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Upgrading your streaming service? The best on-demand platforms get tested

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As much as hipsters are giving vinyl a resurgence, the future of music is still pretty much certain to be in the hands of streaming. You can stream your tunes for free on services like Pandora or Spotify, or for small subscriptions, and such services are growing way faster than any physical format. When it comes to sound quality, there’s nothing to be concerned about; you’re going to get the same or better than a CD in the case of most of the subscription services.

Ty Pendlebury and Xiomara Blanco have been looking into some of the most popular streaming apps and platforms for cnet. They’ve used Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Tidal, Google Play Music, and Amazon Music Unlimited to understand what’s on offer and if each service is actually worth your subscription dollars. Most of the platforms investigated have a vast catalog of over 40 million songs but have differences in their offering that you’re going to want to know about before handing over your credit card details. Radio style services have been left off, and each one in the list has a family plan option and offline listening, but you can’t get all of them through your desktop yet.

Best all-rounder: Spotify fits most people’s needs

There’s no need to beat around the bush here. As close a call as it is, Spotify beats Apple Music when it comes to the best subscription service. You get a fun and easy-to-use experience with the app, their catalog is vast, and it works on the biggest range of devices. There’s a free tier that has got better of late, which makes it win out for the best free service too. Who wants to tap in their credit card details anyway?

Coming in as runner up is Apple Music. It takes this accolade because it’s the only one out of the biggest four services that let you keep your song library in a digital locker. Your Apple HomePod also needs this subscription if you want voice control of your music. If you’ve got the new iPod Touch, because it still is getting made and sold, Apple Music is the perfect service to pair it with.

Taking the last place on the podium is Tidal, which is the one to check out if you’re all about the audio quality.

Solidly holding up the pack are Google Play Music and Amazon Music Unlimited. Although they don’t get top billing, they’re going to meet some specific needs for certain types of users and worth being in the list. Getting YouTube ad-free through the Red service gives you Google Play Music for free, which is handy. Amazon has an Echo only offering of their service that comes with a discount, so if your home is already filled with Alexa-enabled gadgets this could be the service for you.

Coming up the rear is the free service offered by Pandora. It’s a great offering for the price tag but the on-demand service doesn’t match the others in terms of having a broad and diverse catalog to tap into.

Whilst looking at these options, it’s worth pointing out the new Qobuz streaming platform that went live in the US in February 2019. It’s still in its infancy so it’s hard to pass full judgment, but the app is clean and simple, the audio streams in hi-res, and you can buy lossless music. When looking at Qobuz, just remember that there isn’t as much choice of tunes as you get on Tidal or Spotify.

When you’re doing your shopping around for the right service, you can take advantage of free trial periods that all of the services offer, and when you do start to pay you’ll default to a “no contract” deal so you’re not tied in and can drop in and out of your subscription as you please. It’s fine to do trials with any and all of them and switch to a competitor if your needs aren’t being met.

Here’s the in-depth analysis of the six best streaming services. Every one included works on Android, iOS, PC, and Mac. Listen in for the details.

Spotify

Spotify

Spotify is one of the original streaming services and it’s likely the first one that comes to mind. The services offered include curated music discovery, like the Discover Weekly playlist, and they are regularly innovating the services, like with the recent launch of the Australia-only Station. You can choose to integrate with Facebook so it’s easier for you to share music with friends than on other platforms. You can send over a track or an album, work together on playlists with friends, or just check out what your friends are listening to at the moment.

What we like:

  • The robust free version is impressive.
  • Curating a playlist is easy, as is syncing it to listen offline.
  • The apps offer a great user experience with regular updates and new features that don’t overwhelm.
  • Offers alerts for artists you choose to follow, getting told about new music or shows.
  • Custom playlists are highly personalized.
  • Easy to connect to wireless speakers and AV receivers with Spotify Connect.

What’s not so great:

  • Intrusive adverts when using the free service.

You need it if… you’re looking for an all-round service that’s solid and reliable. If you’re a browser and sharer of music this is the one for you.

Apple Music

Apple Music

After initial problems with the service after launch, Apple Music has matured into a popular and reliable streaming service. There are features galore and plenty of price plans to keep families and students happy. When you’re looking for a curated playlist there’s a ton to choose from, including ones that have been put together by musicians and influencers. One thing missing is the shareability that you get with Spotify.

What we like:

  • Your iTunes library gets combined with music you’ve not bought, giving your music collection a rounded feel.
  • Using your listening habits, there are human and algorithm suggestions to help you discover new music.
  • It works with Siri, you can choose your music or discover new stuff on iOS devices.
  • There’s a music locker available through iTunes Match ($25, £22 or AU$35 a year).
  • Apple HomePod users can use it to have voice control over their music catalog.

What’s not so great:

  • Android users don’t get the smooth app experience that iOS users are treated to.
  • Not compatible with old iPods, but does work with iPod Touch.

You need it if… you want to check out albums or songs that have been added to iTunes by favorite artists, or you have an Apple HomePod.

Tidal

Image credit: tidal.com

Jay-Z’s foray into the music streaming sphere comes in the form of Tidal. It’s the only large-scale streaming service that offers its users lossless audio streaming, giving listeners quality that matches or betters that of a CD. There is exclusive content on offer that comes from its megastar owners, such as the Beyonce album “Lemonade” and Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo”, but the service is doing less of this now. There is some content that you’d expect to be available but somehow it isn’t, like Metallica albums that are Spotify exclusive, or the seminal “Music Has the Right to Children” from Boards of Canada. Streamers that big hip-hop and R&B fans or major audiophiles will love this service.

What we like:

  • Music streaming in very high fidelity.
  • Livestreams of concerts and other great video content.
  • Sometimes there are ticket presales on the platform.
  • Lots of under-the-radar artists getting coverage, mainly in the hip-hop genre.
  • Every page offers profiles and reviews.

What’s not so great:

  • The apps and desktop players aren’t as easy to access and use as some competitors.
  • Not quite as much music content as Spotify.

You need it if… you’re a music purist who really appreciates great sound quality and you love hunting down the latest, underground artists.

Google Play Music

Image credit: wysla.com

Plans are well underway to change this over to YouTube Music, but in the meantime, Google Play Music is the company’s streaming service and music locker. You can stream and store everything you have in your library, with space for up to 50,000 songs, and you can also stream any music the 30 million strong catalog. There aren’t playlists on this service, instead you get radio stations that have been thoughtfully curated; a standout feature for Play Music. Rather than a limited and finite playlist that’ll eventually end, radio stations just keep going and get regular updates.

What we like:

  • You can integrate your personal collection of music with the catalog available for streaming in a seamless process.
  • You get a subscription to YouTube Music included in the price, where you get ad-free streaming on YouTube and YouTube Music.
  • Free music locker service.

What’s no so great:

  • It’s getting replaced, but there’s no certainty about when, which is frustrating.
  • A kinda dull interface compared to the others, with a particularly boring desktop.

You need it if… You’re a fan of Google and want to mix up your own music with streamable content.

Amazon Music Unlimited

9to5mac.com

Amazon Prime subscribers get Amazon Prime Music for free, and Amazon Music Unlimited is the fully rounded, stand-alone version. For the extra monthly spend, you get a much larger catalog to listen to. Instead of sitting at the cutting-edge of music, the focus from Amazon is on artists you’ve already listened to and shown interest in. The service offers this through recommended playlists as well as radio stations.

What we like:

  • It’s the cheapest subscription service if you’re already an Amazon Prime member.
  • On-screen lyrics pop up automatically on the “now playing” screen.
  • You can get free radio stations for your Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Amazon Tap if you’re ok with ads.

What’s not so great:

  • No biographies included in the artist profiles.
  • Although Amazon claims to have “tens of millions” of tracks, it’s not certain if they match up to their competitors in terms of range.
  • The music locker service has been removed.

You need it if… You’re already a Prime member and want a good value streaming service.

Pandora Premium

Image Credit: theverge.com

After building its name as one of the most popular radio services in the US, Pandora has moved into the streaming market by adding options for an a la carte Premium service and an ad-free Plus tier. There’s a lot of flexibility here that a lot of the competition doesn’t have, so they’re gaining subscribers at a steady rate. The catalog size doesn’t square up to the bigger players, however.

What we like:

  • There’s a big user base because of their successful free version.
  • The “Music Genome Project” gives really good track suggestions after analyzing 450 track attributes to match your tastes.

What’s not so great:

  • So far, there are only about 2 million tracks, which pales in comparison to the other services.
  • The quality of the audio is the lowest in the market, even on a Premium subscription you only get 192Kbps.
  • Upgrade incentives aren’t really there.
  • It can’t be used or accessed internationally.

You need it if… you want to choose exactly what you want to listen to when using Pandora already, otherwise, you don’t need it at all.

MUSIC STREAMING SERVICES COMPARED


Amazon Music UnlimitedApple MusicGoogle Play MusicPandoraSpotifyTidal
Monthly feePrime members: $7.99, £7.99, N/A; Non-Prime members: $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99; Alexa-only service: Free$9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99$9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99Plus: $4.99; Premium: $9.99$9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99, $12.99 with HuluPremium: $9.99, £9.99, AU$14.99; HiFi: $19.99, £19.99, AU$23.99
Free option?Yes, with adsNoYesYes, with adsYes, with adsNo
Free trial period30 days3 months30 days60 days30 days3 months







Music library size50 million50 millionOver 40 millionMillions50 million50 million
Maximum bitrate256Kbps256Kbps320Kbps192Kbps320Kbps1,411Kbps
Family sharing?Yes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 for up to 6 usersYes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 for up to 6 usersYes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 per month for up to 6 usersYes, $14.99 for up to 6 usersYes, $5, £5, AU$6 per month per additional user, up to 5Yes, 50% off each additional account, up to 4
Student discountNoYes, Price varies by countryNo$4.99 (Premium)$4.99 (US only)Premium: $4.99, HiFi: $9.99 (US only)
US military discountNoNoNoYesNoYes
Offline listeningMobile and desktopMobile onlyMobile onlyMobile onlyMobile and desktopMobile only
Radio stationsYesYesYesYesYesNo
PodcastsNoNoYesYesYesYes
Music videosNoYesNoNoYesYes
Music locker functionalityNoYesYesNoNoNo

The other details you need

Radio or on-demand streaming

Here, we’ve gone into the streaming services that work on-demand, so there’s no mention of the services that only have radio format streaming. Pandora only recently moved into the on-demand market with its Premium tier, which earns them a place in the list. Notable radio streaming services include Slacker Radio, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio, all of which play music based around a theme or artist and you don’t get direct control of the content.

What’s a music locker?

One of the first companies to offer you to upload your MP3s to cloud storage was Amazon, but they stopped offering the service back in 2018. You can still do this with the Apple and Google services we’ve covered, allowing you to mix together your personal collection with the streaming catalogs they offer. If you’ve spent a fair bit of money on downloading tunes over the years, you’ve not wasted all the cash. You can also access the “music locker” services as an independent service too.

Measuring up the catalogs

One of the things that set the different services apart is the amount of music they have on offer for you. Most of them do offer over 30 million songs to choose from, but some services are stronger in certain genres than others. Different platforms have a bigger focus on indie or hip-hop artists, for example. For those who are always looking for the hot new trend and love to discover and expand their listening habits, Spotify or Tidal are ideal. Less ambitious listeners should be fine with the pared-down catalogs offered by Amazon Music Unlimited or Google Play Music. Lying in between these preferences is Apple Music, with a decent mix of mainstream and underground artists and tracks.

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Anna Dovbysh
With 7 years of writing experience and a deep interest in tech, innovations, and all things trending, Anna’s here to shine a light on the most interesting tech stories. Need to know which gadget to choose for your sports activities? Wondering how technology can improve your lifestyle? Want to know what to expect from Apple this year? She’s got all the answers. Subscribe to her posts and share your opinion on the matter!

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