Qobuz Sublime+ Streaming Service Review
Is this the streaming service to end all streaming services?
What is Qobuz Sublime+?Qobuz Sublime+ is the top tier of membership to the Qobuz streaming service and as such, is intended to represent a very different experience to more mainstream offerings. For the most part, streaming services are content to take a sum of money off you monthly. Having done so, you gain access to an on-demand library of material. For the most part the major difference between them is the file type and sampling rate that the library is available in – anything between MP3 at 256-320kbps to MQA encoded high-res in the case of Tidal.
With streaming services being big business for the moment, this is all logical enough but it has left smaller players looking for differentiation and a good reason why you might be convinced to go with them rather than one of the more household names. Qobuz is more flexible in this approach then many rivals in that if you want, you can have a direct Spotify competitor for a tenner a month. From there, you can bolt on extra elements of functionality all the way up to the offering you see here which offers functionality that is not currently present on any other service.
Is this what you need though? What Sublime+ is offering is certainly a different take on a streaming service but is the reason that it is unique because it isn’t really what people need or is this the ultimate offering for the streaming enthusiast?
SpecificationsIn some key regards, Qobuz should be entirely familiar to anyone who has used any streaming service in the last ten years. Operating via a downloadable browser or via a web-based system, it offers access to an online library of music. This library is quoted as being somewhere in the region of 40 million tracks – more of which in a little bit. As already noted, Qobuz has multiple access levels to this library which ranges from paying £9.99 per month for access to this library at 320kbps MP3 resolution, all the way to the Sublime+ level seen here.
Effectively, Sublime+ adds a quality angle to your subscription in two different ways. The first is that it offers the highest quality on-demand streaming that Qobuz can muster. This means that the bulk of the library is available in lossless 16/44.1kHz ‘CD quality’ across the vast majority of the assembled content. Additionally, some material is available for direct streaming in sampling rates between 24/44.1kHz and 24/96kHz. Unlike Tidal’s very visible partnership with MQA to achieve their high res delivery, Qobuz supplies no information on what level of packing is applied to the files to make this work but all tests here with DACs fitted with sample rate indicators have seen that indicator change as and when the software says it should.
One critical difference between Qobuz and the Tidal Masters system concerns the third party integration. At the moment, while a Tidal Master will show up on a third party integrated version of Tidal, it will only play as a 16/44.1kHz file. The Masters are solely for use with the desktop and web browser app and it is arguable the true benefit of such files can really only be unlocked with MQA enabled hardware. Qobuz Sublime+ by contrast will allow for third party versions of the app to access the high-res stream directly as part of the deal. For people listening via different means to the computer app, this is potentially very important indeed.
Qobuz hasn’t finished there though. For many years, as well as on-demand streaming, the company has run an online download store that after some early hiccups – not least some of the prime material wasn’t available for download in the UK – has become one of the best resources for lossless and high-res material. What the Sublime+ subscription does is reduce the price of these high-res downloads and mean that hopefully, you will choose to make some key albums, permanent offline residents in your collection. One key aspect of this bolt-on is that it has a direct effect on your on-demand streaming too. Qobuz, like all the other streaming services, has very little of the Peter Gabriel back catalogue available for direct access – Gabriel it seems is not a fan of the process. If you buy a Peter Gabriel album in lossless from the Qobuz store, lo and behold, it will be available on-demand as well. This is something that is notionally possible with some rivals in that you can integrate content you own and that is on-demand but this is by far the slickest example of it.
DesignWhen Qobuz first reached UK shores, some of the Gallic influences on the interface were a little too apparent. It had been skinned in English but you didn’t have to dig too far before things got very French, very fast. If your GCSE French was in order, it was fairly easy to know what was going on but it wasn’t as slick as Spotify for example. Fast forward to 2018 and Qobuz has more than made amends for that. The desktop interface is now extremely good and has a number of features that I like very much.
First up, Qobuz is sensibly laid out and makes good use of the space available to it. The size of the fonts and images is large and easy to read and this makes for a relaxing piece of software to use. I also like the choices of information that Qobuz makes available on screen. Unlike Tidal’s desktop app, you can see the sample rate of the material you are playing at a glance and this is useful when working out if high res is successfully being accessed on a DAC that doesn’t have a sample rate indicator. No less usefully, the time bar indicator is something that occupies the full width of the screen and this makes accurate scrolling to the time you actually need very simple.
This clean and logical layout continues to the iOS and Android apps as well. The layout is similar to the desktop app and this makes for a very consistent experience across the different platforms. Playlists assembled and augmented on one platform will quickly be mirrored on another and the whole experience is slick. The news is pretty good when it comes to third party implementations too. There are less of them in comparison to the extremely high number of devices that support Spotify Connect and the efforts that Tidal have been making in recent years but even so there is a decent spread of support at various price points from Sonos through Yamaha with products like the WX-AD10 and RN803D through companies like Auralic with the Aries Mini, all the way through to Linn with their DS platform. If you want equipment with Qobuz support, there is a fair amount to choose from.
Things aren’t perfect though, although the nature of these issues will mean that some people are utterly unphased by them. The first concerns the online content itself. Qobuz claims a library of forty million tracks and objectively testing the extent of these is something that cannot easily be done with a single review but subjectively, with music that is of interest to me, Qobuz has drawn more blanks than Tidal and in particular Spotify when looking for material. Equally, there are signs that Qobuz has material available to it that is not readily on other services – classical music in particular seems to be very well served.
The curated content is also slightly haphazard. Qobuz is closer to the Tidal approach than Spotify which goes for personal curation tied with continuously updated general playlists but the results seem a little workmanlike and safe. Tidal works on the principle of generating a lot of content of which large chunks won’t appeal but that specific areas will hit the spot exactly. I’ve tested the playlists to ensure that they work… but I haven’t really felt compelled to keep listening after that point. It is only fair to point out that I am not a huge listener of curated content – I have other means of finding new material and will then listen to the album directly – but Qobuz is solid rather than spectacular in this regard.
The other area that needs to be remarked upon is the price. The two ‘entry’ Qobuz subs can be paid for monthly at £9.99 and £19.99 respectively. Once you hit Sublime and Sublime+ though the price climbs as does the payment system. Sublime (which offers lossless streaming and discounted high res purchases) is £249 per year and can only be paid as a single payment. Sublime+ with on-demand high res is a healthy £349 a year. At a whisker under £30 a month, this is the most expensive streaming service offering there is at the time of writing (Feb 2018) and it is worth noting that while the savings on High Res material are decent, you will have to buy plenty of it to justify the asking price. I’ve crunched the numbers of my own purchases over the last 12 months and it would require a considerable change in my habits (away from vinyl basically) to make it fly. It would be something I would recommend you tally up before pressing the button.
Qobuz Sublime+ will allow for third party versions of the app to access the high res stream directly as part of the deal
How was Qobuz Sublime + tested?On receiving a trial account for the service, I downloaded the desktop browser on a Lenovo T560 ThinkPad running Windows 10 backdated to 7. This was output into a Chord Electronics Hugo 2 running Sennheiser IE800S earphones and Audio Technica ATH-A2000Z headphones as well as being run into a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp and Neat Momentum 4 speakers. The app was additionally installed on an iPad Air and a Motorola G4 Android phone with testing being undertaken with the Sennheiser and the Noble Trident. Finally, a Yamaha WX-AD10 was activated with the Qobuz account and tested into the Naim and the NAD D3020v2 integrated amp using Spendor A1 and Piego TMicro 40 speakers.
Sound QualityThis section is going to be a little different to normal sound quality sections on physical product for one very simple reason. The performance of Qobuz- and every other streaming service is more dependent on supporting hardware than almost anything that has been submitted for review on AVForums. Put simply, if you have a Chord Hugo 2 and a pair of Sennheiser IE800S earphones, Spotify will sound better through that than Qobuz Sublime + does through a pair of Shure SE112 earphones connected directly to a laptop. I know this because I tried it and tried it on my wife too. In this instance, all that can be practically done is to compare Sublime+ with rivals over the same hardware.
If you do this, it has to be said that Qobuz does a lot right. Firstly, all the basics are covered. On a 39 meg household line, Qobuz gets going at the same speed as Spotify and Tidal and everything moves with the slickness you would reasonably hope for. Qobuz then pulls out an advantage over most rival services with the flexibility of its audio device management. You can leave audio in the hands of WASAPI, allocate the device to Qobuz via dedicated option and – if you have previously set the connection up – you can use ASIO too. This is useful when it comes to removing the periodically odd behaviour of Windows from the equation.
Having done so, the overall impression of Qobuz is consistently positive. Through the revealing and enormously capable Hugo 2, it delivers low noise levels and a performance that is, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from the same material lovingly ripped to my NAS drive with the added bonus that Qobuz fills in all the gaps in the catalogue that you might not have. It takes very little effort to reach the point where you stop thinking about where the music is coming from and just enjoy the music. If your internet connection is up to the job, the stability of Sublime+ is the same as the closed network I habitually use for network audio.
Being asked to choose between Tidal and Qobuz for 16/44.1kHz listening is hard to the point where I’ll cop out and happily state that all other things being equal, I can’t tell the difference between them. However, in terms of high-res, Qobuz’s system has a definite edge over Tidal’s masters for two reasons. The first is simple enough – Qobuz has more. I was delighted to discover a 24/44,1 version of Cassius’ superb Ibifornia and across all manner of different genres and album vintages, the Sublime+ offering brings more high-res versions to the user than Tidal can.
Secondly, where material is available across both platforms, Qobuz offers higher performance. I am pretty sure that this is down to the equipment I have used for testing having no native MQA ability and that Qobuz bypasses any requirement for this to be needed. The 24/96 version of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is on both services (and I have the download) and the Qobuz version is closer to the performance of the download into the same equipment with less of a sense of processing being present on the signal. The difference isn’t huge but in terms of on-demand high res, Sublime+ has the edge.
The paid download process works well too. You can access the material straight through the desktop app and the process is slick and largely self-explanatory. The only remaining question is – for me at least – would you buy very much. The app is sufficiently good to use that there’s little real benefit to having it available offline. You could make the reasonable argument that once your sub is up, you lose this access while the download remains but this is true of any streaming service and given you’re tied in for a year, it isn’t as drastic a process with Qobuz as it is with monthly subs.
The difference isn’t huge but in terms of on-demand high res, Sublime+ has the edge
- Outstanding performance over lossless and high res
- Excellent interfaces
- Good choice of downloads
- Some gaps in the library
- No monthly payment option
Qobuz Sublime+ Streaming Service ReviewMy time with Qobuz Sublime+ has been significant for a few reasons. By any objective measure, this is the most capable on-demand streaming platform around. It genuinely delivers the best no hassle high-res streaming experience of any service I’ve yet to test. This is partnered with an interface that works effectively, well thought-out apps and a small but growing selection of high quality equipment that can use it – including the high res material – natively. What Qobuz has constructed here is seriously impressive.
My reservation with the Sublime+ tier is that it comes bundled with a service I am less enthused about. Discounted high res is nice but I’m not wholly convinced I want to spend £350 a year on it. In a perfect world Sublime would exist as a choice to access discount purchased downloads or high res streamed content with Sublime+ then coming in as the full fat option for people that need both. If I could have that additional tier, I would very seriously consider where I would find the money to sign up because the on-demand high res section is superb. As it is, £350 a year is a little high for someone who tends to make his physical purchases on vinyl. For digital devotees though, Sublime+ is unquestionably the most potent streaming option available and is entirely worthy of recommendation.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £349.99
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