AUDIO EXPERIENCE FROM FRANCE
“Stream on” my faithful followers! For those of you in the flock who feel like you have arrived in the middle of the story, I want you to know that you are probably already streaming without even knowing it, like when you watch a video on YouTube for instance. “Streaming” simply means that audio or video files are being delivered to you continuously from the web, without you having to download the files beforehand.
When it comes to listening to music, it used to be that there were two groups of people. The first group consisted of the bourgeois audiophiles who listened to very high quality music using fancy hifi sound systems in their comfy living rooms. The second group consisted of the others, the nomadic common people, condemned to use public transportation for their morning commute. In the pale light of the sordid early hours of the day, they had to make do with listening to mp3s. However, this clichéd image (which is rather an extreme caricature, I admit) is now losing any validity it may have had because, thanks to Qobuz, quality is finally being wedded to mobility!
Although the event went a bit unnoticed this summer, Qobuz took a globally unprecedented step forward at the end of July: it launched mobile streaming of CD-quality audio files (16-bit 44.1-kHz FLAC format). Thanks to the new Qobuz app, your favorite smartphone can now stream music of a quality that will make you think that you are listening to a CD. Qobuz already offered streaming music on mobile devices but only compressed files were available; streaming of CD-quality files was reserved for hifi systems hooked up to a computer. In order to “stream” CD-quality files while out on a walk in the forest or riding around in the metro, you will have to at least have access to a 3G network or a wifi connection. However, the 4G network that is currently being deployed across France should, in all likelihood, result in CD-quality music becoming a standard part of listening to music while on the go. Another advantage of using streaming to listen to high-quality music is that it greatly reduces the amount of device memory that you need to dedicate to CD-quality files, which are large. Thanks to Qobuz, you no longer have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea; you can save space on your device while getting access to high-quality music.
Since June, I have been testing Qobuz’s new application on my iPad (which I have hooked up to good headphones – Focal’s Spirit One model), and I must say that the difference in the quality of the listening experience is apparent and striking. What’s more, the new app is streamlined and unquestionably user friendly. The only minor disappointment was that I felt a bit fenced in while scrolling through the windows since window size cannot be adjusted. Aside from that, the app is responsive and stable.
The app also allows you to play Studio Masters files, which are of extremely high quality (encoded at 24 or more bits and up to 192 kHz), although you must remember that such files cannot ever be streamed (because of limited bandwidth and RAM). However, to listen to Studio Masters files, you will need a compatible portable device. Some compatible high-end players are already on the market, including Astell & Kern’s AK100 (700 €) or the Colorfly C4 (600 €). When it comes to devices that are used by the general public, like smartphones, the only one currently capable of playing Studio Masters files is LG’s G2; to some degree, the HTC One also has this capacity (24-bit files up to 96 kHz). I am going to try to test out some Studio Masters files on the G2 in the near future.
I already see several hands being waved impatiently at the back of the room. There is a question that you are dying to ask: and what about the connection between my mobile device and the hifi system in my living room? A variety of solutions exist, such as hubs or all sorts of other electronics, that allow you to wirelessly transmit music from a mobile device to an amplifier. Indeed, there are lots of solutions and lots of wireless technologies that are more or less of good quality: aptX Bluetooth, Airplay, A2DP, DLNA, or Kleer, for instance. However, it is a good idea to exercise caution when treading on this terrain: do not let yourself be deceived by marketing promises of “lossless” music, which seem to be everywhere these days but are not necessarily meaningful. Qobuz recognizes that this step forward strictly applies to portable devices and has no business, at present, being used to connect to hifi systems. For that type of usage, Qobuz suggests other good quality solutions that have proven their worth; these range from the simple, hooking up a DAC between your amplifier and your computer, to the more complex, multiroom hifi systems and wifi streaming devices.
Coming back to the topic of playing CD-quality files on the go, I have only a single but crucial recommendation to make that will allow you to fully appreciate the experience: equip yourself with good headphones. If you neglect to use high-quality headphones, then you are taking a step backwards. It would be a shame to ruin such a nice party, wouldn’t it?
For more information :
Qobuz is a French online music service that is currently available in France, Switzerland, and Belgium. Starting in November 2013, it will be accessible in Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Ireland. In 2014, the service should reach the U.S.A. and Canada.