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Streamingis the most convenient way to listen to your favorite songs. Sure, may be making a resurgence among audiophiles with lots of options, but wrangling physical records is a pain for casual music fans. And if you are concerned about sound quality, it may surprise you that streaming music can sound indistinguishable from — or even better than — a .
The question is which streaming music service is best for you? We checked out Apple Music, , , and Pandora Premium to see how each platform stacks up for your subscription buck. While most offer music catalogs of more than 50 million songs, each has its own unique pros and cons. We’ve also left out services that only play music in a radio format and don’t offer a la carte listening.
Services typically charge $10 a month and don’t have a contract, but swapping between them isn’t as straightforward as. In most cases you’ll need to build your library and playlists from scratch if you switch, unless you use a music locker service. There is another option — — which can read the library from each of your music services and transfer them. There is a monthly charge of $4.50, but you can always cancel once you’ve converted your library.
Read on to find an in-depth look at each of the services and a feature comparison, along with a full price breakdown in the chart at the bottom of the page. And If you want the TL;DR, these are the top three.
Spotify is the pioneer in the music-streaming space arguably the best known. It offers a number of curated music discovery services, including its Discover Weekly playlist, and is constantly implementing new ones, such as Stations.
It’s a close race between Spotify Premium and Apple Music, but Spotify wins as the best music streaming service overall thanks to a fun, easy-to-use interface, an extensive catalog and the best device compatibility. Spotify also offers our favorite free tier: without paying a dime you can still stream over to numerous devices and you don’t even need to provide a credit card.
- Free version is impressively robust
- Spotify Connect simplifies connecting to wireless speakers and AV receivers
- Easy to build your own playlists and sync them for offline listening
- Allows you to follow artists and to be alerted when they release new music or announce an upcoming show
- Advertisements in the free service can be intrusive
- You can’t listen to specific songs in the free tier, just a mix based on the requested music
Best for: People who want a solid all-around service, and especially for people who love to make, browse and share playlists for any scenario.
Apple Music is a close second to Spotify and it’s the only one of our top three with a digital locker to store your own library of songs — YouTube Music, below, is the other music locker option.
Not surprisingly, Apple Music is an excellent choice If you’ve invested heavily in Apple devices. If you own an , you’ll need this subscription service to summon music with your voice. Apple Music also makes the ideal companion for an , which, amazingly, is still a thing. There’s also ton of curated playlists, many hand-crafted by musicians and tastemakers, but it lacks the robust sharing options built into Spotify.
- Combines your iTunes library with music you don’t own and an optional music locker via iTunes Match ($25, £22 or AU$35 a year)
- Human music experts and algorithms help find music you’ll want to hear based on what you play
- You can control what you hear or search for new music using Siri on Apple HomePod or other Apple devices
- The Android app and experience isn’t as smooth as the iOS one
- Doesn’t work with old iPods (except the iPod Touch)
Best for: Those who want to listen to albums and songs they’ve added to iTunes or use an Apple HomePod.
In third place is Tidal, which offers a wide selection of music beyond its most eye-catching urban names. Its higher-priced options are especially suited to people seeking the best audio quality.
Part-owned by hip-hop mogul Jay Z, Tidal is the only “major” streaming music service that offers lossless audio streaming with sound quality that is virtually identical to — or better than — CD. Tidal says its catalog now exceeds 60 million tracks, but it may not always have everything you’re looking for: as one example, Metallica is still a Spotify exclusive. If you’re an audiophile, a fan of urban music, or a mix of both, then Tidal should appeal to you.
- High-fidelity music streams including
- Lots of video content, including concert livestreams
- Profiles and record reviews on every page, plus up-and-coming artist spotlights
- The mobile apps and web player aren’t as straightforward as some others
- The catalog isn’t as exhaustive as Spotify Premium
- Most high-res music uses MQA, which needs a specialized decoder
Best for: Musically inclined purists who care deeply about sound quality and discovering new, up-and-coming artists.
The best of the rest
Amazon Music Unlimited
Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET
Amazon Music Unlimited is the “grown-up” (a.k.a. paid) version of radio stations that are grouped around artists you’ve already listened to., which any gets for “free.” It offers a greatly expanded catalog for an extra outlay per month: $8 for Prime members and $10 if you don’t have Prime. Rather than focusing on the cutting edge of music as some others here do, the Amazon music service features recommended playlists and
- Cheaper than the top three if you’re an member
- Lyrics automatically pop up on the “now playing” screen
- Offers Echo Dot and Amazon Tap (includes ads) ,
- Step-up ($12.99 for Prime members) includes high-res and
- Artist profiles don’t have biographies
- Officially advertised as “tens of millions” of tracks strong, it’s unclear if the catalog is quite as large as its competitors
- The service no longer includes a
Best for: Amazon Prime members who want to save a few bucks on a decent music catalog.
In even better news, YouTube Music offers a cleaner interface than Google Play Music. Instead of playlists, YouTube Music offers well-curated radio stations, which are the standout features. Unlike playlists, which are finite and contain specific tracks, radio stations play endlessly and are updated often.
The biggest “drawback” of YouTube Music is that Google Play Music continues to coexist alongside it for the time being. Once GPM is dead and buried, we’ll be taking another look at this service to reevaluate how it compares to our top 3.
- Monthly fee includes subscription to YouTube Music: commercial-free streaming on YouTube and YouTube Music
- Over 40 million tracks
- Retains Google Play Music’s music locker system: You can transfer existing songs from the old service, plus upload new ones in YouTube Music
- The continued existence of Google Play Music is confusing for existing users
Best for: Heavy YouTube users and Android device users.
One of the most popular streaming radio services in the US, Pandora now offers the a la carte Premium and no-ads Plus tiers. The result is more flexibility than most competitors and Premium is gaining in subscribers, even if it’s behind in terms of overall catalog size.
- One of the largest user bases, thanks to its free version
- Pandora’s Music Genome Project analyzes each track according to 450 different attributes in order to give better suggestions
- Its audio quality is among the lowest available, even on the Premium subscription (192Kbps)
- It doesn’t really offer enough of an incentive for an upgrade compared to the others here
- Not available outside the US
Best for: Pandora Premium is of most interest to people who already use Pandora and want to be able to pick exactly what they listen to. We’d recommend it to almost no one else.