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Best Music Streaming Service: Which one to download?

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Spotify vs Google Play Music vs Deezer vs Rdio vs Xbox Music vs Sony Music Unlimited

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 three of the top 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 two big games console-affiliated services in Xbox Music and Sony Music Unlimited, as Microsoft and Sony are really pushing these through the Xbox One and PS4 respectively.

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, 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
Sony Music Unlimited: £9.99 a month, £4.99 per month Access Plan

To get the full service, which is mainly what we're looking at here, you'll pay £9.99 per month for all except Xbox Music. That's the cheapest at £8.99 per month.

At the time of writing, Deezer was running a special half-price £4.99 per month deal, but that's not the norm so we won't hold it against the rest.

Sony offers a more permanent £4.99 per month Access Plan, but this doesn't let you use the service through mobile devices — only through your PlayStation console or computer.

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
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
Xbox Music: 192kbps WMA streaming, 256kbps WMA download
Sony Music Unlimited: 320kbps MP3

One of the last and greatest barriers for streaming services to contend with is sound quality. None of these services offer CD-quality audio, but that's not necessary. 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 offers up to 320kbps streaming, 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 might think differently.

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 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're best off discarding all of these mainstream services and signing up for Qobuz. This French service sells itself as an HD alternative, and offers streaming rates of between 1411.2kbps and 2116.8kbps.

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
Sony Music Unlimited: Light curation, recommendations based on listening habits

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 screenshot
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 simple 'I'm feeling lucky radio' button that spins a random playlist based on your taste. Then, in among all the recent albums and tracks you've played, you'll get a smattering of contextual suggested new releases.

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 personalized 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 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.

Sony Music Unlimited is a little better, with featured curated playlists and themed Channels ("1990s Alternative," "Rio Beach Party" and the like) all included alongside a simple recommendations section called You Might Like.

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
Sony Music Unlimited: 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 Sony Music Unlimited 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 Google Play, Sony Music Unlimited, and Xbox Music do not support the iPad with a native app, a frankly bonkers omission from all parties.

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

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Spotify iPhone
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.

Still, the Xbox Music app is a paragon of design and functionality compared to Sony Music Unlimited, which is pig ugly and at times painfully slow. On iOS especially, it looks like something from the early days of app design. Unlike all of the other apps, there's no live suggestion system when typing out searches for songs and artists. Still, on the plus side, at least it offers album downloads.

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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

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
Sony Music Unlimited: 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 Sony Music Rdio 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.

SEE ALSO: Best Soundbars Round-upXbox Music
Xbox Music has the biggest catalogue of music to choose from


Best Music Streaming Service: Music Catalogue

Spotify: 20 million tracks
Google Play Music All Access: 22 million tracks
Deezer: 30 million tracks
Rdio: 20 million tracks
Xbox Music: 38 million tracks
Sony Music Unlimited: 30 million tracks

These numbers may well make surprising reading for many of you. They show that Rdio and Spotify, which is arguably the biggest service of them all, has the smallest music library of the six.

The winner by a considerable margin is Xbox Music with 38 million tracks, followed by Deezer and Sony Music Unlimited on 30 million.

Google Play Music All Access is currently on 22 million tracks.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
Sony Music Unlimited: Web-based, dated and ugly

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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Sony Music UnlimitedSony Music Unlimited has the ugliest interface and clearly still needs some work

Google Play Music also stands out from the crowd 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.

Indeed, combined with the aforementioned editorial direction it takes, it can look and feel like an indie music blog at times. We're not sure whether that's a good or a bad thing.

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.

Which leaves us with Sony Music Unlimited, the one service here that's downright ugly and unpleasant to use. Like the mobile app, it feels very dated — almost like a '90s media player with its plain fonts, naff box-out style, and spreadsheet-like lists of tracks. Of the five, this alone feels like it needs scrapping and starting again from scratch.

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. Despite having half the number of subscribers, the French service has a greater library of music and a strong curation element with real personality. It's also available for a very good price at the time of writing.

Spotify music

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

All of which leaves the two games console-associated services somewhat cut adrift. Neither Xbox Music nor Sony Music Unlimited can really hold a candle to the above three services.

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.

Sony Music Unlimited, meanwhile, looks and feels like a relic from a previous generation, despite matching many of the others function for function.

These two latter services will be a whole lot more appealing if you spend much of your free time on your Xbox One or PS4, 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, but Deezer, Rdio and Google Music are thoroughly deserving of your consideration too.

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