The Best Music Streaming Services
How We Found the Best Music Streaming Service
30 Hours of Research
2 Weeks of Listening
5 Top Picks
The Best Music Streaming Services
In terms of quality, all the major music streaming services are pretty equal. Our five top picks run neck and neck with fair pricing, vast music libraries, online/ offline listening, and personalized content. So how do you choose the best streaming service for you?
It all comes down to the perks. Your music streaming service should offer up the content you want, the way you want it — whether that means live radio, exclusive artist content, daily new music mixes, high-fidelity audio, or endless music videos. Our top picks offer a little bit of everything. Read on to see what makes each one unique, or jump down to our music streaming service buying guide for help figuring out which platform is best for you.
How We Chose the Best Music Streaming Services
Music and content
Library size is the main differentiator between big names in the market (like Apple Music and Spotify) and their smaller competitors. As leaders in the streaming industry, our top picks are able to purchase nearly limitless content. You’d be hard-pressed to name an artist too underground for Apple Music, Spotify, or Tidal, which all boast libraries of around 40 million songs. And if you are looking for rarer content, there’s YouTube Premium — which streams just about everything the internet has to offer.
New music discovery
Besides serving up your favorite tracks à la carte, music streaming services should help you explore new artists and genres. We looked for companies that make it easy to expand your musical horizons. All of our top picks offer algorithmic playlists and radio stations, which are tailored for you based on your music tastes. These will introduce you to songs and artists that are right up your alley — no more asking your “musical” friends what they’re into these days and suffering through some dubious selections.
Gone are the days when “music streaming” meant searching one video at a time on YouTube or listening to recycled playlists on Pandora (ever notice how it seems to loop through the same songs every few hours?). Now, streaming formats are almost endless. Our top picks all offer a mix of on-demand listening, curated playlists, and personalized radio stations — so you can choose whether to actively DJ or just sit back and let the music roll. They also have some unique listening options, from live radio to video playlists, depending on how you like your music delivered.
After putting together a list of the most popular music streaming services, we cozied up with their apps and put in some quality listening time. Besides judging the size and diversity of their catalogs, we paid close attention to each company’s interface. Were playlists simple to build and access? Could we make new radio stations easily (and, once they were made, actually find them again)? Could we switch back and forth between devices without lag? The best platforms were customizable and ultra easy to navigate.
The 5 Best Music Streaming Services
- Apple Music -
Best Full-Service Music Platform
- Spotify -
Best for New Music Discovery
- YouTube Premium -
Best for Original Content
- Tidal -
Best for High-Quality Audio
- Amazon Prime Music -
Best for Prime Members
Why we chose it
Downloaded music integration
Before there was streaming, there was iTunes. (Remember the days of actually buying music for $0.99 per song?) Although streaming services have made music cheaper and more accessible, many people still have vast downloaded libraries that they’ve built up over the years. If you’re a devoted music buyer, Apple Music is the best choice for integrating pre-owned songs with your music streaming service. The iCloud Music Library allows you to access your entire music collection on the go, even if it’s not downloaded to your device. This is head and shoulders above Spotify’s “local files” feature, which only lets you listen to downloaded music from the device it was originally stored on.
Does Apple Music work on Android? Yes! The Apple Music app is available on the Google Play store for Android users. However, Droid customers won’t have access to Apple Music’s voice command feature, which currently only works through Siri.
Apple Music is quickly catching up to streaming giant Spotify in popularity. In fact, it’s set to edge past Spotify for paid U.S. subscribers this year. So what’s Apple doing right? For us, a huge selling point is easy integration. Not only does Apple Music have iTunes’ established music library behind it, but as part of the Apple ecosystem it’s a breeze for Apple fans to use. The Music app, where both iTunes and Apple Music live, comes preinstalled on all iPhones, MacBooks, iPads, Apple Watches, and HomePods — making for seamless setup on any of these devices. Users can also control their playback and search for music using Siri voice commands. For anyone who’s already invested in Apple products, it’s an easy fit.
Beats 1 Radio
Along with easy device and iTunes integration, Beats 1 radio helps set Apple Music apart from the competition. This live, 24/7 radio service offers up content that you won’t find anywhere else — including stations anchored by artists like Elton John and The Weeknd. Beats 1 radio is a place to discover new music, listen to commentary from your favorite artists, or enjoy a steady stream of quality tunes without having to choose what to listen to. It’s available to paying and non-paying users alike, but only subscribers can listen to shows on demand.
The latest iteration of Apple Music, which rolled out with iOS 12, includes a couple neat features. Our favorite is the ability to find songs through lyric search — so when you can’t remember why “Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television” are running through your head, Apple Music’s search bar will remind you that they’re the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. In our experience, Apple’s lyric search is right on the money and returns exactly what you’re looking for. The only other streaming service that shares this feature is Google Music, which can find lyrics through voice command.
Price Hack Get 12 months of Apple Music Individual for the price of 10. Just open your profile, go to the “Subscriptions” tab, and select “Individual (1 Year).”
Variety of plans
Apple Music offers individual, family, and student plans, so anyone can find the right streaming package for their needs. Prices are similar to our other top picks, but with one distinct perk: if you’re willing to pay upfront for a year, you can get the individual plan for $99 and save $20 annually. Students get the same access for only $4.99 per month. Apple’s family plan, which costs $14.99 per month, also has an edge: All six account holders can share iTunes purchases and iCloud storage — so if one family member buys a new album or uploads pre-owned content, everyone gets to listen.
Apple Music plans compared
$99 / year
Student: $4.99 / month
Points to consider
Apple music is fairly easy to set up and control, especially if you’re used to working with Apple products. However, the platform has a few navigation quirks that threw us off. For example, the desktop player is difficult to maneuver. It has no real “home” screen to center you, so once you’ve clicked through a few tabs it can be hard to find a page you want to revisit. The app also lets you create stations based on songs, artists, or albums, but doesn’t actually take you to that playlist (unlike Spotify, which lets you view the station’s queue and select tracks). All in all, we found Spotify’s interface just a bit more intuitive and customizable than Apple Music’s.
No free version
Users can try Apple Music free for the first three months, but after that it’ll cost you. Prices are on par with our other top picks: $9.99 per month for an individual account, or $14.99 for a family plan with up to six unique profiles. That’s about what you’ll pay anywhere for ad-free listening. But if you want to save the 10 bucks per month and don’t mind commercial breaks, you might prefer Spotify or YouTube Music — both of which have an unlimited, ad-supported free option.
Why we chose it
Diverse discovery features
Spotify shines for its ability to suggest new music that you’ll actually like. As one of the earliest streaming sites — launched in 2006 — the company has had more than 10 years to hone its music matching algorithms. It uses these to create four different daily mixes, a weekly “discover” playlist, and countless curated radio stations for each user. It also offers up themed playlists like “time capsule,” “top songs” for the year, and “summer rewind,” that let you revisit old favorites. Beyond that, we love Spotify’s unique autoplay feature: When the playlist, song, or album that you’re listening to ends, it’ll select similar tracks to play afterwards (other services will leave you sitting in silence until you get around to picking a new track).
We found Spotify to be the easiest to use of all the music streaming services we tested. On both the mobile and desktop apps, everything was exactly where we expected it to be. Your library, playlists, mixes, and stations all live on the sidebar, making them accessible at all times. The home screen is well organized and easy to navigate, with options to browse “genres and moods,” “charts,” “new releases,” and more. And when you want to create a new radio station based on an artist or song, Spotify lets you “Go to Radio” so you can view your queue and customize the channel. Other platforms — like Apple Music and Tidal — create the station without actually showing you a queue, so you don’t have much control over what’s on (sort of like listening to an actual radio, although you can still skip tracks).
With Spotify, as with our other top picks, each user can only listen on one device at a time. However, Spotify stood out for having seamless transitions between listening platforms. Using the “devices available” button, you can switch playback instantly between laptop, cell phone, bluetooth speaker, smart TV, or any other synced device. Spotify also gives you the option to “continue listening” on one device while controlling your account with another. So you could, for example, “continue listening” on your smart TV while using your phone as a music remote to select playlists and skip tracks.
Spotify is one of only two streaming services, along with YouTube, that offers an unlimited free version (the others only offer one- to three-month free trials). Of course, freeness comes at a price: You’ll have to put up with quite a few commercial breaks, you must shuffle playlists instead of selecting specific songs, and you’re only allowed to skip six songs per hour. Still, Spotify Free gives you access to the server’s entire catalog of music and curated content. It’s a good option if you want to save $10 to $15 per month.
Spotify plans compared
Points to consider
Poor local music integration
If you already own a sizeable music library — iTunes purchases, ripped CD’s, downloaded songs — then you may want to integrate this music with your streaming service. Spotify allows you to do so through its “local files” feature, but it’s not a perfect solution. Once you’ve uploaded music from your hard drive to Spotify’s “local files,” they’re only available on that computer; they don’t travel with your account. That means you won’t be able to listen on mobile or other devices. For easier access to music you already own, we recommend Apple Music. It’s fully integrated with iTunes and has a more robust cloud locker for storing and accessing downloaded content.
No smart search
Maybe you caught a snippet of whistling or a single lyric, and you’re hoping to find out what that great song was. With Spotify you’re out of luck; it only lets you search for music based on song title or artist name. Other services — like Apple Music and YouTube — use advanced voice or search technology that let you find music based on a few words or a tune. Including this feature in the app would help take Spotify to the next level, but it’s not quite there yet.
Why we chose it
All of YouTube’s content
You probably never thought of YouTube as a music streaming service (it’s just the place you go for funny cat videos and legendary Vine compilations, right?). But that’s the beauty of YouTube Premium: you get a pretty much endless catalog of songs plus YouTube’s entire library of videos, including remixes, covers, mixtapes, and live footage. That means access to rare, unofficial content that you’d never find on our other top picks — think concert footage from The Who and The Rolling Stones or mixtapes like Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap.
How many times have you started a music video on YouTube, only to lock your phone screen and become instantly frustrated when the music stops? Countless times? Us too. YouTube Premium solves that problem with “background listening,” which allows you to play both music and YouTube videos with the app minimized or your phone screen locked. It may seem like a no-brainer (you can play music in the background on any other music app), but YouTube lovers will rejoice at the ability to multitask while they enjoy their favorite content.
Ad-free music and videos
Then there’s the other scourge of frequent YouTube watchers: ad breaks. YouTube Premium users can enjoy both music streaming and all YouTube videos ad-free — no more “waiting five seconds to skip,” or worse, suffering through a 30-second non-skippable commercial. Note that if you subscribe to YouTube Music Premium for $9.99 per month (as opposed to YouTube Premium for $11.99 per month) you’ll get music ad-free but videos will still have advertisements.
As part of the Google family, YouTube Music and YouTube Premium come with all of its perks. First off, YouTube is fully integrated into Android and Google Home systems, so it can be controlled using Google’s voice assistant technology. You can ask it to put on a specific song or playlist, request a genre, pause or skip a song, or even switch between devices (e.g. “play music on my bedroom speaker”). YouTube also lets you tap into Google’s advanced search mechanisms to find songs. For instance, you might ask it to play “that hipster song with the whistling,” and it’ll know to put on “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn & John. As a bonus: if you were already using Google’s streaming service (Google Play, $9.99 per month) before YouTube Premium came out in May 2018, you can access its new service free of charge.
Don’t worry, the free YouTube that we all know and love isn’t going anywhere. You can still access all of the site’s video content and the new YouTube Music service free of charge. However the free version is ad-powered, so you’ll have to sit through plenty of commercial breaks before videos and in between songs. YouTube Music subscribers get ad-free music but not video — so if you’re taking the leap anyway, we recommend spending the extra $2 per month to stream all of YouTube’s content without interruption.
YouTube Music plans compared
Points to consider
Music and videos are separate
YouTube is our platform of choice for people who want both music and video. That said, it doesn’t do a perfect job integrating the two services. Although Youtube Premium customers are technically paying for a Music subscription and an ad-free YouTube experience, the two still exist as separate apps. All music streaming happens through the new YouTube Music app, while videos are only accessible on YouTube. Ideally, the two will eventually live in one place — but YouTube Music is brand new, so there are still some logistics to work out.
No desktop app
Unlike Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal, YouTube Music doesn’t have a downloadable desktop app that you can use to play music from your computer. You can still stream through its website at music.youtube.com, but it’s less convenient than a full-fledged desktop player. For instance, if you’re listening on a Mac, you can’t use the keyboard controls to play, pause, or skip songs. It also means there’s no convenient “mini player” like the one Apple Music has, which lets you keep an eye on what’s playing and control music in a small, discreet window.
Why we chose it
High fidelity mobile streaming
Tidal is owned by Jay Z, which is admittedly pretty neat. But the company’s real claim to fame is its high-fidelity music streaming. Tidal offers “lossless” audio, which, in short, is the highest sound quality available for mobile streaming. It’s the closest you’ll get to standing in the control room while your favorite band plays in the recording studio next door. None of our other top picks currently offer lossless audio as an option. Note that it’s only available through Tidal with the “HiFi” plan ($19.99 per month), while Tidal Premium customers ($9.99 per month), will experience the same sound quality as Apple Music or Spotify users.
Master quality desktop streaming
Tidal HiFi subscribers also get access to Tidal Masters, which includes thousands of Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) albums. MQA is the next step up from lossless streaming and is literally certified to be better than all other digital formats. It maintains 100% of the original recording and plays it back in the highest quality that your device allows. Tidal is one of only three streaming services that offers MQA audio (along with Deezer and Groovers+), and it’s currently only supported on desktop players.
Exclusive music releases
All the major streaming services advertise unique content, but Tidal’s exclusives carry the most clout by far. Tidal is the only place you can stream Jay Z or Beyoncé’s full discography, including the couple’s collaboration “Everything is Love” and Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade.” It also offers early releases from popular hip hop artists, like Kanye West’s “Life of Pablo,” as well as proprietary content including a previously unreleased Prince album. The company continues to drop rare and restricted content as one of its main draws, whereas competitors like Apple Music have struggled to compete for album exclusives.
Tidal is a music streaming service first and foremost, but it also aims to be a place where artists and fans can connect on a more personal level. It does this in a few ways. First is through Tidal X — a platform for live concert streaming, exclusive show invites (more than 3,000 Tidal members got tickets to the 6th anniversary of Rick Ross’ debut album), and unique event access (Rihanna’s Fenty runway show in Paris was live streamed for Tidal members, and a handful even got to attend). Members also get access to Tidal Read, which features artist interviews and articles by professional music journalists.
Tidal plans compared
Family: $14.99 (up to 6 profiles)
Family: $29.99 (up to 6 profiles)
Points to consider
Tidal offers unparallelled sound quality, but you’ll have to pay for the upgrade. Lossless audio only comes with its “HiFi” package, which runs at $19.99 per month (or $29.99 for a family plan). For a dedicated audiophile with a discerning ear — you know who you are — it’ll be worth the price hike. But we confess: As average, untrained listeners, we couldn’t pick out much of a difference between Tidal HiFi and Apple Music or Spotify. Our suggestion? Try HiFi for free for a month — if you’re not floored by the lossless audio, you can always choose Premium, which has all Tidal’s perks but standard sound quality, and is half the price.
Slow device switching
As with our other top picks, Tidal users can only stream music on one device at a time. However, Tidal doesn’t do a great job transitioning between systems. When we switched playback from desktop to mobile and back again, it took Tidal a few minutes to recognize that we had stopped listening on one device and started on another. This made for lag time, and us having to restart the app — not a huge inconvenience, but annoying considering that services like Spotify were able to switch playback instantly.
Why we chose it
Free with Prime
Amazon Music’s biggest selling point is that it’s free for Prime users. With a smaller library than other services (unless you pay an additional fee) it’s not the ideal choice for music buffs who want rare finds and ultra-tailored playlists. But Amazon Prime Music does include today’s biggest hits and plenty of “Top 100” style stations. Its collection will suit listeners who want casual, low-effort streaming.
Prime membership perks
Amazon Prime Music may not stand on its own, but it’s worth a look when considered as part of the entire Prime package. Along with access to a couple million songs and a thousand curated playlists, that $12.99 per month gets you free two-day shipping, free grocery delivery, unlimited video streaming, access to Amazon Originals (like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), and more. If you like to keep all your subscriptions in one place for convenience’s sake, Amazon is unquestionably your best bet.
Stream with Alexa
Amazon Music also comes pre-programmed on Echo devices, making it easy to control with Alexa voice commands. Amazon Prime users can ask her to play, pause, or skip a song, select a playlist, or “play more like this” to discover similar music. Music Unlimited customers get a few additional commands as well: For instance, you can request that Alexa play music from a specific era or genre, or even match your mood (“Alexa, play something upbeat”).
Variety of plans
If you love Amazon’s platform but the Prime Music library just won’t cut it, the company does offer more robust streaming packages. For $7.99 per month (Individual) or $14.99 per month (Family), Prime members can tap into Amazon Music Unlimited, which looks a lot like our other top picks. It has a much bigger library and catalog of curated content, as well as a more robust roster of Alexa commands. For those who listen on a limited basis — maybe you like to throw on a playlist when guests are over — there’s also the Echo Plan. It gives you all the features of Music Unlimited on a single Echo device, for half the cost ($3.99 per month).
Amazon Music plans compared
Points to consider
The biggest drawback to Amazon’s music streaming service is that it has a far smaller library than our other top picks; Prime Music users only get access to around 2 million tracks. If you opt to pay $7.99 for Music Unlimited, that number jumps up to “tens of millions,” which is more comparable to Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal’s offerings. Still, for only $2 more per month, these other platforms have more robust features and better interfaces. Our recommendation? Stick with Prime Music if you’re a light listener, and don’t mind a smaller (free) selection. Otherwise, you may be better off with one of our other top picks.
The Amazon Music player is a bit bare-bones. It gets the job done, with a music library, curated content, and playlists, but lacks some of the extra features that we loved from our other top picks. For example, we missed the option to create stations based on songs and artists — a feature that makes it easy to discover new music similar to our favorite tracks. Nor does Amazon have live radio, feature content (like articles and artist interviews) or easy ways to share music with your friends. All this contributes to what we said earlier: Amazon Prime Music is a fine option if you want to dabble lighty in streaming, but it lacks the more robust features and bigger library that serious music lovers will want.
Guide to Music Streaming Services
How to find the right music streaming platform for you
Evaluate your listening preferences
The biggest factor in choosing a music streaming service is how you prefer to listen. If you’re a pretty choosy streamer — you like being your own DJ, you make lots of custom playlists, maybe you’ve been building the ultimate iTunes library for the past 10 years — then you’ll likely want Apple Music. Laid-back listeners might prefer Spotify, with its countless ready-made playlists and radio stations. Tidal is perfect for audiophiles with a discerning ear, and YouTube is great if you love watching music videos.
Consider your devices
All of our top picks can be used on desktop and mobile, but some are designed to work seamlessly on other devices as well. For example, Apple Music syncs directly with the Apple Watch and HomePod, and can be voice-controlled using Siri. If Siri isn't your thing, then you might prefer Amazon Prime Music — which comes pre-set on Echo devices and can be used with Alexa — or YouTube Premium, which is fully integrated into the Google sphere (think Google Home, Android phones, etc.). If you’ve already bought into speakers, voice assistants, or smart home devices, then it’s worth choosing a music streaming service that will integrate easily with the systems you’re already using at home.
Think about music sharing
Music streaming platforms can be a great place to share music, see what your friends are listening to, and even post your own originals. Our favorite service for building a music community is Spotify, which offers a “friend feed” and collaborative playlists for discovering music through other users. Apple Music and YouTube also let members create robust profiles, so that you can explore playlists made by your friends and check out what the artists themselves are listening to.
Look for the right price point
All of our top picks are similarly priced, but you may be able to get a discount if you know where to look. Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and Amazon all give student discounts for their premium plans, as long as you can present a valid student ID. Tidal also gives a 40% military discount for service members and their families. If you’re willing to pay up front for an annual membership instead of month-to-month, both Amazon and Apple Music will cut you a deal. And, if you don’t mind the ads, you can get limitless free access to Spotify or YouTube.
Music Streaming FAQs
What is the cheapest music streaming service?
Spotify and YouTube Music both offer unlimited free music streaming, although these versions are ad-supported so you’ll have to put up with interruptions. The next tier up is Amazon’s Music Unlimited Echo plan, which costs just $3.99 per month and can be to stream on a single Echo device or Fire TV. If you’re a student with a valid ID card, you’ll only pay $4.99 per month for streaming with Apple Music, Spotify, or Tidal. Students get a discount on Amazon Prime too, which comes with Prime Music subscription built in. Beyond that, all the major streaming services are around the same price: $10 per month for an individual plan or $14.99 per month for a family plan that includes up to six accounts.
What does “high-fidelity” or “lossless” music streaming mean?
Before you can stream a song online, it has to be compressed into a digital file. When music is compressed, bits of sound are removed to make the file smaller and more manageable. In theory these bits are so minor that most people won’t miss them — but to the trained ear, a compressed file could have noticeably poorer sound quality. “Lossless” audio takes out fewer (or no) sounds, resulting in a digital file that’s truer to the original recording.
What music streaming service has the best quality?
Tidal has the best audio quality of any streaming service we reviewed. It’s the only company on our list that currently offers high fidelity, lossless music streaming. HiFi subscribers can also listen to select albums in Master Quality on Tidal’s desktop player. Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) albums retain 100% of the original recording quality so you can experience them “as the artist intended.”
What’s the difference between Google Play Music and YouTube Music?
Google Play Music (which has been around since 2011) and the new YouTube Music app are both owned and operated by Google. The services have slightly different offerings: Google Play is closer to Spotify or Apple Music — with official content only — and lacks the rare or user-made content that you can find on YouTube. Google Play Music also has a “cloud locker” feature that lets you upload and incorporate tracks you already own. There’s speculation that the two will eventually be merged, but as of June 2018 they remain two separate platforms. That said, anyone who was a Google Play subscriber at the time YouTube Music launched (in May 2018) does get access to the new YouTube Music Premium for free.
What’s the difference between Amazon Prime Music and Amazon Music Unlimited?
Amazon Prime Music is included with every Amazon Prime membership at no additional cost to you. It includes a catalog of over 2 million songs, and “more than a thousand playlists and stations.” Amazon Music Unlimited is a more robust version of the service that you’ll pay an extra fee for (between $3.99 and $14.99 per month, depending on your plan). Its library packs “tens of millions” of tracks and “thousands of playlists and stations.” The two also have some differences in capability, with Music Unlimited boasting a more robust set of Alexa commands and exclusive artist content that you won’t find on Prime Music.
How many songs does Spotify have?
There’s no official count — the company claims more than 35 million tracks, and one Spotify community member estimates that thousands of new songs are added each week. What’s certain is that you’ll never run out of new and exciting content. In fact, there are so many unique tracks on Spotify that millions of them have never been played even once. If you’re craving something new and different, you can check out some of these unheard gems on the website forgotify.com.
The Best Music Streaming Service: Summed up
|Unlimited free version|