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The music streaming industry is a more complex place than you might think. Most people will settle for Spotify without assessing their options, but there are plenty of other top-drawer services available from giants such as Amazon and Apple right the way down to audiophile-friendly brands Tidal or Soundcloud.
In fact, with so many ways to listen it can be hard to figure out which music streaming service has the best range of features and price for your needs. Our handy buying guide below will take you through some of the things to consider when signing up to a music streaming service, such as audio quality, subscriptions plans and content libraries. Read on a little further to find our mini-reviews for each of the streaming services where we break down their key selling points and comparative drawbacks.
This is the first thing you’ll want to consider when signing up to a music streaming service. Every streaming service has their own library and range of content. Some artists have contracts with certain services, meaning that platform will get early releases, bonus content or will have exclusive rights to stream their music. Before you sign up it’s worth checking if your chosen platform has all your favourite artists available.
Besides regular music streaming, many services now also host other audio-based formats such as podcasts and radio shows. If you like to listen to Serial while you work, or want some bespoke radio mixes for long drives, keep that in mind when picking a streaming service.
Audio quality can be separated into three categories: lossy/compressed, lossless/CD quality and hi-res.
Lossy audio takes the original, uncompressed file and compresses it to make it easier to stream via an internet connection. The level of compression is indicated in Kbits/sec (kilobits per second): most lossy audio streams at between 128Kbits/sec and 320Kbits/sec, with the smaller number indicating higher compression and lower quality. This is how most of the music you stream will be delivered.
Lossless/CD quality audio is streamed with zero compression (ie. as the track was recorded). Lossless files can stream at up to 9,216Kbits/sec. Streaming services such as Spotify are increasingly starting to offer top-tier subscriptions that deliver lossless audio.
Hi-res audio is lossless but is recorded at a higher bit depth and sampling rate – Tidal packages hi-res audio files as the top-tier listening experience and delivers it using something called Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) technology. To fully appreciate MQA files, you will need a compatible sound system.
The audio quality you receive can be affected by a number of external factors, too: whether you’re on mobile or desktop, what tier of service you’re paying for and most importantly, the speed of your internet connection.
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Most services offer some sort of try before you buy option, whether that comes in the form of a free trial or a free subscription tier for the service. A free trial simply means you can sign up to use the full service for an allotted number of months for free, to get a feel for things before having to pay. A free tier operates a little differently.
Some services – such as Spotify – allow you to sign up and use the service for free indefinitely. However, there are usually limits put on your usage such as listening caps, feature restrictions and unskippable ads.
The variable audio quality mentioned above comes into play when tracking how much of your data music streaming will eat up. The 128Kbits/sec - 320Kbits/sec range will use between 72MB and 116MB per hour on average – while this isn’t too bad, it could put the squeeze on more limited data plans.
Those hi-fi audio formats like lossless and master source? They’re going to use a significant amount of data and require high connection speeds to stream – using 635MB plus per hour and requiring speeds upwards of 4.5Mbits/sec. If you’re planning to subscribe to a service based on its premium audio, make sure you have the right Wi-Fi and mobile data packages to bear the load. Are there services that make sure artists are treated more fairly?
There has been a lot of coverage recently on the sustainability of the music industry given the relatively small payouts most artists receive from streaming services. Some companies have made it part of their mission statement to offer higher payouts and build more artist friendly infrastructure on their platforms. Tidal was one of the first services to include higher artist payouts as one of its selling points, and more recently has introduced unique features to its higher tiers that pay out directly to your most-listened artists.
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Price: £9.99/mth | Sign up now on Spotify
Spotify is a household name for a reason. It has one of the biggest content libraries: 82 million songs and over 3 millions podcasts - with the vast majority of new releases debuting on the platform. Spotify is also compatible with almost all devices and speakers, so it’s good to go whatever your set-up.
It offers more than just a simple library - you can listen to daily and weekly generated playlists based off your listening habits, dive into new genres and sounds with carefully curated lists like Rap Caviar and try newly rolled-out features such as Blends – which creates a unique playlist combining the taste of you and a friend. Spotify does have a few drawbacks. Its audio quality can dip into tinnier territory when you’re on the go, and recent app updates have made the user experience a little more barebones.
Spotify does have a solid range of payment plans, including: a free-tier with ads, a standard monthly plan, as well as payment plans available for two people (£12.99/mth), households (£14.99/mth for up to 6 people) and students (£4.99/mth).
Key details – Free Tier: Yes; Audio Quality: 24Kbits/sec - 320Kbits/sec; Offline downloads: Yes; Shared plans: Yes
Sign up now on Spotify
Price: £9.99/mth | Sign up now on Apple Music
With over 75 million tracks, Apple Music has an impressive starting catalogue for you to enjoy. What makes Apple Music’s set-up stand out from the crowd is the fluidity of its library. It combines music you’ve saved on the streaming service, your iTunes library and easily allows you to add local files from your computer. Podcast fans might be disappointed however, as Apple has most of its podcast content on its separate Podcasts app.
As far as features go, Apple Music has well-curated tabs for recommendations and generated playlists as well as new releases from artists you love. It also has a robust radio feature, with three dedicated stations: Apple Radio 1, Apple Music Hits, and Apple Music Country. Apple Radio 1 is an exciting 24hr global radio station which has hosted exclusive weekly shows from the likes of Frank Ocean and Drake’s OVO collective.
As well as their standard AAC audio files, Apple Music users get access to lossless streaming on their standard plan. The Apple Music mobile and desktop apps run smoothly on Macs and iPhones with strong Siri integration, perfect for anyone already in the Apple ecosystem; things are still workable for android and PC users but there can be the odd hiccup as things aren’t quite as seamless.
Apple Music offers similar standard, student and family plans as Spotify, while also offering its unique Voice Plan for £4.99/mth, which is operated entirely through Siri.
Key details – Free Trial: 1 month; Audio Quality: 128Kbits/sec - Lossless; Offline downloads: Yes; Shared plans: Yes
Sign up now on Apple Music
Price: From £9.99/mth | Sign up now on Tidal
Tidal has successfully carved out a niche for itself as the streaming service for audio geeks and music lovers. Claiming over 80 million tracks, Tidal has a similarly strong library to other services. Unlike most other services, it also has an impressive video section, which hosts over 350,000 HD videos – as well as music documentaries and movies available for those who want to learn more about their favourite artists.
Tidal’s standard Hi-Fi plan comes with offline playback, curated playlists, stations and recommendations as well as lossless audio streaming.
While this standard plan will satisfy most, there are some very interesting features available on Tidal’s somewhat pricey (£19.99/mth) Hi-Fi Plus plan. This higher tier offers access to studio quality audio such as Dolby Atmos and Master Quality. Hi-Fi plus also uses an experimental royalty system for artists – up to 10% of your subscription fee going directly to your most streamed artists, which can make the extra cost sting a little less.
Key details – Free Trial: 1 month; Audio Quality: 160Kbits/sec - Lossless (standard) Lossless - Studio (hi-fi plus); Offline downloads: Yes; Shared plans: Yes
Sign up now on Tidal
Price: £9.99/mth | Sign up now on Amazon
One of the newer services on this list, Amazon Music Unlimited is quickly catching up to the competition. Boasting over 90 millions songs and millions of podcasts in its content library, Amazon Music Unlimited has a strong selection available right off the bat.
Those seeking high-quality audio will be pleased to hear that Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers get free access to lossless streaming on the entire catalogue, as well as 7 million songs in ultra HQ formats such as Dolby Atmos and Sony Reality 360 audio.
Besides the standard monthly plan for non-Prime subscribers, there are a range of interesting subscription plans. Alongside student and family plans, there is a £7.99/mth option for Prime subscribers, and a £3.99/mth that plan that limits playback to a single Echo device - a perfect budget-friendly option if you just want to bring some tunes into the kitchen or living room for day-to-day grooving.
While it has a similarly impressive catalogue and audio quality to its competitors, Amazon Music Unlimited suffers a little for its less in-depth curation systems and slightly unpolished app experience.
Key details – Free Trial: 1 month; Audio Quality: 256Kbits/sec - Studio ;Offline downloads: Yes Shared plans: Yes
Sign up now on Amazon
Price: £9.99/mth | Sign up now on Soundcloud
When a new, hot-ticket artist emerges nowadays, they tend to come out of the bubbling cauldron that is Soundcloud. Soundcloud is a little different to the other services on this list, being more focused on newer, independent artists uploading music directly to their fans, and having stronger and more deeply-integrated social features. If you want to discover the next Post Malone, Billie Eilish or Lil Nas X before they’re topping the charts, Soundcloud is the place to do it.
The free tier of Soundcloud is ad-based, but their subscription service Soundcloud GO+ plus offers ad-free listening, full access to their catalogue in high-quality audio (although audio quality is dependent on what the artists themselves upload) and the ability to use Soundcloud tracks in select DJ mixing apps.
Soundcloud also supports creators through a similar system to Tidal which they call “fan-powered royalties,” meaning that your subscription fee goes towards supporting the artists you stream most often. Soundcloud offers a student plan and a more limited plan called Soundcloud GO (without the +), but currently lacks any family, couple or household plans.
Key details – Free tier: Yes; Free Trial: 1 month; Audio Quality: 256Kbits/sec - 320Kbits/sec; Offline downloads: Yes; Shared plans: No
Sign up now on Soundcloud
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