Why It Still Matters Which Music Streaming Service You Sign Up For

Why It Still Matters Which Music Streaming Service You Sign Up For

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Take a look at the music streaming services of the moment and you’d be forgiven for not seeing any major differences: They all offer access to around 50 million tracks on demand, they all give you recommended mixes of music, they all let you sync tunes to your phone for offline listening, and so on. So does it matter which one you pick?

As it turns out, yes it does! We’ve been taking Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, Deezer, Amazon Music Unlimited and Tidal for extended test runs to see exactly how they compare against each other in 2019, and this is what we found.

All these services manage to cover the basics of building playlists, discovering new music, and so on very well, so we’re not going to mention this each time. We’re also going to skip over streaming catalog comparisons—we did notice occasional differences in the available tracks, but nothing major, and you’ll find out soon enough if a particular service isn’t carrying your favorite artists.


Spotify

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The name most synonymous with music streaming, Spotify has helped change the way we listen to music since introducing its pay-monthly-for-all-the-tunes-ever-recorded approach in 2008. More than a decade on, it still’s leading the pack.

As far as anyone can tell, Spotify has about double the paid subscribers Apple Music does worldwide, and many millions more on the free tier. That free tier is one of the key differences between the two services: You can keep on listening without paying on Spotify, though tunes get interspersed with ads and you’re stuck with shuffle mode on mobile.

Spotify runs across the web, Android, iOS, Windows, and macOS, and will cost you $10 a month for a premium account, with special offers for students and families. It works with a whole host of hardware devices and third-party apps too.

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Why you would pick it: The better question is why you wouldn’t opt for Spotify as your default streaming service. It’s been around for over a decade, so you’ll find it available pretty much everywhere, from smart speakers to games consoles (although not on the Apple TV, oddly enough—you need to use AirPlay instead).

The Spotify apps have a level of polish and stability you would expect from 11 years of development, and it’s the little touches that really make Spotify stand out—the way you can jump from device to device and carry on listening (or control one device from another), the integration with third-party apps and services, the ability to import local files from the desktop, and so on.

And Spotify just keeps on growing: Online radio, podcasts, and no fewer than five daily mixes of recommended music for example (the recommendations are usually spot on). It’s the most comprehensive all-around package by some distance.

Why you would avoid it: Spotify remains the music streaming powerhouse, but there are reasons to pick something else—see below for examples. Maybe you’re more heavily invested in Amazon, or iTunes, or YouTube, or maybe you just need something that’s a little simpler and that doesn’t have so many bells and whistles. Overall though, Spotify has very little in the negatives column.


Apple Music

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Apple Music was made public in 2015 and after a few teething problems is now pretty well integrated into iTunes. There’s no free tier unless you count just using iTunes with the music you’ve already purchased—you need to keep subscribing to keep listening.

It’ll set you back $10 a month (with deals for students and families) and for your cash you get access to a huge streaming library, online radio stations, recommended mixes, and playlists curated by editors and artists.

The clean, easy-on-the eye apps are available on macOS, Windows, iOS, and (unusually for Apple) Android. You can get at Apple Music on the web in limited form through a selection of third-party apps too.

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Why you would pick it: If you’re already heavily invested in iTunes, Apple Music is the obvious choice because you can bring all your local files and playlists along for the ride. You can’t sync your smart playlists to the Apple Music cloud, but you can mix your existing purchases with tracks from the streaming catalog in regular playlists.

Apple Music is best for Apple hardware as well. You can’t play Spotify or Tidal with a voice command on a HomePod (though you can AirPlay from those apps to a HomePod). Jumping between music libraries on a Mac and an iPhone is simple and seamless—though Spotify does this very well too, to be fair.

If you’ve got a big digital music library already in place, Apple Music makes sense. You can even carry on buying MP3s and ‘turn off’ your Apple Music subscription from time to time when you don’t need any new music to listen to: You’ll then revert back to your standard iTunes library.

Why you would avoid it: Apple Music doesn’t have quite the same reach as Spotify in terms of third-party apps and devices, though the situation is improving (you can’t use Apple Music with a Chromecast, for instance). There’s also no free tier, though you can get started with a free trial.


YouTube Music

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It’s perhaps a little unfair to include YouTube Music here, as Google is still shifting features over from the creaking shell of Google Play Music to its shiny new service, but YouTube Music is the future—and so it makes this list.

Your options for listening to YouTube Music are a web player, an iOS app, and an Android app (which recently gained the ability to play files on the local device—a sign of the slow but steady progress of YouTube Music as a service).

There is a free tier (besides just normal YouTube), which includes ads and doesn’t let you sync songs to devices. A premium subscription will set you back $10 a month, with special offers for students and families, but it’s also worth noting that a YouTube Premium subscription ($12 a month) includes access to the premium tier of YouTube Music.

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Why you would pick it: Rather obviously, for the videos, which get neatly incorporated into playlists. Less obviously, because YouTube carries a whole host of rare, alternative and live versions of songs that you won’t find on other services, which can really add some flavor to your personalized mixes.

If you already do a lot of listening on plain old YouTube, YouTube Music will pull that data in for your recommended mixes, whereas Spotify (for example) doesn’t know what you’re watching on YouTube. Not everyone will want their YouTube history affecting their streaming music playlists, but if you do, it’s ideal.

Other than the videos, and the YouTube integration, nothing else really stands out—though if you spend a lot of time with Google apps, services, and devices, this is going to be the default player from here on in… and if you subscribe to YouTube Premium already, then YouTube Music is essentially free.

Why you would avoid it: It’s still not really finished, and lacks some of the smoothness of its rivals when it comes to compiling playlists, queueing up songs to listen to immediately, and jumping between different devices. Plus, you might not want your YouTube habits and music listening habits so closely linked (your liked tracks on YouTube Music show up on YouTube, for example, though you can make them private).


Deezer

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Hailing from France, Deezer took a while to reach the US and hasn’t grabbed as much attention as Spotify and Apple Music—but it holds up very well against them in terms of features and functionality.

The apps aren’t dazzling in terms of what they bring to the table, but everything is elegantly arranged and easy to operate. In fact with its bright, minimal interface, it’s very reminiscent of Rdio (rest in peace). You can get Deezer apps on the web and for Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS.

Like Spotify, Deezer has a free tier with advertisements and restrictions on mobile. The standard premium package is $10 a month, with reductions for families and students, and there is also a $20 Deezer HiFi tier available — it gives you CD-quality, lossless 16-Bit/44.1 kHz FLAC music, but only on the desktop and via compatible speakers (the playback quality on mobile isn’t affected).

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Why you would pick it: There’s lots to like about Deezer without it actually excelling in any particular area. It’s actually one of the best at handling an upcoming queue of songs in a way that doesn’t require playlists to be created each time, and the apps have plenty of intuitive touches in them (as well as one or two rough edges).

Deezer works just about anywhere (Apple TVs and HomePods aside): Smart speakers, smart TVs, mobiles, desktops, and tablets… there’s even an app for the Xbox One (though not for the PS4 sadly). If you spend a lot of time hopping between platforms, or think you will in the future, Deezer is a safe choice.

Another feature we appreciate in Deezer is the ability to upload your own MP3s from a computer and then sync them to all your devices. If you’re coming to the streaming music scene with an extensive existing library, Deezer handles the merging of the two almost as well as Spotify.

Why you would avoid it: You don’t get as many personalized and popular mixes as you do on other services (though what Deezer does offer is usually very good). It’s not as clever as Spotify at switching between devices. And while its apps look very neat and tidy on the whole, and are easy to get around, there are a few areas that could use a polish.


Amazon Music Unlimited

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Prime subscribers get free access to a limited streaming library of 2 million songs under what’s called Amazon Music. Whether or not you’re a Prime subscriber, you can pay another monthly fee ($10 without Prime, $8 with Prime) to get Amazon Music Unlimited, which bumps the library up to the usual 50 million tracks that all the other services offer.

It’s very much like Amazon Prime Video, but for music—you can buy it separately from Amazon Prime, but it’s cheaper as a bundle. Music Unlimited doesn’t feel anywhere near as much of a priority for Amazon as Prime Video, though.

You can get at Amazon Music Unlimited from the web, and on the dedicated Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS apps. As you would expect, these apps work well with Amazon Echo speakers, letting you beam music to them from your phone (like a Chromecast) or play music directly with a voice command.

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Why you would pick it: If you’re already a Prime subscriber, then Amazon Music Unlimited is cheaper than your other options here. If you’ve got Prime and a house full of Amazon Echos, then Amazon’s music streaming service becomes a lot more appealing, because everything will just work out of the box.

Otherwise, the apps and features here don’t really give you many reasons to switch from Spotify or indeed any other music streaming service. The apps are decent enough but nothing special, and the recommended and personalized playlists are a bit limited. We do like the on-screen lyrics overlay that works like X-Ray on Amazon Prime Video, but there aren’t many neat touches like this.

What Amazon does offer is an integrated digital music store, so you can buy MP3s (and import ones you’ve already got) as well as stream songs. If you still want to own your digital music, and don’t want to deal with Apple, then this is one feature that makes Amazon’s offering stand out.

Why you would avoid it: Like the Amazon website itself, the music apps on the web and on mobile aren’t the most polished or intuitive we’ve ever seen, though there are some nice touches. And while you do get some recommended mixes, they’re nowhere near as personalized or as plentiful as those on rival services.


Tidal

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Best known for offering music at higher fidelity than anyone else, Tidal’s base $10 a month package actually serves up the same audio quality as everyone else (special offers are available for students and families).

For the full-on lossless audio quality, you need to pay Tidal $20 a month—the same price as Deezer. This remains one of Tidal’s key selling points, and might be enough to make you consider ditching Spotify… just remember you’ll be paying twice as much (Spotify has previously tested a lossless audio plan, but hasn’t yet launched one).

Tidal is available on the web and through apps for macOS, Windows, iOS, and Android. The service works with plenty of wireless speakers and smart TVs too, and unlike Spotify, does offer an Apple TV app (though overall Spotify edges it in terms of native support on hardware devices). Click here to see if Tidal will work with your audio/visual equipment.

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Why you would pick it: The apps for Tidal are actually really well done, as good as Spotify or Deezer in our testing. Those three are really leading the pack in terms of intuitiveness and design in the mobile and desktop apps. The web app is particularly well done too.

Aside from the apps just looking nice, Tidal has appeal for audiophiles and serious music fans: Not only is there a lossless audio tier, but you also get access to a bunch of exclusive content, like the upcoming Prince LP. Whether those exclusives last long enough or are compelling enough to make a Tidal subscription worth it is debatable, but the platform seems genuinely interested in promoting live events, rare tracks, artist interviews, and up and coming artists through its platform.

Tidal also incorporates video content better than most: Though it’s nowhere near the level of YouTube, you can find a lot of the big hits from the big artists in video form, as well as a few interesting documentaries, interviews, and other bits.

Why you would avoid it: As with Apple Music, there’s no free tier with Tidal, just a free trial. Other services do better with the personalized playlists and non-stop station mixes than Tidal does, though its standalone recommendations for albums and artists are usually on the mark.

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