If you haven’t invested in a large library of digital music over the years, music streaming services are a great option. They offer instant access to millions of songs and features to help you discover new artists or listen to old favorites. Some even let you download tracks for offline listening.
Whether you listen with a bluetooth speaker, a set of headphones, or something else, you can keep the audio magic flowing on or off of WiFi.
After a significant amount of research and testing, we found that Tidal is the best streaming music service for most people right now. It offers an enormous catalog of songs, high-definition audio, and is easy to use.
Tidal recently adjusted their pricing to be more in line with their competitors, added a large catalog of indie artists, and now offer a free tier similar to our favorite free service, Spotify.
Spotify’s free plan gives you a huge catalog and a strong user-tailored experience. Their options for discovering new music give them a slight edge on Tidal’s free tier. However, you have to be on a computer to select your own tracks and albums. On any platform, you’ll also be interrupted by ads. But Tidal’s free tier has the same weaknesses.
Finally, if you're an iPhone user, you'll want to consider Apple Music. It offers the best experience for Apple hardware owners.
Here are the best music streaming services we tested, ranked in order:
Tidal offers high-definition audio by default on all of their paid plans. Their basic HiFi plan has around 75 million songs, as well as exclusive content like articles and interviews. They also have early access to some albums and singles, and a wide range of music videos for streaming. That’s fairly unique among its competitors.
Recent improvements to Tidal have brought it into the top spot. While their library has traditionally been smaller than Spotify's by a thin margin, a recent deal with Soundrop may have secured them the last big indie distributor they were lacking. They’ve also recently added a free tier comparable to Spotify’s, though we’ll need more time with it to see how it stacks up against Spotify.
High-quality audio makes a huge difference, and it helped our winners stand out from the pack. Second-place Apple Music offers high-quality audio across the board, and third-place Deezer also offers a hi-fidelity option. Even with the natural degradation you get with Bluetooth headphones, you can hear a marked difference in quality over Spotify.
The HiFi plan is also discounted for military and first responders, and available as a family plan. Tidal offers a free 30-day trial of HiFi, as well as an ad-supported free plan that lets you choose your own music on desktop, or stream shuffled tracks and playlists on mobile.
Tidal’s top-tier HiFi Plus plan uses direct master recordings authenticated by the labels and artists that own or produced them. Tidal also offers 3-D audio via Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality spatial audio. They also consistently pay one of the highest rates to the artists who supply content to their library.
There are a few downsides. You may still find things on Spotify you can't find here, though not as many as you used to. Additionally, their app’s user interface can be bewildering at times, depending on what content you’re trying to access. Finally, despite some "expert-curated" playlists, Tidal isn't as robust for discovery as Spotify or Pandora.
Spotify’s free version provides plenty of listening options without a monthly subscription fee. It’s an easy choice for the best free streaming service. It provides the same personalized features as Spotify’s premium plan, and includes a full-featured desktop app.
However, it comes with compromises. For one thing, you’ll be peppered with ads every few songs or so. (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 on a free account. You can listen to playlists based on a song or artist, but 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 the audio quality is less than the Premium service. Still, with plenty of listening opportunities, it’s a great option to supplement your existing music library, or if you don’t mind putting up with a few ads.
Apple Music is among the most full-featured services around, touting 90 million songs in lossless quality. (That is, high-fidelity sound free from the compression of audio formats like mp3.) They also offer a cloud-based music locker that lets you upload your pre-existing music collection online to listen on the go.
While its subscription fee is in line with many other services’ basic offerings, Apple Music offers high-definition audio across the board. Their Apple Lossless Audio Codec file format sounds richer and crisper than compressed, lossy mp3s. A special flag notates when they’re using the original masters.
Of course, being an Apple product, it’s best integrated with other Apple products like Macs, iPhones or Apple Watches. Apple Music offers full integration with Siri for voice control on devices that have it. But even on other machines, Apple Music runs smoothly. If you’ve purchased a lot of music through iTunes or ripped a ton of CDs to your iTunes library, you can sync that to Apple Music as well. That makes your existing library accessible across multiple devices.
An Apple Music subscription also includes access to a wide variety of live radio stations hosted by well-known artists, DJs, and producers. This includes Apple Music Radio (formerly Beats 1 radio.) Apple Music Radio can be listened to live or on-demand and augments an already solid array of additional content including music videos and other exclusives. They also offer Dolby Atmos spatial audio, which allows creators to place sounds precisely in space around the listener, regardless of what they’re using to listen. There are plenty of plan options, including a standard monthly subscription and a discounted annual plan. There’s also a bare-bones “Apple Music Voice” plan. This streamlined option doesn’t include computers or mobile apps—it works exclusively through Siri.
Apple Music doesn’t offer a free plan, but you can give it a free trial spin for a generous 3 months. For those of you who want to support the artists you listen to, Apple Music is among the more generous when it comes to streaming payouts.
Michael Garrett Steele makes most of his living as a writer. However, he's also a composer and recording artist, primarily for video games. He's composed for properties like Fallout and Commander Keen and recorded for game composers like Megan McDuffee and Ryan Ike. He's been surrounded by and involved with music his whole life, as both a creator and listener.
Don Melanson is a veteran tech journalist who listens to a lot of music from a number of sources, including a vinyl collection, digital audio files, and, of course, streaming music services. He always strives to get the best sound quality possible—both from his audio equipment and his music sources.
To determine which music services are the top options, we started by first narrowing down the list of services to test to a manageable number, based on previous experience and expert opinion from trusted sources. We evaluated premium and free versions of each service. 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, to assess:
The 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 play 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 like live radio, videos, curated playlists, and exclusive content.
We took into account the cost of each service’s plans. We also considered podcast support, offline capabilities, overall sound quality, smartwatch app availability. While conducting these tests, we used each service’s web interface and desktop application (where available), as well as their Android and iOS apps.
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. Some are available to enjoy using your smartwatch or 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 streaming. The latter is where services can really stand out. 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
Standard resolution streaming audio was once the norm for music services. It gets the job done, more or less, but the music's quality takes a hit. Due to digital compression, you may hear a hiss or digital artifacts in your music as you listen. You may lose clarity or finer details.
High-resolution/definition audio brings richness to the music you stream. Background noise is lessened, if not removed entirely. Overall, what you hear will be closer to how the artist who originally recorded the song intended it to sound.
As high-resolution audio has become more common, it was a more pressing factor in our latest scoring process. Our original choice for best overall was dethroned, in favor of a service that provides a massive catalog of high-definition and lossless audio tracks.
Depending on the streaming service, high-definition audio may come standard with a basic subscription. Others, ask users to pay a premium to stream higher quality audio to their devices.
What Streaming Services Pay Artists
Music streaming services are notorious for not paying artists well. While most services don’t release official figures, information collected 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 purchasing a song or album after you’ve sampled it on your service of choice.
Other Music Streaming Services We Tested
Deezer subscription plans provide access to exclusive content, including live performances and original podcasts. For those looking for hi-res audio, Deezer’s premium HD audio plan is a great option, priced between Tidal's two options. It also boasts one of the simplest, most intuitive interfaces of the services we tested. There’s a free tier as well, but it’s very limited: you can’t choose your tracks or listen offline, and the audio quality is lower than what paying users enjoy. But you can listen to music, podcasts, and radio for free.
Deezer’s library isn’t the largest of the services we tested. But it does boast most major artists, and a wide slew of indies. If you’re a fan of discovering smaller artists, Deezer could be for you. If you care about how much these services pay artists, Deezer pays less than Tidal, but much more than Spotify.
Amazon Music Unlimited offers high-definition audio by default for all of its subscription tiers, at no additional cost. The service boasts a library of 75 million songs. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can listen to two million of those tunes for free, with no Amazon Music Unlimited subscription required. Additionally, anyone with an Alexa device can listen to the service’s “top playlists and stations” for free—but can’t choose songs on demand.
Amazon Music’s pricing is competitive with other services we tested. However, Amazon Prime members get a discount on the service’s monthly and annual plans. Echo device owners also have access to a low-cost voice control-only plan, similar to Apple Voice’s Siri integration.
Amazon offers support for Dolby Atmos Music, which expands the traditional stereo mix of most popular music into a virtual 3-D listening experience. This allows users to hear select music in a much more immersive way than traditional stereo. Unfortunately, device support for spatial audio is currently only available on Amazon’s Echo Studio smart speaker. You should also note that Amazon Music Unlimited’s catalog size is fairly limited compared to some other services in this guide, and only offers the basics when it comes to music recommendations and custom playlists.
YouTube isn’t just the world’s most popular video streaming site: it’s also one of the most used search engines in the world. In order to provide its users with music recommendations and custom playlists, YouTube Music leverages its subscriber’s usage history to sort out what you enjoy and what you don’t. That said, not everything that you can watch and listen to on YouTube is accessible through YouTube Music.
The cost of a YouTube Music subscription is in line with the pricing of the other services in this guide. There’s also a discount for students and a discounted family plan for 5 people over age 13 at the same address.
Unfortunately, You may have trouble accessing YouTube Music on some devices. There isn’t a smartwatch app, or even a dedicated desktop app. Additionally, the service’s financial support of artists is among the worst of any streaming music service out there.
Pandora’s music discovery features are the best we’ve seen, from any service we’ve tested. While most streaming services start by asking you to choose a selection of favorite artists, Pandora skips that and builds straight off of what you listen to. Their algorithm is good enough that they don’t need the help. Our first test album using Pandora was one that Garrett recorded: a small indie release that he uses to test most services since he knows it so well. Once the album ended, the next song that Pandora cued up fit the vibe of the album so perfectly that he couldn’t turn it off. The song that played after that was from an artist that Garrett’s producer was listening to when they recorded his album. Pandora clearly understood the vibe.
Pandora offers their ad-supported streaming radio for free. A “Plus” plan gives you ad-free radio streaming, more skips and replays, and offline listening. Their on-demand listening service is called Pandora Premium. It lets you choose the artist and songs you want to hear at will, like our top services, but it’s still new.
Unfortunately, their discovery algorithm is their only strong point. Pandora is plagued by lower-quality audio and a smaller library compared to other services in this guide. Not only is there no high-definition audio, but Pandora’s standard audio quality is also sub-par when compared against other services featured in this guide.
SoundCloud Go+ provides access to millions of songs from established and independent artists. Subscribers enjoy access to some cool features. There’s a library of podcasts, and SoundCloud Weekly, an automated playlist that helps you discover new music. SoundCloud GO+ also offers integration with select DJ apps, though the average listener probably won’t get a lot of mileage out of this feature.
In addition to its Go+ service, SoundCloud also offers a less expensive SoundCloud Go plan, which has less music to choose from and lower quality audio. No matter which plan you choose, you’ll be able to enjoy offline listening and, better still, no ads.
Unfortunately, SoundCloud’s support for devices other than smartphones and computers is poor. And, when using the service on a computer, its web interface is far less intuitive than the ones employed by other services in this guide.
As its name suggests, LiveOne places a heavy emphasis on live content. It hosts a wealth of original programming and exclusive live performances. While this helps it stand out from other music streaming services, LiveOne can’t measure up to the libraries of studio-recorded music offered by other services.
During testing, LiveOne’s web interface was sluggish and difficult to use. While the mobile app was slightly better, it can’t compete with the user interface offered by its competitors. These issues make it difficult to recommend LiveOne's "PLUS" plan.
However, if you’re intrigued by the service, there is a free, ad-supported plan which lets users listen to concert and festival live streams, audio stations, personalized recommendations, and original content. It’s a great way to check out what’s unique about LiveOne without having to pay a dime.
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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