q Acoustics 3050i speakers.

Qobuz is taking aim at the audiophile crowd, so its home page skews towards singer-songwriters and classical music. But how will the service cope in a crowded market? Qobuz competitor Tidal's dual personalities -- cool urban brand and audiophile streaming service -- have never coalesced into something cohesive, and its early instability and partial sale to Sprint has left the industry wary. 

The streaming music industry may be popular but it's increasingly cut-throat, and the largest streaming provider Spotify has only just making a profit. It's too early to call Qobuz's chances, but I look forward to (literally) hearing more from it in the future.

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