Q&A With Yves Riesel, CEO, Qobuz

Qobuz Co-Founders Yves Reisel (left) and Alexandre Leforestier

France-based Qobuz (pronounced cow-buzz and named after a traditional two-stringed instrument of Central Asia) is one of the premier online music retailers of CD-quality and high resolutions downloads. Qobuz is also one of the first sites to offer a CD-quality streaming service, if not the first, and in my opinion it is also the most advanced website for music download sales and streaming services around. One peak at their home page on any given day will tell a lot of what you need to know—podcasts, blogs, hi-fi, editorials, and more, Qobuz embodies many of the best qualities of online sales combined with a healthy human touch. Yves Riesel, Qobuz's Co-founder CEO, was kind enough to agree to this Q&A and I'd like to thank him for his time and answers.

Can you give us a history of Qobuz?
Qobuz was founded following the work we did very early on at Abeille Musique (from 2003), in order to turn an independent CD distribution and production company into a digitally ready entity. It was difficult as our business partners, mainly independent classical and jazz labels were very reluctant at first - they wanted us to concentrate on selling their CDs and were nervous, sometimes aggressive, when we were speaking to them about a digital contract. This was a time when new digital aggregator companies were offering cash guarantees against rights, and very often the labels disconnected their CD distribution from their digital distribution. Which was an error. But unfortunately most of the CD distributors were not involved with digital music, and as such, were not offering any solutions to the labels.

"I think that our main point is that we love music, we are still fans and we will always stay independent minded."

Considering the way digital distribution was turning - poor quality, no specialisation - we thought that our experience at Abeille would be useful for other labels and so decided to open a BtC music service, enlisting all the competitors of Abeille. We signed with everybody, majors and independents. I think that our main point is that we love music, we are still fans and we will always stay independent minded.

The question of provenance, the exact source, is an ongoing issue especially for Studio Master reissues. How do you ensure that what you are selling is in fact what it is represented to be with 24-bit downloads?
We strongly believe that B2B music distribution should be a serious business done in a professional way. It is not always the case. We saw terrible things at the beginning, even from people with a very good reputation. Producers were just asking for more money to do the job, aggregators were keen to make no efforts at all - in fact the key point is the quality of the B2B music distribution - and there is a lot to complain about. One thing must be clear: 24 Bits for the present and forthcoming productions will be easy. As for the past, for the CD era, it will be quite rare as lots of original recordings simply do not allow this quality. And for the analogue era, the problem is the quality of the original tapes and the cost of remastering them.

"We strongly believe that the labels have to improve their quality controls. It is their role, their job to deliver the right product."

As an e-shop, Qobuz should be delivered with good quality and sincere products by the labels, and then focus on finding customers and giving them a great shopping experience. The reality is a bit different. We have to control and check, and check again. On new releases we have less and less quality problems. On the reissues we are still suspicious and discover a lot of problems. We strongly believe that the labels have to improve their quality controls. It is their role, their job to deliver the right product. There is also the question of 24 Bits albums done from vinyls - in this case we are selling them at ​the same price than the ​CD quality​.

Another issue plaguing sound quality especially for new releases of popular music is dynamic compression. Do you think DR Values are something that Qobuz should monitor and make available to the public?
We began collecting 24 bits albums 5 years ago. In the meantime many things changed and also elements about the information we must deliver to our consumers. Over the next year we will continue to evolve in this field - I must also say that more automatized functions will help. A continued 'work in progress...'

Qobuz offers a CD-quality lossless streaming service. Can you talk about how this came about, how many titles are available, and how many subscribers you have?
CD-quality lossless streaming service and all our catalogue as CD-quality downloads. In fact we have everything. All the repertoire of the majors + all the repertoire of the independents. Minus lots of shit (sorry) that we are excluding for technical/fraudulent quality reasons or unnecessary duplication of public domain stuff.

Originally my idea was very simple: there was no reason, even technical, to deliver compressed music. Our teams worked hard 2,5 years ago to launch the 1st Lossless streaming service… and we did it. We were also the 1st Lossless streaming service to be embraced by SONOS, and continue to do many deals with lots of audio-connected products and brands.

"Originally my idea was very simple: there was no reason, even technical, to deliver compressed music."

Currently, the Qobuz streaming service is not available in the US. Are there plans to expand this service to the US and other countries?
Yes : )))))) I would LOVE to tell you when - as a scoop ! But I promise : you will be the first to know.

The holy grail for some people is high resolution streaming. Is this something that Qobuz is looking into? What are the main obstacles for offering high resolution streaming today and do you see these obstacles being overcome in the future?
We have now machines which allow us to stream at home 24 Bits files (BlueSound for example). As for a 24 Bits streaming service - labels will ask for more money, which is understandable. Theoretically it is possible, technically not so difficult. But is it worth it NOW? We have an other idea, that I hope we will be able to announce it early next fall.

Accompanying Neil Young's Pono publicity there has been some criticism and skepticism relating to high resolution downloads. The most common complaint being higher samples rates and bit depths do not offer better sound quality and that CD-quality is good enough. Can you talk about why, in technical terms, you feel higher resolution downloads offer better sound quality as compared to CD-quality?
OK - The higher the quality of the sample file - the better your ears and equipment need to be to appreciate the difference.

If you have good ears and a wonderful sound system - then listening to 24/192 should be a routine.

"We are not listening to our systems or our cables. We are listening to the soul of the musician. For Qobuz, even when trying to deliver the best sound, the music is the primary concern."

If not, better perhaps to improve your equipment a bit and listen to 16/44. And do not forget: bad music wonderfully recorded will always be bad music.

We are not listening to our systems or our cables. We are listening to the soul of the musician. For Qobuz, even when trying to deliver the best sound, the music is the primary concern. Because we knew in the past that 24 Bits masters would be always rare and expensive, we have done a lot to make sure everything was available in LossLess both in streaming and downloads.

For many people, the notion of restricting sales of downloads by geographic region seems senseless. I've often had people comment that they wished they could buy all titles from the Qobuz catalog but because they're in the US, they are blocked from doing so. Do you foresee this issue of geographic restrictions for downloads changing in the future?

The frontiers now are much more severe in the online music field than in the CD distribution. We are serious people and we want to preserve the rights of the artists and the producers. We will soon open in more countries having signed the rights and then you will be able to fully benefit from the service !

There have been repeated rumors that Apple will begin selling 24-bit downloads through iTunes as early as June 2014. If/when this happens, how do you see this changing the download market?
For the good if it happens!

"Their [Apple's] catalogue will be not bigger than ours, and dealing with us, for both artists and labels, will always create more value and more fairness than with such a hardware company."

It’s good to have competitors in the field of the quality. Their catalogue will be not bigger than ours, and dealing with us, for both artists and labels, will always create more value and more fairness than with such a hardware company.

Now, for the last 5 years, when starting each day, I’ve known that a competitor could arrive and deliver LossLess and HD files. But what about the music experience? Our philosophy is very different from iTunes and from, I must also say, most of the streaming services.

the Qobuz Player

Different from iTunes because we have seriously and properly organized boutiques for each music genre, and real, human, expert recommendations.

Different from most of the streaming services because our customer is not only floating on an ocean of music: we are helping him to plunge into each genre. And with lots of exclusive content etc

What will Qobuz look like in terms of its services in five years? And ten years?

  • Really super-apps with exclusive features.
  • Really exquisite meta​ ​datas and tons of exclusive documentation; 1st class music journalism, highly demanding music experts.
  • Perfect integration with most of the audio brands.
  • 24bits, DSD etc streaming service.
  • Lots of exclusive releases on Qobuz because it will be worth it for the artists and the labels.
  • Worldwide live concerts in audio-video HD, and the best music events within your subscription.
  • Fully documented 100 years+ history of the recorded music.
  • All in all, an invaluable source for any music lover.

COMMENTS
Jonahsdad's picture

This type of thing is real value added for Audiostream, beyond what your sister sites can or should provide. Well done!

I've got a Qobuz account since you wrote up the Archie Shepp album. I must use it more.

Finally, great to hear about the new Stereophile gig. I'll miss Steven, but excited to read your contributions!

Michael Lavorgna's picture
& thanks on the Stereophile column. I'll miss Stephen's writing a lot.
firedog55's picture

I personally alerted Qobuz months ago that they have dozens of albums on their site listed as 24-96 "Guaranteed Quality Studio Masters" from the BIS label that were originally recorded in either 16/44.1 or 24.44.1, not 24/96. Qobuz claims albums labelled as "Guraranteed Studio Masters" are identical to what was produced at the recording console and come direct from the label in question.

It's easy to tell that these recordings aren't 24-96 Studio Masters, because the BIS Label had no 24/96 recording capability before 2007.

The Chairman of BIS was alerted by me, and he personally wrote Qobuz confirming that the albums in question were not and could not have been recorded in 24-96 hi-res. He also confirmed Qobuz didn't receive the material from BIS.

In spite of this, Qobuz continues to label them as 24-96 Guaranteed Studio Masters, and continues to sell them at the appropriate hi-res prices.

Apparently the fake 24-96 comes from an authorized BIS digital distributor, who produced them from BIS SACDs. BIS made the SACDs in order to provide their customers with 5.1 channel SACDs, which their customers said they wanted (even when the material was upsampled to DSD). BIS never hid/denied that the SACD's were produced from upsampled 16/44.1 and 24/44.1 recordings. ON BIS own web store for downloads, the albums are accurately labelled with original bit and sample rate, and sold in the original format.

In short, it doesn't take elaborate digital forensics or a massive research effort to know that these recordings are fake 24-96. Qobuz didn't need to do much in the first place to know that they were fake, but once alerted, how difficult is it to simply take the 24-96 label off the web pages in question and reduce the price accordingly? Or simply inform users of the provenance on the web page and stop calling them "Guaranteed Studio Masters".

To be sure, before I wrote this post I did a spot check, and the problem seems not to have been taken care of by Qobuz, except for a few individual exceptions on their site.

This is doubly disturbing to me because Qobuz has made a big marketing effort to assure customers that they have "Guranteed" the true hi-res provenance of what they are selling. All the fake hi-res being sold by the hi-res web stores damages not just their own individual reputations, but the sector as a whole.

I think it makes us all hesitant to believe in any of their product, even though we know some of it is real quality.

And BTW, I don't have anything against Qobuz per se. I'll continue to buy from them when I can be sure the product is what they claim it is.

I've also written HD Tracks and Acoustic Sounds about these issues regarding individual albums. HDT generally isn't helpful or forthcoming with relevant information. Acoustic Sounds has in every case replied to me with a detailed and satisfying answer after a couple of days.

Unfortunately, I've gotten to the point that I won't pay for a hi-res download until the site provides providence info, or other users buy the album and confirm that it seems to be the real thing.

There's a whole forum thread about these Qobuz fake "Studio Masters" at computeraudiophile.com, if you are interested in the discussion.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...are keeping an eye on this post so perhaps they'll reply here. I'll also send them an email and let them know of your concerns (couldn't hurt).
bobflood's picture

I wish them well and look forward to their expansion.

bobflood's picture

that many won't even try it. How sad! My own experience has been mixed. For me the future is in the streaming side. I just don't want to run a data center and having a whole catalog to listen to for the price of one hi-res download per month is a deal that will be too good to pass up.

firedog55's picture

Chris Connaker of Computer Audiophile recently tried putting a large Redbook and hi-res library online and streaming it to himself. He used some of the industry leaders in online storage and download, and has a very high speed home internet connection.

In short lossy streams and Redbook worked, hi-res didn't - stalled, dropped out, etc. We won't even go into the cost of storing in the cloud and streaming this online on a yearly basis.

Unless someone comes up with some lossless compression protocol that will highly compress the stream and then losslessly and seamlessly uncompress it at the consumer endpoint, I don't think hi-res streaming will happen anytime soon.

Maybe I'm pessimistic and this is about to appear. I'll ge glad if I'm wrong.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
They offer high res streaming but I have not tried it in a while.
BrooklynNick's picture

Chris Connaker has issues with high-res not due to network bandwidth (capacity and speed), but due to bandwidth allotted to each user of the sites where he was hosting the files. They limit bandwidth to save money and they don't yet promote streaming as a use for their storage sites. I have a fast internet connection and am I able to watch *live* HD video streams with audio. If you like them, check out one of Phish's concert webcasts sometime to see and hear what is possible. The quality is not perfect, but HD video uses a lot more bandwidth than high-res audio, so it show that high-res streaming is possible now.

firedog55's picture

Streaming HD Video services use advanced compression algorithms to stream video - you are NOT being streamed actual HD size files. Hi-res music takes much more bandwidth.

bobflood's picture

It is 7.99/mo US and works great. I stream 44/16,44/24,48/24 and 96/24 albums from it without problems.

Sorry for the commercial Michael but people need to know that hi-res streaming is not a technical problem any longer. We need to get the word out to build up demand.

bernardperu's picture

DR question was asked. It was not really answered. Can you ask it again till you get an honest answer?

Hi rez does not mean much if the master is crap.

Thanks!

firedog55's picture

The download providers are essentially fulfilling the niche once occupied by record/disk stores. They are simply retailers, and not producers of product.

So the quality of a remaster is dependent upon the label. If the label/remaster producer decide to volume compress a remaster, there isn't a lot a site like HDT or Qobuz can do about it. Acoustic sounds remasters some of its own product, so they have a bit more control.

In addition, I've heard the Chesky's say that the DR level (added compression or not) is an ARTISTIC decision by the Label/producer/artist that they don't - and shouldn't - interfere in. You can definitely disagree, but that argument does have some merit.

bernardperu's picture

Hdtracks and Qobuz are not legally responsible for disclosing DR. I get that.

But they are morally responsible, as they are willingly selling a deceitful illusion. Yes, I know this is common practice in all business and it is called marketing.

A good sounding MP3 will sound far better than a 24/192. This is reality and they should not perpetrate the lie that "hi rez is better." The latter quote is legally acceptable, but not morally.

bernardperu's picture

I meant to say:

Mp3 better than hi res when mp3 sounds good and hi res is dynamically compressed and explicitly mastered for background listening..

firedog55's picture

I meant to add that the sales of the hi-res sites are very small, so the sites don't have enough power to pressure the labels to do things differently, even if they wanted to.

The same isn't true for Apple-iTunes, so maybe you can hope from help from that direction. The standards for iTunes radio do give hope that Apple may influence mastering techniques for the better as far as volume compression is concerned.

BrooklynNick's picture

I have Spotify (premium) right now, but I am going to take a closer look at Qobuz. Besides their stated dedication to documenting provenance and providing real high-res titles, I'm particularly impressed by these goals:

-Really exquisite meta​ ​datas and tons of exclusive documentation; 1st class music journalism, highly demanding music experts.
-Fully documented 100 years+ history of the recorded music.

Zakir's picture

I have to say my experience with QOBUZ has been the best to date in comparison to any other similar service, and I have Gubemusic, Klicktrack and Boomkat accounts as well.

I have had two minor issues with downloads in the past, but they've been taken care of the very same day or few hours after I wrote them at their customer service. So from my experience they're obviously taking their business seriously and doing their job well. I can also only praise the fine job they do of connecting music lovers with the work of musicians through videos, interviews, podcasts, something Apple and most other similar services have totally neglected.

I nevertheless believe the BIS impasse is something that QOBUZ should take care of, as it doesn't make any sense having such an unfortunate misunderstanding with a label of the importance of BIS and someone like Robert von Bahr, who is one of the honest and correct guys in the recording industry, and whose work is highly respected and valued.

I have bought several BIS Studio Masters from QOBUZ, but none from the period previous to 2007, which are the ones in question, so I haven't been personally affected by this problem, but I would like to see the problem sorted and QOBUZ coming to good terms with Robert von Bahr, as it appears the intermediary is the one behind the whole Studio Master scam.

This is however not the first time BIS has had the same problem with their recordings being misrepresented. The last time it was HDTracks, and BIS cut off relationships with HDTracks after that. The problem was similar, as the DSD layer had been ripped in that situation as well.

To me the problem is that I can still find the inaccurate Studio Masters at QOBUZ, and that I haven't heard of any solution of the problem between BIS and QOBUZ. Robert von Bahr would have all the reason to be mad at them and apply the same treatment they gave HDTracks, and this would obviously just be a major loss for music lovers. I hope QOBUZ corrects this situation by removing the inaccurate BIS Studio Masters, and hopefully continue to work in good terms with BIS.

Below I am reproducing the comment posted by Robert von Bahr in the computeraudiophile thread to which firedog55 referred to, with the hope that QOBUZ does the right thing and lets us music lovers continue to enjoy the QOBUZ experience unspoiled, as well as downloading the REAL BIS Studio Maters:

"I was pointed to this thread from sa-cd.net. As I said, I have written to Qobuz with my real name and position in order to demand an explanation, as these things could be rather damaging to us, and certainly tricks the buyer into paying for something it isn't, and never was, namely a 24/96 recording.
With the risk of being accused of touting my own goods, I have to say that you should buy BIS stuff from eClassical.com High Resolution FLAC & MP3 Classical Music Download Store. Here you will, at a rather better price, get the real thing, and advertised as such. End advertisement.

I am outraged by situations like this: several years ago, I was drawn and quartered on sa-cd.net, because HDTracks wrongly sold our first SACD:s in 24/88,2, when in fact they were 24/44,1. At the time I had no idea that HDTracks even existed. They had got hold of my physical SACD:s and ripped the DSD layer, then advertised them to be 24/88,2. I didn't know anything about this, but I was named a liar and a cheat etc. Very uncomfortable. So what did HDTracks do? They blamed BIS!!!! This is why, since that day, they are under an absolute boycot from BIS - they get nothing to sell.
I hope that this will not get that far with Qobuz, but the fact that they haven't even deigned to answer me in a week speaks badly for them.
I have no problems whatsoever in cutting off anyone from selling our stuff, who doesn't live up to the very basic rules of transparency and honesty. Basta!!

BTW, we now exclusively record in 24/96 or 24/192.

Robert (von Bahr, CEO, BIS Records and eClassical)"

Cheers

firedog55's picture

http://www.whathifi.com/news/qobuz-confirms-studio-master-download-servi...

The news in that link sounds confused, like the writer didn't understand what he was writing about. No one is going to pay those kind of prices to stream a song or an album once. Sounds like the confused the price of streaming with the price of downloading.

Zakir's picture

The news is that High-Resolution audio will be streaming in September, and mainly that QOBUZ will be available in Scandinavia and other European countries. It's going to interesting to see how the streaming will work out. I hope that the recent and alarming ruling of the FCC, ignoring the millions supporting net neutrality, won't add extra costs or slow down these kind of services. The fight isn't entirely over yet, but I'm not overly optimistic (http://act.watchdog.net/petitions/4655?share_ref=D5DwWzNp0G0)

The move to partner with Astell & Kern is also potentially interesting, although I don't think accurate High-Resolution - in terms of hardware - is going to be portable any time soon. By accurate I mean analogue specs that match or approach digital ones, and of course also the sufficient digital specs to reproduce High-Resolution audio (http://benchmarkmedia.com/blogs/news/13174001-what-is-high-resolution-au...
http://benchmarkmedia.com/blogs/news/13347025-what-is-high-resolution-au...).

The move to stream High-Resolution audio is definitely a clever one when it comes to QOBUZ holding its ground against Apple.

Aside from the BIS impasse, I'm generally positive about QOBUZ, and I believe it has moved in the right direction with the concepts it has developed aside from merely providing downloads. I sincerely hope they correct the BIS Studio Masters and continue to work in good terms with BIS and that this problem becomes an unfortunate isolated incident.

firedog55's picture

Is that you can't have confidence that any of the other "Studio Masters" from other labels is actually what Qobuz portrays them to be.

Zakir's picture

But I get your point. To me the major mistake here is QOBUZ not taking care of a problem that is public knowledge, and that amounts to false advertising and worse. I am not happy about their lack of initiative to remove the false Studio Masters and try correcting things by publishing a statement, offering refunds, etc.

For now I prefer going with the evidence and assume that this is the only situation of false Studio Masters at QOBUZ, but if I don't see the will behind addressing and solving the problem other than two forum posts at computer audiophile, my discomfort will certainly rise beyond the impression that the intermediary is the one behind the entire situation.

I'm still hoping to see QOBUZ finally taking care of this, but they have let too much time go by, and I'd really hate them losing BIS for something that could have been solved quicker.
If QOBUZ fails to act on this, I would urge Michael Levorgna to follow up on the issue, and give it some attention.

firedog55's picture

You are better off buying from eClassical.com - their own web store - the same BIS downloads, properly labelled, and for lower prices than elsewhere.

firedog55's picture

The Harry Nilsson Complete RCA Albums Collection for just under 50Euro ($68).

That's 17 Redbook quality albums for that price. There is some truly magnificent singing and songwriting here, if you like Nilsson at all you should get this.

Great deal for the remasters. The actual box set is available for about $10 more on Amazon.com, if you prefer discs.

See, I was serious when I said I've got nothing against Qobuz.

Zakir's picture

I also very highly recommend Mark Waldrep's REAL HD-Audio blog. There is no other better source on High-Resolution Audio out there.

http://www.realhd-audio.com/?p=2364#comment-8961
http://www.realhd-audio.com/?p=2417
http://www.realhd-audio.com/?p=2427
http://www.realhd-audio.com/?p=2431

Enjoy!

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