Best Music Streaming Service: Which one is best for you?

Spotify vs Apple Music vs Tidal vs the rest: Which music streaming service deserves your cash?

Which is the best music streaming service to use? There’s more than just Spotify out there. We’re going to pit the streaming giant against its biggest rivals: Apple Music, Tidal, Google Play Music and Deezer.

There’s £10/$10 a month riding on this question.

They all have gigantic libraries featuring tens of millions of tracks, offer discovery features to help you find new bands, and work with the vast majority of phones. We’ll have to dig pretty deep to find out which streaming services comes out on top.

We’re going to split up this comparison into topics, from price and sound quality to whether you can use them online and what the apps are like to use.

Best Music Streaming Service: Pricing

Apple Music: £9.99/$9.99, £14.99/$14.99 family, £4.99 student
Spotify: £9.99/$9.99, £14.99/$14.99 family, £4.99/$4.99 students Free ad-funded service
Google Play Music All Access: £9.99/$9.99 a month, £14.99/$14.99 family, free upload service
Deezer: £9.99/$9.99 a month, £14.99/$14.99 a month Elite or Family, free ad-funded service
Tidal: £19.99/$19.99 a month premium, £9.99/$9.99 regular, no free service, up to £29.99 family

All the main services charge the same amount for their standard premium services. It’s £9.99 or $9.99 a month, and that lets one person listen at a time.

Two of the services here offer a great student discount, Apple Music and Spotify. Both charge students £4.99. You can’t just be a 40 year-old hedge fund manager who has music lessons on the weekend, though. Student validation happens through Unidays and NUS Extra (Spotify only) in the UK, meaning you’ll need to be studying at a proper university or college. 

About half the services offer some form a free subscription too, if you’re really strapped for cash. Spotify and Deezer’s free services are very similar.

On a tablet or computer you can listen to the tracks you choose but have to listen to ads every now and then. With a phone, you don’t get to pick every track you listen to, but get a shuffled playlist based on your initial choice, and have limited track skips. And there are ads.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are also ultra-premium plans for each of these services. Apple, Spotify, Google, Tidal and Deezer all offer a ‘family’ plan that lets up to six people connect to the same account at once.

Unlike the student deal, there’s no checking that you’re only teaming-up with your brother, mum and auntie, so you can more-or-less share with whoever you like. All the family deals cost £14.99/$14.99 a month.

Tidal and Deezer have rather more interesting higher-price subs too, ones that boost the quality of the music you stream. Deezer Elite delivers 1,411 kbps lossless FLAC for £14.99 a month while Tidal asks for £19.99 a month (£29.99 with the Family plan) but also features a selection of “master” quality Hi Res albums, outdoing every other streaming service at present.

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Best Music Streaming Service: Sound Quality

Apple Music: 256kbps AAC
Spotify:
up to 320kbps OGG
Google Play Music All Access
: Up to 320kbps MP3
Deezer:
320kbps MP3, 1411kbps FLAC
Tidal:
1411kbps FLAC, 320kbps AAC, 24-bit MQA

The little secret that Neil Young and vinyl-stroking bores don’t want to admit is that all the main streaming services offer excellent streaming quality. Using the highest grade streams these companies offer, even great ears will struggle to judge between a stream and a CD.

Apple Music uses the lowest bit-rate, with 256kbps AAC files, whose quality is comparable to a 320kbps MP3 thanks to the greater efficiency of AAC. Years before Hi Res became such a buzzword, the consensus was that 320kbps digital audio files are largely indistinguishable from CD quality.

Across the various services you’ll see a smattering of different codecs used. Play Music and Deezer use the very out of date (but highly compatible) MP3, Tidal and Apple Music use AAC and Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis.

What actually matters the most in real terms is how these services sound when you use the stripped-back quality settings you’ll need to resort to when you’re using mobile data and a) want to conserve data use or b) find yourself in an area with crap signal. Most of these services let you choose your streaming quality. This is where Deezer comes unstuck a bit.

Its use of the dated MP3 format is obvious when you switch to the “basic” quality setting as music sounds horrible. It’s like being teleported back to 1999 and the bad old days of Napster downloads. Conversely, Spotify’s lowest 96kbps ogg streams are quite enjoyable, and Google Play Music clearly doesn’t go to the same bitrate depths as Deezer either. While it uses MP3, its bog-standard streams sound OK.

Deezer’s sound quality is not bad but it has the scope to sound bad if you choose the wrong setting.

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Deezer is also just one of two big streaming services to offer lossless streaming, with 1411kbps FLAC. These reproduce all the data from a CD recording. You get this with the £14.99/$14.99 Elite sub. Tidal’s lossless sub is more expensive at £19.99, but it is the only of these services to provide Hi Res audio. 16-bit FLAC files are not Hi Res.

Tidal uses MQA to stream 24-bit 96KHz true high-end audio for a selection of “master” albums. There are (at the time of writing) a couple of thousand of these rather than a million but a lot of classic acts are in there. Including Michael Buble.

There are rumours Spotify and Apple are planning on adding Hi Res music to their libraries, but you’ll have to wait to see if that emerges.

Best Music Streaming Service: Discovery Features

Apple Music: Strong curation, Apple Connect social network, Beats 1 Radio and genre-based stations
Spotify:
 Moderate curation, Facebook integration, optional apps, recommendations based on listening habits, genre and artist-led radio stations, Discover Weekly playlists
Google Play Music All Access: No curation, recommendations based on listening habits, ad-supported radio station (US only)
Deezer: Strong curation, Facebook integration, optional apps, recommendations based on listening habits, mixes
Tidal: Curated content from music journalists, artist interviews

Some of these services are much newer than Spotify but all are mature enough to now offer fairly good music discovery features. We could spend ages noodling on about what each service does, but let’s just take a look at the highlights of each.

Spotify’s best-known discovery tool is the Discover Weekly playlist. Each week it gives you 30 tracks Spotify thinks you might like. You also get daily mixes, which are built of tracks you’ve already listened to.

Discover weekly has proved an inspiration for several of the other services too. For example, Deezer’s stand-out is Flow. This is an auto-populated playlist that features a mix of new tunes and ones you already like.

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Apple Music has similar playlists too. “My New Music Mix” and “My Favourites Mix” lists are updated once a week and, just as they sound, offer playlists of new and familiar music that you don’t have to curate yourself.

Apple’s stand-out features are perhaps a little less successful, although you might disagree. Apple Connect is a Twitter-a-like feature that lets artists post to fans about their new music, their thoughts on right-wing politics and so on. It hasn’t exactly revolutionised the game, though, and lost prominence in the last redesign of Apple Music.

Then there’s Beats 1. This is a digital radio station, the Apple equivalent of BBC Radio 1. It’s not for everyone but should suit those in-tune with current trends.

Google Play Music has a more stripped-back approach to the whole discovery side. You just get a rolling home screen of suggested playlists based on your tastes. It’s arranged a bit like a digital magazine, heavy on pictures and not too heavy on content. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as some people find the packed Spotify app a bit much to deal with.

Tidal is similarly laid back. It feels much less like it’s trying to second-guess your listening habits. Instead there’s a Tidal Rising section that promotes the new acts the Tidal bigwigs like.

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Deezer offers strong music discovery across all of its web, mobile and console apps

Best Music Streaming Service: Mobile Apps

Apple Music: iOS only, Android, via iTunes
Spotify:
Android,iOS, Windows Phone, PS4/PS3 app, web player
Google Play Music All Access:
Android, iOS, web player, Google Home support, Android Wear
Deezer:
Android, iOS, web player
Tidal:
iOS, Android, web player

Unless you still have a Windows phone, you don’t have to worry much about compatibility with your phone. All these services work across Android and iOS, even those from Google and Apple.

Deezer and Spotify also work on Windows phone, although as that system is almost dead, the apps are not updated anywhere near as much as their more popular counterparts.

All the services also have web players via browser apart from Apple Music, although you can listen through iTunes. The potential worry here is if you use a secured work PC that doesn’t let you install extra software like iTunes — it’s one of the main reasons you might want to avoid Apple Music. 

Spotify has the widest support, found in places where the other services aren’t. For example, it’s built into some home cinema receivers through Spotify Connect, and is generally considered the ‘default’ streaming service to support by wireless speaker makers.

As smart home and wearable tech develops, though, the outlook is changing a little. For example. Google Play Music lets you download tracks for offline playback on an Android Wear watch, and is natively supported by the Google Home smart speaker.

If you’re concerned about compatibility with future hardware, Spotify is the platform with the most reach and the fewest ‘political’ issues. For example, while Apple Music will be the first music platform supported by Apple’s smart home device, if/when it appears, it’s safe to assume Spotify will be the second.

Tidal? Not so much. As ever, Tidal is the service for those who are into streaming for the music side, rather than the tech peripheral side.

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Spotify still reigns when it comes to app support across multiple platforms

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Google Play Music
Google Play Music All Access lets you upload 50,000 of your own songs to the cloud for free

Best Music Streaming Service: Offline Features

Apple Music: Unlimited mobile downloads
Spotify:
3333 mobile downloads per device, three devices, desktop playlist downloads
Google Play Music All Access:
Unlimited mobile downloads
Deezer:
Unlimited mobile and desktop downloads
Tidal:
Unlimited mobile downloads

All six services allow you to download tracks to their mobile apps for offline listening, so that’s a good start.

Spotify is the most limiting of the lot, because of its 10,000 track limit. This is split across three devices, divvied up as 3,333 downloads for each. If you’re a big music fan with an even bigger microSD card, this could prove a problem.

When using the web player rather than the mobile app, you can only download playlists too. The ‘download’ switch simply doesn’t appear outside of them, in albums for example.

The rest of these services only limit offline downloads by the amount of storage on your device.

It’s Google that delivers the most interesting features in this area too. Even if you don’t pay for a Play Music subscription, you can upload/sync up to 50,000 of your own files to the cloud to play them without taking up any of your phone’s storage.

Apple has a similar feature, but it’s not free. iTunes Match costs £21.99/$24.99 a year, and lets you cloud stream up to 100,000 of your own tracks. Of course, these services are quite different to the standard sub. You’re streaming your own music, not new songs you don’t own.

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Tidal

Best Music Streaming Service: Music Catalogue


Apple Music:
Over 40 million tracks
Spotify:
Over 30 million tracks
Google Play Music All Access:
Over 40 million tracks
Deezer:
Over 43 million tracks
Tidal:
Over 46 million tracks

Read the official numbers of the track libraries of streaming services and it looks like Spotify has 10 million tracks fewer than the pack. That’s not the case. Spotify has just been using the same “over 30 million” song figure for a couple of years.

The more keen-to-impress Tidal gives you a clearer impression of the sort of song libraries all these services have, with a current total of 46 million songs.

What matters more are exclusives. A lot have been made of streaming exclusives over the past 18 months, but thankfully the habit seems to be dying down. After all, who benefits other than the giant corporation behind the service and the artist, who will likely earn a big payout or huge promotion for signing the deal.

The biggest exclusives to date have gone to Apple Music and Tidal, which is owned by Jay-Z and a “coalition” of other artists including Madonna, Daft Punk and Chris Martin of Coldplay.

Apple Music bought a limited-time exclusive for Drake’s 2016 album Views to bolster the service, while Beyonce’s Lemonade is still streaming exclusively on Tidal more than a year after its release.

Rather than opting for this sort of willy-waving, Spotify tends to favour Spotify Sessions, which are (usually acoustic) live recordings. Deezer is also making its own TV talk show-style podcasts, another way to get unique content in the library.

Google Play Music’s Mark Bennett has also spoken out against exclusive streamed albums.

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Best Music Streaming Service: Popularity (Paid, May 2017)

Apple Music: Over 20 million (Dec 2016)
Spotify:
Over 50 million (Mar 2017)
Google Play Music All Access:
Not known
Deezer:
6.9 million (estimated)
Tidal:
3 million (controversial)

Hopefully you have some idea about which streaming service might be right for you. But which is the most successful?

Apple has expanded its audience hugely since its launch, but Spotify is still the clear market leader with 50 million paid subscribers to Apple’s 20 million (as of the end of 2016).

Other services are much less popular. Google hasn’t announced any figures yet (not a great sign) and Tidal was reportedly at a fairly dismal 1.1 million paid subs in October 2016. This is after scoring the exclusive on Beyonce’s Lemonade.

Deezer’s figures are estimated at 6.9 million, which sounds much healthier. However, you also need to consider that it has been around since 2007, almost as long as Spotify.

For now this is Spotify’s business, with only Apple on track to compete.

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Spotify

Conclusion: Which is the best music streaming service?

For the audio snobs out there, the best services are Deezer and Tidal. They let you stream lossless FLAC files if you sign up for a higher-price subscription, and Tidal goes a step further by offering a growing library of even higher-quality 24-bit MQA albums.

The best free options are Google Play Music, Spotify and Deezer. Google’s is great if you’re happy streaming music you already own, while the other two are spot on for casual music listening when you just need to fill some time, say, at the gym or on the way to work.

For all-round music discovery, interface richness and effort-free playlist curation, we’re inclined to stick with Spotify for the time being. However, we also know plenty of people who have moved to Apple Music and don’t regret it.

If you’re not convinced by any of these service’s stand-out features, the best bet is to give a few a go. While Apple Music doesn’t have a free service, there is a generous 3-month trial that is free in the US and UK.

Are you a fan of music streaming? Let us know in the comments section below.