On Demand Streaming Audio: Qobuz and Spotify
Everybody knows Spotify, but Qobuz is a relative newcomer, and perhaps not yet that well known. With this review, I intend to change that!
Above: Spotify album view, note the years in brackets
Spotify is hugely popular, and several of my friends actively use it, and have let go of their CD players and are almost solely using this service for their music needs. It’s not difficult to see why: virtually all music ever made can be found, and it is easy and fun sharing playlists and recommendations among other Spotify users. One of these friends came over some years ago, when I still used my Windows PC for music playback with a HiFace EVO, into the Levinson 360S DAC. He logged in to Spotify with his account and played all the tracks that he knew so well, but he had to agree with me that it didn’t sound very impressive. Even if I will never mistake an mp3 file for a WAV, AIFF or FLAC file, mp3’s can actually sound ok if done well, but the Spotify playback sounded even more compressed than my average mp3, both dynamically and timbrally. No matter how convenient the service was, based on the sound quality I decided that this was not for me.
Spotify is also available on the AudioAanZee Reference Flow music server. It is said that they have improved the quality of their streaming, so when I carried out the review for the Reference Flow, I included a comparison between Spotify and Qobuz. Apparently Spotify are now streaming at 320kbs, and the Spotify app in iPend tells me the format is Ogg Vorbis. Naturally I did not check hundreds of artists, but I did try to enter non-mainstream ones, and for each of the artists that I did try, I found many albums, many of them the complete range. Spotify also displays doubles, and sometimes this concerns originals and remasters, and that’s easy to see from the year that is displayed under the album title. The originals and remasters did indeed sound different in the ways that you would expect, with remasters sounding louder and seemingly more expressive, but ultimately less dynamic and too much in your face.
Across the board, the sound unfortunately to my ears has not improved. It really just sounds like mp3, and although there are no swooshing artefacts like could happen in the early days using bad encoders, Spotify sounds less lively than local mp3 files. There is precious little life or spirit present, dynamics are very compressed, and it feels like all songs are played in minor, the artists having an off-day or something. Alas, no matter how convenient and affordable, I can’t recommend Spotify to audiophiles.
btw: the free version of Spotify won’t work: you need a premium subscription, currently 9,99 euro per month.
Above: Qobuz album view (no years mentioned)
Qobuz works in a similar way as Spotify, but offers FLAC streaming in full CD quality, and this is indeed confirmed by looking at the track properties in the iPeng app. Qobuz costs does not offer a free alternative like Spotify does, but there are various types of subscriptions, ranging from 4,99 euro per month for 320kbs mp3 to 19,99 euro per month for true lossless 44/16 CD quality FLAC. The database offers albums for every artist that I tried, but it doesn’t always offer all the albums they made. Indeed Spotify always offers more albums, sometimes even double the amount that Qobuz offers.
Like Spotify, Qobuz regularly shows duplicates of albums, and I found cases with one being the original and the other a remastered version. However, unlike Spotify, Qobuz does not show the year, so unless the cover clearly shows the difference, you have to listen to both albums to make the distinction. Like with Spotify, it was evident that the remastered versions played louder and sometimes cleaner, but always less involving than the originals.
Something I found annoying was the inability to cue within a track. Spotify works the same as when playing a local track: you can just drag the progress bar to anywhere within the track. Not so with Quobuz: the track starts at the beginning, and all you can do is skip to the next track.
Qobuz versus Spotify
To assess sound quality, first I cued up tracks from the same albums both for Spotify and Qobuz, and played them one after the other. It doesn’t take golden ears to hear the difference: it really is night and day. Whereas Spotify sounds very restrained and ininteresting, Qobuz immediately does grab your attention by sounding much more articulate, faster and more transparent. Subtle details are clearer and the whole is more dynamic, too. There’s life to the music, which is simply missing with Spotify.
Qobuz versus local CD rips
To further assess the sound quality, I played a whole range of albums that I also have the CD of, using the best quality that Qobuz offers: 44/16 FLAC. Qobuz are not boasting: as I already heard in the Spotify comparison, their service really does indeed sound much, much better than on demand mp3 streaming services like Spotify or regular streaming radio.
Even though Qobuz streams in lossless FLAC format, when compared to Local files, be they FLAC or WAV, I still cannot say that the quality is the same. No doubt, compared to Spotify, transients are faster and sharper, and there is definitely more of a lyrical quality to the performance, but the music still does not feel entirely free. I find the sound still somewhat dynamically restrained and veiled, not hugely distracting, but akin to listening with speaker grilles on (as opposed to removing them).
The good thing about Qobuz though is that everything I tried definitely easily sounds good enough to enjoy. The “compressed” quality as described above is not so evident that it ruins the performance, oftentimes merely offering a very mild form of polish, to make rougher recordings sound more friendly.
I am not bashing Qobuz, to the contrary: it is the best streaming service that I have thus far experienced. But it doesn’t sound entirely as good as local files. Should it? Maybe not. For me, I still like to own the physical files, and I still buy CD’s, for ripping, and to play at friend’s places. But Qobuz is perfect for exploring new music, as well as for remeniscing with music from my youth, that I only want to listen to once more and not necessarily need to own.
Above: Setup used to assess the differences.
Qobuz alternative Tidal soundquality described in the Aurender N10 review