Editors' note: For a more up-to-date look at this topic, check out CNET's recent primer on subscription music services.
You just want to listen to some good music.
At this point, music lovers and listeners now have 10 scrillion ways to listen to music online. But where to start? Do you patiently upload all your music to Google Music? Do you check out what your friends are listening to on Spotify? Rdio? Mog? Pandora? Which ones are free, and which ones cost money? Or do you just forget about online music and just go back to listening to CDs (assuming they'll even be around in a couple of years)?
I'll be focusing on on-demand music services where you pick what you're going to listen to, as opposed to radio services like Pandora, Last.fm, TuneIn Radio, Shoutcast, and the like. They're great, but that's a whole separate article itself.
Before we present some of our favorite choices, a few words of advice:
Make sure your service of choice is available on your device(s): Listen to music on your Android smartphone? iPhone? Apple TV? Roku? Sonos? Mac? Many of these services are supported on a wide variety of devices, but few of them are supported on every device. Before you pick one, make sure it works on your device of choice.
Make sure your favorite artists are available on your service of choice:Some notable artists -- The Beatles, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Coldplay -- are hard (or downright impossible) to find on some services. Search the archives to make sure your must-have artists are available -- or be prepared to start ripping some CDs.
Don't be afraid to experiment: Many of these services have free-to-try or free-on-PC versions. Giving them a spin is pretty much a no-risk affair. And even the pay services don't come with contracts or early-termination fees, as a cell phone does. If you sign up for, say, Rhapsody and you end up not liking it after a month, cancel it -- you won't be out more than $10.
Subscription music services
The pitch for subscription music services is essentially: pay a monthly fee and get access to unlimited on-demand streaming from a huge library of music. Some of the services have free tiers, some don't, but they all currently charge for mobile device usage.
Spotify allows you to stream any music in its library for free (with advertising), plus it integrates your own digital music collection already saved on your computer. It's like if iTunes and 1990s-era Napster had a baby, except you can't keep the streaming tracks (unless you buy them).
It's ad-supported unless you pay $4.99 per month, and if you want to stream to your mobile devices (check if your device is compatible -- the Android app just recently came out of beta), it's $9.99 per month. Spotify has hinted that family-plan pricing (a la Rdio and Rhapsody) is coming, but there's no firm date on when.
It offers tight integration with Facebook; songs I listen to in Spotify show up in real time on my Facebook Timeline (which can be a good or bad thing, depending on what embarrassing thing I happen to be listening to). In fact, when I open my Spotify desktop app, more than 50 of my Facebook friends are actively using it. By comparison, only seven of my Facebook friends are using Rdio, (which I'll get to later), with only a couple actively using it.
Spotify also supports built-in apps from content providers like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Matador Records. It's a cool way to check out record reviews and immediately listen to a new album, for free. Learn more about Spotify apps.
Who should use Spotify: Spotify is the best "gateway drug" to the music subscription world. It feels like iTunes, the free tier is surprisingly great, most of your friends are already using it, and if you want to listen from something other than a phone or computer, Squeezebox and Sonos offer Spotify support. And with more than 15 million songs in its database (and the 10,000 new tracks it's adding every day, according to Spotify), it shouldn't be hard to find music, even if you have more-offbeat tastes.
In November 2012, Spotify released the browser version (in beta now) of its music app. Just log in with your Facebook account to start listening. (Learn more about how to start listening through the browser.)
Who shouldn't use Spotify: The ads -- present only in the free computer-based version -- can be jarring and come from seemingly out of nowhere. If I'm listening to Kanye West, the odds of me wanting to hear an ad for a country music singer I've never heard of are slim to none.
Spotify makes you use your Facebook log-in to register. If that makes you uncomfortable, then look elsewhere. There's no family pricing plan, which could be a bummer for some.
I only just tapped into Rdio, which has been around for a while. In fact, I just recently learned how to properly pronounce it (ar-dee-o). Like Spotify, Rdio is a social music service. And like Spotify, it has a desktop app that can incorporate songs from your iTunes or WMP library. And the similarities don't end there. There's a Facebook component, a playlist component, and a paid version component ($4.99 for unlimited streaming, $9.99 if you want to listen on your mobile device, and $17.99 a month for a family plan). There is an Rdio app for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.
And you can try before you buy, which is always nice. In the free version, there's a limit to how many songs you can listen to per month. What the limit is, however, is kind of a mystery. If you find a song you're dying to own, some songs are available as DRM-free MP3 downloads; prices range between 99 cents and $1.29.
Music discovery is also fairly easy. You can check what's in "heavy rotation," both among friends and all Rdio users. You can also browse new releases, top charts, recommendations based on what's in your collection, and artists similar to those you like.
And there's a browser-based version, which is great for people who don't want to download an app to their computers.
Who should use Rdio: Do you like following strangers on Twitter? Are you into music discovery? Rdio's "follow" features is kind of awesome, letting you follow other people and see what kind of music they're listening to. For example, you can follow Spin magazine and be on the cutting edge of music! Or you can follow me and be embarrassed.
As CNET editor Matthew Moskovciak puts it, Rdio is like "Spotify's indie rock cousin." If you like Spotify and want to get into subscription music, plus want a family plan, try Rdio and see if you enjoy its layout.
Who shouldn't use Rdio: Rdio is a little harder to get into up front; there's no persistent free-tier option. There's also no way to manage the music that's not in its catalog. Rdio's desktop app doesn't import iTunes playlists, and when you try to import a song that's not in its catalog, it doesn't let you import missing songs to be managed by the app. And if you have weird taste in music, Rdio has the fewest songs. Out of the 1,395 songs on my work machine, it only matched 689 of them.
Rhapsody predates all the other options by years, and unfortunately, sometimes it shows, with its outdated and slow interface. If you can get past that, however, it's still a worthy contender; anecdotally, it feels like it has the biggest song library -- I've yet to come across an album it doesn't have -- and its family pricing plan is great.
As with the others, Rhapsody also offers a paid subscription service: $9.99 per month for access to one mobile device, and online streaming via the browser, or Windows client software; $14.99 per month for streaming on three mobile devices. There's a limited free trial when you sign up for either of these accounts, so you can try before you buy.
There's no free version, however. At all. So if you want to use Rhapsody, you're going to have to cough up at least $9.99 per month. That can be a turn-off for the casual listener.
Who should use Rhapsody: Rhapsody has teamed with MTV, so sometimes you get to hear songs before they hit stores. Like Spotify, its desktop app can be thought of as an iTunes replacement.
With the Premier Plus plan, it's $15 for support on three mobile devices, which can be the best deal for a household of mobile subscription music fans.
Who shouldn't use Rhapsody: There's no Mac client, so Mac users who don't want to listen through the browser are out of luck. And Rhapsody's interface is slow and clunky, especially compared with the other offerings. Want a social component? Though Rhapsody does offer social elements (you can create a profile page that includes all the music you've recently listened to, and you can share your favorite songs on Facebook and Twitter), it's not as tightly integrated as what you can find in some of the other services.
Mog is yet another music service, with more than 15 million songs in the catalog. Like Spotify and Rdio, it has a free version, and two paid versions: $4.99 per month for unlimited streaming and no ads, and a $9.99-per-month option that allows for unlimited streaming, no ads, and streaming on your iOS or Android device.
Note that Mog limits FreePlay subscribers to a set number of free tracks they can play every month. Users can fill up their listening "gas tank" by using the social features of the site: sharing playlists over social networks, exploring Mog's library, etc. Essentially, the more you use Mog, the more free listening time you'll earn.
Mog boasts support for many devices, including Squeezebox, Sonos, and LG home theater products. And you can listen to Mog in the car.
Who should use Mog: If you're an audiophile and are looking to play your music on a home system, Mog is a great option.
Who shouldn't use Mog: Like Rdio, there's no way to manage the music you own that's not in its catalog.
In October 2012, Microsoft rolled out a new music service, Xbox Music, as a successor to Zune Music. Like Spotify, Xbox Music offers free ad-supported streaming of its subscription music library (30+ million songs), plus Pandora-like Internet radio and a premium tier called Xbox Music Pass ($9.99 per month or $99 per year, plus a $60-per-year Live Gold subscription for functionality on the Xbox 360) that offers ad-free streaming and "cloud locker" functionality. Microsoft plans to add scan and match, a la iTune Match (see below), sometime in 2013.
Music streams at 192kbps; downloads come as MP3 files at 256kbps.
Xbox Music is available for the Xbox 360 console, Windows Phone smartphones, and Windows 8 PCs and tablets. That's right, PC use is restricted to Windows 8 -- Windows 7 and OS X users are out of luck. iOS and Android support is coming in the coming year.
Who should use Xbox Music: If you're in the Windows 8 ecosystem, Xbox Music is the most comprehensive currently available, combining subscription music, locker storage, and a music store into a single service. There's a 30-day free trial, too, so you can give it a test run.
Who shouldn't use Xbox Music: If you have different devices, then it's much harder to recommend, at least until device support gets a boost. Read more about Xbox Music.
Slacker Premium Radio
Slacker is a personal radio service, much like Pandora. But back in May, Slacker added Slacker Premium Radio: for $9.99 a month, you can download songs, albums, create playlists, create personalized ESPN stations, and listen to single-artist radio stations. There's also an option to cache any of the more than 10 million songs on one mobile device, for offline listening.
Slacker offers iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, WebOS, and BlackBerry apps, and it's available on select Internet-connected Sony products and Logitech Squeezebox products.
Who should use Slacker Premium Radio: Slacker supports carrier billing with its iPhone and Android apps if you're with Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile. Slacker's interface is slick, and its music-discovery abilities are pretty great. The personalized ESPN station is a cool feature for sports fans; there's also a customizable ABC News station, and a variety of other content, including artist showcase stations programmed by the artists themselves and official stations for music festivals.
Who shouldn't use Slacker Premium Radio: At 128Kbps on the computer, and only 40Kbps on mobile devices, sound quality suffers. If you have more-obscure tastes in music, the 8 million-song catalog might not have what you're looking for.
|Spotify||Rdio||Mog||Xbox Music||Rhapsody||Slacker Premium Radio|
|Streaming limits||Free accounts are unlimited for first 6 months, afterward 10 hours of streaming a month and a 5-play limit for any individual track. Paid accounts are unlimited.||The TOS is very vague about limits for free accounts. Access is granted in 30-day chunks; how many songs you are granted each month decreases as time goes on. The TOS also leaves out exactly how many songs: "You may not be advised as to the exact number of songs you have remaining in a given month, but Rdio will provide a meter for you to generally understand how much access is available."||Mog limits FreePlay subscribers to a set number of free tracks they can play every month. Users can fill up their listening "gas tank" by using the social features of the site: sharing playlists over social networks, exploring Mog's library, etc.||Free streaming limited to 10 hours/month after 6 months; unlimited with paid subscription.||No||No|
|Cost||Free for basic; $4.99/month for no ads; $9.99/month for premium (mobile access, offline)||Free for limited Web streaming; $4.99/month for unlimited Web going up to $22.99 for three family subscriptions||Free for FreePlay plan; $4.99/month for Basic plan (no ads); $9.99/month for Primo plan (mobile access)||$9.99/month or $99/year, plus $60 for Live Gold membership for use on the Xbox||Limited-time free trial; $9.99/month for Premier plan (mobile); $14.99/month for Premier Plus plan (3 mobile devices)||$9.99/month|
|Offline options||On Premium plan||On Unlimited and higher plans||On Primo plan||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Mobile||On Premium plan||On some plans||On Primo plan||Yes||Yes||On one device at a time|
|Requirements||Account and app download (Mac, PC, Android, iOS)||Rdio account||Mog account||Windows 8, Xbox, Windows Phone device; in some cases, Xbox Live Gold membership||Rhapsody account||Slacker Premium Radio account|
Music subscription services overall
All of these services are pretty much the same. If you don't care about owning the music, they're a great, easy way to listen to entire albums that you haven't purchased outright. They're also a great way to see what your friends and even strangers are listening to, in real time. It's like a music party, right on your computer. And with the paid versions of each service, you can stream the music to your mobile devices, too, without having to take up actual space.
The exception, of course, is Xbox Music, which combines subscription music, locker storage, and a music store into one service.
It's easy to get bogged down in the minute differences between these services, but at the core they're all pretty similar. Still, certain aspects of the services will appeal to difference kinds of listeners. We're going to paint with some broad strokes here, but our general takeaway is:
Spotify: Best all-in-one music player for local and streaming content.
Rdio: Best for social networking functionality.
Mog: Prettiest user interface, high-quality streaming bit rates, and solid home theater devices support.
Xbox Music: If you're in the Windows ecosystem, this is the best deal, because it combines music storage, music streaming, and music purchasing, all in one service. No other service can currently do that.
Rhapsody: Best streaming value if you want to use more than one mobile device.
If you're into your own music collection, however, read on.
Music locker apps
Music locker apps make it easy (in theory) to upload the music you already own to the cloud, so it's available wherever you go. But even here there are a few different ways to do that.
Amazon Cloud Player
Amazon beat both Apple and Google to the punch when it released Amazon Cloud Player hand in hand with Amazon Cloud Drive. Amazon Cloud Drive allows you to upload 5GB of any type of file, including music files (MP3, AAC), to Amazon's servers for free. After that, there's a tiered-pricing plan, and music you purchase from Amazon doesn't count against your storage limits and is automatically added to your Cloud Drive. At the time of this writing, Amazon is offering unlimited space for music, which doesn't count against your total storage space. So for only $20 a year, you get 20GB of storage space, and unlimited music storage space. Not too shabby.
Uploading music to Amazon's servers could take days if you have a large music collection, but after that, any file you upload is available from any browser. It even allows you to upload your iTunes playlists. The interface is pretty basic: you can sort by song, album, or artist. You can make your own playlists, and even download music from the cloud to your computer. There's also a scan-and-match feature.
Amazon Cloud Player finally found its way into the App Store, making it much more noteworthy on iOS. And Amazon's cloud music service will soon be licensed, according to numerous industry sources, which means the company could eliminate the need to upload every song individually to the cloud, much like with iCloud (more on that later).
Who should use Amazon Cloud Player: Amazon's digital downloads are DRM-free, so you can listen to them on multiple devices. Amazon provides you with 5GB of space for free, and then bumps you up to 20GB with the purchase of one album.
Amazon is awesome for deal-seeking music lovers; you can often find $5 album bargains, which are frequent and great, making it easy to get hooked on Cloud Player, since your tunes are automatically in there.
Who shouldn't use Amazon Cloud Player: BlackBerry and Windows Phone users should check out a different service, because there's no Amazon Cloud Player apps for these devices (at least, not yet). The upload time takes forever; I tried to upload 54 songs and it said it would take almost 30 minutes. (Got a large digital media collection? Here are some tips on how to manage it.) Also, Amazon Cloud Player doesn't alert you if you have duplicates.
iCloud and iTunes Match
With iCloud, all the music you purchase through iTunes and your Apple ID will be available on all your iOS devices. So if you buy a song on your iPhone, it'll be available on your iPad and on your computer. For $25 a year, iTunes Match allows you to store music (MP3, AIFF, WAV, MPEG-4, AAC) that you didn't necessarily purchase from iTunes. Any music that's matched is automatically stored in iCloud; whatever music isn't available through Match, is uploaded. Since most of your music can probably found among iTunes 20 million songs, you won't have to upload from scratch, thus saving you tons of time.
Who should use iTunes Match: If you're in the Apple ecosystem, it's kind of a no brainer. You can also use it to upgrade audio quality on your existing tracks.
The benefit of using iCloud to store your music is that it is supported on home theater devices, such as Apple TV.
Who shouldn't use iTunes Match: Those without an iOS device are out of luck with this one. Also, $25 is kind of a steep when you consider that Apple is basically providing you a copy of something you already own.
A couple CNET editors have had nothing but problems uploading their music to iCloud. Matching doesn't always seem very intelligent, and if you add more music and want to rescan your collection, it goes faster than it did at first, but not as fast as you'd hope.
Because it's not technically a streaming service, songs need to download before they play. In practice, the song will start playing back before it's totally downloaded, but there's a non-negligible delay. It's no Spotify.
Check out Donald Bell's post, "iTunes Match vs. Amazon Cloud Player: What's the better option?"
Google Play offers hundreds of free songs and millions you can buy. You can also upload up to 20,000 of your own songs (MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC) to Google's servers, and play them on any device with a standard Web browser. That's right: Google's offering its music services outside the Google ecosystem. Imagine that?
You can also share music purchased from Google Play with your friends on Google+. And music purchased through Google Play doesn't count against your 20,000-song limit.
Who should use Google Play: Android and Google fans will definitely want to give Google Play a try, especially those who want tight integration with Google+. iOS users who want to give it a shot, rest-assured: the non-native Web app works very well. And if you have a Google TV, you can listen to songs from the comfort of your living room.
Who shouldn't use Google Play: So far it's only available in the U.S. Also, it's worth considering that the native app is only available for Android devices. Uploading songs to the Google servers takes a long time, so if you have a large music library, prepare to wait a while.
Since Xbox Music also includes a music locker service, it's only fair to add it to this section as well. You can save songs you've purchased to the cloud to be used on different devices; these songs sit alongside music you already had downloaded on the device.
Microsoft plans to add a "scan-and-match feature" next year. This will add music in subscribers' libraries to their cloud-based Xbox Music catalog. That way, they'll have access to any songs they own on any device, even ones not available in the service's 30 million track library.
Who should use Xbox Music: It's definitely the most comprehensive service, offering music locker, streaming, and purchasing capabilities, all in one -- but only if you're in the Microsoft ecosystem.
Who shouldn't use XboX Music: If you're not in the Microsoft ecosystem, then there's no point.
|Apple iTunes Match||Amazon Cloud
|Google Music||Xbox Music|
|Storage capacity||Unlimited in iCloud for iTunes purchases; songs not purchased on iTunes are limited to 25,000 total.||Options range from 5GB to 1TB. Unlimited for Amazon MP3 purchases for first copy; duplicates are counted toward the Cloud Drive limit.||20,000 songs|
|Cost||$24.99/year||5GB storage for free; $20/year for 20GB going up to $1,000/year for 1TB. Songs bought on Amazon don't count against the limit.||Free||$9.99 per month or $99 per year|
|Streaming service||Yes, via iCloud||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Offline options||Any song can be downloaded to any authorized device at no additional charge. There's also an automatic download switch so any song bought on iTunes can be pushed to your mobile devices.||Songs can easily be accessed and downloaded from 8 devices maximum.||You can save songs to your phone or tablet for offline use.||You can download songs for offline use.|
|Mobile||On iOS devices||Android app; playable on iOS via the browser||Yes||Windows 8, Windows Phone, Xbox|
|Requirements||iTunes account||Amazon account||Google account||Subscription and Gold Live membership|
|Scan and match||Yes||Yes||Yes||Coming next year|
Cloud locker services overall
Again, all of these services are very similar. Depending on which devices you have, and how much time you've got, the easiest way to pick a music locker app is to go with the company where you already buy your digital music. iTunes Match makes a lot of sense if you're already into iTunes (and especially if you own other Apple gadgets). Similarly, it's smart to go with Amazon if you prefer its thrifty digital music store. Google Music is free, so we expect it to be a solid option for those devoted to the Android ecosystem, although we haven't extensively used the Google digital music store yet. And if you're in the Windows ecosystem, go with Xbox Music, for the most comprehensive solution.
Have a question or comment? Notice something we missed? Comment below, and we'll do our best to respond as we continue to update this story in the future.
CNET's Matthew Moskovciak and Laura K. Cucullu contributed to this post.
Editors' note: This post was updating November 16, 2012, to update the Spotify section and to add information about Xbox Music.