If you want to stream music through a decent system there isn’t a huge choice of providers and top of the heap you have Tidal and Qobuz. Both offer lossless streaming of a quality that while it’s not quite up there with locally stored music files is pretty close and more than good enough to enjoy music on a high resolution system. The fact that some audio enthusiasts enjoy Spotify’s premium 320kb service would suggest I’m being a snob on the quality front, and that may be true, but if you get used to genuinely uncompressed music files cloud based streaming never sounds quite as sweet. But it’s close enough to not be an issue.
Tidal is the market leader, it’s based in the US but available in 52 countries, and has a US centric selection system. The albums it puts up at the top of the list are those that are likely to have the largest commercial potential in the US. Tidal makes new releases available on the day they are released.
Qobuz is French, so it waits until Friday to upload the latest albums from the preceding seven days. Their catholic tastes mean a broader musical remit, if your ears enjoy musical forms beyond the chart topping it is more likely to show you something that might be of interest. Especially if your tastes include classical music, which has a high profile on the service. Thus far Qobuz is available in 11 European countries.
Both services have web and mobile apps for maximum market penetration but when it comes to audio hardware brands Tidal has considerably greater presence. Pretty well all the hi-fi companies that make streamers offer Tidal, only a small proportion have Qobuz onboard, among them are Auralic, Bluesound, Yamaha, Cabasse, Electrocompaniet, Linn and Sony. There aren’t many more but there is Sonos which while not strictly hi-fi is the leader in network streaming, so somebody must be using it! One answer that Qobuz has to this dilemma is Google Chromecast, the Qobuz app can stream over Chromecast and a growing number of audio components have receivers for this relatively hi-res wireless protocol. Unlike Bluetooth or Airplay it can send bit/sample rates up to 24/96, and Google’s own receiver can be purchased for the princely sum of £30 and has digial and analogue outputs, so it can be used with any amplifier or DAC.
Using both services via their webplayer platforms there are some surprising differences in what you hear, Qobuz is distinctly louder than Tidal, which suggests some kind of compression is being used, its streams also suffered from drop out whereas the Tidal site can be slow to load new pages but delivers a smooth stream. Sound quality wise Tidal is the more neutral of the two on the webplayer while Qobuz has a juicier sound with fuller bass, at least this was the case with Esperanza Spalding’s ‘Judas’. Comparing the two with an Innuos Zenith SE server as source and CAD 1543 MkII DAC there was very little difference at all, both sound pretty good if not in the same league as material stored on the server itself.
The bit/sample rate of lossless streaming offered by both is CD standard 16-bit/44.1kHz but both have high res options, Tidal uses MQA to encode its Masters series releases which are generally 24-bit and either 44.1 or 48kHz but go up to 192 with some material. On the PC you need Tidal’s desktop app in order to play Masters resolution files, all hardware based systems include it as part of the package.
Qobuz’s premium service Sublime+ offers material at up to 24/96 without MQA decoding, again you need to use the desktop app on a PC, or audio hardware to access it. The other bonus for those looking for maximum sound quality is that Qobuz sells downloads of high res material and discounts its prices for Sublime+ customers, Tidal is purely a streaming platform.
Tidal and Qobuz have distinct webplayer platforms and present information in different ways, I searched for the albums of Frank Zappa for instance and got the following two displays. Tidal puts the albums in reverse chronological order, most recent at the top, whereas Qobuz is pretty random, and neither does it stop at Zappa albums but continues with releases of a vaguely similar style. Thus before the list of Zappa releases is finished you get Deep Purple’s Machine Head, Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D Evolution and Riccardo Fassi Tank Band Plays The Music of Frank Zappa and Italian pianist Stefano Bollani’s Sheik Yer Zappa, there’s even a Matt Berry (Toast of London) album there. Humour it seems does belong in music. The Tidal webplayer is scalable, that is it works whatever the width of your browser window, Qobuz however is a fixed width with a slider at the bottom if your browser is set too small, it virtually takes up the whole screen when given full rein.
Tidal’s list of genres does not include ambient, presumably this comes under ‘electronic’, but does have ‘retro’, ‘kids’ and ‘gospel/christian’, there is also ‘classical’ which is surprising given how little classical music appears in its new releases list. Qobuz’s genre list is a bit more familiar and does include ‘Ambiance/New Age’. Both have playlists of new material as well as style specific lists and collections collated by specific artists, that is both tracks chosen by an artist or a selection of the work of a specific artist. Both services give you information about the majority of artists that they list, the newer and more obscure they are the less likely there is to be much if any biographic data. Qobuz has editorial content for a bit of diversion while you’re browsing music and playlists to help you discover new music. Tidal offers its pick of the current crop alongside up and coming releases in its Tidal rising selection, it also provides videos and movies/shows about specific musicians.
The key factor in deciding between these two services, if you can get them both, is content. I couldn’t find a figure for the Qobuz library but Tidal claim 64 million tracks. However, it’s not quantity that counts its taste and the two services are pretty different in this regard, Tidal is aimed at a younger audience and has a strong US slant to its selections, Qobuz appears to have a greater variety of musical styles and a lot more classical music is in evidence. Neither can compete with Spotify when it comes to sheer numbers but both are clearly superior in sound quality terms. As far as hi-res goes I prefer the direct 24/96 and 24/192 streams of Qobuz to the MQA encoded alternative on Tidal, for which you need a decoder for best results. Both however are a diversion that can keep you entertained for hours, the journey’s of musical discovery and rediscovery are what makes streaming services so entertaining and while you don’t need lossless quality to do this it’s a lot more enjoyable if you do. And as both services offer free trial periods it’s easy to give them a spin and decide if either is worth the asking price.