How to choose among Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, and more
By Thomas Germain
The best music streaming services have mostly indistinguishable libraries of songs, a lot of the same features, and a price of around $10 per month. Most music streaming services have an unpaid trial period, and many offer a free tier. Check out CR’s guide to free music streaming for details.
You can thank market competition for the similarities. Music streaming is one of the rare corners of the tech industry where multiple companies have a decent shot at attracting the same customers. That forces the streaming giants into a constant race to add features, match competitors’ perks, and keep prices low to hold on to subscribers. Listeners get to enjoy the benefits of services that just keep getting better.
There are a few differences among the services, however. A few of them have catalogs of exclusive content, such as podcasts, and some have unique features.
Below, you can see what sets each streaming service apart. You can also check out CR’s guide to moving your library of playlists to a different music streaming service if another one catches your eye. Scroll through or click on the links below to jump to the details about a particular service.
(In the market for new headphones? Check out the best earbuds of 2022. CR’s lab tests reveal great Bluetooth and wired options for every budget.)
Amazon Music Unlimited and Amazon Prime Music
SiriusXM Select and SiriusXM Premier
Price: Prime Music is included free with Amazon Prime, Amazon’s paid subscription service that costs $15 per month or $139 per year. It has a library of 2 million songs.
Amazon Music Unlimited, with a far bigger library of songs and more features, costs $9 per month for Prime members, or $10 per month for non-Prime members. There’s a free three-month trial and a discounted family plan. You can also get a special $5 rate if you sign up for the Single Device Plan via an eligible Amazon Echo device.
Anyone can access free, ad-supported playlists and stations by asking an Alexa smart assistant to play music.
Who it’s best for: Amazon Prime Music doesn’t cost anything beyond your regular Amazon Prime membership, so the appeal is obvious. Meanwhile, Amazon Music Unlimited is a good bet for Prime members looking for a bargain. The deal isn’t as sweet as it used to be, but a lot of other services cost 99 cents more. And this is a solid option for streaming high-quality files.
Pros: Both are ad-free, on-demand services, and if you already have a Prime subscription, Amazon Music Unlimited is the best deal you can get for a really robust collection of content (though not by much). Unlimited has more than 90 million songs, curated playlists, podcasts, and personalized stations. That entire library can now be streamed in high definition, and over 7 million tracks are available in 24-bit Ultra HD.
Cons: Amazon Music Unlimited doesn’t seem quite as effective in making recommendations as many of its competitors, Spotify in particular. And while Prime members don’t have to pay extra for Prime Music, its 2 million songs amount to a thin selection compared with what you get from other streaming services.
Price: Individuals pay $10 per month; the service costs $15 for up to six family members. Apple Music also has a discounted rate of $5 for students. There’s no free tier, but you can get a three-month free trial. And people with eligible AirPods, HomePod minis, or Beats headphones can get six months free.
You can use Siri to control Apple Music with a regular plan, but there’s also a cheaper “voice plan” for $5 per month. That lets you access any song or playlist using your voice—and only your voice. You don’t get to use the app any other way.
Who it’s best for: People who already have large iTunes libraries or who are otherwise committed to the Apple ecosystem.
Pros: Apple Music has a library of 90 million songs that can be accessed on Apple, Windows, and Android devices. After a recent update, the entire library is available in lossless hi-fi at no extra charge. Human curators create a variety of themed playlists that help users discover new music. Unsurprisingly, the Apple Music experience is particularly smooth on iPhones and Mac computers.
Last year Apple purchased Primephonic, a classical music streaming service. Classical music doesn’t play well with a lot of music apps because the track titles are different from most other kinds of music (e.g., you often have multiple “artists” on one track when you consider composers, conductors, and soloists). Primephonic and another app called Idagio (described below) were built for the idiosyncrasies of the genre. Apple plans to bring some of Primephonic’s features to the Apple Music app, which could make it an excellent choice for fans of classical music. Apple says it’s also launching a stand-alone classical app, but it hasn’t revealed details yet.
Cons: The desktop app for Windows computers is a little clunky. But you can listen to Apple Music in a browser for a more streamlined experience.
Price: Idagio is a classical music streaming service that costs $10 per month. Idagio also has a free ad-supported tier with 2 million songs, and students can get 50 percent off. There’s a free two-week trial period so that you can try the service before you commit.
For $29.99 per month you get access to Idagio’s exclusive online concerts, which sometimes feature leading performers. (There’s also a big discount for an annual membership.)
You’ll get a better deal if you sign up using a web browser. If you sign up through the app, some of the price tiers listed above come with fewer features.
Who it’s best for: Fans of classical music and those who want to explore the genre.
Pros: Idagio is built to suit the idiosyncrasies of the classical world. It can be hard to find your favorite recording of a beloved Rachmaninoff concerto on more mainstream services because of the complicated way tracks have to be named. On Idagio, the search tools handle the naming conventions of classical tracks with ease. You can also just expect to find a bigger classical selection.
Idagio also has a number of browsing tools, such as curated playlists and the option to sort by various instruments. Streaming high-quality audio files is another perk that may be free, depending on how you subscribe (see above).
Cons: Idagio doesn’t have any other genres, but for now, it’s is the best choice for classical music purists. However, it might be hard to justify paying for a separate service in the near future. Apple Music just purchased Primephonic, a classical music service and Idagio competitor. Apple plans to launch a classical music service, and soon you might get some of the same features Idagio offers right in the Apple Music app.
Price: Pandora was designed for those who want tailored recommendations and the kind of hands-off listening experience you get with a live radio station. Pricing is slightly confusing. The streaming radio feature is free, but there are ads and a few limitations. For $5 per month, you get the option to pick which songs you listen to with the occasional ad interruption, plus you get streaming radio ad-free.
The $10-per-month tier gets you access to the entire service ad-free. A $15 family plan is also available. Pandora offers free trial periods for the paid plans and discounts for students and members of the military. Subscribers also get some perks from Pandora’s parent company, SiriusXM.
Who it’s best for: Pandora was a music streaming pioneer, but today it doesn’t have a ton that sets it apart. However, the cheaper tier is a good choice for people who want a discount—especially the radio feature. You don’t need to scroll through lists of songs or do a lot of searches—you just sit back and listen to what the service picks for you.
Pros: It’s easy to get started. Tell Pandora which artist you want to hear and it creates a channel with selections from that artist and others with similar styles. You can tweak the channel to match your tastes.
Pandora was purchased by SiriusXM in 2019. Pandora subscribers also get access to some SiriusXM content and vice versa. See the help page for details.
Cons: Pandora’s maximum audio quality isn’t as high as that of some of its competitors’. And it doesn’t advertise how many songs are in its library, which suggests that its offerings may be more limited than those of leading competitors.
Price: The packages SiriusXM offers are constantly changing, but the basic details are always about the same. For around $11 per month you can get a subscription that will let you listen on your phone, with access to hundreds of channels, including music, comedy, sports, talk radio, on-demand shows, and ad-free music with skippable tracks. Sometimes that price includes access to the Howard Stern channels (his new content is a SiriusXM exclusive), but sometimes you need to pay more for that.
There’s an extra charge if you want to stream directly to a car radio via satellite (though you could just get the app and use Bluetooth if you have good cell service). Last we checked, that cost $18 per month.
Sirius offers free trials, discounted rates for the first year, and family plans. Haggling with a customer service rep may be the way to get the best price. Just make sure you don’t get roped into a plan with hidden fees and shifting costs. And be advised that the last time we tried canceling, it was an enormous hassle.
Who it’s best for: People who like terrestrial radio stations but want more options and a commercial-free experience with the option of skipping tracks. SiriusXM is also the only game in town for Howard Stern fans who want access to the latest content.
Pros: SiriusXM has a wide variety of offerings that will probably be a significant upgrade over your local radio stations. And if you have good cell service on your commute, streaming from your phone will get you cheaper access to the same content offered in the company’s satellite radio packages.
As described above, SirusXM purchased Pandora, and the two services now share some features and content free of charge. See Pandora’s help page for details.
Cons: You’ll probably have to call customer service to end your subscription, which was a convoluted, time-consuming process when we tried it. Choosing a package is also surprisingly complicated. When you factor in the satellite radio tiers, new users need to pick from numerous subscription choices with a confusing variety of offerings, optional add-ons, and hidden fees. The packages change constantly and details are hard to find, so you’ll never know for sure whether you’re getting the best deal. The SiriusXM app and web interface can also be more difficult to navigate than those of most competitors.
Price: Users can stream music free with ads via desktop and web apps. The Premium tier costs $10 per month for individuals, $13 for two people, or $16 for up to six users. It grants ad-free on-demand access to Spotify’s library of 80 million tracks and 4 million podcast titles. Students pay a discounted rate of $5 and get free access to Hulu (with commercials) and Showtime. A 30-day trial period is available.
Who it’s best for: People who want to hear plenty of music on a variety of devices. The free tier is also one of the better options for users who don’t mind ads and want to listen to songs on demand. Spotify is famous for its effective recommendation algorithm.
Spotify has doubled down on podcasts as well. The service is host to a variety of exclusive content, particularly in the realm of podcasts.
Pros: Spotify combines a large library of popular songs with a series of robust playlists. These playlists are often geared toward specific activities and genres, helping people find music for specific situations, such as the gym or long car trips. Podcasts and other original programming are also available. If you’re a student who also wants a TV streaming service, bundling with Hulu could save you money as well.
Spotify works with a variety of connected devices, including the Sonos One and Google Home Max smart speakers, as well as video game consoles. Desktop apps are available for macOS and Windows, and mobile apps are available for Android and iOS.
Cons: On a smartphone, users can stream playlists and stations free with ads, but on-demand song selection is limited to a small number of tracks, and you can skip only a certain number of songs per hour. You can’t connect Spotify directly from the Apple HomePod, though you can connect your phone to the smart speaker over Bluetooth and play Spotify that way.
After a recent controversy surrounding misinformation, some artists have pulled their music from Spotify, including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Spotify’s handling of the issue pushed some users to switch streaming services.
There’s no high-quality audio on Spotify, but the company says it’s coming “later this year.”
Price: Tidal starts at $10 per month for hi-res audio quality; $20 per month unlocks even higher fidelity “master quality” audio. Discounted plans for families, students, and members of the military are available. The service offers a free, ad-supported tier with lower audio quality, and a one-month trial of its paid services. The company says it has 90 million tracks and 450,000 videos.
Who it’s best for: Music lovers who want high-quality audio (including high-res audio) and offline listening.
Pros: Tidal offers CD-quality and high-res audio (via HiFi Plus, its top-tier service).
Cons: The cost of $20 per month is steep, especially when lossless streaming doesn’t cost extra with the Amazon and Apple services. Any you might not be able to hear the difference with the high-quality files if you don’t have excellent audio equipment. And even if you think high-quality audio files are worth the price of admission, they can use up small cellular data plans pretty quickly.
Price: YouTube Music is free with ads. YouTube Music Premium, which is ad-free, costs $10 per month for an individual or $15 per month for families. A free one-month trial is available. Discounts are available for students. People with a Google smart speaker can access free ad-supported playlists and stations without signing up by asking their device to play music.
Adding some potential confusion, there’s a separate service called YouTube Premium, which costs $12 per month (or more for a family plan). It includes the same music streaming service plus ad-free videos and some original video content.
Who it’s best for: If you have a collection of your own audio files, YouTube Music has an amazing free feature. It’s the best option for anyone who wants to upload their own library and listen to it on the go without paying a fee. YouTube Music is also a great option if you’re considering paying to get rid of the ads on YouTube; the bundle makes for a nice discount. YouTube Music is one of the few free options for listening to specific songs on demand.
Pros: What sets YouTube Music apart is the ability to upload up to 100,000 of your own audio files to stream from the cloud. You don’t have to pay anything to use this feature.
YouTube Music Premium gives you access to a library of 70 million songs, personalized playlists, and music videos. Location-based playlists will even suggest songs—think high-tempo music at the gym—at appropriate times.
Cons: There’s a major flaw to the free tier of YouTube Music. Unless you’re listening to tracks you uploaded yourself, you can’t lock your phone or switch to another app without the music stopping.
Whichever service you choose, you’ll have a better time with your music if you play it on equipment that sounds great. Here are a few of the best-rated headphones and speakers from CR’s ratings.
1MORE E1001 Triple Driver
Sennheiser HD 250BT
JBL Flip 4
More from Consumer Reports:
Top pick tires for 2016
Best used cars for $25,000 and less
7 best mattresses for couples
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2022, Consumer Reports, Inc.
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