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Amazon breaks out streaming music in a duet with Echo

The Spotify-style service packs a price few can beat: full-fledged streaming tunes for $4 a month, if Echo is the only way you play.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET
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Amazon wants to bring music home again.

The e-commerce giant on Wednesday launched a new subscription streaming music service, Amazon Music Unlimited, with three levels to pay.

Like Spotify, Apple Music and virtually every other option out there, Amazon Music Unlimited charges consumers $10 a month for an ad-free, on-demand catalog of tens of millions of tracks. People who are already paying for Amazon's Prime membership program get a discounted rate of $8 a month, or $79 a year, to unlock the new full service on top of their $99 annual cost for Prime.

But if you're willing to make Amazon's Echo speakers your only source for listening, you can get the service for $4 a month, the cheapest option out there for commercial-free, fully on-demand tunes.

It's Amazon's bet that its Echo can help the company dominate music streaming in the home in a voice-command future, letting rivals duke it out to win control of mobile listening. The lower offer is another way to hook consumers into the idea of using the Echo, a speaker with access to Amazon's voice assistant, Alexa. The product has been a surprise hit, but faces fresh competition from Google Home.

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Amazon Music Unlimited puts the Echo speaker front and center.

Chris Monroe/CNET

In the last year, consumers have started shifting to all-you-can-eat music subscriptions in droves, but leading services like Spotify and Apple Music are absorbed in their race to win on the phone, where most of today's subscription listening happens. The cheap "for Echo" price and an emphasis on voice commands and are what set Amazon Music Unlimited apart.

Taking song requests

The launch of the service is paired with new ways to ask Alexa to play songs. You can ask Alexa to play the latest single by a favorite artist or to kick off a mix of genre- or mood-based tracks from a specific decade or year. You can also get Alexa to join in a game of Name That Tune by saying "Alexa, play that song that goes..." and then rattling off whatever lyrics you actually remember from the ditty that's stuck in the back of your head.

Or you can simply say "Alexa, play music." Amazon said that Alexa's machine learning is designed to become more conversational and return more personalized options as you use it.

Otherwise, the service has the same basic trappings as all other subscription services. It has a catalog of tens of millions of songs, and it uses hand-curated playlists and personalized stations to try to surface music that suits individual customer taste.

The "for Echo" monthly rate works with Amazon's $180 Echo, as well as $50 Amazon Echo Dot or $130 Amazon Tap, other Alexa-powered speakers. People with one of those three devices can start a 30-day free trial just by asking Alexa to start one.

Amazon already offered a service called Prime Music that was automatically included for all subscribers of Prime, best-known for its free two-day shipping. But the service had a limited catalog and didn't sport the best user experience. For the launch of Music Unlimited, Amazon built a cleaner, simpler mobile app for the new service as well as for Prime Music. Other than that, Prime Music, which has a pared-down catalog of a few million tracks, will continue to operate essentially unchanged.

The $8 and $10 Unlimited subscriptions offer a one-month free trial, but you'll have to actually use your thumbs and fingers to get it started. Drag, huh?

Kicking off in the US, Amazon Music Unlimited also will be available this year for customers in the UK, Germany and Austria. (UK prices have yet to be announced, but the US subscription costs convert to around £8, or £6.50 if you have Prime.)

Wednesday's announcement is similar to Amazon's move earlier this year to break out its Netflix-like streaming video service into a standalone subscription, except that Amazon Music Unlimited is a distinct service separate from Prime Music.

Amazon has never stated how many people listen to Prime Music, nor how many Prime members it has specifically. It says millions of members already stream music through the limited Prime Music service every month. Spotify has 40 million paying members, while Apple Music has 17 million.

Amazon expands into subscription music...and meat? (CNET Update)