We all have opinions, right? From political leanings to how we take our coffee, humans aren’t shy when it comes to forming, keeping, and sharing personal preferences — especially when it comes to how we stream content. So, with music being about as universal as bread and wine, there’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to how we listen to our favorite tunes in the home, on the go, and through our headphones.
If you ask our music experts, Spotify ranks supreme on our list of music streaming services. Compared with its user-friendly interface, affordable subscription, and wide library of music and podcasts, most of the competition can’t match up. However, we have spent a lot of time looking at some of the most popular music streaming services around, and we’ve made a list of the best ones for you to peruse.
At a glance
|Apple Music||Best for Apple users|
|Pandora||Best service for passive listening|
|Amazon Music Unlimited||Best value|
|Soundcloud||Best for indie music discovery|
Why you should subscribe: It’s the best music discovery platform you’ll find, it has a huge catalog, and it can be tested for free indefinitely.
Who it’s for: Streaming newcomers, new musical explorers, podcast junkies, and just about everyone else.
How much it will cost: Free with ads, $10 per month ad-free for single users, $13 ad-free for dual memberships, $15 ad-free for families (up to six users), and $5 ad-free for students
Why we picked Spotify:
With millions more paying subscribers than the closest competition, Spotify is — by a wide margin — the most popular on-demand streaming service on the market. That’s true for a number of reasons, including the service’s extremely user-friendly interface on desktop, iOS, and Android, seamless experiences on gaming consoles and inside the latest cars, countless third-party hardware and software integrations — such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Cast — and a diverse array of well-curated playlists and music-discovery tools.
One of the earliest pioneers of on-demand streaming, the Swedish streamer has long enticed newcomers with a free, ad-based desktop platform, and as streaming has begun to take hold of the industry, many of those users have eventually become paid subscribers. Apart from kicking the annoying ads, paying up allows you some real advantages, including being able to choose songs on demand via mobile devices — an important feature for most users that the ad-based service doesn’t offer.
In a streaming market that sometimes turns to exclusive releases from top artists to capture more users, Spotify employs its status as the industry leader to force the hands of artists and labels alike to release their music on the service. For instance, Drake is a paid ambassador for Apple Music, but his mega-hit album Views didn’t stay an Apple Music exclusive for long — the album landed on Spotify within a few weeks of its debut. Radiohead — a band with no shortage of terse words about Spotify’s royalty payments — also eventually released its entire catalog on the service. Even Taylor Swift eventually gave up her stand against Spotify, after years of Apple Music exclusivity.
While there are a few Spotify holdouts, Spotify’s catalog of well over 50 million songs assures that if you can’t find it on Spotify, it will be tough to find it anywhere else.
Those looking to find their next favorite band will also love Spotify for its updated playlists like Monday’s Discover Weekly and New Music Friday, all of which follow your listening habits to recommend surprisingly fitting new artists to match up with your listening tastes.
Curious about that cool band your friend is into? Spotify’s Facebook integration allows you to follow friends and see what they have been listening to, as well as check out any playlists they’ve decided to make public. Now you can even create shared listening experiences with Group Session, so you and your pals can listen to the same great tunes at the same time.
Beyond just music, Spotify is betting big on the podcast format, which has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years as more people look to influencers and alternative media for news and commentary instead of the traditional conglomerates. It looks to bolster that offering even more with a recent purchase of The Ringer, the popular sports/pop culture podcast network, to fill one of the few remaining gaps.
While competitors do offer some exclusive features, Spotify is the most well-rounded, intuitive, and hassle-free option available. Unless you have a very specific sonic need the service can’t satisfy (which we’ll outline below), we suggest streaming newbies get on the Spotify train.
While you’re at it, be sure to check out our massive assortment of Spotify playlists for all occasions.
The best for Apple users
Why you should subscribe: You’re an Apple user looking for the best service to integrate with all your stuff.
Who it’s for: Lovers of iTunes, hand-curated live radio, and all things Apple.
How much it will cost: $10 per month for a single user, $15 for a family plan (up to six users), $5 per month for students, $99 per year for those who have already subscribed.
Why we picked Apple Music:
While we generally prefer Spotify to Apple Music when it comes to features and usability, there are definitely some compelling reasons to check out the second-most popular (it’s first in the United States) on-demand streaming service.
First and foremost is Apple Music’s iOS and MacOS integration. Those with iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks will love the fact that they can ask Siri to search for specific artists, songs, or playlists, and virtually everything music related on an Apple device is tied into the service. In addition, longtime iTunes users will be pleased to find many of their songs are immediately available in their Apple Music streaming library upon signing up, along with the ability to store up to 100,000 songs for later use.
Apple Music is also available on Windows PCs through iTunes, though you don’t get the same OS-level integration that Mac users do. Another way Apple has kept up with contemporaries is by launching a rudimentary web interface for those who can’t use native apps otherwise.
Apple offers multiroom integration via Airplay 2, which came with the release of iOS 11, alongside its HomePod speaker, allowing Apple fans a similar listening experience to that offered by Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Cast products.
Apple Music’s Apple Music 1 is another huge bonus. Formerly Beats 1, the 24-hour live radio service features curation by famed DJs like Zane Lowe and numerous celebrities like Ryan Adams, Pharrell Williams, Mike D, and others. Apple Music 1 also frequently premieres some of the biggest songs in pop music.
Speaking of premieres, Apple works hard to be the first to showcase songs from some of the world’s biggest pop artists, including Drake, Taylor Swift, and Frank Ocean.
Those looking to save some cash will also be excited to note that the company allows current subscribers to pay $99 for an entire year on the service, allowing you to sign up and then save $20 per year on your favorite tunes.
If you’re a fan of the biggest names in pop, love radio-style listening, and own an iPhone or other Apple device, Apple Music could be your service of choice.
The best for passive listening
Why you should subscribe: Pandora’s thumbs-up/thumbs-down algorithm still rules internet radio.
Who it’s for: Those who like to press play and walk away.
How much it will cost: Free ad-based radio, $5 per month for ad-free radio, $10 per month for ad-free on-demand music streaming (Pandora Premium), $15 per month for families (Pandora Premium), $5 per month for students (Pandora Premium), $8 per month for military members (Pandora Premium).
Why we picked Pandora:
Though Pandora’s on-demand streaming tier features 40 million tracks, the best reason to subscribe to the service is to bask in the glory of its Music Genome Project. Since the early 2000s, the company has been attempting to “capture the essence of music on every level,” categorizing tunes based on hundreds of unique characteristics.
With such an abundance of data about each song, Pandora is able to offer the best curated, radio-style streaming online, all based on simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down rankings. Users can pick a favorite artist or track and press play, letting the magic algorithms behind the scenes at Pandora go to work. No matter who you’re into, Pandora will create a seemingly endless list of complementary songs to enjoy.
While the on-demand service is a nice addition, Pandora is best for people who like to simply sit back and let the tunes roll on. Pandora also joins Spotify as one of the most ubiquitous music streaming platforms on tap. Whether it’s on your computer, smartphone, TV, or the cockpit of your car, there’s almost no device you can’t get your jam on. Also, if you can’t decide which one suits you best, check out our Spotify vs. Pandora comparison.
The best for value
Why you should subscribe: Amazon Prime members get two million tracks for free, and it’s only $8 per month for millions more.
Who it’s for: Amazon Prime subscribers who want to keep it all in the family.
How much it will cost: Two million tracks free with Amazon Prime subscription, $8 per month (with Prime) for 50 million tracks on-demand, $10 per month (without Prime) for on-demand, $5 per month for students, $15 per month for up to six family members, $79 annual solo plan, $149 annual family plan, $15 per month for HD music, $20 per month for HD music for families.
Why we picked Amazon Music:
Although the music streaming industry agrees on the value of services, it’s always worth pointing out opportunities for savings. Amazon Music Unlimited is the standard $10 per month for individuals, but you can knock $2 off if you also have an Amazon Prime membership. You’d expect major gaps for the discount, but Amazon has an extensive library with over 60 million tracks.
The service is standard fare for music streaming, only Alexa lends her talents and expertise to help you discover new music and control playback with your voice. Amazon Music features offline downloads, a karaoke-style lyrics engine, and deep integration with Amazon’s Fire and Echo family of devices (plus anything else you can find Alexa on).
As a bonus, audiophiles will find the best alternative to Tidal’s high-fidelity audio streaming in Amazon Music Unlimited’s HD tier. You’re paying extra for the privilege, but the added cost unlocks access to CD-quality 16-bit/44.1kHz (minimum) sound. Amazon offers almost all of its catalog at that level, but it advertises a select few as Ultra HD at 24-bit/192kHz. The HD tier is $5 cheaper than the Jay-Z-owned service, too.
You’re not required to sign up for Amazon Prime to join Music Unlimited, but you should if you’re a frequent shopper of theirs. Besides the two million tracks included with your subscription (which you can test out with a free Amazon Prime trial), you’ll enjoy fast, cheap, and often free shipping, Amazon Prime Video access, free Kindle books, unlimited photo storage, and gobs more.
The best for indie music discovery
Why you should subscribe: With more than 100 million user-created tracks, SoundCloud has one of the most diverse indie libraries online.
Who it’s for: Indie music fans who prefer to take a hands-on approach to music discovery.
How much it will cost: Free with ads for access to 120 million user-added tracks, $5 per month for ad-free access to user-added tracks, $10 for user-added tracks plus 30 million major label tracks.
Why we picked SoundCloud:
SoundCloud’s biggest asset is its extremely creative, massive user base. With nearly 200 million active users per month and a huge number of small-name artists constantly uploading their latest and greatest songs to the service, those who have the patience to dig through SoundCloud’s immense track list are sure to find an unknown artist they love.
However, because it has so many songs and a layout designed around single tracks rather than playlists, SoundCloud really is for crate-digger types — those who’d prefer to sift through tons of tunes to find their next favorite band, rather than relying on a computer algorithm to predict what they may or may not like.
While this is great for a very specific kind of user, it may not be right for the average listener. SoundCloud has found trouble compelling users to pay in recent years, but the company’s plan to double down on underground music discovery with creator-centric features has given it a niche leg to stand on. Still, if you find yourself on SoundCloud searching for new favorites for hours a week (which we do to find the best new music for you), you may want to think about upgrading to an ad-free experience.
The best fidelity
Why you should subscribe: You demand the highest audio resolution, and you’re willing to pay for it.
Who it’s for: Stubborn audiophiles, serious Jay-Z fans.
How much it will cost: $10 per month for compressed 320kbps audio, $20 for lossless 24-bit 1411kbps audio, $15/$30 for families, $5/$10 for students, $6/$12 for veterans and first responders.
Why we picked Tidal:
The Jay-Z-owned music service Tidal doesn’t bring much charm to the table. With fewer tracks, poor music discovery features, and a sometimes buggy interface — not to mention a history of botched album releases — there are plenty of reasons to take caution and search for calmer streaming waters.
However, for those who absolutely refuse to compromise when it comes to audio quality, Tidal’s $20-per-month Hi-Fi service, which offers 24-bit audio resolution, is the best game in town. This makes the service something of a dichotomy, as Tidal seems to be aimed towards the mass market, but it’s really best for those with high-quality gear who care more about the fidelity of their audio source than interface usability or library size.
Tidal benefits from its artist-owned nature with timed exclusive releases from top artists. Beyonce’s Lemonade was one of the most notable releases of its ilk, first offering up her new sound only to Tidal subscribers for three years before sharing the love with everyone else. The gap between multi-platform releases varies by artist and album, but that has only shrunk in recent times.
Tidal’s advantages are diminishing, however. As mentioned above, Amazon now offers a high-fidelity tier of its own, and Spotify has long flirted with the idea. But for now, those with extremely expensive stereo systems who want to pull out all the intricate details of a track — especially on its exclusive Masters releases — Tidal Hi-Fi is the best way to fly.
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