Streaming music service shootout: Spotify vs Google Play Music vs Deezer vs Rdio vs Xbox Music vs Tidal
Music subscription services are no longer the next big thing in the music industry. They're the present. This is how most of us listen to music now. The compact disc is yesterday's news, and even die-hard vinyl enthusiasts are grudgingly coming to the conclusion that a music subscription service is the perfect supplementary way to discover new music.
With so many options to choose from it's becoming more difficult to find the service that's ideally suited to you. We thought it high time we took another look at some of the leading music subscription contenders to help you decide.
As such, we've selected four of the best established all-round music subscription services for European listeners for a closer look: Spotify, Google Play Music All Access, Rdio and Deezer.
We've also included the one big remaining console-affiliated services in Xbox Music. Since the first version of this piece was written, Sony Music Unlimited has been replaced by a Spotify-based service.
Then there's Tidal, the new Jay Z-backed premium music subscription service. How does this new kid stack up to the rest?
Best Music Streaming Service: Pricing
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, no free ad-funded service
Xbox Music: £8.99 a month, Free ad-funded 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 except Xbox Music. That's the cheapest at £8.99 per month.
Deezer has just launched a new premium service for £14.99, which might sound like a pricy option, but is actually much 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, Xbox Music and Spotify also offer free and limited ad-funded services, which limit things such as sound quality, track skips, specific track selections, offline listening among other things.
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Rdio offers web only and app subscriptions starting from £4.99 a month
Best Music Streaming Service: Sound Quality
Spotify: 320kbps MP3
Google Play Music All Access: 320kbps MP3
Deezer: 320kbps MP3
Rdio: 192kbps MP3, 1411kbps FLAC
Xbox Music: 192kbps WMA streaming, 256kbps WMA download
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.
As such, all except Xbox Music 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.
Xbox Music is the odd one out here, supplying a mere 192kbps when streaming and 256kbps when downloaded. However, Microsoft uses its own WMA format, which is a newer and more efficient format than MP3, so there's really no discernible loss.
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.
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.
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 not long released 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
Spotify: Moderate curation, Facebook integration, optional apps, recommendations based on listening habits
Google Play Music All Access: No curation, recommendations based on listening habits
Deezer: Strong curation, Facebook integration, optional apps, recommendations based on listening habits
Rdio: Good curation, Facebook and Twitter integration, recommendations based on listening habits
Xbox Music: No curation, no recommendations based on listening habits
Tidal: Curated content from music journalists, artist interviews
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.
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.
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.
Xbox Music is arguably the most bare bones effort of the lot when it comes to discovery. Explore provides a list of new and popular releases, with no attention paid to your personal taste. Radio simply lets you start a custom playlist by entering the name of a favourite artist (a feature that it shares with all of the rest). That's your lot. It's easily the worst for music discovery.
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, while there's the promise of a Discovery feature where emerging artists will be able to upload tracks.
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
Spotify: Android,iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone
Google Play Music All Access: Android, iOS
Deezer: Android, iOS, BlackBerry
Rdio: Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone
Xbox Music: Android, iOS, Windows Phone
Tidal: iOS, Android
If you have an iPhone or an Android phone then you can take your pick of these music services. All feature free mobile apps for these platforms.
However, Google Play Music All Access and Tidal call it a day right there.
Only Spotify and Xbox Music have 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.
It's also worth noting that Xbox Music doesn't support the iPad with a native app, a frankly bonkers omission. 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
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.
The Xbox Music app isn't as good as any of the above. It's tidily presented, with a familiar sidebar navigation approach, but it's sparse to the point of feeling unfinished. There's nothing to nudge you on your way if you're new to the service, so you have to take it upon yourself to dive in and start adding content. Meanwhile, you can't download albums for offline listening on iOS, only playlists, while the Android app doesn't even support that.
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.
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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
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
Xbox Music: Download mobile playlists
Tidal: Unlimited mobile downloads
All six services allow you to download tracks to their mobile apps for offline listening, though the Xbox Music app only permits playlists to be downloaded, not full albums.
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, Xbox Music, 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.
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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Xbox Music has the biggest catalogue of music to choose from
Best Music Streaming Service: Music Catalogue
Spotify: 30 million tracks
Google Play Music All Access: 22 million tracks
Deezer: 35 million tracks
Rdio: 20 million tracks
Xbox Music: 38 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.
Equally surprisingly, the winner is Xbox Music with 38 million tracks, followed by Deezer on 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
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
Xbox Music: Web-based, distinct but spartan
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.
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'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.
Xbox Music has a very striking design that's obviously (and naturally) been informed by Microsoft's recent Xbox console UI work, which in turn has been influenced by Windows Phone 7/8 and Windows 8. It has a very strong and distinct personality, and it's easy to navigate, but it feels somewhat cold and underpopulated, like it's a work in progress. Especially compared to 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 the only game in town.
Google's Play Music All Access service offers a strong and fast service in its own right, and what it lacks in music discovery options it largely makes up for with unique features like the ability to upload your own tracks and purchase music outright.
Deezer is another viable alternative to Spotify, and it's only gotten better since we first wrote this piece in 2014. 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.
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.
All of which leaves Microsoft's games console-associated services somewhat cut adrift. Xbox Music can't really hold a candle to the above three services, which makes you wonder whether it should just cut a deal with one of the established players like its rival Sony did.
Xbox Music feels like the start of something promising, with the basis of a nice navigation experience and an unparalleled music library. It's also the cheapest full service here. But it also feels somehow unfinished, with virtually non-existent discovery features and a lack of engagement.
This latter service will be a whole lot more appealing if you spend much of your free time on your Xbox One, of course. But if that's the case, our recommendation would just be to pick one of the other three and make use of the mobile app while you go about your console navigating business.
But really, there's no reason to take a leap of faith here. All of these services offer free 30-day trials, so why not sign up for each one consecutively? It'll give you five 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 and Google 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