Music streaming services are a way for you to listen to a world of songs and artists without having to download files to your phone, tablet, computer or NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive connected to your router. They allow you to enjoy music from every genre imaginable, create playlists of your favorites and explore new tunes and artists. Music streaming services are so popular now that you’ve probably already listened to one in a restaurant or doctor’s office even if you didn’t realize it.
As with most things audio, the best option isn’t necessarily the highest rated or most popular one — it’s the option that best suits your needs, whether you’re listening in your car, at the gym or on your audiophile system at home. Although competition has resulted in many streaming services offering comparable pricing and features, there are some key differences that can help determine the right choice for you and your lifestyle. In this article, we’ll take a look at those differences, and also explore some of the things that streaming services have in common.
Pricing is, of course, a key factor for most people. Some of the most well-known streaming services, like Pandora® and Spotify®, owe their popularity largely to free plans that allow you to explore premade playlists and see how well the service adjusts to your taste based on your likes. Other services offer a free 30-day trial period so you can test out a few and see which you like best. Just remember to cancel before recurring billing kicks in.
There is a downside, however. For one thing, most free plans contain ads. Others may not allow skipping songs or only offer shuffle play, meaning that the songs in a playlist can only play in random order. If you don’t mind these limitations, you can enjoy free streaming … or for just $4.99 a month you can avoid ads and have unlimited skips with Pandora’s Plus service.
The majority of popular streaming services, such as Spotify, charge $9.99/month for basic service for individuals and $14.99 for family plans that include up to six members. Basic services usually include access to the entire catalog, and sometimes include ad-free listening and unlimited skips. There is usually a slightly more expensive premium service plan that may include higher resolution songs and/or offline listening.
There are also discounted plans available for students or members of the military. Spotify, Apple Music®, Amazon Music Unlimited and others offer student plans for $4.99/month. There is even a student bundle of Spotify, Hulu® and SHOWTIME® for $4.99/month, but be prepared to prove that you’re a college student. Other services, like TIDAL, Pandora and Napster, offer military discounts.
Most streaming services have well over a million songs in their catalogs, with some boasting over 70 million songs! So, unless you’re into a really unique genre, you should be able to find songs you enjoy no matter which service you choose. Keep in mind, however, that bigger doesn’t always mean better, since some services focus on particular genres. For instance, TIDAL, whose artist-owners include JAY Z and Beyoncé, features many hip-hop songs. Again, you can take full advantage of the free trials to explore.
This may be the deciding factor for you audiophiles out there. Spotify, one of the most popular services, streams at lower bit rates and tops out at 320 Kbps, which is fine for most of us. But for those who demand higher-end audio, TIDAL and Deezer stream at up to CD quality (16-bit/44.1 kHz) for standard membership, and TIDAL can also stream at up to high-resolution (24-bit/96 kHz) if you have a premium membership. Qobuz streams at high-resolution, all the way up to 24-bit/192kHz. Click here to read our blog post about streaming audio quality.
Content is king! Are you interested in more than music? Pandora offers podcasts and stations, while Spotify and Apple Music have videos and radio stations (podcasts are also available separately from Apple via their Podcast app). You can even enjoy live concerts and other events on TIDAL and YouTube® Music.
Almost every service has a plan that allows you to download playlists and music so that you can listen offline, which comes in handy for those long plane flights and dead zones. However, some services, like Napster, only allow you to do so if you pay for a premium service.
If you must own your music, Apple Music, Qobuz and Amazon Music Unlimited allow you to buy it. Qobuz claims to have the largest store of high-resolution albums, with over 160,000 titles.
To summarize, here’s a table that compares many popular streaming services based on the factors discussed:
For best viewing of the table on a mobile device, click here.
* Note: The information in this table is accurate as of publication date.