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Best Music Streaming Service: Which one to download?

Michael Sawh by | Go to comments

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What's the best music streaming service to use? We've spent some listening time with Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer, Google Play Music, Rdio and Tidal and here's our verdict.

If you've finally given up on uploading your entire music collection to every device you own, then it's time to sign up to music streaming service. The good news is that you're not currently spoilt for choice. Whether you go for Apple Music or Spotify, you're guaranteed to find a huge catalogue of music, a host of playlists to help you discover something new to listen to and offline playback so you're not eating into that mobile data package.

But which one stands out from the rest and will give you the best overall music streaming experience? We've been using Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer, Google Play Music, Rdio and Tidal over the past few weeks to cover the leading contenders

From pricing to music discovery, here's our verdict on which service comes out on top.

Best Music Streaming Service: Pricing

Apple Music: £9.99 a month, £14.99 family membership

Spotify: £9.99 a month, Free ad-funded service

Google Play Music All Access: £9.99 a month, no free ad-funded service

Deezer: £9.99 a month, £14.99 a month Elite, Free ad-funded service

Rdio: £4.99 a month (web only) £9.99 a month, £17.99 family membership, free ad-funded radio service

Tidal: £19.99 a month premium, £9.99 regular, no free service

To get the full service, which is mainly what we're looking at here, you need to pay £9.99 per month for all. Rdio does offer a web only subscription, which might appeal if you spend the majority of time sitting at a computer listening to music. We have a feeling that most will want something that is accessible from more than one device though.

Rdio is also offering its Select service, which gives you access to its streaming radio service without ads and unlimited skips. There's also a daily offline limit letting you download 25 tracks so you'll have enough to get through an album and a bit a day. That'll cost you $4 a month in the US and will be roughly the same price when it hits the UK so around £4 we reckon.

Deezer recently launched new premium service for £14.99 offering CD-quality streaming, which might sound like a pricy option, but is actually cheeper than the £19.99 Tidal equivalent. If you're willing to pay for a year up front, you can even get this Elite service for the equivalent of £10 per month.

Tidal's big (though no longer unique) thing is its premium package, which offers superior quality audio files for £19.99 per month, though it does have a £9.99 'normal' option.

Deezer and Spotify also offer free and limited ad-funded services, which limit things such as sound quality, skipping tracks, specific track selections, offline listening among other things. So you've been warned.

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Rdio offers web only and app subscriptions starting from £4.99 a month

Best Music Streaming Service: Sound Quality

Apple Music: 256kbps AAC

Spotify: 320kbps OGG

Google Play Music All Access: 320kbps MP3

Deezer: 320kbps MP3

Rdio: 320kbps MP3, 1411kbps FLAC

Tidal: 1411kbps FLAC, 320kbps AAC

One of the last and greatest barriers for streaming services to contend with is sound quality. Only two of these services offer CD-quality audio, but that's not really the point with most of them. They all offer quality that's on a par with MP3 download services, which is really what these music subscription services will be replacing for most people.

That's apart from Apple, which offers lower than the industry standard. Matching what its iTunes Match service offers, some will notice the harsher sounding quality in comparison to the other services. But for most, it's not going be an issue.

As such, most services here offer 320kbps streaming options, which is the same quality as most MP3 downloads. All sound great, but the most exacting of audiophiles using the most expensive of headphone or speaker setups should probably only consider Tidal or Deezer's Elite option.

Suffice to say, there's no real detectable difference between the various services that operate around the 320kbps mark to these untrained (and thus, we think, reasonably representative) ears.

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Both Tidal and Deezer offer 'CD-quality' streaming

If maximum quality audio quality really matters to you above all else in a music subscription service, you might want to discard all of these mainstream services and signing up for Tidal's premium service. At 1411kbps, its FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files provide near-flawless sound quality with precious little compression.

To really reap the benefits of that higher resolution audio, you'll need to have the necessary equipment. That means getting hold of a DAC (Digital to Analogue converter) or a headphone amp. If you own a Sonos, the multiroom speakers are set up to work with both Tidal, Deezer high res services.

As discussed, Tidal also has a lower quality subscription tier, though its 320kbps AAC files are arguably still better than the rest.

It's a similar case with Deezer, which has it's own 1411kbps FLAC subscription tier. Impressively, that covers all 35 million of its files, and as discussed it's also cheaper than Tidal.

We should also take this opportunity to mention French service Qobuz, which sells itself as an HD alternative, and offers streaming rates of between 1411.2kbps and 2116.8kbps - which is even higher than Tidal.

Of course, attaining such audio quality will set you back twice the price of any of the above, and Qobuz offers a smaller library of around 17 million tracks.

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

Rdio: Good curation, Facebook and Twitter integration, recommendations based on listening habits

Tidal: Curated content from music journalists, artist interviews

Apple Music is jam-packed with ways to find new music and is arguably its strongest feature. Your first port of call is the You section, which is influenced by the genre and artists selections you'll be prompted to make in the initial setup. The more tracks you listen to and 'heart' the better those selctions get, and they do get better. If you want the most current content, you can head to the New section and there's a stream of new albums, songs and human and non-human curated playlists.

You can share content through Facebook and Twitter plus Apple's new Connect service, an artist-led social network offers exclusive content from artwork, behind the scenes video to exclusive tracks you can only download from Apple Music. Early signs suggest it's going to be more successful than Ping, Apple's first attempt at a music-based social network.

Last and by no means least is Beats 1. This is Apple's 24/7 radio station, which is actually free to access even if you don't subscribe to the service. Unlike the radio stations you get on other services, it's a mixture of artist and non-artist led shows. It's a surprisingly refreshing addition to have as a part of a music streaming service and is one of the best ways to find new music to listen to.

Apple Music

Apple's Beats 1 24/7 radio station is a surprisingly good way to discover new music

Spotify is packed full of ways to discover new music — it's probably the most comprehensive of the lot, if not quite the easiest to navigate. The browse section in the app and web service pushes curated playlists to the fore, with such themes as "Summer Hits: 2014" and "Viral 50: UK" - the latter of which is a collection of the most streamed and shared tracks on the service.

You also get sections for Genres & Moods and New Releases, which bring a slightly different flavour to these playlists. The App Finder, meanwhile, highlights the many Spotify apps that can hook you up with music that's more specific to your tastes. There are ones for websites, radio stations, music labels, festivals - all sorts. It can be a little overwhelming initially, but the simple 'Follow' system at its core is actually very easy to grasp.

The latest addition is something called Discover Weekly. This is a playlist that should pop up in the Playlist section of the app where you'll find a selection of new tracks based on your listening habits. We've only had the chance to check out one weekly playlist, but the early signs suggest this is going to go someway to improving the way you can find new music you'll actually want to listen to again.

Both Deezer and Spotify also feature Facebook integration, which lets you see what friends are listening to - a popular means of music discover for many.

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

Google Play Music All Access is a whole lot simpler, which means it's nowhere near as powerful a music discovery tool as Spotify or Deezer.

There's little curation or editorial presence here at present. Head into the main Listen Now section and you'll have a series of themed playlists for things like 'Family Time' and 'Focusing while you work.' There's also a Recommended For You section that provides contextual recommendations and artist-based radio stations, while Google has also incorporated album descriptions from Wikipedia, which is hardly an expert source.

The Explore section, meanwhile, is a simple splurge of featured playlists (including such varied delights as "Best New Pop" and "Expansions: The Sounds of Afrofuturism"). You also get top album and song charts.

There's also a Radio section filled with various genre-based stations, and if you're in the US you can now access an add-supported radio service. It's powered by Songza, the company Google recently acquired and works very similar to Pandora where stations can be created based on artists, genres and song.

Deezer arguably has the strongest editorial personality of any of these services. This comes through in the Hear This section, which adopts a magazine-like format for its selected playlists and "Deezer Picks" track selections. Deezer often includes a little comment from the Deezer staff member who is making these recommendations, and includes their name, job title, and picture, giving it a strong human touch.

Deezer also uses this section to push forward new Deezer Sessions, which are slickly produced live performance videos of promising acts, along with artist biographies and discographies.

The Explore section features a wider selection of Deezer Picks and New Releases with less of an editorial bent.

Like Spotify, Deezer offers apps that can funnel specific musical genres and artists your way, but we prefer the way they're arranged here. You can filter them out according to some smartly arranged types, including Curators, Labels, Events, and Discovery.

Rdio offers comprehensive discovery options. New Releases and Top Charts aside, there's a dedicated Recommendations section based on listening habits. Stations also provides personalised radio stations.

The most interesting feature is Heavy Rotation where you can see most popular music based on habits, people you follow and through Twitter and Facebook support.

Most of the bases are covered and while good recommendations can take some time to come through, they get there in the end, and with the recent acquisition of music discovery service TastemakerX it's going to get better.

Tidal is the new kid on the block, but it already offers some decent curated elements - and it's improving all the time. The playlists are carefully chosen by experts and arguably offers the most obscure music playlists you can find on any of the services. If you really like to find something different, this is the place to do it.

Since 'that' re-launch, Tidal has now offered new Discovery and Rising sections. The former promises to give unsigned artists 'the break they deserve' by adding their music to Tidal's catalogue. When you've had enough of the Niki Minaj and Beyonce love-in, Rising is about finding the next big thing including artists from around the globe.

There's no social media sign-in function, however, and there's also no sign of personalised radio stations.

Best Music Streaming Service: Mobile Apps

Apple Music: iOS only, Android to launch at later date, no web player

Spotify: Android,iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, PS4/PS3 app, web player

Google Play Music All Access: Android, iOS, web player

Deezer: Android, iOS, BlackBerry, web player

Rdio: Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, web player

Tidal: iOS, Android, web player

If you have an iPhone or an Android phone then you can take your pick of the majority of these music services. All feature free mobile apps for these platforms apart from Apple. It's also the only service that doesn't offer an Android app, although that's being slated for release later this year.

If you don't own an Android phone or an iPhone, then Google Play Music All Access and Tidal along with Apple Music should be the ones to ignore.

Only Spotify has the third-biggest mobile platform covered with a Windows Phone app (though you'd expect as much from Microsoft), while Spotify and Deezer both support the fourth-biggest platform in BlackBerry. Spotify is the only service to offer a dedicated app for games consoles, specifically for the PS4 and PS3 and it works really well.

Unsurprsingly, Apple Music does have a dedicated iPad app, which offers a very consistent experience with its iPhone app. Google took its time, but it now has an iPad-specific app to call its own, while Tidal was quick to support Apple's tablet.

So, Spotify is the big winner in terms of app support. How about the quality of those apps?

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

Somewhat surprisingly, the Apple Music is probably one of the weakest apps. It's not the usual sleek, uncluttered approach we've become so accustomed to with Apple's software in the past. It's overwhelming in places like the For You where there's so much to take in. The My Music section where you can upload your own music and build playlists is clunky and has too many submenus.

Google Play Music may have the weakest support, but its Android and iOS apps are very accomplished. They're not fancy, but they're sharp - with a clean orange and white design - and very responsive. Booting up takes you straight to a Listen now feature with recent playlists, tracks, and albums placed within reach, as well as random radio roller based on your taste.

Spotify is essentially similar but looks quite different thanks to a distinctive black background. Like Google Music there's a pull-out side-bar for core navigation, and a four-tabbed set-up for exploring your own stored songs and albums. The initial Browse screen, meanwhile, has a greater range of curated playlists, new releases, mood-based selections and the like than Google's simpler take.

As noted above, the Deezer app really plays on its strong editorial influence, pushing "Hear This" recommendations to the fore with a little artist synopsis. If you want to dive straight into listening, there's a Flow button at the very top, similar to the Google Play equivalent. Further exploration is similar to both of the above rivals, with a slide-out side menu offering access to charts, exploration options, radio channels and your saved tracks and playlists.

Providing the most unified experience across platforms, Rdio has some of the best looking apps. It's heavily driven by a grid-style interface with cover art and a clean, white background. The controller is always present at the bottom of the screen and options are tucked away neatly in the drop down menu over on the left. Browse, Music and App settings are all clearly communicated and It's one of the easiest mobile apps to use overall.

Tidal's app is very classy, and clearly borrows a few elements (including its dark palette) from Spotify. One area in which it's actually superior is in its handling of offline files - a process that's far clearer here. Another feature we liked with the Tidal mobile app is its Shazam-like song-reading function. It handles offline modes in a much slicker way than Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer as well.

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Google Play Music

Google Play Music All Access lets you upload 20,000 of your own songs to the cloud for free

Best Music Streaming Service: Offline Features

Apple Music: Unlimited mobile downloads

Spotify: Unlimited mobile downloads, desktop playlist downloads

Google Play Music All Access: Unlimited mobile downloads

Deezer: Unlimited mobile and desktop downloads

Rdio: Unlimited mobile 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.

On the desktop service front, only Deezer also permits you to download tracks for offline listening with the same freedom, though you can only do so through a Google Chrome browser extension.

Spotify's premium service allows you to directly download albums and playlists locally on the mobile app, but strangely only playlists in the desktop app — odd considering it's the only service with a native desktop app. Meanwhile Google Play and Tidal don't support any desktop downloads on the subscription side.

Google Play Music also acts as an MP3 store, however, as well as a tool for uploading up to 20,000 of your own pre-owned tracks. You can download all of these tracks locally, though tracks purchased through the service can only be downloaded twice. Apple Music is also strongly integrated into the iTunes store. So if a song is a available to buy, you'll be able to view in the iTunes Store and decide whether you want to hit that purchase button.

All in all, though, it's Deezer that's the best for those who are frequently on their computers yet out of Wi-Fi range, and who don't want to rely on a flaky mobile network signal.

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Tidal

Best Music Streaming Service: Music Catalogue

Apple Music: 30 million tracks

Spotify: 30 million tracks

Google Play Music All Access: 22 million tracks

Deezer: 35 million tracks

Rdio: 35 million tracks

Tidal: 25 million tracks

Surprisingly, until fairly recently Spotify used to have one of the smallest libraries of them all. However, the latest figure pushed it up to the middle of the pile along with Apple Music. In the case of Apple's service, there's also iTunes Match support letting you upload up to 25,000 of your own music to iCloud letting you access them whenever you want.

Equally surprisingly, Xbox Music, which is now called Groove has 38 million tracks. But we're not including them in this comparison so Deezer and Rdio are next with 35 million.

Tidal trails behind Spotify with 25 million tracks, which is still impressive given its newness and focus on quality. Google Play Music All Access is currently on 22 million tracks, which seems a little meagre.

Of course, as mentioned above, Google lets you add up to 20,000 of your own tracks, which can then be searched for and streamed as if they were from their own library, so you needn't necessarily miss out on your more beloved and obscure tracks here.

Best Music Streaming Service: Design & Ease of Use

Apple Music: App based, clunky in places

Spotify: App and web-based, slick if busy

Google Play Music All Access: Web-based, clean design

Deezer: Web-based, clean if slightly anonymous

Rdio: App and web-based, clean and slick

Tidal: Web-based, modern and Spotify-like

All of these services are primarily accessed (mobile apps aside) through the web. Spotify and Rdio both offer a stand-alone PC and Mac applications through which you can access the service.

Still, Deezer, Google Play Music, Rdio and indeed Spotify itself are all plenty slick enough as web services.

All of these services work similarly, at heart, with a left-hand-oriented navigation section for skipping between playlists, discovery options and the like, and a search bar located somewhere at the top of the page. Apple has decided to do things differently opting for breaking down sections at the bottom of the UI.

In terms of distinctive design, Spotify has its own white-on black with green flourishes thing going on, which has become quite iconic. It's quite striking, and easy to navigate once you're attuned to it, but it can feel quite busy and claustrophobic initially.

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Tidal

Tidal's interface is dark, modern, and somewhat reminiscent of Spotify's

Indeed, it's a look and approach that Tidal appears to be emulating. It has a similar dark theme with a navigation bar on the left with a content feed dominating the rest of the interface, but it's effective as a result.

Google Play Music stands out from the crowd rather more with a stripped back orange-and-white approach. It feels like the cleanest, easiest to navigate as a result, though as we've discussed it's not quite as feature-rich as Spotify and Deezer.

Speaking of Deezer, it sits somewhere in between Spotify and Google Music on the design front, using a mixture of plain backgrounds and darker accents. It's nice to use, but seems to lack a strong identity of its own as a result - though a "new look" introduced in October certainly sharpened the experience up.

Combined with the aforementioned editorial direction it takes, it still looks and feels a little like an indie music blog at times, which might actually appeal to some.

Rdio offers a web-only subscription option so we were expecting big things. It's as clean and slick as the mobile app with the same cover art-dominated interface. Music modes and the controller are permanently on show while the social features sit over on the right providing a stream of activity without being a distraction for the core features. First time music service users will appreciate the simplicity and ease to get around.

Apple Music takes inspiration from iTunes, the native Music app and Beats Music and it shows. It's great to use in places and others not so much. We like the predominantly white UI with slightly faded red icons and prominent album covers, but we definitely think things can be cleaner and a little easier to use. Essentially, it just needs to be more Apple.

Spotify

Conclusion: Which is the best music streaming service?

For all-round platform support and general strength of its offering, not to mention the social and discovery implications of being the most popular service around, Spotify is tough to beat. However, while Spotify may be the biggest name in music subscription right now, our tests have hopefully shown that it's not that it's got a fight on its hands to keep that title of best music streaming service.

The introduction of Spotify Running and small bite-sized video content have not been groundbreaking additions but the new Discover Weekly playlists ensures Spotify is still putting the music first.

After a slow start, Google's Play Music All Access service now offers a strong and fast service in its own right, and what it lacks in music discovery options it largely makes up for with features like the ability to upload your own tracks without issue and purchase music outright like you can on Apple Music.

Deezer is another viable alternative to Spotify, and it's only gotten better. Despite having half the number of subscribers, the French service has a greater library of music, a strong curation element, an improved new look, and now a well-priced Hi-Fi audio option. The recent addition of IFTTT (If This Then That) means it's the only service that can connect to other apps whether that's to build liked Soundcloud songs into a Deezer playlist or keep your listening history in a Google Doc.

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Deezer now offers IFTTT (support) so it can work with other apps like Soundcloud and Philips Hue

Rdio is a well rounded service offering good discovery, a varied catalogue of music all wrapped up in a sleek, easy to use design. Now the freemium option has been made available in the UK, too, though offline support is not available for the web app and it doesn't have the best sound quality.

Tidal is a bright new addition, with the added pull of Jay Z and co's star power. It's a slick experience, with one of the strongest personalities of the lot - and with the promise of yet more curated elements and unique support for upcoming artists. However, its key feature of higher quality music files is no longer unique - nor is it competitively priced, and its library is far from the most extensive.

So what about Apple Music? Well, it's not exactly blown the competition out of the water just yet but there's every chance that with some changes it could be the best. Music discovery is where the service excels and in our eyes does a much better job than its competitors at finding you new music. if Apple can sort out the iTunes Match issues and artists embrace Connect, then Spotify, Deezer and the rest will be looking over their shoulders.

But really, there's no reason to take a leap of faith here. All of these services offer free 30-day trials or a three-month trial in the case of Apple Music. So why not sign up for each one consecutively? It'll give you several months of free music, and by the end of it you'll know which one's for you.

For most people, that will probably be Spotify due to its immense popularity, but Deezer, Google Play Music and Apple Music are thoroughly deserving of your consideration too - with Deezer in particular ticking the most boxes out of any of the services.

Which music streaming service do you use? Let us know in the comments section below

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