15 of the Best Music Streaming Services Compared
Spotify vs. Google vs. Pandora vs. Beats and More
iTunes vs Spotify vs Google Play Music vs Pandora vs Beats vs Slacker vs….the list goes on. Nowadays, there’s an abundance of streaming sites to pick from. Many of them offer free music streaming tiers, and a lot of their features overlap. Still, some include particular facets while others are absent; thus, they effectively serve different user needs and preferences.
We’ve taken a look at 15 of the more popular streaming music sites, picked out their distinguishing features (or lack of features), and compared them to the other services. We have our recommendations at the end of the article, along with 3 charts that compare all of the services more directly. Hopefully this will help people to make informed decisions!
The behemoth of streaming, Spotify is a well known option for streaming music. One of the main reasons for this is due to their ad-supported free streaming option. It works on mobile, and while it doesn’t let you stream on-demand, you can restrict it more than is possible with something like Pandora; it’s possible to shuffle specific artists, albums, and playlists—albums or playlists with fewer than 12 tracks will have suggested tracks added to your stream, and you get up to six skips per hour.
You can also subscribe to get access to unlimited ad-free on-demand streaming. Additionally, Spotify and PlayStation recently partnered to provide PlayStation gamers the ability to stream music while playing games on their consoles. Both free and Premium subscribers are eligible to use this feature. Another nice small feature can be used when you’re listening to a song; you’ll be able to enable an option for the lyrics to be displayed.
Spotify has a few discounts and trials available. There’s a family plan that gives 50% off for each additional premium account. Sprint customers can benefit from Spotify extended free Premium trials—3 months or 6 months for qualifying plans (Family Share Pack, $60 Unlimited, and Simply Unlimited Sprint customers).
Spotify deals around the holiday season are particularly memorable; one offer last year was $1 for 3 months of Spotify Premium.
A source of criticism has been Spotify’s reportedly low compensation for artists—artists receive $0.007 per stream, which prompted Taylor Swift to pull her music from Spotify. This low compensation has been a contributing factor behind the artist-owned TIDAL streaming service.
Price: Free with ads, limited skips (6 per hour), and shuffle-play only; $9.99/month for unlimited ad-free on-demand streaming
Subscription Deals: $4.99/month for a Premium subscription for students; family plan option that gets you 50% off each additional Premium subscription; potential deals if you’re a Sprint customer depending on your plan—see picture & description above
Free Trial Period: 30 days for most users, 3-6 month free trials for certain Sprint customers, and a 2 month trial for PlayStation users
Audio Quality: 3 selectable qualities: 96kbps or 160kbps, and 320kbps only available to Premium subscribers (all in Ogg Vorbis audio format)
No. of Tracks: 30 million+
No. of Simultaneous Streams: 1 per Premium subscription
Offline Play: Yes—on up to 3 devices, and 3,333 songs per device (10k tracks total)
No. of Devices: Unlimited, except for offline device playback
Geographic Availability: Many locations
Platform Availability: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Web, Desktop app, PlayStation 3 & PS4
Additional Features: Compatible with Roku, lyric display support, PlayStation integration is nice for gamers
Cons: Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify playback
Rhapsody has been around for a long time. Originally focused on providing an iTunes-esque service, they’ve gradually transitioned to emphasize streaming music. Their pricing models are a bit different, but have become more similar to other streaming services in recent years. Their family plan option is now limited to two simultaneous streams instead of 3, which is in line with other services that provide discounts for additional accounts. Their library is more than adequate, and it works with a ton of devices. Rhapsody is only available in the U.S., but Napster merged with the company in 2011 and provides a virtually identical service for Europe.
Sound quality varies; they say on their website: “Rhapsody continuously evaluates the best way to deliver high audio quality as efficiently as possible. Our mobile apps have the option of streaming Good (AAC+ 64 kb/s), Better (AAC 192 kb/s), and Best (AAC 320 kb/s). Tests show 64 kbps AAC+ is equivalent to 128 kbps MP3, yet requires only half the bandwidth to deliver. Home audio systems use 128 to 192 kbps AAC, depending on the device. PC client downloads in WMA 160 Kbps for offline listening.”
Rhapsody also has a Radio service called unRadio similar to Pandora, with a subscription option for just that service. Having used both, I prefer Pandora’s music-discovery algorithm, but Rhapsody’s library is much more extensive. Rhapsody has the following comparison to Pandora ONE on its website:
Their streaming ventures are definitely Rhapsody’s strength; I would not recommend using them to buy individual tracks or albums, as they don’t replace/allow you to re-download lost or damaged music files that have already been downloaded in the past. iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon are the better options for something like that. A refer-a-friend promotion offers a free month if your friend has never subscribed before and if they pay for at least 3 months of Rhapsody.
Price: $9.99/month, or $4.99/month for unRadio only
Subscription Deals: $14.99/month for 2 streams at once—cheaper than two different Premier subscriptions; Refer-a-Friend opportunity
Free Trial Period: 14 or 30 days
Audio Quality: Up to 320 kb/s AAC, but variable and customizable; see description above
No. of Tracks: Over 32 million
No. of Simultaneous Streams: 1 or 2 depending on your plan
Offline Play: Yes
No. of Devices: 3 at a time, but it’s easy to de-and-re-authorize
Geographic Availability: U.S. only, but Napster merged with Rhapsody and provides their version of the service to Europe
Platform Availability: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Windows Desktop App, BlackBerry (except for unRadio), Web
Additional Features: Works with Chromecast (iOS & Android apps only), Sonos, and a bunch of other stuff
Cons: No free version
Google Play Music All Access
Not to be outdone, Google has their own streaming service. It’s newer than a lot of the other services; it will be 4 years old this year. It has some useful features that a lot of other services don’t offer. One available to even free standard members is their online music locker, which allows users to upload and listen to up to 50,000 songs. So if you have a bunch of music rotting on your computer that you want to be able to put into Google’s cloud for your own use on multiple devices (without it hogging space on each device), you can do that entirely for free.
If you subscribe for $9.99 a month, you’ll get their “All Access” streaming service, which gives you unlimited on-demand streaming and will allow you to create your own custom radio stations, similar to Pandora. There’s a Chrome browser extension that you can use with their service that makes everything even easier to use while you browse the internet.
Another useful feature available to subscribers that’s easy to overlook is YouTube Music Key. It lets you play videos in audio-only mode in the background of your mobile devices, allowing you to continue doing other things on your phone or lock it without YouTube cancelling your audio playback. Music Key will also let you watch many music videos without advertisements. And you can even download videos for offline playback.
This is easy to discount, but I think everyone occasionally goes to YouTube to find a song (or obscure remix/cover of a song) they can’t locate elsewhere; YouTube does kind of have everything. A lot of people even make YouTube playlists for the purpose of music listening, and let the videos play in a browser tab in the background. With Music Key, you can now mimic that ability on your phone or tablet. That seems like such an awesome feature! You can even make a playlist, download the videos over WiFi, and play it back in offline mode later without using up your data plan. Every subscriber to YouTube Music Key gets Google Play Music All Access, and vice versa.
Everything else about All Access is pretty standard—the library is large, the sound quality is quite good (but no audiophile option for lossless-quality tracks), and you can use it with a Chromecast. Unfortunately, Windows Phone & BlackBerry are not presently supported. And while you can use it with iOS devices to stream to Apple TV and other devices, AirPlay won’t work for Android users—unless you use a plug-in ‘hack’. Most people who care about AirPlay probably have iPhones, so this should only affect a minority of users.
The only thing I can really complain about—and it’s really a small complaint—is that their Music ecosystem seems a bit too disjointed; I almost wish they’d try to unify it a bit more, like the iTunes overhaul is expected to do for Apple’s music ecosystem. With the YouTube Music Key, music locker, Google Play Music Store, and Google Play Music All Access streaming service, it ends up feeling clunky, and the terminology distinctions really aren’t helping. But overall, it’s one of the best options for an all-in-one music solution.
Google Play Music All Access Summary
Free Trial Period: 30 days
Audio Quality: Up to 320 kbps
No. of Tracks: 30 million+
No. of Simultaneous Streams: 1
Offline Play: Yes, as many tracks as you can fit; you can’t store extra on SD cards, though.
No. of Devices: 10 devices total, and up to 5 smartphones
Geographic Availability: 58 countries, and here’s a map
Platform Availability: iOS, Android, Web
Additional Features: YouTube Music Key included; you can upload music into an online “music locker” for free (up to 50,000 tracks) and play the songs back through the app or web player; Chromecast, Sonos, and Bluetooth support
Cons: No AirPlay support for non-iOS users (unless you use a plug-in hack)
Recently re-launched, TIDAL (also known as WiMP in some locations), is the world’s first artist-owned music streaming platform. Jay Z has been the most central, but other artists such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West, Jack White, Arcade Fire, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Alicia Keys, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, deadmau5, Chris Martin, Jason Aldean, J. Cole, Madonna, and Drake also have co-ownership. It purports to compensate artists better than similar streaming services.
It’s notable that there is no free tier of use, but one of the main distinguishing features of TIDAL is the sound quality of its track library—the entry level Premium service offers some of the best audio quality for its price. For a more pricey Hi-Fi tier, you can have access to 1411 kbps (FLAC 16 bit/44.1kHz) lossless audio. This will be especially appealing to audiophiles, particularly in the U.S., where comparable options are nowhere to be found (at least until France’s Qobuz and Deezer finally make it to the U.S.).
TIDAL will not only give its subscribers access to audio, but will include exclusive videos, interviews, and other media from artists themselves. It’s expected that many of the artists who co-own the company will restrict the streaming of their future albums to TIDAL, which could be a huge boon for the streaming service. Oh, and most of Taylor Swift’s music is available on TIDAL, so there’s always that. Don’t underestimate the Swifties.
Price: $9.99/month for Premium; $19.99/month for HiFi which includes access to lossless sound quality; don’t sign-up in-app on iOS–Apple Pay will increase the cost of subscription
Free Trial Period: 30 days for both services
Audio Quality: Premium–up to 320 kbps (AAC); HiFi–1411 kbps (FLAC 16 bit/44.1kHz) lossless audio
No. of Tracks: 25 million
No. of Simultaneous Streams: 1 online stream
Offline Play: Yes, up to 3 devices can be set to offline
No. of Devices: 1 device in online mode, and 3 devices in offline mode at the same time.
Geographic Availability: U.S., Canada, most European countries, Australia, Hong Kong (also known as WiMP in some locations)
Platform Availability: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Windows, Apple OS X, Web
Additional Features: Compatible with Sonos; Taylor Swift; extra content like interviews, HD videos, and other exclusive content is available (Beyoncé’s latest intimate video, Daft Punk’s film Electroma, The White Stripes’ first ever televised appearance, etc.); TIDAL claims to pay the artists more for their streamed content than other streaming platforms.
Cons: Search feature could use improvement; no free tier—but that’s part of the point
Beats Music was acquired by Apple in mid-2014. It’s a subscription-based on demand music streaming service. Typical of anything associated with Apple, it has an aesthetically-pleasing easy-to-use interface. The standout feature is its professionally created & curated playlists (as opposed to computer-generated music discovery). The playlists are selected by DJs, artists, music critics, and music professionals. Beats is also able to get to know you, and asks you about your musical tastes when you first sign-in.
As of this writing, Beats only available in the U.S., but it’s likely that will change in the near future. Beats Music’s pricing, sound quality, and song library are pretty standard. Because it’s Apple, Chromecast support is unlikely to happen, but it does work with Apple TV.
Another thing of note is that Apple is expected to merge Beats with iTunes Radio and re-launch iTunes to emphasize streaming over paying for individual downloads. DJ Rob Lowe was hired to spearhead the new curated streaming service, and its been reported that Apple is in talks with various artists to curate their own music channels—like personal radio stations.
Beats Music Summary
Subscription Deals: $99.99 per year annual subscription option ($8.33/month); you can pay with discounted iTunes gift cards
Free Trial Period: 2 weeks
Audio Quality: Web–320kbps, with a small number of tracks only available to stream in 256kbps; Mobile–standard quality 128kbps or you can choose high quality 320kbps MP3(you have the option to only stream in high quality while connected to Wi-Fi)
No. of Tracks: More than 20 million
No. of Simultaneous Streams: 1
Offline Play: Yes
No. of Devices: 3
Geographic Availability: U.S. only
Platform Availability: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Web
Additional Features: Compatible with Apple TV and Sonos, professional playlist curation (not computer-generated)
Cons: No Chromecast or Roku support; only available in the U.S.
Pandora is a super popular radio-like streaming service, largely because they got there first. With its enormous amount of users (reported to be at over 250 million in early 2014), they have unparalleled access to data from its user base, which has helped its music discovery algorithm to remain the best. They don’t have any options for on demand streaming, and their song catalog can feel small if you don’t listen to many sub-genres, but Pandora’s free ad-supported radio service is definitely one of the best around.
Price: Free with advertisements and limited skips; $4.99/month for ONE with more skips and an ad-free listening experience
Subscription Deals: Annual subscription option for $54.89/year, or about $4.57/month; an annual savings of roughly 8.33%
Audio Quality: 192k bits per second AAC for ONE subscribers (web only); 128kbps AAC for free users (web only); 64kbps AAC for mobile listeners
No. of Tracks: 1 million
No. of Simultaneous Streams: 1
No. of Devices: Any number
Offline Play: None
Geographic Availability: U.S., Australia, New Zealand
Platform Availability: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Web
Additional Features: Works with Roku, Sonos, and Chromecast (iOS and Android apps only); their music discovery algorithm has been extensively refined and works very well
Cons: Only a radio service—no on-demand streaming; their library can feel limited and repetitive after a while if you don’t diversify your genres; their ads can feel particularly annoying