HolidayBuyer's Guide

Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music Unlimited and Google Play Music: Which music streaming app is right for you?

With so many options, it can be hard or overwhelming to pick one. We've spotlighted the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Forget CDs and MP3s -- streaming music is where it's at.

A streaming music service lets you pay a flat monthly fee to play unlimited tracks. For a music nerd like me, that's like having a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. You don't actually own the music, so if you cancel your subscription, you're screwed, because you no longer have access to that music. But -- except for some pesky high-profile exclusives -- you also don't have to shell out money every time you want to hear a new song or album.

If you're interested in trying out streaming music, or want to switch services, there are many options out there with varying similarities and differences. This guide details the top music streaming services, plus lesser-known offerings, to help you decide which one is worth your money.

Nor sure you even want to stream music? Check out CNET's guide to the six things to consider before you sign up for the full pros and cons of using these services.

Editors' note, October 20, 2016: This story has been updated with details of Amazon Music Unlimited, and modified from an earlier version written by Sarah Mitroff.


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

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

Before we get to the details, let's establish some ground rules:

Radio silence

This guide covers on-demand music streaming services, and for that reason, I've purposefully left out services that only play music in a radio format. That includes Pandora , Slacker Radio, TuneIn and iHeartRadio . Those services play music stations based around a theme or artist, without you explicitly picking tracks. You can read all about those in CNET's guide to Internet radio services.

Music lockers: Your MP3s in the cloud

The Apple, Amazon and Google services listed below each 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. For a rundown of the details, check out CNET's guide to music lockers.

A note on music catalogs

Each music streaming service on this list offers at least 10 million songs to listen to, however, some have a more robust catalog that include many under-the-radar, indie artists. If you're musically inclined, constantly on the hunt for your favorite new band, a streaming service like Spotify or Tidal will be more up your alley. Those 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.


Amazon is a newcomer to the streaming music scene.

Photo by Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Amazon Music

Amazon Music Unlimited is the newest kid on the block. It looks to follow in Tidal and Apple Music's footsteps, signing an exclusive contract to release Garth Brooks's latest record. Brooks doesn't have the same hip factor as Drake or Beyonce, but neither does Amazon Music Unlimited. Rather than having a big focus on helping subscribers stay on the cutting-edge of music, the service features recommended playlists and radio stations that are grouped around artists you've already listened to.

Where it excels

  • Cheapest per month -- if an Amazon Prime member
  • Lyrics automatically pop up on the "now playing" screen
  • Offers cheaper plans for Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Amazon Tap (but restricts listening to those devices).
  • Has music locker, and allows you to "mix and match" music in locker, streaming catalog and Prime Music catalog into one playlist

Where it falls flat

  • 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)

Best for: Amazon Prime members who want to save a few bucks, and mix their existing music collection with a subscription content.


Apple Music got a redesign in iOS 10 with a simpler layout.

Photo by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Apple Music

Apple Music has an edge over the competition for one big reason: exclusive releases. It was the only place to stream Adele, Drake, Chance The Rapper and Frank Ocean's newest albums upon release and it remains the only service that streams Taylor Swift's "1989" record. The service also offers a ton of playlists, many hand-crafted by musicians and tastemakers, however it lacks the robust sharing options built into Spotify.

Where it excels

  • 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

Where it falls flat

  • Despite being overhauled in iOS 10, the app's design remains confusing, making it frustrating to use
  • Android app not compatible with all devices
  • 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. Anyone who wants to listen to the newest, hottest music from the world's biggest musicians.


Google Play Music is heavy on the radio stations.

Photo by Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco

Google Play 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. What makes these stations unique from other services is that you can view the entire track list and save it as a playlist.

Where it excels

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

Where it falls flat

  • It's not great for discovering new releases because it emphasizes stations and recommended music.
  • The design of the mobile apps for Android and iOS is a bit messy and overwhelming.

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


Spotify is all about playlists.

Photo by Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco

Spotify

Spotify was one of the first streaming services to crop up and it's arguably the most well-known. It's highly lauded for its Discover Weekly playlist, a custom-made two-hour long batch of recommended music that's curated to your specific taste (generated fresh each week) has garnered a great reputation amongst music fans. Thanks to its Facebook integration, it's also great for sharing music. The abilities to send a track/album, collaborate on playlists with friends or lurk what your Facebook friends are listening to are all built into the Spotify app.

Where it excels

  • 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 to be alerted when they release new music or announce an upcoming show
  • Highly personalized custom playlists

Where it falls flat

  • Advertisements in the free service can be intrusive.
  • With a free account, you can only shuffle songs in the mobile apps.

Best for: People who love to make, browse and share playlists for any scenario. Also, anyone who wants to stream unlimited music for free.


Love Beyonce? Try Tidal.

Photo by Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco

Tidal

Launched by hip-hop mogul Jay Z, Tidal is the only streaming music service that offers high-fidelity streaming. Its superior sound quality is similar to what you would get on CDs and other physical media formats. Like Apple Music, Tidal has a leg up on other services with exclusives. The difference is that the exclusive content on Tidal is usually from one of its superstar co-owners. This year alone Tidal was the exclusive home to stream -- at no extra cost beyond the monthly subscription fee -- Beyonce's stunning visual album "Lemonade," Rihanna's highly anticipated new record and Kanye West's controversial "living album," "The Life of Pablo." As a fan of those artists, I've found myself resubscribing to Tidal, just to listen to the newest albums.

Where it excels

  • High-fidelity music streams
  • Lots of video content, including concert livestreams
  • Exclusive songs and playlists from big names like Beyonce, Kanye West and Jay Z
  • Full Prince and Neil Young discographies (unavailable on other services)
  • Offers occasional ticket pre-sales
  • Big focus on under-the-radar artists

Where it falls flat

  • The mobile apps and Web player are both cluttered with too much information on the screen, making them hard to use.
  • The mobile apps have bugs and stability issues.

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


Streaming services compared

Spotify Apple Music Amazon Music Unlimited Tidal Google Play Music
Monthly fee $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99 $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99 $7.99 for Amazon Prime members, $9.99 for non-Prime members, $3.99 for Echo-only service Premium: $9.99, £9.99, AU$14.99; HiFi: $19.99, £19.99, AU$23.99 $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99
Free option? Yes, with ads No No No Yes
Free trial period 30 days 3 months 30 days 30 days 30 days
Advertised music library size More than 30 million 30 million "tens of millions" 25 million 30 million
Maximum bitrate 320Kbps 256Kbps 256Kbps 1,411Kbps 320Kbps
Family sharing? Yes, $5, £5, AU$6 per month per additional user, up to 5 Yes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 for up to 6 users Coming soon Yes, 50% off each additional account, up to 4 Yes, $14.99, £14.99, AU$17.99 per month for up to 6 users
Student discount $4.99 (US only) Yes, Price varies by country No Premium: $4.99, HiFi: $9.99 (US only) No
Military discount No No No Yes No
Offline listening Mobile and desktop Mobile only Mobile and desktop Mobile only Mobile only
Radio stations Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Podcasts Yes No No No Yes
Music videos Yes Yes No Yes No
Music locker functionality No Yes Yes No Yes

Editors' note (October 21, 2016, 2:52 p.m. PT): Corrected price of Amazon Echo-only service, and updated the characterization of the size of Amazon's catalog.

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