Qobuz – The iTunes slayer we’ve been waiting for?

Since the advent of the digital music revolution, one platform for its distribution has reigned supreme as the juggernaut for buying and downloading new music, old music from years & decades gone by, and that has been iTunes. Launched in 2003, it heralded the death of the ubiquitous music stores found in malls across America where kids (and kids at heart) could go to buy their favorite vinyl records, cassettes, and eventually CD’s.

That changed when iTunes, and the iPod came out. No longer chained to only listening to one single CD at a time, consumers could store entire libraries of music on a single device the size of a deck of playing cards, make infinitely complex playlists of their favorite artists from their favorite genres and eras, all on the same software program, then upload it to a handy-dandy device they could listen to while walking, driving in their car, or whatever else they happened to be doing.

This also made Apple, the developers of iTunes (as well as the iPod it connected to), immensely rich, since people had to purchase everything through iTunes. Millions of songs turned into billions of songs, then movies, books, apps, you name it. This led to a lot of criticisms that Apple was becoming a monolith, or worse, a monopoly. Multiple other companies, like Microsoft, with their Zune player, tried to inevitably horn their way in on the action, but the vast majority couldn’t get any traction, and the few that did seem to get at least a little bit of attention, seemed to be relegated to niche audiences at best.

As technology advanced however, especially when it came not only to ever-better computers, faster Internet connections, and programming innovations. One of the main selling points of the first generation of the music revolution became all but irrelevant. You see, at first, hard drive space was at a premium, so therefore, iPods and other music players couldn’t store a lot of songs, even with the so-called “lossy” compression the distributors used, which stripped out the parts of the track that were outside the range of most people’s hearings, compressed the rest, and left you with a 4 minute song that was only a few megabytes in size. That way, someone could still store several dozen albums on an iPod before reloading it with new/different content. Nowadays, a 1 terabyte microSD card is smaller and thinner than a fingernail, and can store several hundred thousand MP3’s of that size. Plus, another music format, called FLAC, or the Free Lossless Audio Codec, was released, which allowed consumers to encode their music into truly CD quality or better onto their devices or even be able to stream it across a network. Plus, it had one benefit other formats didn’t have. It didn’t have what was called DRM, or Digital Rights Management. This meant that once you downloaded the music, it wasn’t locked to you, your account, or to a particular device. You could put it onto any computer, any music player, anything that supported the FLAC format, so long as there was room. And granted, a FLAC file is about 5-6 times the size of a comparable MP3, the fact you get true CD or studio level quality, and the fact you can share it across devices was a huge plus to a lot of people.

Then came Qobuz. The site was started in France in 2007, and while it was entering a market that already had several sites selling FLAC, and stayed mainly in Europe for a time, there were several key differences. Firstly, it was one of the first sites to have it’s own media player especially for their site. Most others were content to just sell their music, have you download them once, and then let you be off to the races. With Qobuz, someone could browse the now 80 million plus catalog of music files, make playlists, manage the downloads of music from their store, the list goes on. They also have a subscription streaming service that allows for the download of music to a device, so you don’t have to hog up valuable data through your cell service, or if your usual commute takes you through somewhere with bad cell service.

Another big advantage is that with a lot of popular tracks and albums, they’re available in Hi-Res formats. Where 16-Bit, 44.1k sampling is considered the standard for what’s called “CD quality”, quite a number of artists and record labels have released music in what’s called “Studio Quality” that goes as high as 24-Bit, 192.0k sampling rate. While some will tell you that most people cannot tell the difference between the two (studio vs CD quality), a lot of people can, and they’re willing to pay the difference, especially since a lot of people now have home theatre systems with speakers that pump out sound in very high resolutions nowadays.

Granted, Qobuz wasn’t available in the US until 2019, when there were already some other big sites selling hi-res music like Tidal, HDTracks and 7Digital, it’s made a lot of impressive in-roads, especially now that most people have the ability to download full CD quality albums from Qobuz faster than they could download a single MP3 in 2000 from Napster. Plus, with its ever increasing catalog of music, artists, record labels signing on, as well as the fact that many established artists are re-releasing their music catalogs in hi-res formats, there’s definitely becoming a market for it. As an example, Pink Floyd recently released its entire music catalog in fully hi-res audio on Qobuz. And Neil Young, who himself tried to get into the game with a FLAC distribution site called Pono, criticized Tidal for it’s lackluster sound on its app and website, as well as the questionable royalty schedule. That, plus Tidal’s recent acquisition by Sprint raises only more questions about the independence of these other sites, and only further lends credibility to Qobuz as the potential iTunes slayer that we’ve finally been waiting for, not to mention the fact that Qobuz offers the music catalog in the widest array of formats besides FLAC of any music site currently out there. Besides FLAC, it offers downloads in MP3, the granddaddy of all the music formats, as well as WMA, AAC Apple Lossless, WAV files, the list goes on. In fact, Sonos has partnered with Qobuz to be its exclusive streaming platform for fully lossless and hi res music on Sonos FM.

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