Tidal VS Qobuz: Battle of the Hi-Res Streaming Services!
Qobuz is a French streaming audio service which has been beta-tested in the United States since February. After many months of customer feedback, Qobuz is finally going live to compete with rival streaming service Tidal. In this article, we compare Qobuz and Tidal streaming services to determine which is the best fit for your audiophile needs.
“Why do we need another streaming service?” You ask.
In a free market, there is nothing wrong with competition, but sometimes all these choices can be confusing. Sometimes competition can ultimately lead to the failure of all options, leaving the consumer with no choices whatsoever. When it comes to streaming services, we have the big players like Apple, Amazon, and Spotify. Now we can add Qobuz to the list of boutique brands like Tidal that cater to audiophiles. Given that Tidal seems to be struggling, we wondered if there was, in fact, a need for yet another niche streaming service.
Tidal vs QoBuz High-Resolution Music Streaming YouTube Discussion
Although both are considered audiophile streaming services, Qobuz does differentiate itself from Tidal in potentially important ways. Like Tidal, Qobuz offers multiple ways to access music. Both allow you to stream music or download a modest selection of songs to listen offline. Unlike Tidal, Qobuz, allows you to buy the music as well. I can understand the lure of downloading since I have scenarios where I often want to listen to high-resolution music and I don’t have a good internet signal. For example, traveling on a plane. However, I am not sure why I would want to buy downloads. Tidal does allow you to download some of your favorite music and play it back via their app which is useful when you're on an airplane and have no wi-fi.
The major players in streaming audio (Apple, Spotify, and Amazon) use a lossy compression algorithm that deteriorates the sound of the streaming service. Tidal, on the other hand, offers a lossless FLAC based streaming option. In my listening tests comparing Spotify, Amazon, and Tidal I found Spotify and Amazon to sound muted with the leading edge of dynamic transients and the bass sounding flat. The overall presentation just sounded weaker. The best way I could describe it is like taking the life out of the music. I was convinced from these comparisons that I could not live with these lossy services. So far I’ve been all too happy to spend $20 a month on Tidal to gain access to CD-quality sound.
When Tidal began offering Master Quality Sound, which used MQA encoding, a supposedly lossless perceptual coding system which could provide High-Resolution sound in above CD quality, I thought of it as a bonus. However, like many, when I began listening to MQA encoded streams on Tidal, I didn’t walk away all that impressed. For the most part, I simply didn’t hear a difference. Then news began to pour in that MQA might not be all it’s cracked up to be, possibly even being less than CD quality.
This is where Qobuz comes in, offering a FLAC based streaming service that streams at up to 24-bit 192 kHz quality. FLAC is a bit-perfect lossless compression algorithm that is known to not deteriorate the sound in any way. Why would you want or need High-Resolution sound at 24 bit or 192 kHz is another topic, and although I will delve into it briefly here, it is far too big of a topic (and far too unsettled) to go into with any depth in the scope of this article.
Qobuz released a beta copy of the software and smartphone app, but full integration into hardware seemed to trickle out. I have a Yamaha receiver that I had hoped would be integrated with Qobuz, but Yamaha left it out in recent firmware update for my particular model.
My original intent was to report back on this article after Qobuz integration happened, but given the extended 6 months of use, I was able to extensively test its integration into my Sonos system.
I can say that its integration into Sonos was very poor initially, but improved over time. Compared to Tidal, Qobuz had significant problems, often with the app failing to start the music, pausing, drop-outs, with poor overall quality and stability issues. With time and experience, Qobuz started working better with Sonos, so finger’s crossed, maybe the issue is resolved.
Of course, what good is the streaming quality if the music catalog is weak? I was unable to find a reliable source with the exact size of the catalog for Apple or Spotify, but best I can tell, it appears to be around 45 million songs for Apple and over 35 million songs for Spotify. Whatever the true number is, it’s certainly enough music to keep you busy for centuries. This is exactly why I love streaming services so much. As a budding audio enthusiast, I used to borrow albums and CD’s from my father's collection, each having over 1000 albums to choose from. To me, it was a dream to someday have as large a music collection as my father, so I could listen to so much great music any time I wanted. I used to spend hours in my bedroom making mix-tapes I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, when we thought mix-tapes were cool. The world and technology moved on, and now it doesn’t make sense to build giant collections of albums and cd’s when a streaming service can offer us far more music than any reasonable human could ever own. Further, we can recreate the fun of those mix-tapes with playlists- the modern equivalent. I love music and never have I had so much access to music as I have with streaming services. The great thing about these boutique services is that they claim to offer even more music, 60 million tracks for Tidal and 40 million for Qobuz. I do find that they seem to have more eclectic choices, with a broader selection of world music, classical, and jazz. They all seem to equally cover modern pop, rock, hip-hop, electronic music, and classic rock. The main reason to choose one service over another is likely going to be sound quality and the selection of more obscure music.
But…This brings us back to the issue of quality. The primary reason most of us held onto our CD collections was that the sound quality exceeded that of the streaming services. Several reviewers and friends I have talked to have indicated that the streaming services such as Tidal and Qobuz do not sound as good as CD and should not be used for serious listening. I have to wonder what they are listening to.
First, a FLAC file provides no loss of sound quality over that of the original file stored on the CD. It is not perceptually lossless, it’s actually lossless. However, just like no amount of science will ever convince a flat-earther that the earth is really round, no amount of science will likely help me prove to a non-believer that lossless FLAC is the equal of CD. Or, is something else going on here? Could Tidal and Qobuz modify the albums they stream to lower the data rate of their lossless FLAC files? I asked Qobuz and Tidal and received the same basic answer. They do not process the files in any way, they simply take the music they get from the studios and host it on their servers for streaming. Any loss of quality would be the result of a modification the studio has made. With that being true, I see no reason that a CD-quality FLAC stream could possibly sound worse than the original CD. My guess is that these reviewers are not listening to the same albums. A lot of classic albums have been reissued and remastered (often to the detriment of good sound) making the provenance of the streaming track come into question. While it should be obvious in the labeling of the music, I found a handful of Queen and Elton John albums which appeared to be mislabeled as the original, but sounding and measuring the same as a later remaster. Tidal being the bigger offender in this regard. All this to say, in most cases, there is no sound quality difference between CD and the FLAC based streaming services. Any difference I heard could be associated with a difference in provenance.
What about the Price Difference?
Apple and Spotify costs $9.99 a month for a lossy service, and they do not offer a lossless option. Amazon is $7.99 a month (with a Prime membership), which I suppose you might call a bargain of the bunch. Tidal is also $9.99 a month for their lossy service. Noticing a trend here? Yeah, they all cost the same. “But wait”, you say, “I thought Tidal was twice as expensive. This is a sign of bad advertising on Tidal’s part or bad misinformation from the media (Fake News maybe). Tidal is no more expensive than anyone else for an equal product.
As I already noted, I think the lossless service is worth the cost of entry. As someone who used to buy a new album or two every month, if not more, spending $20 a month is not a big deal. Qobuz is $9.99 a month for their basic lossy service, but they offer a discount to $99 a year if you pay for the entire year. You can get their Hi-fi plan, which provides CD-quality for $19.99 a month ($199 a year) to match Tidal, and their Studio plan is priced at $24.99 ($249.99 a year) for High-Resolution quality. Further, they offer a top tier for $299 a year, which provides the same access to Studio quality tracks along with discounts on purchased tracks. I am already seeing other media outlets proclaim Qobuz as another streaming service offering the same service like Spotify or Apple for much more money, and again I say, they just don’t get it.
You may be asking why you should pay twice as much, or more, for better quality tracks. After all, a lot of marketing has gone into trying to convince us that perceptual compression algorithms are now so good that they are indistinguishable from lossless CD quality and that CD quality is auditory perfection. Is that true? I don’t know, but that doesn’t jive with my personal experience, at least to a point.
Research on Lossy vs Lossless Compression
Let’s start with the basics; lossy compression uses what is known as perceptual coding. This is a method of getting rid of parts of the music that we don’t tend to perceive when presented in conjunction with other aspects of the music. It relies heavily on the notion of masking, which is where certain sounds or artifacts are masked by other sounds, especially as they get louder. It is generally built around red book CD at 16 bits and 44.1 kHz, which gives a theoretical 96dB dynamic range and extension from below 20 Hz to around 22 kHz. Extensive research into how we hear and how masking works has allowed us to create models of hearing that suggest that compression at 320kbs is, for the most part, close to indistinguishable from CD quality. In my listening comparisons, I have been able to identify particular musical content that remains easily distinguished between lossless and lossy compression, and it was these comparisons of these particular tracks that lead me to decide I couldn’t live with a lossy streaming service. Am I fooling myself into believing something that research doesn’t support? Well, I don’t think research on this topic is so clear cut. We can further muddy the waters by going to the pièce de résistance of Qobuz, it’s offering of High-Resolution tracks.
If 320kbs lossy compressed tracks are close enough to CD, why would we need something even better? The research into this topic is pretty poor, to be honest, but we do have a meta-analysis (a sort of study of studies) that looked specifically at the high sampling rate. A paper by Joshua Reiss examined the overall evidence of 18 studies with appropriate data to see if listeners could discriminate between high sampling rate tracks and those tracks played back at 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz. What was the preponderance of evidence in this study? A small but significant finding suggesting that people can distinguish high sampling rate music, and this effect gets stronger with training for what to listen for. Does this meta-analysis prove that high-resolution audio is better than CD quality, let alone lossy compressed formats? Not really, but it does suggest we can’t dismiss high sampling rate audio as a waste of time. These studies only establish that it was audibly distinguishable. For all we know, it sounded worse. Further, it didn’t test high bit-rate music.
What would the advantages of 24 bit and 192 kHz music even be? It would theoretically give you a far wider dynamic range- over 144dB- and with noise shaping dither, all of these can be further extended. What can a human hear? At least 140dB’s. We don’t need this much for music, and there are several reasons why this is so. First, just because you can hear it doesn’t mean you want to. A 140dB dynamic range means hearing sounds from 0 (no audible sound) to 140dB (Instant pain and hearing loss). That is really loud, and (I’m sure you already figured this out) your stereo can’t reproduce that. However, all else being equal, if we can have 24 bits instead of 16 bits, thereby gaining some theoretical benefits, then why not.
What about that sampling rate? I have my theory about why high sampling rates might be audibly superior, and it isn’t that we can hear past 20 kHz. It's possible, but more research is needed. If we can hear above 20 kHz, we need to figure out how, since the human ear is not capable of reacting much past 20 kHz. However, it is possible that by sampling at a higher frequency, the deleterious effect of the digital low pass filter is moved farther out of the audible range and reduces any possibility of problems it may introduce. By doing this at the point of encoding, it reduces the possibility that this effect is encoded in the content (hence why it's preferable over up-sampling). I say again, if we can have high sampling rate music with minimal to no extra cost, then why not. It isn’t hurting anything. This brings us back to Qobuz; a service that provides the music I love in a format that is guaranteed to do no harm. Qobuz and Tidal both offer high sampling and high bit rate “HD” music.
Editorial Note: Hearing vs Age by Gene DellaSala
As we get older, our ability to hear high frequencies diminish by the following rate: 20925 - (age x 166) = max Frequency you can hear. IE. An average person of age 45 has an upper limit of hearing at around 13.45kHz. Food for thought when you see older audiophiles debating the merits of exotic cables and how they affect the sound of their systems.
Qobuz vs Tidal
Let's start our comparison of Qobuz and Tidal by first comparing both to Apple music, another service I have access to. If we take sound quality out of the equation, they are all the same. The interfaces are different, but my experience has been that these differences are subjective. Each has some features or design attributes I like better than the other. When I switch to Tidal, I like its dark, mostly black look. Its sleek, modern, and easy to navigate. Since it is the primary way I listen to music, it is the service I am most familiar with. What does Qobuz offer compared to Tidal in this regard? It’s a white interface, so it is much brighter. It’s a more pleasant interface to navigate. Other differences are that when I pick an artist, I often get information about that artist. I’ve not noticed that kind of detail with Tidal. I don’t care since I use it to listen to music, but it’s nice, nonetheless. Overall, I find the user interface for Qobuz to be similar (In general, I find all the modern streaming services similar) to Tidal. It's intuitive, easy to use, and it gets the job done. Qobuz makes it easier to switch the sound quality and output device, and this made it easier to compare the different modes.
What would I have liked? Amazon offers lyrics, and I wish all these services offered lyrics. I like to sing along to the music sometimes (I’ve borne my soul to you). Qobuz makes it easy and obvious to switch between ASIO, WASAPI, WASAPI Exclusive, and DirectSound. I know some folks lose sleep over this stuff. I couldn’t hear any difference between these modes and I used WASAPI exclusive for all my listening tests.
Did Qobuz sound noticeably better than Tidal? I couldn’t tell with anything I tried. I played a range of music from classic rock from Elton John, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, to pop music from Michael Jackson, Ariana Grande, and Phil Collins, and classical and Jazz that I thought might take advantage of the High-Resolution format. As I type this, I am listening to “Tiny Dancer” from Elton John’s Mad Man Across the Water in 24-bit 96 kHz. It sounds great. As good as I’ve ever heard it? Sure. But better than I’ve ever heard it? I don’t know about that. It’s noticeably louder and more compressed than the original LP record album, a product of modern times I suppose. Wanting to see how some wide dynamic range music fared, I put on the extremely dynamic “Tin Pan Alley” from Stevie Ray Vaughns Couldn’t Stand the Weather. This is one of those songs that uses dynamic gradation in such a special way where it helps tell the story by adding more color to the song. Through the Qobuz service in 24-bit 96 kHz, it again sounded about the same as it did on Tidal. I thought at times it sounded a little fuller, maybe a little more dynamic, but I couldn’t tell for sure. I had no way to blind myself to the apps, and I certainly wouldn’t want to place a wager on any differences I heard. I know a lot of folks are doing tests themselves, sighted listening tests, and concluding that Qobuz is superior. I strongly believe, after my listening tests, that if we put these same individuals through an ABX test, they wouldn’t be so confident in the end. Why? Because I didn’t just listen, I analyzed the files to find differences. What I found was that differences in musical provenance explained any measured differences, otherwise, the two were identical.
Qobuz vs Tidal Analysis
As noted, subjectively it was hard to tell the difference between Tidal Masters and Qobuz Studio. In fact, it was hard to tell the difference between the high-resolution tracks from either and that of the Red book CD-quality tracks. I was curious if the various streams measured any differently and decided to set up an experiment that would allow me to extract the audio from the streaming services, analyze the tracks, and share objective differences with our readership. To do this I used a virtual loopback software known as VB-cable, Audacity, along with MusicScope, a music file analysis software. I captured the streams into Audacity as 24 bit, 192khz files (regardless of the stream quality).
What I found was surprising. First, most of the music has no HF content at all, so even the high definition streams had very little content near 20khz, let alone above it (Ok that isn’t so surprising). The purpose of this analysis was not to look for objectively measurable audible differences, rather, just to look for any differences. I analyzed dozens of files, but to keep this article manageable, we will just look at a recent tribute to John Williams Jurassic Park theme. I chose this track because it did contain ultra-high frequency content allowing for a fair comparison and the album was new enough that no provenance issue could be a concern. Are there differences? Clearly, but they all appear in ways that I suspect cannot be audible. There is more roll-off of the high-frequency noise near the 48khz limit. That noise is already way down in level, it is not musical, and it is highly doubtful your equipment can reproduce that, let alone you be able to hear it. I also see a difference between the HF energy between 12khz and 24khz, but the differences are very slight. Again, this appears to be largely differences in noise rather than actual musical content.
What do I conclude? Nothing yet, I’m still examining files to look for signs of meaningful differences. So far, the evidence suggests we shouldn’t worry so much about any kind of sound quality loss with MQA on Tidal, as I’m not finding any differences of consequence so far. Could there be differences I am not measuring? I suppose, and if my readers have ideas, I’m open to further exploration.
I don’t have many complaints: the app is well-executed, music is easy to find, their catalog is huge. The only thing I couldn’t find was typically obscure stuff not available on any of the streaming services (Shades of Dring, Lewis Nash, etc.). However, I did find that the search algorithm wasn’t as good as Tidal’s (or the competition) in that it sometimes brought up bad matches to my search criteria. Lewis Nash is my favorite jazz drummer, and a lot of his music isn’t widely available. However, he played with a lot of more famous artists, which Tidal picks up. Qobuz brought up everything with “Nash” in the name. Occasionally I notice Qobuz being a CPU hog, using about a quarter of my CPU’s resources. While multitasking, I occasionally had a slight glitch. Nevertheless, the app never locked up or crashed on my laptop or phone. During the beta period, the app felt polished. However, its beta nature eventually showed through, and that roughness stuck with me. I had a lot of problems with dropouts on Qobuz while using the iOS phone app or the SONOS integration. As of the completion of this article, I still was having these problems (though it seems each firmware and software update resolved some of these issues).
Is a Tidal Divorce In My Future?
At the intro to this article, I noted that I might be switching to Qobuz. If you read this review carefully, you will see that, while there are some technical advantages to Qobuz, my experience with it was that it sounded just as good as Tidal, my current reference streaming service, but not necessarily better. The music catalog was similar. The sound was similar. The software was glitchy at times and is not well integrated into most of my hardware. So why switch? Tidal often makes recommendations for music or video content that I am not interested in. I find the way it foists this content on me supremely annoying. A lot of the music I place into my playlists becomes unavailable later. On Qobuz, a lot of that music was available, and I liked the way content was laid out. The differences aren’t huge, but given these differences, and the identical cost, why not? Plus, people might shun me at the audio shows and events I attend if I’m not using the hottest new thing, and Qobuz is the hottest new streaming service on the block. Do I recommend it? As I stated earlier, I love streaming services, I think there are a lot of great options, and Qobuz is certainly one of them. Of all the options, I think that Tidal and Qobuz are the best options, given their ability to playback at CD or better quality. Should you switch from Tidal to Qobuz? I don’t think that one is superior to the other, and I could be happy with either. Tidal has more integrated support with hardware right now, but Qobuz is working on that. I suggest taking advantage of their free trial and trying it for yourself. What streaming app you are using is certainly nothing to lose sleep over.
Tell is what your favorite streaming app is in the related forum thread below.
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DigitalDawn, post: 1349429, member: 78241
I used qobuz only briefly and don't really know the answer, but have to lean towards no. I don't know how to do it in spotify either, but their daily mixes are pretty good variety in several different flavors depending on my mood. I generally do that with my own rips more than rely on a streaming service….