The Best Music Streaming Services
Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them...
If you had told me when I was a 16 year old that for the price of a few drinks in the pub each month, I could have access to vast swathes of all the music ever recorded, I'd have assumed you were on a wind up.
Viewed through the prism of someone who used to take a box of eleven minidiscs with him for most journeys (plus one in the player) and was viewed as somewhat over keen by doing so, having the greater part of the back catalogue of the last fifty years available is still faintly miraculous. Triumph or not, there are now a huge selection of services to choose from and it stands to reason that some of them will be better than others.
This article looks at the various options open to you as a consumer. You can use this to then compare and contrast against your personal requirements – budget, devices you intend to use the service on, number of users and of course, sound quality. As such, while there will be recommendations (and by the same thinking, services we are less keen on) but there are enough variables in our requirements that services that don't work perfectly for some people will work for others. So, in alphabetical order, here are the runners and riders.
Amazon Prime Music
Price £5.99/m or free with Prime
If the prospect of Jeremy Clarkson lumbering around the world wasn't sufficient incentive to look at Amazon's media offerings, the Prime Music option might be something that catches your eye. If you fork out for a Prime subscription, you gain access to Amazon's streaming service included in the price of the sub. If you aren't a Prime member you can still gain access for a pretty reasonable £5.99 a month
The service itself is, like most things that Amazon offers, competent and fairly slick. You get a good selection of apps, a desktop app and a web browser. All of these appear to be stable and well thought out and the experience is completely logical. At least it is provided that you understand that Amazon is a retail organisation and that many of your searches will wind up taking you to music to buy and not to listen to. The catalogue of 'over a million' songs has some noticeable omissions compared to many rivals
Listening itself is solid if not spectacular. A number of sample rates are supported but the most logical thing to do is to go for the 'High Quality' option of 256kbps MP3. The performance is more than good enough for use on the move but doesn't sound as convincing when used through full size speakers. If you are already paying for Prime, this is a cost effective option but it makes a bit less sense viewed as a standalone service.
At the time of writing, Amazon has also released their new Amazon Unlimited service as part of the supporting infrastructure for their Echo and Dot products. This promises higher performance but has yet to be tested by us.
Apple MusicPrice £9.99/m
As an industry, we wondered why Apple stood on the sidelines of the streaming service battle for as long as they did. Some of us even wondered if they had left it too late. The strong take-up in subscriptions suggests that they're probably going to be ok...
The basics of Apple Music are not too dissimilar to rivals like Spotify. You get an extensive 'twenty million plus' library of music that is encoded at 256kbps ALAC and comes with a desktop app, web browser and mobile apps- including that rarest of rare birds, an Apple app for Android. The launch version of Apple Music might best be described as 'cluttered' with all of the failings of iTunes writ large on it. Apple has since done a good job tidying up the interface and it is considerably better but some issues remain – most notably that the search will still periodically take you to material to buy rather than listen to outright.
Where Apple Music comes good is that in various blind tests I've performed over the years, it has consistently outperformed other compressed rivals and keeps the lossless services honest – although whether there is something going on in the compression that Apple is using is open to debate. As a portable service it is absolutely excellent and will stand up to some home listening as well. With that 90 day free trial as well, it has to be considered strong value for money too.
Deezer is based in
France and was solely available in its home market for quite a while. The service is now available in a number of European countries and follows a fairly conventional route of offering around 40 million songs in compressed format via web browser, desktop app and a selection of mobile apps. There are some slightly less common aspects to Deezer though which are worth highlighting. The first is that if you are a Sonos user, you can use Deezer to access a lossless service called Deezer Elite, which for slightly long and involved reasons is not available in any other medium.
The second is that Deezer is well supported by third party manufacturers and can often be played directly by a number of devices. They also seem to be effective at artist interviews and some well judged playlists. The other good news is that the company has spent some time updating their interface and apps to be tolerably good which is something of an improvement over the abysmal efforts they launched with. Streaming quality for non elite customers remains pegged at 320kpbs MP3 which is perfect for use on the move and not too bad for home listening either. Deezer doesn't deliver a knockout blow – and never does brilliantly in blind listening as an aside – but is strong value and well worth giving the free trial a go.
Google Play MusicPrice £9.99/m
Google has managed the slightly unusual achievement of creating a streaming service that has managed to fly under the radar for a few years now (although when we consider Google+, perhaps this is not as surprising as it might first appear). The service evolved from a cloud music storage system into an on-demand service that is similar in context to most compressed rivals but not without some key differences. The first is that thanks to the upload system, you can fill in library gaps with your own copies of things – and unlike Apple Music, Google doesn't see fit to terrorise your own copies of things it does own and the process is slicker than Spotify's similar process. There is also a competitive family option for £14.99/m.
Google Play is a slightly stripped back take on the streaming service. It does have playlists and curated content but these seem to take a backseat to a solid search system and usefully extensive library. As you might expect from a company the size of Google, the apps are stable, well designed and slick to use. The only slight oddity is that there is no downloadable desktop app- you will need to rely on a web browser for use on a computer. This can be frustrating as sound from other tabs can leak into the performance.
Sonically, Google Play Music is good without being great. It offers a 320kbps MP3 service (for the most part – some people seem to believe that it throttles material under high demand) but it never manages to sound as dynamic and lively as some rivals. If you have used the service to stick music in the cloud, it makes sense but there are other rivals out there for similar money that offer a little more in the way of quality and features.
For many people Napster is one of the most evocative (or notorious, your mileage may vary) names in the internet age. The file sharing site that brought the concept to the masses is long gone (or perhaps long replaced is more accurate) but the name lives on as the
UK wing of US based streaming service Rhapsody. The terms are familiar enough – you get a 40 million track library with web and desktop browser apps and some curated content. There's a thirty day free trial to be had as well on sign up.
If this all sounds a bit familiar, it is. The issue for Napster is that when I came to assemble my notes to write this article, there wasn't a single thing that I was able to remember about it that is unique to the service apart from the name. The interface is perfectly OK but not as good as some rivals. There is not a huge amount of third party integration and the curated content doesn't really stand out from the pack.
Sonically, it is much the same story. The service uses 192kbps MP3 which to its credit doesn't sound significantly different to the 320kbps streams offered by rivals but equally doesn't sound any better. If you find a bundled offer with something else you buy, Napster might be worth a look but otherwise you can do better with your tenner a month.
Qobuz is one of two widely available lossless streaming services in the
UK. What does that mean? While the bulk of other services compress their content to MP3 level or equivalent, Qobuz encodes to FLAC which means that a suitable device can unpack the original lossless signal to enjoy quality in keeping with CD. Qobuz is another service that combines the ability to buy and download albums – many of which are available in high resolution digital – or stream them in CD quality.
When it launched in the
UK, Qobuz looked a little like the English translation work had been done by a GCSE student- and not a terribly diligent one either. Vast swathes of the menus still required functional French to use and the effect was a bit on the weird side. Of late, this has been largely corrected and the result is a very slick selection of apps with good search facilities. The library is a little different to some other services. Qobuz can sometimes be lacking music that is on other services but equally has jazz and classical material not found anywhere else.
It sounds good too. Used with equivalent equipment, the performance of an album played via Qobuz is in keeping with the same album played by CD. This means that performance is well and truly good enough for use at home as well as on the move. There are additionally some interesting deals for annual membership and deals that include access to a quantity of music from the online store. Qobuz is a specialist choice but one that offers a great deal of potential for some users.
Price £9.99 or free with ads
For many people, their experiences of streaming services begin and end with Spotify. One of the earliest arrivals on the UK market and offering the ability to listen for free if you can tolerate incessant adverts, it has gone on to be the industry leader and the service that others benchmark against.
As well as being an early arrival in the market, Spotify is an excellent platform. The app seems to have updates every week or so but the net result is a stable, well thought out and easy to use system that works extremely well across a very wide variety of platforms. The ace in the hand is the Connect system that gives Spotify vast compatibility with other devices and allows for control via the same app. The curated content is also excellent and the 'Discover Weekly' playlist is an uncannily clever algorithm designed to bring new music to your attention.
Sonically, Spotify is competitive and more than up to the job of being used on the move but since the arrival of Apple Music cannot really be considered the best sounding compressed service but performance is still pretty good. When you consider the variety of offers and deals that come with Spotify membership, this is a solid choice that still offers a good combination of features, sound and value.
The second of the two lossless options available in the
UK, Tidal was originally available solely in Scandinavia under the slightly unappealing name of WiMP. Following its name change and high profile buyout by Jay-Z and other music artists, the service has rarely been out of the news for good and bad reasons but at its core you get a multimillion track library available in FLAC. Tidal has been working hard to offer integration with third party equipment and is now supported by a useful clutch of products.
Tidal also takes the fight to Spotify in terms of curated content and extra features. The selection of playlists is good and there are music videos, articles, live concerts and even full length programs on the site. Tidal does more to come across as a music collation site than a streaming service. The apps themselves are slick, well thought out and after some early stumbles with the iOS version in particular, have become very capable pieces of software.
The final consideration is that in two different blind listening tests, with different listeners and different equipment, Tidal has consistently won out against rival services. If you are looking for a genuine replacement to a physical collection of digital music, Tidal is the service that currently offers the closest to the ideal in this regard.
At the time of writing, there are at least another six or seven on-demand options in the
UK and the market has seen Rdio, Grooveshark, Aupeo and Live365 all fall by the wayside. Generally, these more fringe services have a specialist USP that will be trying to tempt a select group of users – Bandcamp for example allows users to gain access to an enormous variety of new music in lossless but has very little in the way of legacy material. Generally, unless you have a specific interest in this selling point, there isn't much point seeking these services out. This is a sweeping statement but no less accurate for being so.
The good news though is that there is a huge amount of choice out there for your on-demand listening and pretty much every device you can imagine, is supported by at least one of them. Make use of the free trial periods to get a handle on the operating systems and choose the one that works best for you.
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