If you’ve yet to join the world of online music—or you’re looking for a new way to listen to your favorite artists—there’s never been a better time to shop around. No matter your musical taste, music streaming services offer instant access to millions of songs, intuitive discovery features, and even offline listening, allowing you to stream your favorite tunes to your favorite or mobile devices smart speaker or headphones.
However, with so many music-streaming sites available, finding the one that best suits your needs can be daunting. After a significant amount of research and testing, we found Spotify Premium to be the best way to listen to music for most people because of its widespread availability, ease-of-use, and personalized features that help you discover music. We also found Spotify’s free plan to be the best offered by any service. It gives you the same type of user-tailored benefits found in the premium plan, albeit with a few key trade-offs—namely, ads that interrupt your music, as well as more limited listening options.
Here are the best music streaming services we tested, ranked in order:
Spotify’s free version provides plenty of listening options for anyone who doesn't way to pay for a monthly subscription. It’s an easy choice for the best free streaming service as it provides the same personalized features as Spotify’s premium plan and includes a full-featured desktop app.
However, using it comes with a few compromises: For one thing, Spotify’s free version will interrupt your listening with ads every few songs or so. Although, occasionally, you’ll have the option of enduring a longer advertisement in exchange for an extended ad-free listening session.
Another downside is that the mobile app is more limited than its desktop counterpart when using a free account. You can listen to playlists, based on a song or artist you select but, unlike the desktop app, individual songs or albums are limited, as is the number of songs you can skip.
Finally, the free-tier plan doesn’t offer offline listening, and, unlike Spotify’s Premium service, it also lacks the option to increase your music’s audio quality. But the service still has plenty of listening options, which makes the free service a great option if you’re looking to supplement your existing music library, or just don’t mind putting up with a few ads.
I’m a freelance writer and longtime technology journalist Don Melanson. I listen to a lot of music from a number of sources, including a vinyl collection, digital audio files that I’ve purchased or ripped from CDs, and, of course, streaming services.
In the case of the latter, I’ve used a number of services over the years. I am always striving to get the best sound quality possible—both from my audio equipment and my music sources. I appreciate any service or device that improves my listening experience.
To determine which music services are the best options, we started by first narrowing down the list of services to test to a manageable eight, relying on previous experience, as well as expert opinion from trusted sources. We evaluated premium and free versions of each service, too. Next, we assembled 21 popular and lesser-known songs, representing a wide range of genres from various eras. We used these songs to build a playlist for each streaming service in our test group, in order to assess:
The overall user-friendliness of each service
How difficult it was to build a playlist
How easy it was to find and listen to music
The breadth of music available on each service—the fewer songs available, the lower the marks
Beyond this, we also used each service to listen to music that we ordinarily listen to on a daily basis. This helped to judge how well each service’s music recommendation features worked. We also spent time exploring extra features each service offered, such as live radio, videos, curated playlists, and exclusive content.
The cost of plans offered by each service was also considered, as well as podcast support, offline capabilities, each service’s overall sound quality (is it really CD-quality like they tout it to be?), and availability on smartwatch apps.
While conducting these tests, we used each service’s web interface and desktop application (where available), as well as their Android and iOS apps.
(Note, in our initial round of testing, we did not evaluate Pandora Premium, but we are testing it now, and will it add it to this guide in the coming weeks.)
What You Should Know About Music Streaming Services
While there are exceptions, most streaming services will offer the majority of the music you’re looking for.
They all offer decent sound quality, and should be available to use with iOS, Android and Windows and Mac computers. You’ll find some are available to enjoy using your smartwatch or a smart speaker, while others are not.
The biggest differences between music services are found in their interfaces, ease of use, and additional features beyond basic music streaming. The latter, in particular, can vary considerably. Some offer exclusive content, live radio, custom playlists, and music recommendations that become more tailored to your taste the more you use them.
Standard vs. High-Res/HD Sound Quality
The audio quality offered by basic music services will satisfy most people. However, it may not satisfy audiophiles who listen to music on high-end sound systems and headphones.
Audiophiles may want to look for a service that offers high-resolution audio, sometimes referred to as hi-res or HD streaming. These options are considerably more limited. Of the eight services we tested, only three currently offer hi-res audio—Amazon, Tidal, and Deezer. You’ll also pay a premium for this higher level of sound quality.
What Streaming Services Pay Artists
Music streaming services are notorious for not paying artists well. While most of the services don’t release official figures, information collected directly from musicians and other sources indicates that artists can expect to make anywhere from $0.00069 to $0.019 per stream. That’s a tiny fraction of what they make from actual album sales, and the variables between how much one artist makes over another are opaque.
The convenience of streaming music is tough to beat, but if there are artists you want to support, you might want to consider also buying a copy of a song or album after you’ve sampled it on your service of choice.
Other Music Streaming Services We Tested:
Tidal’s biggest advantage is its top-tier HiFi plan that offers uncompressed, audiophile-grade sound quality at a cost of $19.99 per month, which is more than comparable to hi-res plans from Amazon and Deezer. If sound quality is the most important factor in choosing a service, then this is the one for you.
Tidal also offers a standard plan for $9.99 a month, which stacks up well against the other leading services in most respects.
The service has widespread availability on various devices and platforms, an easy-to-use interface, and plenty of personalized and exclusive content (including original articles and interviews).
As with other services, Tidal offers a free 30-day trial. However, there is no free version available once the trial period ends.
If cost isn’t an issue for you, Tidal’s HiFi plan is tough to beat.
Apple Music is among the most full-featured service around, touting 60 million songs and a cloud-based music locker. Despite the support for Android devices, it is still best suited for use with Apple products (be it a Mac, iPhone or Apple Watch). When used with these devices, Apple Music offers full integration with Siri for voice control.
Additionally, if you’ve purchased a lot of music through iTunes or ripped a ton of CDs to your iTunes library, it’s possible to sync your music library making it accessible across multiple devices. There are plenty of plan options, including a standard $9.99 a month subscription and a $99 annual plan.
An Apple Music subscription also includes access to Beats 1 radio station, which offers a wide selection of live radio hosted by well-known artists, DJs, and producers. Beats 1 can be listened to live or on-demand, and augments an already solid array of additional content including music videos and other exclusives.
While a free trial period is offered, Apple Music has no free plan to lean on once your trial is up.
Deezer is a full-featured service that will likely have the vast majority of the music you want. It offers a number of plans, including monthly and annual options, and it is available to use across a wide range of devices. It also boasts one of the simplest, most intuitive interfaces of the services we tested.
The streamlined interface could potentially be easier on the eyes for some folks than the darker color schemes of Spotify, Tidal or Amazon.
Deezer offers exclusive content, including live performances and original podcasts. For those looking for hi-res audio, Deezer’s $14.99 per month HD audio plan is more affordable than Tidal. Deezer is also a relatively popular service outside the U.S., which means it’s supported by a lot of devices and services.
There isn’t a great deal of difference in terms of price between any of the major music streaming services but, if you already subscribe to Amazon Prime, you can save a bit of money by opting for Amazon’s Music Unlimited service. It costs $7.99 per month for Prime members.
Everyone else pays $9.99 per month for a single user and $14.99 per month for a family plan. If you’re a student, you’ll pay $4.99 a month to access the service. Like other services on this list, Amazon also offers a high-resolution audio plan that costs $12.99 per month with Amazon Prime or $14.99 without.
Amazon also offers support for Dolby Atmos Music (also available on Tidal), which expands the traditional stereo mix of most popular music to include surround sound and height speaker information. This allows users to hear select music in a much more immersive way than traditional stereo audio.
Unfortunately, at present, device support for the feature is highly limited, available only on Amazon’s Echo Studio smart speaker. That said, it’s worth keeping an eye on this feature for expansion to other devices.
Amazon Music’s catalog size is comparable to Spotify’s, but the service offers only the basics when it comes to music recommendations and custom playlists.
YouTube Music was built to leverage everyone’s favorite free video streamer, YouTube. This means that your YouTube usage history informs YouTube Music’s recommendations and custom playlists.
In addition, all of the music videos available on YouTube are seamlessly integrated into the service, so it offers some music that’s unavailable via other services, albeit in music video form.
That said, YouTube Music doesn’t offer the ubiquity of other services on this list. You may have trouble accessing it on via some services and devices. For example, YouTube Music doesn’t offer a smartwatch app or even a dedicated desktop app.
While SoundCloud is known for its indie content and community-created music, its $9.99/month SoundCloud Go+ streaming service also provides access to millions of songs from established artists.
SoundCloud also offers a less expensive $4.99 a month plan, SoundCloud Go, but it offers less music to choose from and lower sound quality.
If you are already using SoundCloud to listen to a lot of indie music not available on other services, a Go or Go+ subscription is a great way to consolidate all of your listening on one app or website. Like other services, SoundCloud offers some cool features, including SoundCloud Weekly, an automated playlist that helps you discover new music from the service’s 180-million-plus songs. Like other services, it also offers a variety of podcasts.
That said, SoundCloud doesn’t offer nearly as much support for devices and services outside your smartphone or computer as the top choices on our list. In addition, we’re not crazy about the web interface, which is less intuitive than our top picks.
As such, those who aren’t already embedded in the SoundCloud community will likely get a better experience out of another choice.
LiveXLive places a heavy emphasis on live content, offering a wealth of original programming and exclusive live performances. While that helps it stand out from other services, it, unfortunately, doesn’t measure up to most of the competition when it comes to regular, on-demand music listening.
During testing, LiveXLive’s web interface proved to be sluggish and difficult to use. While the mobile app was slightly better, it can’t compete with the user interface offered by Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, or Apple Music.
This makes it difficult to recommend LiveXLive’s $9.99 per month premium plan. However, the service also offers a more limited “Plus” plan for $3.99 a month that provides access to all of the service’s live content. Plus plan users are able to skip songs, but can’t play any song they like, on-demand.
Don Melanson is a freelance writer and journalist based on Canada's East Coast. His work has appeared in a range of publications including Popular Mechanics, Motherboard, The Globe & Mail, and Engadget, where he also served a long stint as a senior editor.
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