When it comes to music streaming, we’re spoilt by the number of options on offer. Each of the big services out there has something that makes them great, but you don’t want to be paying for more than one a month – so which do you go for?
Prices, features, exclusives and music quality vary across the options, and like all things, music streaming services change over time.
What do you do when that one feature you loved six months ago has been replaced to make room for a new, completely unwieldy user interface, causing all the friends you knew who used the service to pack and leave for greener pastures?
So we’re going to break down the major points to help you choose the one that’s right for you.
We’ll be adding more services along the way, but for now here’s a rundown of the pros and cons of some of the biggest music streaming services around.
In many ways Spotify was the service that ushered in the modern age of music streaming services. It was the first to offer its service completely free through an ad-supported option, and this ended up acting as a gateway drug to music streaming for many people.
Since it’s launch Spotify has also added a raft of new features to improve the experience. Being able to download music for offline listening is great if you’re someone who commutes on the underground or simply doesn’t want to constantly use your mobile data for streaming, and the auto-generated ‘Discover Weekly’ playlists are a great way of finding new music.
Spotify might not have the highest music quality or the exclusives that some of the other big music streaming services do, but Spotify offers one of the most polished streaming services out there.
Spotify currently offers two tiers of its streaming services. You can either listen to it for free and experience the occasional video or audio advert, or pay $9.99 (£9.99 / AU$11.99) for Spotify Premium which removes the ads and offers a higher level of music quality.
There are also family and student pricing options. If you’re a student you can get access to a 50% discount, and Spotify has also recently introduced a family option, allowing up to six users to enjoy the benefits of Premium for just $14.99 (£14.99 / AU$17.99).
For comparison’s sake, Spotify’s premium tier is equivalent to Apple Music, Deezer and Tidal’s lower quality price point. 30 day free trials are available.
Spotify’s weakest area is its exclusives, and is more commonly in the news for artists abandoning its service rather than securing exclusives. In the past Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Prince and Radiohead have all withheld albums from the streaming service, with many of them citing the low rates of royalties Spotify pays as the reason why.
With a library totalling over 30 million tracks you’re unlikely to be unable to find something to listen to on Spotify, but the omission of some of the biggest albums of recent years is unfortunate.
Spotify has attempted to bolster its selection of exclusives by recording exclusive ‘Spotify Sessions’ with various bands, which normally amount to nice alternative recordings of songs, but it’s not the same as an exclusive album or two.
User Interface and experience
When it comes to user interfaces, Spotify takes some beating, especially on mobile. Its recent iOS which removed the ‘hamburger’ menu in favour of a row of options at the bottom of the app makes it easy to switch between different sections of the service, and we love being able to quickly add tracks to the play queue by simply swiping them to the side.
It’s also very easy to find the music you want to listen to in Spotify thanks to its intuitive search functionality which corrects minor spelling mistakes. It also means that while on mobile you don’t have to bother adding any random apostrophes into obscure song titles to get them to appear.
Spotify’s Connect feature is invaluable if you want to use a wireless speaker. Many don’t support the better sounding Bluetooth AptX or AirPlay and so if you want to play music from another streaming service you’re forced to rely on standard-quality Bluetooth.
Check out the difference between Bluetooth, AptX and AirPlay
It’s hard to fault Spotify’s user interface. It’s polished, clean and very easy to use.
Spotify offers three tiers of streaming quality. On desktop you have a choice of either 160kbps or 320kbps, while on mobile Spotify offers a third lower option of 96kbps for those with slower internet connections.
For reference, a lossless music file taken from a CD has a bitrate of 1,411.2 kbps. In comparison even 320 kbps seems very low.
Spotify doesn’t offer the highest resolution of music out there (that accolade goes to Tidal) but the compression it uses isn’t exactly unlistenable, and when it comes to mobile many may prefer to opt for the lower file sizes to save on data.
Naturally sound quality is a very personal preference however, so it’s up to you to decide whether to settle for Spotify’s sound quality.
Spotify’s curation biggest strength lies in Its ‘Discover Weekly’ feature, which looks at your existing music preferences and compiles a playlist of similar music which it then presents to you at the beginning of the week.
Discover Weekly might not hit 100% of the time, but the size of the playlist generated each week means there’s normally at least one or two tracks worth listening to.
Spotify has also generated dozens of custom playlists, covering themes as diverse as music from specific decades, genre playlists, and playlists pulled from the soundtracks of various films.
But by far Spotify’s biggest asset when it comes to curation is the sheer amount of people using the service, which has generated a large amount of data for Spotify to pull from. Visiting any artist’s page can immediately show you the tracks they’re most famous for, which is helpful when you’re getting into a band for the first time.
This data also means that looking through a band’s ‘related artists’ section normally throws up a good couple of selections of other bands to listen to.
It’s a minor point but one that you miss quickly when you’re on a streaming service with a smaller number of listeners. Top tracks aren’t quite as accurate, and related artists are a little more hit and miss.
One to go with if…
You want maximum compatibility thanks to Spotify Connect, and you want the personal playlists provided by Discover weekly.
- Read our full Spotify review
Given that Apple pioneered the era of portable music with the iPod and iTunes, it’s a surprise it was so late to the streaming game. Apple Music only launched in 2015, but thanks to hefty negotiations with labels that benefited from the clout of the Apple name, Apple Music launched last year with an extensive library and some great features.
In 2014 Apple announced it would acquire streaming service Beats Music as well as Beats Electronics; in 2015 it discontinued the service as Apple Music went live, shuttering Beats Music completely by the year’s end.
It’s important to mention this because, at launch, Apple Music’s USP was – and to a large extent still is – Beats Radio, a 24/7 internet radio service led by DJ Zane Lowe and a roster of other well-known names.
Beyond that, Apple has tried to differentiate itself with the power of exclusives, but is there enough here to make it worthy as your sole music streaming service? Read on to find out.
Apple Music costs £9.99/$9.99 a month but students can join for £4.99/$4.99. For that you’ll have access to everything – the library, radio stations, offline playing; the lot.
Apple also offers a Family membership that costs £14.99/$14.99 and gives unlimited streaming to up to six people.
In sum, that means it’s on parity with Spotify in cost, and to be honest it’s a good price for what you’re getting. Unlike Spotify, however, Apple Music doesn’t have a free tier.
Instead it offers a free three-month trial for anyone who wants to try before they buy, and we’d recommend trying it – just don’t forget to cancel it before your three months is up if you don’t want to start paying.
Whether or not you think exclusives are a good thing for the music streaming industry, Apple has negotiated some pretty big exclusive launches so far. Securing Taylor Swift caused a lot of commotion, largely because it came after Taylor snubbed Apple entirely after criticising its decision to not reimburse artists for the free three-month trial.
To its credit, Apple reversed its decision, and now Apple Music is the only place you can stream Taylor’s 1989. However, others, such as Drake’s Views, have only remained exclusive for a short while.
With Apple rumored to be in talks with Tidal over a potential acquisition, there’s a lot of speculation that this list could soon be growing significantly.
User interface and experience
We really like the layout of Apple Music – it’s clean with a big focus on pictures – and in some ways it’s a lot nicer than its rivals. The tabs along the bottom offer pretty straightforward navigation. For You is a selection of artists, albums and playlists tailored to your taste (more on curation later). New spotlights the latest releases and updated to Apple’s playlists.
Radio gives you access to Apple’s live Beats 1 radio as well as other curated stations. Connect is Apple Music’s social feature for “connecting” with artists and curators; and My Music gives you access to your library.
Catalogue and curation
Curation is a massive part of Apple Music, and definitely our favorite aspect. When you first start using Music you’ll be asked to select some of your favorite genres, then artists within those genres.
This will then shape the music that’s suggested in the ‘For You’ section of the app, which be listed as playlists and albums. These playlists are quite varying, from ‘Great Guitar Riffs: ’90s’ to ‘Morning Commute: Alternative’ to ‘Deep Cuts’ lists.
Some playlists correspond to the day, time and season (‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’, ‘Songs for a rainy day’), while ‘Introduction to [Artist]’ playlists serve as another great discovery tool.
Apple Music is always paying attention to the music you like the most, and the suggested artists and playlists work to keep up with this. We really like how it works, and despite Spotify’s phenomenally acute ‘Discovery Weekly’ playlist, Apple Music is the top dog for curation right now.
Apple Music streams at 256kbps in AAC, and despite some difference on paper, ends up sounding about the same as Spotify – whether that’s good enough for you or not. If you’re a proper audiophile then it’s important to note you won’t have any option for lossless playback, so look to Tidal for that one.
Where Apple Music does fall down more noticeably is in stability and playback. Buffering is slower than Spotify’s when doing it over data (you have the option to reduce quality in this instance, but Spotify seems to find it easier), and tracks will skip if they only partly buffer before your connection drops out. That last point is a particular gripe for us, as often we’d prefer to at least have the option to wait.
It’s also prone to occasionally just crashing entirely, or, more frustratingly, the play button just stops being responsive. However these bugs are rare, and 94% of the time it’ll probably be smooth sailing.
Still, it’s not as smooth as Spotify overall, which is surprising considering this is a) Apple and b) a streaming service that launched over a year ago.
One to go with if…
You want some truly excellent music discovery.
- Read our full Apple Music review
Deezer is perhaps less talked about than Spotify or Apple Music, particularly in the US where it’s been unavailable until only recently, but it’s a great streaming service nonetheless, and available in 183 countries.
Its library certainly gives its rivals a run for their money, while an elite premium tier allows subscribers (for an additional cost) to access high-quality music at home – if they have a Sonos system.
It’s a good all-rounder, with a couple of unique boasting points it can lord over its rivals.
Deezer costs £9.99/$9.99/AU$11.99 a month for the standard tier, or £14.99/$14.99/AU$24 for the Elite tier which give you access to high-quality streaming on Sonos systems.
The service recently rolled out to the US, and despite what you might have heard elsewhere, it will also be offering its free tier in the US, which will kick in at the end of the 30-day trial if you opt for it.
The free tier gives you unlimited music on desktop and tablet, but limits you to the ‘mixes’ and ‘Flow’ features on mobile. You also can’t download music offline, and audio quality is capped at 128 kbit/s.
The standard price is competitive, but what of the upper tier? If you’re not a Sonos user then don’t bother, but those who are and want the best audio quality at home it’s worth at least a try.
Deezer currently doesn’t have any big exclusives, but what does it matter when it’s got a 40-million-song-strong library? However, that catalogue does vary from country to country, meaning you’re unlikely to have access to everything.
Still, Deezer boasts that it has the world’s largest streaming library, which also includes 40,000 podcasts. While there are plenty of free podcasts apps out there, Deezer’s podcast integration gives it something to stand apart from its rivals.
User interface and experience
We really like the way Deezer is laid out, with five different ‘tabs’ along the bottom providing navigation. The Home button offers an overview of playlist recommendations and gives you access to ‘Flow’ – we’ll come back to both of those a bit later.
My Music offers up a sub-menu letting you access tracks you’ve downloaded for offline play, songs you’ve favorited, your playlists, podcasts, and all the artists and albums you’ve saved as favorites.
The middle button, Player, takes you directly to the current song (note that Apple Music is the only service that lacks such a tab, but always shows the current song along the bottom of the screen).
The Notifications section gives you a stream of updates from your favorite artists and Editor Picks, which are worth keeping an eye on for the playlists. These picks are also based on your preferences – we’ll touch a little more on this in the
There are, however, a few navigational things we’re not fans of. Whenever you select a song it jumps to the Player tab with no back button – you can only get back to the last page by tapping on the tab you were on below (and sometimes we’ve forgotten). It seems like a niggly thing, but adding a back button at all times – a la Spotify – would easily solve this problem.
Deezer is very customizable when it comes to audio quality, letting you select from a range of modes that will adjust the bitrate depending on your access to WiFi and data. There’s a custom option where you can get even more specific about how your music sounds.
Deezer Elite lets you stream music at CD-quality 1411 kbps in your home (compared to the standard 320kbps), but only on a Sonos system. It’s a jump in quality that you do notice, but it comes at an extra price, with Deezer Elite subscriptions costing £14.99/$14.99/AU$24 a month (it’s less if you pay for a year outright), meaning you’re paying a little bit extra for home streaming.
If you’ve got a decent Sonos system and want the best sound you can get in your home, Deezer is probably the option for you.
Content and curation
Deezer’s curation is good but it doesn’t touch Apple Music’s. The Home page offers you a choice of top playlists, dishing out some decent but generic playlists and ‘best ofs’ as well as new releases.
There was also an option for ‘Euro 2016’ at the top when we were recently using the app, despite being some time after the Euros were finished, which highlights that the curation here isn’t as reactive or wide-ranging as other services.
The ‘Playlist Picks’ are fine but there aren’t many of them, while ‘Mixes for you’ will boot up playlists based on broad genres and moods like ‘Alternative’, ‘Dance’ and ‘Rainy Day’.
Where things get more impressive is in Flow. This is a radio mix based on tracks you’ve liked and added to your library, but a recent feature gives it some new smarts. Flow now analyses other aspects of your listening habits, taking into account the time of day you listen to certain types of music. If you love krautrock in the morning but skip it for scat jazz in the evening, Flow will start to note it and only play those genres at the times you want them.
Over time, you should be able to start Flow at any time of day and it should, in theory, be able to gauge your mood.
Another nice, though not unique, Deezer feature is ‘Artist Mix’, a blue button that appears on any artist’s page. Tap it and you’ll be taken through a selection of songs that relate to that artist. It’s essentially the same as Spotify’s ‘Radio based on…’ feature, but it’s nice to be able to start it straight from the artist’s page.
One to go with if…
You own a Sonos system and want the best quality music at home, or a more varied catalogue.
- Read our full Deezer review
Tidal might have been almost unheard of when it launched in 2014, but its acquisition by Jay Z in 2015 transformed it into a major player in the music streaming market.
Tidal’s main selling points are two-fold; it offers the highest-quality music streams out of all of the major streaming services, and it also pays the highest amount of royalties to its artists.
But if you want to enjoy a more ethical music service you’ll have to put up with a couple of annoyances from Tidal’s interface as well as an expensive monthly price to access the highest level of music quality.
Tidal currently offers two price tiers. You can either pay $9.99 (£9.99 / AU$14.99) for the basic Tidal service or else opt for the more expensive HiFi tier for $19.99 (£19.99 / AU$23.99).
Tidal doesn’t currently offer a free ad-supported tier in the same way Spotify does.
The difference between Tidal’s two tiers is the quality of the music files streamed. The lower tier limits you to the same music quality as Spotify’s Premium offering, whereas the HiFi tier will unlock CD-quality lossless music streams.
Tidal made waves earlier this year when Beyonce’s new ‘visual album’ Lemonade premiered on the service ahead of even its release for download platforms.
But Lemonade isn’t the only high-profile exclusive in Tidal’s catalogue. Taylor Swift, Kanye West and Prince all have content that’s exclusively available on Tidal thanks in part to the lack of a free option, but also likely due to the higher royalties offered by the service.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that as it stands Tidal has the largest amount of high-profile exclusives, and if you care about these big artists you might want to seriously consider a Tidal subscription.
User Interface and experience
On the face of it, Tidal’s interface is similar to rival Spotify’s. It has a section containing curated playlists, one to promote up and coming artists, one for music videos and finally a ‘My Music’ section which contains any music that you’ve favorited.
But compared to Spotify Tidal’s interface just isn’t as slick, especially when it comes to its mobile apps. Whereas Spotify allows you to build a play-queue by simply swiping a track to one side, Tidal requires you to enter a sub-menu which slows things down significantly when you’re trying to quickly assemble a queue before putting your phone away.
There’s no option to shuffle an artist’s entire discography, and Tidal’s comparatively smaller user-base means that an artist’s top tracks tend to be more biased towards recent releases rather than the classics.
Most frustrating of all is the search functionality. Searching for ‘This aint a scene’ returns zero results, you have to be sure to at the apostrophe to allow you to find Fall Out Boy’s pop-punk anthem ‘This Ain’t a Scene, it’s an Arms Race”.
Having to be that specific with searches is frustrating, especially when you’re using your phone to listen to music while out and about, and if you’re someone who has trouble remembering exact song names you may grow to hate Tidal’s search functionality.
Tidal’s user interface simply isn’t as polished as Spotify’s. It’s harder to find the music you want quickly, and it’s just not as simple to quickly build up a play queue.
Tidal’s normal tier (confusingly called ‘Premium’) limits you to a maximum bitrate of 320kbps (the same as Spotify’s Premium tier), while opting for the HiFi tier will give you access to lossless 1411kbps streams which are equivalent to the 16-bit/44.1kHz music stored on CDs.
Of course in order to stream at this high quality you’ll need both a stable internet connection and enough data to cover the large files being streamed.
But if you’re someone who lives in an area with good 4G reception then it’s more than possible to stream CD-quality music while using Tidal mobile.
Down the line Tidal has also promised to introduce Meridian’s MQA audio to make better than CD-quality music files available to stream. This functionality should be coming at some point in 2016 and the best news is that even non-MQA tracks played on a non-MQA device should still sound better than their counterparts which are ‘only’ CD-quality.
If you value high-quality music files then Tidal is the best music streaming service out there. The lossy compression offered by its competitors simply can’t compete.
Tidal has several curated sections of its service. The Playlists section is split between playlists designed for specific circumstances like ‘Workout’, ‘Relax’ or ‘Party’ which are assembled by the Tidal team, and other playlists assembled by celebrity guests.
You can also sort these playlists by genre as well as listening circumstances.
In addition to its playlists, Tidal also has a section dedicated to promoting new artists and releases which tends to offer a good spread across different genres.
Tidal’s curation might be comprehensive, but its main downside compared to something like Spotify’s Discover Weekly is that it isn’t tailored to your specific interests, which can make it difficult to find new music if your preferences don’t sit neatly within certain genres.
One to go with if…
You want exclusives and lossless music streaming.
- Read our full Tidal review
When it was released in 2000, Pandora was probably the best thing since sliced bread. Offering users an unexplored valley of new music based on their past listening history, the internet radio sensation took off and within a few years was at the top of the food chain. In the time since, however, Pandora has found itself clawing for a spot in the charts.
While the other services on this list are considered music streaming services that mostly allow you to pick which song you’d like to listen to on an on-demand basis, Pandora is like the internet version of a customized radio station. Like terrestrial radio, you don’t have much of a say in the song coming up next.
Other limitations are that Pandora doesn’t allow you to replay songs and, due to licensing restrictions, it’s rare you’ll hear two songs from the same album in a row. It lacks decent social integration and with a pool of only about a million songs, there isn’t a lot of variety. All that said, if you’re looking for something to throw on at a party, Pandora is still the best bet thanks to its ability to keep the beat going with only minimal intervention.
Pandora does offer a subscription service called Pandora One, that eliminates the all-too-frequent commercial breaks and ups the sound quality to 192Kbps.
It’s also worth mentioning that Pandora is only officially offered in the US, New Zealand and Australia, as the service pulled out of the UK back in 2008.
“So,” you might find yourself wondering, “if Pandora has the smallest library and refrains users from picking their songs, why do people use it?”
Pandora is probably one of the best values of any available streaming service, offering you every song and myriad customization options for the low price of $0/£0 per month. It’s absolutely free to sign up and, if you don’t mind an ad or two every 10 minutes, will stay that way as long as you use it.
Should you decide that advertisements are messing with your groove, you can subscribe to Pandora One to the tune of $4.99 or $54.89 per year.
Honestly, though, if you’re willing to open up your wallet, your money is best spent on one of the other premium music services like Spotify, Tidal or Apple Music.
While other services will try to sway you with limited exclusives, that’s just not a ploy Pandora cares about. At a recent press conference in New York City, Pandora CEO Tim Westergren called Apple’s exclusive approach “a losing battle.”
That said, it hopes a recent partnership with Music Reports – a service that allows for more transparency in music licensing and payments – will bring more artists back to Pandora.
User interface and experience
Pandora comes in a few flavors – you’ve got a desktop version, a mobile version and a set-top version that you’ll find on game consoles like the Xbox One and PS4, as well as streaming video boxes like the Roku 3, Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV.
Let’s start with the tried and true interface work: the desktop.
Getting started with Pandora is insanely easy. The service offers apps on both Windows 10 PCs and Mac, but the best place is straight in your web browser. Head over to Pandora’s website, and before you even register you can enter an artist, song or genre that you usually like and Pandora will queue up a list of songs it thinks you’ll like.
Your “station” – Pandora’s name for your custom playlist – appears on the left-hand side of the screen. In the middle around where you find the cover art is the name of the song playing, the artist and the CD it’s from. Underneath are the lyrics (perfect for when you want to do some deskside karaoke) and a short bio of the artist.
Along the bottom of the interface is a list of similar artists you might like, as well as an ad or two if you don’t subscribe to Pandora One.
At any point in time you can add variation to your playlist by going to the station and selecting “add variety.” This is a great feature for parties if you know half the crowd gets down to EDM while the other half enjoys ’90s alternative – start a station with one and then simply add in the other.
The other remaining options on the web interface allow you to share what you’re listening to on social networks like Facebook and Twitter or via traditional email. You can also buy any song you like using the “Buy” option, but you’ll be redirected to either Amazon or iTunes.
The set-top and mobile versions of Pandora condense the web version of the service into a bite-sized nugget. Even better, though, every mobile version of the app supports Google Cast and Apple AirPlay, if you’re using a device running iOS.
For better and worse, simplistic is the name of Pandora’s game. The service doesn’t allow for much customization when it comes to music quality – you get what Pandora gives you.
On desktops that’s a 64kbps AAC+ file, while on mobile you’ll hear a bit of variance depending on your connection, but it will never be higher than 64Kbps. If you’re connected to a streaming video player or multimedia device you’ll get a 128Kbps MP3, while Pandora One subscribers will be treated to a 192Kbps MP3. (In case you’re keeping track, that’s far lower than the 320Kbps Ogg Vorbis file Spotify Premium listeners are getting, and lightyears behind the 1411Kbps FLAC file supplied to Tidal Hi-Fi subscribers.)
Content and curation
As mentioned earlier, there’s not a lot of content on Pandora – only about 1 million songs. But, for the most part, Pandora makes it work.
If you’re someone who likes to set it and forget it, Pandora is a solid option, usually transitioning from one similar sounding song to the next without missing a beat. Of course, it does better when you’re there providing feedback via a thumbs up or a thumbs down, but it’s not absolutely essential that you do so.
If you’re looking for a more directed experience, Pandora music editors hand-picked playlists are available in the “browse” section of the site and apps. Here you’ll find playlists sorted by artist – they’re currently featuring Gorillaz and The Black Keys, for example – as well as top hits and new music playlists. These can be helpful if you have a genre in mind and want to stay up on the latest tunes or need some theme music at your next holiday party.
Unfortunately, though, because you can’t ever select individual songs, the experience here is a slightly limited one – it’s more akin to a friend giving you a mixtape of songs he or she thinks you’ll like, rather than a person at a record store giving you full reign to listen to whatever song you’d like.
But, as we often like to say, you get what you pay for.
One to go for if…
You adore the unexpected. You think music, in the words of Forrest Gump, should be like a box of chocolates. You don’t mind giving up control and you especially don’t mind saving a few dollars on your music streaming service.