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

Andrew Williams

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MusicStreaming

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 services 7

Rdio was one of many services to fail against heavy competition

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.

Streaming 3

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.

Streaming 5

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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best music streaming services 1

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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best music streaming services 11

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.

Streaming 9

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.

pimlicosound

August 14, 2014, 2:42 pm

I've been a long time Spotify Premium subscriber. The ubiquity and general slickness of the service makes it easy to get on with. My only complaint is with the sound quality.

I did experiment with Qobuz for a few months. The sound quality is fantastic, but the desktop and mobile apps are sub-par, and the catalogue can't compare with Spotify's. In the end, it couldn't quite justify the £20pcm fee, and I went back to using Spotify.

I'm looking forward to trying Wimp, the other scandinavian streaming service, when it becomes available in the UK. Like Qobuz it offers "hi-fi" quality streaming. If it can also offer better apps and a bigger catalogue at £20pcm or less, it could be a winner.

matleroux

August 14, 2014, 2:46 pm

Actually Deezer has a windows phone app, and it happens it just got an update this week... http://www.windowsphone.com...

chaosdefinesorder

August 14, 2014, 11:56 pm

I've been using Google Play Music since the All Access subscription was made available in the UK, for the most part simply because of the £7.99 lock-in, making it the cheapest of the lot...

Coupled with a £12.90 unlimited data SIM from Three and it's a very cost-effective "any music any location" service that I use fairly heavily!

AndrewC73

August 15, 2014, 7:07 am

The lack of Rhapsody inclusion seems like a huge oversight.

Stuart Brazington

August 15, 2014, 10:36 am

What about Grooveshark?

hazey_flakes

August 15, 2014, 2:34 pm

Spotify download is not unlimited. Its has a 10000 track limit, which is limited to 3,333 tracks per device. I was quite frustrated when I found this limit, as I intended to have all my playlists stored on my phone so that they would be available in my car using BT.

Eduardoms

August 15, 2014, 6:06 pm

Deezer does have a windows phone app...

Maximus

August 15, 2014, 6:22 pm

Rdio DOES have an free, ad-supported version...it's been out for a while now :).

MarkG54321

August 16, 2014, 2:21 pm

Firstly, Windows Phone is dying, (marketshare dropping like a stone), Ditto Blackberry. It's a two horse Mobile OS arena, where only Android and iOS matter.

I recently trailed all these services. Google Play easily won for me. Deezer a distant second, then Sony Music Unlimited, with Spotify, Xbox Music at the rear end.

The ability to have Google Music, for free, with 20,000 of your own tracks make it an instant winner. The $9.99 all access is just the icing on the cake.

Sean Cameron

August 17, 2014, 6:32 pm

Not really picking on the rest, but Windows Phone market share has increased since last year, the OS is still going strong if only a distant third.

JACrazy

August 18, 2014, 8:10 pm

Xbox music for discovery is the radio section which creates playlists based on an artist you choose. Its cool, but not always best when the artist you choose switches styles. I hope they expand on this more allowing you to search based on a song or a genre or allow for multiple entries. Also, I'm guessing that since Xbox uses a lower bitrate, it'll have a smaller impact on your bandwidth, which is the main reason I don't stream too often.

Robert Hodges

August 19, 2014, 6:41 am

You need to mention chromecast here. Google are the only one to support it I think. You get Sonos style wireless audio for $30

KS2 Problema

August 19, 2014, 5:34 pm

I've been on 7 subscription services since around 2005. (MusicMatch OnDemand, Yahoo Music Unlimited, Rhapsody, MOG, Beats, Google All Access, and Spotify. (Three of those, OnDemand, YMU, and MOG, were being overseen by new Beats/iTunes maven Ian Rogers when they failed. Quite a record that man has!)

Rhapsody had decent classical taxonomy but the fidelity was noticeably low. MOG (RIP), Beats, Google, Spot, and a few others offer 320 kbps (Spot offers lower fi/smaller files for mobiles and uses lo fi streams in its desktop browser; to get 320 on the desktop, you need to use the downloadable player, not just the browser player.)

And while 320 kbps is not CD-quality -- testing shows almost no one including trained listeners can reliably tell most 320k files from CD quality. (That said, there are 'codec-killer' files that contain signals that couldn't pass as sound through free air that can bollix the 'perceptual encoders' of mp3, AAC, Vorbis, etc.)

Spot has some nice features -- I LOVE the little fade-out/fade-in when you pause or switch tunes!

But the Spotify queue? Oh my! What a mess.

Which is why after I get down with an extended three month trial of Spot, I will be sticking with Google Play Music All Access (or GMP Key as I guess it will soon be called per today's news).

GPM AA/Key doesn't have much in the way of curation or discovery (outside of a somewhat limited 'similar artists' feature). But it has a mostly excellent queue with good management features like the ability to multi-select (from the desktop) using ctrl- and shift-click and the every-player-should-have-it PLAY NEXT feature -- which is ideal when your mood shifts a little. And GPM has an excellent shuffle implementation. (Though they made an odd change that made it a little less groovy; it used to be that hitting shuffle would ONLY shuffle the remaining tracks. For some reason, it now shuffles everything in the queue.)

Another top feature of Google Play Music is the (free) personal music locker (available even to non-All Access subscribers) which allows one to upload up to 20,000 tracks from their own collection -- even in lossless FLAC. (They may be matched to existing 320 kbps files if they're in the AA catalog; but even there you can defeat the 'matching.' I used this to upload lossless FLAC versions for A/B testing against the 320 files in their catalog.)

GPM AA doesn't have much curation -- but I've HAD Beats-style 'curation' and I thought it totally sucked air.

Beats 'curated radio' just plays what THEY want you to hear. And there's almost no way of shaping what you hear, since there's no play queue and not even a way of not playing specific tracks on an album without manually skipping. Apple has their work cut out for them turning Beats into something usable. I thought it was worse than a joke -- especially since they scuttled the far superior, but unmarketed MOG to make way for the far inferior Beats.

KS2 Problema

August 19, 2014, 5:40 pm

Not sure about the UK and elsewhere, but In the US, if you are using the downloadable (standalone) Spotify desktop player -- NOT the in-browser player -- you can set it to only play 320 kbps files (instead of the lo fi files the browser version streams) which should be pretty well indistinguishable from full CD by almost everyone in almost every case, as continued ABX testing suggests.

pimlicosound

August 19, 2014, 5:54 pm

Yeah, I have mine set to play only "Extreme quality" (320kbps). Unfortunately, I can notice the difference between Spotify's 320kbps codec and CD-quality audio. It varies by track, of course: heavily compressed pop music with little dynamic range and a whole lot of autotune doesn't benefit much from higher bit-rate. But acoustic, classical, jazz, or anything recorded live does benefit, and with a decent DAC/amp and headphones/speakers the difference is clear to me. (YMMV)

E-mann

August 25, 2014, 5:36 am

I would like to point out that not all of them are encoded and streamed in MP3. At their highest quality, Spotify uses 320kbps OGG at its and Music Unlimited uses 320kbps AAC (best sound quality for a music streaming service). Just saying if you are in to sound quality, your best bet is Music Unlimited or if that's too ugly for you use Spotify.

The Fanza

August 27, 2014, 9:05 am

Xbox Music actually has a desktop app...just for windows though.
For the rest i have been trying all the above and xbox music, once you know how to use it is the one that allows me to be used on different systems (android, xbox, windows 8.1, Mac). Besides... the video playback on the xbox one is simply amazing, you build your own mtv without ads.
Spotify also does not apply discounts on a 12 months subscription (which the other do) so, in the long run, is the most expensive.

The Fanza

August 27, 2014, 9:09 am

WP has been picking up shares since it's release...

Pierre de Droit

September 28, 2014, 10:07 am

Total BS about Windows Phone!

Ramsey

October 8, 2014, 3:44 pm

I have a Sony Music Unlimited app on my android. It works online and offline with playlists I've made. Doesn't take up that much space either. Personally I use Google play (free) for my own personal music I purchased or downloaded, soundcloud for new random/underground music and podcasts, and Sony Music Unlimited for new album releases and throwbacks I don't own. I might be biased since I have a PS4 and like to play music while playing games sometimes, but I find it as my favorite of all services.

Ismail Cook

October 28, 2014, 5:59 pm

what about musica
https://play.google.com/sto...

Musica gives access to millions of songs across your mobile devices
for free. Listen to all your playlists, discover new music, or simply
sit back and dig into your favourite artist’s entire back catalogue. And
with Musica launching in 20 new markets today, it’s never been easier
for more people across the world to discover and play more great music.

Falcomomo

May 14, 2015, 7:57 pm

You can upload your own music to Google Music, and that's free.
So rather than some ad supported free service of listening to whatever, you get 50,000 of your own tracks to listen to whenever you want without ads.

Olav Rønnestad Birkeland

May 24, 2015, 11:43 pm

Spotify streams Vorbis (in .ogg container) in all clients (dekstop, phone etc.)
96, 160 and 320kbps.
The web player, on the other hand, streams MP3.

DaBouss112323

May 27, 2015, 11:43 pm

grooveshark is gooooooooonnnnnnnnnneeeeeeee >:(

Gerrit Hannaert

May 29, 2015, 11:36 am

Indeed! I use the Winphone app almost every day. (http://www.deezer.com/devic...

Nice overview - but no game changers for me - I'm sticking with Deezer.

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