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Best music streaming: Spotify, Apple Music and more, compared

We compare the biggest on-demand music streaming services to find the best one for you.

01-spotify-headphones
Sarah Tew/CNET

Sure, vinyl may be making a big resurgence among audiophiles, but streaming still has the future of music listening on lock. Streaming music is cheap or even free (in the case of Pandora and Spotify) and outpaces any physical format when it comes to convenience. If you're concerned about sound quality, don't worry; in some cases, these subscription services sound better than, or at least indistinguishable from, a CD.

We've checked out the leading on-demand music streaming options — Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora and Tidal — as well as Google Play Music and Amazon Music Unlimited to see how they all stack up for your subscription buck. While most leading services boast music catalogs of over 40 million songs, each has their own unique pros and cons for a potential subscriber to consider. We've purposefully left out services that only play music in a radio format. All offer some type of family plan, allowing you to share your service with others for a fee, and mobile device offline listening, though not all are available on your desktop.

Note, CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of services featured on this page.   

Our top choice: Spotify is the best for most people

Let's cut to the chase. While it's a close race between Spotify and Apple Music, Spotify wins our subscription vote with a fun, easy-to-use interface, an extensive catalog and the best device compatibility. Spotify's free tier had some recent improvements, making it the best no-cost option.


Apple Music is a close second, however, in part because it's the only one of the "big four" with a digital locker to store your own library of songs. And if you own an Apple HomePod ($299 at Walmart), you will need this subscription service if you want to summon music with your voice. It also makes the ideal companion for a new iPod Touch, which, amazingly, is a thing.


In third place is Tidal, which is also worth a look if you are interested in the best audio quality. 

Google Play Music and Amazon Music Unlimited are in the game. While they didn't top our list, they each are worthy options for users with specific needs or requirements. For instance, if having YouTube Red's ad-free service is important to you, Google Play Music is thrown in for free. And Amazon offers a discounted Echo-only version of its service, which may tip the scales if you already have an Alexa-heavy household.



While Pandora's free service is excellent, its on-demand service still lags behind the others in catalog breadth when it comes to songs and albums.

It's also worth mentioning Qobuz, a streaming platform which launched in the US this year. It's still too early to call, but at first blush this Tidal competitor offers a clean interface, hi-res audio streams and the ability to buy lossless music. The catalog isn't quite at the level of Tidal or Spotify, however.

And remember: These plans all offer free trial periods, and the default sign-ups are "no-contract" options. So you're largely free to come and go as you please. Don't be afraid to try the waters of a rival service if you're not completely satisfied.

So here's what we think of the the top six music-streaming services, presented in alphabetical order. It's worth noting that all of these services will work on the major platforms: Android, iOS, PC and Mac. 


Spotify

Spotify is the pioneer in the music-streaming space, and it's arguably the best known. It offers a number of different curated music discovery services including its Discover Weekly playlist and is constantly experimenting with new ones such as the Australia-only Stations. The service's (now optional) Facebook integration makes sharing music on Spotify easier than competitors, offering the ability to send a track or album, collaborate on playlists with friends, or peek at what your Facebook friends are listening to.

The Good 

  • Free version is impressively robust.
  • It's easy to build your own playlists and sync them for offline listening.
  • User-friendly apps that are updated frequently and have enough features without being overwhelming.
  • Allows you to follow artists and to be alerted when they release new music or announce an upcoming show.
  • Highly personalized custom playlists.
  • Spotify Connect simplifies connecting to wireless speakers and AV receivers.

The Bad

  • Advertisements in the free service can be intrusive.

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.


Apple Music

album-view-apple-music
CNET

While it suffered from teething problems at the beginning, Apple Music has grown to become one of the most popular streaming services. It offers plenty of features and a wealth of discount options for families and students. There's also ton of curated playlists, many hand-crafted by musicians and tastemakers, but it still lacks the robust sharing options built into Spotify.

The Good

  • It combines your iTunes library with music you don't own, rounding out what you can play.
  • A combination of 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 iOS devices.
  • Has music locker via iTunes Match ($25, £22 or AU$35 a year).
  • Currently the only choice for Apple HomePod users who want to use voice control.

The Bad

  • As you'd expect, the Android app and experience isn't as smooth as the iOS one.
  • Doesn't work with old iPods (except iPod Touch).

Best for: Those who want to listen to albums and songs they've added to iTunes or use an Apple HomePod.


Tidal

Owned by hip-hop mogul Jay Z, Tidal is the only "major" streaming music service that offers lossless audio streaming with sound quality that is virtually identical to -- or better than -- CD. Tidal has offered exclusive content in the past from its superstar co-owners -- Beyonce's album "Lemonade" or Kanye West's "The Life of Pablo" -- but this trend has thankfully subsided.  However, sometimes albums are inexplicably missing and these include every Metallica album (Spotify exclusive) or Boards of Canada's seminal Music Has The Right To Children. If you're an audiophile, a fan of R&B or hip-hop, or a mix of both, then Tidal might appeal to you. 

The Good

  • High-fidelity music streams.
  • Lots of video content, including concert livestreams.
  • Offers occasional ticket presales.
  • Big focus on under-the-radar (predominantly hip-hop) artists.
  • Profiles and record reviews on every page.

The Bad

  • The mobile apps and web player aren't as straightforward as some others.
  • The catalog isn't as exhaustive as Spotify's.

Best for: Musically inclined purists who care deeply about sound quality and discovering new, up-and-coming artists.


Google Play Music

Though it's soon to be replaced by YouTube Music, Google Play Music works as a streaming-music service and a music locker. It allows you to store and stream your entire music library (up to 50,000 songs), as well as stream any of the 30 million songs in its catalog. Instead of playlists, well-curated radio stations are the standout feature of Play Music. Unlike playlists, which are finite and contain specific tracks, radio stations play endlessly and are updated often. 

The Good

  • This hybrid service seamlessly integrates your personal collection with the streaming catalog.
  • Monthly fee includes subscription to YouTube Music: commercial-free streaming on YouTube and YouTube Music.
  • Offers music locker service for free.

The Bad

  • The lack of a timeline for its replacement is frustrating.
  • The interface is less fun than competitors, particularly on desktop.

Best for: Google fans who want to blend the music they've purchased with streaming selections.


Amazon Music Unlimited

Amazon is a newcomer to the streaming music scene.

Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Amazon Music Unlimited is the "grown-up" version of Amazon Prime Music that Prime subscribers get for "free." It offers a greatly expanded catalog for an extra outlay per month. Rather than focusing on the cutting edge of music as some others here do, the service features recommended playlists and radio stations that are grouped around artists you've already listened to.

The Good

The Bad

  • 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 listed here (see chart below).
  • 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.


pandora
Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Pandora Premium

Now a fully fledged streaming service with the addition of the a la carte Premium and no-ads Plus tiers, Pandora also offers one of the most popular radio services in the US. As a result the company offers more flexibility than most competitors and is gaining in subscribers, even if it is behind in terms of overall catalog size.

The Good

  • The service enjoys 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.

The Bad

  • The size of the catalog isn't up the level of its competition's (last estimated at 2 million).
  • 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 compared to the others here.
  • Not available outside the US.

Best for: Pandora Premium is of most interest to existing Pandora users who want to be able to pick exactly what they listen to, but almost no one else.


Music streaming services compared


Amazon Music Unlimited Apple Music Google Play Music Pandora Spotify Tidal
Monthly fee Prime members: $7.99, £7.99, N/A; Non-Prime members: $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99; Alexa-only service: Free $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99 $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99 Plus: $4.99; Premium: $9.99 $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99, $12.99 with Hulu Premium: $9.99, £9.99, AU$14.99; HiFi: $19.99, £19.99, AU$23.99
Free option? Yes, with ads No Yes Yes, with ads Yes, with ads No
Free trial period 30 days 3 months 30 days 60 days 30 days 3 months







Music library size 50 million 50 million Over 40 million Millions 50 million 50 million
Maximum bitrate 256Kbps 256Kbps 320Kbps 192Kbps 320Kbps 1,411Kbps
Family sharing? Yes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 for up to 6 users Yes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 for up to 6 users Yes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 per month for up to 6 users Yes, $14.99 for up to 6 users Yes, $5, £5, AU$6 per month per additional user, up to 5 Yes, 50% off each additional account, up to 4
Student discount No Yes, Price varies by country No $4.99 (Premium) $4.99 (US only) Premium: $4.99, HiFi: $9.99 (US only)
US military discount No No No Yes No Yes
Offline listening Mobile and desktop Mobile only Mobile only Mobile only Mobile and desktop Mobile only
Radio stations Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Podcasts No No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Music videos No Yes No No Yes Yes
Music locker functionality No Yes Yes No No No

What else do you need to know?

Streaming music services provide a la carte listening, unlike streaming radio.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Streaming radio versus on-demand

This guide covers on-demand music streaming services, and for that reason, we've purposefully left out services that only play music in a radio format. Until last year this list excluded Pandora, but now that the company also offers a Premium tier, it's included here. Slacker RadioTuneIn and iHeartRadio, meanwhile, are services that play music stations 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 officially discontinued in 2018. Meanwhile, the Apple and Google services listed above still allow you to combine your personal music collection with the streaming catalog, so if you've invested money in digital music over the years, that money isn't wasted. Those so-called "music lockers" are available independently of the subscription services below, but also work in concert with them for subscribers of both. 

Music catalog sizes compared

The number of songs offered by a music service used to be one of the main differentiators, but most now offer 30 million songs or more. However, depending on your favored genre, some of them have 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 and Google Play Music offer. Apple Music is somewhere in the middle, offering a healthy mix of mainstream tunes and underground unknowns.

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Originally published several years ago, this list is regularly updated.