The Best Music Streaming Service, Based on What Matters to You

The Best Music Streaming Service, Based on What Matters to You

With prices for music streaming services rising lately, I thought I’d take a look at the top five tune-slinging platforms to answer the question of which one is best, once and for all. After diving deeply into various music streamers—comparing price tiers, song availability, features, options, vibes, and more—I have the answer: They’re all pretty much the same.

Differences among streaming services are subtle 

The point of a music streaming service is to be able to play the music you want, whenever you want, for a reasonable price—no big deal now, but a science-fiction scenario when I was young and spending my meagre wages on CDs.

All five services here—Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, Tidal, and Pandora—let you choose any song from a catalogue of around 100 million tracks and play it on your desktop, through your phone, or over bluetooth. They all let you download music; have different price tiers for different levels of service; and charge roughly the same amount each month (with the exception of Tidal’s more expensive top tier). Unlike movie streaming companies that compete based on exclusivity of content, you can listen to “Black Sabbath” from Black Sabbath’s album Black Sabbath on Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal, and it’s going to change your life no matter which service you pick.

They’re not identical, however. There are subtle differences between the top song services—the user interfaces are different, the music selection algorithms are different, etc—but the distinctions are small enough that it’s more useful to talk about what kind of person would like which service as opposed to which is “best.”

Spotify: The best streaming service for social people

Founded in Sweden in 2006 and launched in the US in 2011, Spotify is the largest and probably the best-known music streaming service on earth. Spotify’s more than half a billion users can listen to music, podcasts, radio, and audiobooks on their computers, phones, and just about any device that is capable of streaming. It’s that large audience that makes Spotify the best choice for people who want to connect with others. More subscribers means you can share your playlists more widely, create group collaboration playlists, see what your pals are listening to, share your year-end stats on Twitter and more. Other services have equivalents to most of these features, but try and share your Tidal playlist with someone and the advantage of a Spotify account will become obvious.

Some Spotify critics point to its lower quality playback as a downside to the service, but whether it’s actually worse is a matter of opinion.

Spotify’s stats

  • Price: Spotify’s single-user price premium tier is $US10.99 a month. It’s $US14.99 for two people, $US16.99 for up to six users, and $US5.99 a month for students. Spotify also offers an ad-supported “free” tier.
  • Selection: Over 100 million tracks
  • Music quality: Spotify’s premium tier of service plays AAC and Ogg Vorbis formats at up to 320kbit/s.

Apple Music: The best music streaming service if you’re on a budget

I can’t believe I’m saying any Apple product is the most budget conscious choice or the most no-frills option, but that’s how it is. Apple Music’s Voice membership is $US4.99 a month, about half the cost of Spotify, and for your five bucks, you can play whatever songs you’d like from Apple Music’s massive catalogue without commercial breaks. The catch: you can only use Siri to navigate. You can ask Siri (out loud or through “type to Siri’) to create radio stations or playlists based on songs or your mood and perform other basic functions, but you can’t create and edit a playlist, listen to music offline, listen on a non-Apple supported device, or get into higher quality playback. But if your attitude is “I just want to hear my songs,” Apple Music Voice is a steal at only five bucks a month.

Apple Music’s individual plan is much more robust and comparable to other premium tiers. It allows music downloads, lossless playback, and lets you play music from your iTunes library, including CDs you ripped in 2003. But Apple’s organization system for music has been frustrating since the early days of iTunes, and Apple Music continues the tradition.

  • Prices: Voice membership is $US4.99 a month. Apple Music’s Individual tier is $US10.99 a month. The family tier costs $US16.99, and the student option is $US5.99 a month.
  • Selection: Over 100 million tracks.
  • Highest quality playback: Apple Music streams AAC and ALAC formats at up to 192kHz.

Amazon Music Unlimited: The best music streaming service for students

If you’re in school, Amazon’s deals are amazing. Not only is Amazon Prime half-price after a 6-month free trial, Amazon Music Unlimited is only $.99 a month for full access to all the music and features of Amazon Music Unlimited. That’s 100 million songs, playlists, podcasts, recommendations, the whole shebang, for less than a buck.

If you’re not a student and you’re looking for a streaming music service, you’re probably already paying $US139 a year to Amazon for free shipping, so maybe you want to shave a buck off your monthly budget by paying $US10 a month for Music Unlimited instead of $US11 for Spotify or Apple Music. Or maybe it’s not enough to matter. I can’t put my finger on why, but if you care, Amazon Music Unlimited is the least cool music streaming service.

  • Prices: Amazon Music Unlimited’s base price is $US9.99 a month for Prime Members, $US10.99 for non-Prime members. The up-to-six profiles family plan is $US16.99 a month (with or without Prime). Amazon Prime’s student accounts are $.99 a month. (All these plans are separate from Amazon Music Prime, which is free for Prime members but has playback control restrictions and lower quality streaming.)
  • Selection: 100 million tracks
  • Highest quality streaming: Amazon says its Ultra HD is “better than CD quality.” It’s 24-bit, with a sample rate of up to 192kHz.

Tidal: The best streaming service for audiophiles (and Jay-Z fans)

I’ve avoided mentioning which streaming service has the best quality audio playback until now, because the discussion is so tedious. While music streamed from a phone line and played through a cheap bluetooth speaker sounds noticeably worse than a downloaded track played through decent monitors, when you get down to the difference in sonic quality between Amazon Music Unlimited’s “better than CD quality” lossless FLAC playback and Apple Music’s 24-bit/192 kHz lossless playback, you’re in “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” territory. (The stereo you’re using and how much weed you’ve smoked play a much bigger role anyway.) But there are people who get very angry if you say you can’t hear the difference. This is where Tidal comes in.

Since its birth in 2014, Tidal’s target market has been sophisticated audiophiles; dudes listening to Chick Corea on $US40,000 headphones. Whether its flagship “Master Quality Authenticated” audio coding standard actually sounds better than the competition is beside the point; some people only enjoy music if they believe it sounds better than everyone else’s music, and Tidal’s extra $US10 a month is a small price to pay for that satisfaction. To be fair, Tidal’s top tier service is $US19.99 a month, about twice as much as other services, so we’re not talking $US9000 speaker cables levels of excess here. Besides, being able to listen to the complete Jay-Z and Beyoncé catalogs is worth a measly 10 bucks a month, and that’s only possible on Tidal.

  • Price: Tidal’s Hi-Fi Plus tier is $US19.99 a month. Hi-Fi is $US10.99 a month. Family plan is $US16.99 a month. Students pay half price and military members get 40% off.
  • Selection: Over 100 million tracks
  • Highest quality playback: Tidal’s Master setting is typically 96kHz, 24-bit, but can go up to a 384kHz sampling rate, which I’m told is impressive.

Pandora: The best streaming service for music recommendation

Launched way back in 2000, Pandora is the original grandpa of music streaming service. It’s been eclipsed in terms of users and public recognition by its big brothers since the turn of the century, but Pandora is still around, swimming against the tide in 2023. Pandora doesn’t advertise the size of its catalogue, but it’s sophisticated “you like that? Well listen to this!” systems mean you’ll be able to find endless cool music you’ve never heard of even if there’s only a measley 80 million tracks or so available instead of 100 million.

Pandora began as a music recommendation engine, then it was an “internet radio only” service. While Pandora has had a $US10 a month “pick any song you want” option for a while now, if you’re adventurous, you can stick to the service’s roots and trust the choices of the $US5 tier where you can’t be specific, or just check out the free, ad-supported version for the best radio station you could possibly imagine, even with ads.

  • Price: Pandora’s single-user premium plan is $US9.99 a month with a $US14.99 family option and a student tier price of $US4.99. Pandora Plus is 4.99/month, and there is a free option.
  • Selection: Unknown
  • Highest quality playback: the maximum bitrate for Pandora Premium is 192kbps.


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