Streaming music is the most convenient way to listen to your favorite songs. Sure, vinyl may be making a resurgence among audiophiles with lots of great inexpensive turntable 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 CD.
The question is which streaming music service is best for you? We checked out Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube 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.
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Services typically charge $10 a month and don’t have a contract, but swapping between them isn’t as straightforward as TV streaming. 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 — Soundiiz — 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 Spotify Connect 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 Apple HomePod, you’ll need this subscription service to summon music with your voice. Apple Music also makes the ideal companion for an iPod Touch, 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.
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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 Dolby Atmos surround mixes
- 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 Amazon Prime Music, which any Prime subscriber 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 radio stations that are grouped around artists you’ve already listened to.
- 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 music locker
Best for: Amazon Prime members who want to save a few bucks on a decent music catalog.
Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET
YouTube Music is the successor to Google Play Music, and if you sign up for the ad-free YouTube Premium you get YouTube Music thrown in for free. The good news is that YouTube Music is a mostly impressive service, and Google has retained the predecessor’s music locker system. That means that existing Google Play Music users have until December to transfer their libraries from Google Play Music. And it’s not just legacy content: YouTube Music allows users to upload new tracks to its online music locker, too.
Now playing: Watch this: Move your Google Play Music data to YouTube Music
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.
Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET
Qobuz launched in the US in February 2019 with a clean interface, hi-res audio streams (which unlike Tidal’s don’t need an MQA decoder) and the ability to buy lossless music. It offers two plans — the hi-res Studio Premier for $15 and the $249 Sublime+ which offers discounts on the store. At 40 million tracks its streaming catalog isn’t quite at the level of Tidal or Spotify, but it is improving.
French stalwart Deezer has been operating in the States since 2016, and it has a lot to offer including a free tier (mobile only) and 56 million tracks. It has more than subscribers than some others on this list thanks, in part, to its affiliation with Cricket Wireless. The main Premium plan is $10 a month but users are also able to upgrade to a lossless version (CD quality) for $15 a month.
Music streaming services compared
|Amazon Music Unlimited||Apple Music||YouTube Music||Pandora||Spotify||Tidal|
|Monthly fee||Prime members: $7.99, £7.99, N/A; Non-Prime members: $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99; Alexa-only service: Free||$9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99||$9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99||Plus: $4.99; Premium: $9.99||$9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99, $12.99 with Hulu||Premium: $9.99, £9.99, AU$14.99; HiFi: $19.99, £19.99, AU$23.99|
|Free option?||Yes, with ads||No||Yes, with ads||Yes, with ads||Yes, with ads||No|
|Free trial period||30 days||3 months||30 days||60 days||30 days||3 months|
|Music library size||60 million||60 million||Over 40 million||Tens of millions||50 million||60 million|
|Family sharing?||Yes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 for up to 6 people||Yes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 for up to 6 people||Yes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 per month for up to 6 people||Yes, $14.99 for up to 6 people||Yes, $5, £5, AU$6 per month per additional member, up to 5||Yes, 50% off each additional account, up to 4|
|Student discount||No||Yes, Price varies by country||$4.99||$4.99 (Premium)||$4.99 (US only)||Premium: $4.99, HiFi: $9.99 (US only)|
|US military discount||No||No||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|Offline listening||Mobile and desktop||Mobile only||Premium and mobile only||Mobile only||Mobile and desktop||Mobile only|
|Music locker functionality||No||Yes||Yes||No||No||No|
What else do you need to know?
Streaming music services provide a la carte listening, unlike streaming radio.
Streaming radio vs. on-demand
This guide covers on-demand music streaming services, and for that reason, we’ve purposefully left out services that only play music in a radio format. Until recently this list excluded Pandora, but now that the company also offers a Premium tier we’ve included here. Slacker Radio, TuneIn and iHeartRadio are other radio-style services that play music stations based around a theme or artist, without you explicitly picking tracks.
Music lockers: Your MP3s in the cloud
Amazon was one of the first services to offer uploading your MP3 collection into the cloud, but this was officially discontinued in 2018. Meanwhile, the Apple and Google services listed either allow you to combine your personal music collection with the streaming catalog, though tagging and organization can be a time-consuming challenge (your myriad live Phish tracks won’t organize themselves). Still, if you’ve invested money in digital music over the years, those two services offer a patch to continue enjoying that music online.
Music catalog sizes compared
The number of songs offered by a music service used to be one of the main differentiators, but most now offer 50 million songs or more. However, depending on your favored genre, some of them have a more robust catalog that include many under-the-radar, indie or hip-hop artists. If you’re musically inclined, constantly on the hunt for your favorite new band, a streaming service like Spotify or Tidal may be more up your alley. Users who are less ambitious about expanding their musical taste will be satisfied with the smaller catalogs Amazon Music Unlimited and Pandora offer. Apple Music is somewhere in the middle, offering a healthy mix of mainstream tunes and underground unknowns.