Streaming is not only the most convenient and popular way to listen to your favorite songs, but it can sound great too. Especially on the growing number of providers that includeand . Yet with so many different music services on offer, how are you supposed to choose?
If you’re shopping around for a new service — inspired by developments such as, for example — you should consider things such as monthly cost and even compatibility. Though prices have been more stable than they are with , with most services costing $10 a month, there have been some big changes recently, especially as most now offer lossless audio at no extra charge. Most of the offerings have music catalogs of over 60 million songs, and let you stream from your phone, computer or other device, though each has its own unique pros and cons.
I’ve checked out the biggest names, including Spotify,, , and , as well smaller contenders like , , and to see how each platform stacks up for your subscription buck. It’s worth noting that in this roundup I’ve purposefully left out services that can only play music in a radio format (Pandora, Rdio, Napster UnRadio) and don’t allow you to select your own songs. Streaming should be about choice, and that includes being able to listen to whole albums at a stretch.
So which music streaming services offer the best combination of price, sound quality and library size? 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. We’ll update this list periodically. And if you want the TL;DR, these are the top three.
Spotify is a pioneer in music streaming and is arguably the best-known service. 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 also ramped up its non-music content with a push toward podcasts, which led to folk-rock icon Neil Young’s decision to leave the service. Young told Spotify “it’s me or Joe Rogan” — based on the podcast host’s tolerance for COVID-19 vaccine misinformation — and the company chose to stay with Rogan.
When it comes to choosing a service, it’s a close race between Spotify Premium and Apple Music, but Spotify wins as the best music streaming service overall. This is thanks to a fun, easy-to-use interface, an extensive catalog and the best device compatibility. Spotify also offers the best free tier: Without paying a dime or providing a credit card number, you can stream Spotify Connect to numerous Wi-Fi devices.
Spotify had said that a new HiFi (lossless) tier would be coming at the end of 2021, but there’s been no further word about it. Meanwhile, competitors like Apple Music, Amazon Music Unlimited and Tidal are now offering lossless or even Dolby Atmos music at no extra charge. In addition, Spotify hiked prices on a number of plans in 2021, even though the base price remains $10 a month in the US.
- 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 be alerted when they release new music or announce an upcoming show
- Now includes podcasts
- 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
- No lossless option
- Podcasts have begun to overshadow music in importance
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.
Read our Spotify review.
Apple Music runs second to Spotify in terms of subscribers, but surpasses its rival in a few key areas. It offers a friendly interface, over 90 million tracks and compatibility with both iOS and Android devices. Yes, it has spatial audio albums at no extra charge, but these 1,000 tracks are dwarfed by the rest of the catalog.
Not surprisingly, Apple Music is the best choice if you’ve invested heavily in the Apple ecosystem. If you own an Apple HomePod or Mini, it is the default subscription service to summon music with your voice. Apple Music also makes the ideal companion for an iPod Touch, which, after 20 years, is still a thing. There’s also a ton of curated playlists, many handcrafted by musicians and tastemakers, but it lacks the robust sharing options built into Spotify.
Apple Music is 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. There are two ways to upload your music: free with a Music subscription, but with DRM; or $25, £22 or AU$35 a year for iTunes Match, which will let you download again even without a Music subscription.
- Spatial and hi-res music included for your $10 a month
- Combines your iTunes library with music you don’t own and a choice of music lockers
- 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 fun as the iOS one
- Doesn’t work with old iPods (except the iPod Touch)
Best for: Those who are wrapped up in the Apple world, or who simply want excellent bang for buck.
Read our Apple Music review.
Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET
Qobuz offers hi-res audio streams too and unlike Tidal you don’t need a specialized MQA decoder to listen to them. They can sound great on an Android phone or a high-end music system. It may not offer Dolby Atmos music, but the current catalog of songs on other services isn’t that impressive anyway.
The service offers two plans — the hi-res Studio Premier ($13 monthly/$130 yearly) and the $180 annual Sublime Plus. Uniquely, the service offers its own hi-res download store and if you sign up for that second plan you get a discount on purchases.
At 70 million tracks, Qobuz’s streaming catalog rivals Tidal’s and Spotify’s in number, though it may not have the most obscure artists. Qobuz generally steers towards hi-res recordings so is especially suited to jazz and classical fans, though its rock selection is fairly robust. The fact that it’s cheaper than Tidal, and doesn’t require a special DAC to listen in 24-bit/192Hz, makes Qobuz our favorite service for serious music lovers.
- The app is really clean and fun to use
- Ability to listen to 24-bit music without needing a specialized decoder
- One of the more affordable hi-res services
- Offers a download store as well
- May be some gaps in the catalog
- No spatial audio
Best for: Audiophiles who want hi-res music for a decent price plus the ability to buy and download albums.
Now partly owned by Jack Dorsey’s Block, Tidal has introduced some important changes recently, namely that it now has a free tier called, naturally, Tidal Free. The company also offers the $10 Tidal HiFi plan, which includes lossless playback, and the premium $20 Tidal HiFi Plus tier.
Tidal HiFi Plus may be the most expensive of all the services, and while it offers hi-res and Dolby Atmos mixes it now has another good reason for this. Tidal’s main hook has always been that its higher subscription price translates to better payouts to artists. Especially musicians who aren’t at the top of the pop charts. As an extension of this philosophy, the service will now pay your top streamed artist — calculated after each month — a 10% cut of your subscription fee. Even if you only stream one song all month the full $2 will go to them. Forget fractions of a cent for a play; with enough spins from enough people this could mean serious money for your favorite band.
While Tidal used to be the best option for audiophiles, Qobuz has caught up by promising arguably better sound quality (no MQA decoder required), a cheaper price and some recent improvements in its catalog. Based on my own experience, Tidal still trumps it for breadth — and it now exceeds 80 million tracks including longtime holdouts Metallica. 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
- Free tier, while its top tier offers payouts for favorite artists
- 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.
Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET
Amazon Prime Music comes “free” as part of a Prime membership but users can choose to upgrade to Music Unlimited is the “grownup” (a.k.a. paid) .” Music Unlimited now includes the original HD service for free (yes, the one Neil Young said would change the Earth forever.) For $8 for Prime members, or $10 if you don’t have Prime, you get access to millions of lossless tracks as well as 1,000 “spatial” remixes. These remixes are able to be played back on Dolby Atmos soundbars, Android/iOS devices as well as the Amazon Echo Studio. In terms of usability, the Music Unlimited interface is also more expanded than ever with playlists, genres and podcasts all accessible from the main page.
- Cheaper than the top three if you’re an Amazon Prime member
- Lyrics automatically pop up on the “now playing” screen
- Hi-res and spatial audio from Sony 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos for no extra charge
- Offers free music stations for Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Amazon Tap (includes ads)
- 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.
Read our Amazon Music (Android) review.
YouTube Music is the successor to, and if you sign up for the ad-free 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. If you have a legacy Google Play Music account you may be able to still over to YouTube Music. And it’s not just legacy content: YouTube Music allows users to upload new tracks to its online music locker, too.
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 play endlessly and are updated often.
- Monthly fee includes commercial-free streaming on YouTube as well
- Over 60 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
- Competitors offer a better music focus for the money
- Bit-rate is lower than Google Play Music
Best for: Heavy YouTube users and Android device users.
Still one of the most popular streaming radio services in the US, Pandora also offers the a la carte Premium ($10 a month) and no-ads Plus ($5 a month). The result is more flexibility than most competitors, and Premium has gained plenty more subscribers in recent years, even if the service is 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 from its free tier 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.
French stalwarthas been operating in the States since 2016, and it has a lot to offer, including a free tier (mobile only) and 90 million tracks. It has more subscribers than some others on this list, thanks in part to its previous 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. While it reportedly boasts more users than Tidal, and it is trying its best to differentiate itself from similarly priced offerings. For example, it is the first service to offer the ability for users to upload their catalogs from competitors for no extra charge.
Top services compared
|Amazon Music Unlimited||Apple Music||Qobuz||Spotify||Tidal||YouTube Music|
|Monthly fee||Prime members: $8, £8, N/A; Non-Prime members: $10, £10, AU$12; Echo-only service: Free, AU$5||$10, £10, AU$12; Voice $5, £5, AU$6||$13, AU$20||$10, £10, AU$12||Hi-Fi: $10, £10, AU$15; HiFi Plus: $20, £20, AU$24||$10, £10, AU$12|
|Free option?||Yes, with ads||No||No||Yes, with ads||Yes||Yes, with ads|
|Free trial period||30 days||3 months||30 days||30 days||3 months||30 days|
|Music library size||75 million||90 million||70 million||Over 82 million||Over 80 million||Over 60 million|
|Maximum bitrate||256kbps, 3730 Kbps (HD)||256kbps, TBD||6,971 kbps||320kbps||1,411kbps||320kbps|
|Family plan?||Yes, $15, £15, AU$18 for up to 6 people||Yes, $15, £15, AU$18 for up to 6 people||Yes, $16.67, £16.67, AU$44.99||Yes $16 per month, up to 6||Yes, 50% off each additional account, up to 4||Yes, $15, £15, AU$18 per month for up to 6 people|
|Student discount||No||Yes, Price varies by country||No||Yes, $5, £5 with Hulu and Showtime||Student HiFi: $5, Student HiFi plus: $10 (US only)||Yes, $5|
|US military discount||No||No||No||No||Yes||No|
|Offline listening||Mobile and desktop||Mobile only||Mobile and desktop||Mobile and desktop||Mobile only||Premium and mobile only|
|Music locker functionality||No||Yes||No||No||No||Yes|
What else do you need to know?
How do you swap between music services?
Without contracts it’s pretty easy to cancel one service and start with another. That said, swapping between music services isn’t as straightforward, for example, as swapping between movie locker services using. If you don’t want to have to rebuild your playlists and library from scratch when you switch, you have two main options — a music locker service such as YouTube Music (but this implies you have a library of ripped or ), or the library import tool Soundiiz. The latter is a service that lets you import the songs from each of your music services and transfer them, and while there’s a $4.50 monthly charge, you can always cancel once you’ve converted your library. Recently, Deezer has offered the ability for new users to convert their libraries from other services for free (via another service called Tune My Music).
Do I need spatial or Atmos audio?
The short answer is “no” and the long answer is “not in the slightest.” Stereo music has been around since the ’50s and it makes the handful of Atmos audio tracks available seem insignificant in comparison. Apple may rave aboutis, but unless you have a pair of compatible AirPods or an expensive , you won’t be able to hear it properly anyway. In our own listening tests we’ve found that the catalog is indeed limited and the quality of the mixes varies wildly. The music industry has every 20 years or so — Quadraphonic in the ’70s, in the 2000s — but stereo will never go out of favor.
Music catalog sizes compared
The number of songs offered by a music service used to be one of the main differentiators, but all of the major ones now have over 60 million tracks. However, depending on your favored genre, some of them offer 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 or Pandora offer. Apple Music is somewhere in the middle, offering a healthy mix of mainstream tunes and underground unknowns.
Streaming radio vs. on-demand
This guide covers on-demand music streaming services, and for that reason, we’ve purposely left out services that only play music in a radio format. Until recently this list excluded Pandora, but now that the company also offers awe’ve included it here. , and are radio-style services or playlists 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. 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.