As fun as it trying out different headphones and speakers, it isn’t the reason the audio community exists. However good your favorite speakers or headphones might be, you don’t love them. They’re just a tool to help you experience what really matters: music. Thanks to the internet and streaming services, it’s now easier than ever to get access to literally tens of millions of songs. More music than you could listen to in a lifetime. But with so many streaming options and so much music, how do you know which one is right for you? We did all the research and picked a few of the best, but we also go over and compare some of the other alternatives as well.
Editor’s note: this list of the best streaming services was updated June 23, 2020, to include a section about why you should trust SoundGuys, and to address the difference between YouTube Music Premium and YouTube Premium.
For most people, Spotify is the way to go
Spotify is one of the biggest and most prominent music streaming services available right now, and that’s one of the reasons it’s best for the majority of people. Aside from having a massive library of music to choose they also excel at helping you discover new music thanks to a combination of curated playlists by people, and smart algorithms that learn your preferences over time. One of their main features is the Discover Weekly playlist, which will suggest a playlist of new songs every week that the algorithm thinks you might like. On top of that, it’s also easy to share tracks between friends or to social media, which is part of the reason why we use Spotify links when reviewing products.
Features aside, Spotify is also available in a number of places and has a free model that was recently changed to include a number of curated playlists you can choose from. Now as far as sound quality goes, Spotify isn’t the leader of the pack by any means. Free users will max out at 160kbps, but if you’re a paid premium user you can up that to 320kb/s. It also uses a file format called Ogg Vorbis, which is an open-source alternative to the MP3 format. If that means absolutely nothing to you don’t worry, we made a graphic explaining which formats have better quality that you can see down below. For now, just know that the Spotify way of doing isn’t that bad for the majority of listeners. Now if you want the best sound quality possible, that’s where Qobuz comes in.
While it hasn’t made its way to the US yet, Spotify Premium Duo allows two listeners to pay $2 less per month than the family plan rate. We expect to see it make its way stateside soon, but currently it’s available in the EU and Canada.
Qobuz Sublime+ has the best quality, but you’re going to pay
Qobuz might not have the biggest user base, but it does have the best sound quality streaming. The problem is availability. The company is based in France and has only recently found its way into other countries like the UK and now the U.S. It has a few different plans available depending on what you want and how you want to pay for it. The base $9.99 per month plan limits you to 320 kb/s MP3 files which, let’s be honest, isn’t going to blow you away. A step up from there gets you to the Hi-Fi option for $19.99 per month which allows for CD-quality lossless streaming at 16-bit/44.1Hz FLAC files.
Amazon Music HDFull Review
Then the last two options are one-time payments for one year of access. So basically yearly payments if you plan on keeping the service forever. There’s the Sublime option which gets you the same Hi-Fi CD-Quality streaming but also gives you access to download Hi-Res 24-bit MP3 files from their music library. You could also opt for the annual plan if you’re balling out and really care about quality, but it’s going to cost you $299 per year.
If you want a little bit of everything, go with YouTube Music
The history of Google Play Music (GPM) is one of rebranding and confusing crossovers with YouTube. But it looks like the new YouTube Music is one of the better options out there (though it does have its downsides). YouTube Music keeps a number of the useful features people loved about Google Play Music—including a fairly large library of music you can stream from—and the option to upload your own songs to a personal library. YouTube Music is also compatible with compressed lossy files like MP3 as well as lossless files like FLAC if you’re uploading music, but the service lets you stream MP3 from its massive library. Google also does a pretty good job at helping you to discover new music with playlists based on moods and genres. It isn’t as personalized as what you might get from Spotify, but it’s constantly getting better and their playlists are still pretty good at the moment. If you pay for YouTube Music Premium, you can play music with your phone screen locked as well as download music, something not allowed with the free, ad-enabled version of YouTube Music.
YouTube MusicFull Review
If you want ad-free YouTube videos on top of ad-free music, we’d recommend getting YouTube Premium rather than YouTube Music Premium. You can download any video directly to your device, whereas YouTube Music Premium limits download functionality to songs and music videos. Another great feature is background play whereby you no longer need to remain in the native YouTube app for a video to continue. Instead, by exiting the app, a small window is overlaid in the corner of your device’s screen. And, because it’s Google, it’s also easy to get whether you’re on iOS, Android, or just in a browser.
YouTube Premium demands $11.99/mo ($6.99/mo for students). If you’re an avid YouTube consumer, it makes sense to shell out the extra $2/mo for YouTube Premium. The free version of YouTube with ads still exists, of course.
If you care about listening to music first, go with Apple Music
This is mainly a thing for anyone who listens to popular music like Frank Ocean or Drake. Apple Music has plenty of deals with artists and record labels, which usually results in an artists’ newest album being exclusive to the platform for a set amount of time. So if you wanted to stream Views by Drake when it was first released, you needed Apple Music. As far as quality goes Apple Music uses the AAC which streams at 256 kb/s. Like YouTube Music, you can also add up to 100,000 songs from your own library and stream them on the go.
Apple MusicFull Review
Otherwise, you had to wait for it to reach other platforms like Spotify and Google Play Music. The trend of companies owning exclusive streaming rights does tend to be slowing down and is less common, but I still find albums on Apple Music slightly ahead of other streaming services by a few hours at least. I’m not sure why that’s the case and the albums this happens with are few and far between, but it’s still something to be aware of.
The best bang for your buck is Tidal
But wait: a hi-fi subscription to Tidal is $19.99/month isn’t it? That’s twice as expensive as Spotify, YouTube Music, and Apple Music—so how is that a good value? Because for the price, you get access to a large library of high-quality FLAC files that are ready to stream. The Hi-Fi subscription also gets you 50,000 Master-quality songs through the desktop application. This is achieved by compressing the files with MQA technology (Master Quality Authenticated). All you need to know here is that it’s a way, way better way of compressing music than MP3. If you want a wide variety of music at high-quality sound it’s hard to beat, unless you plan on dishing out $299 annually for Qobuz plan.
But it’s not just the sound quality that makes Tidal worth the money. They also have something called Tidal X which is a series of live events specifically for subscribers. Perfectly mixed studio albums are great, but there’s something about live performances that still attracts crowds of people to random street performers. Tidal X are live shows that are exclusively for Tidal subscribers. If you’re not a subscriber, you can’t get into the venue. And the shows are usually in more intimate venues to begin with. It’s a cool twist on a streaming service because not only do you get an app that lets you listen to good quality music, but you also get some live performances thrown in for free. Well not really for free since you’re still paying for the monthly service, but you get the point.
Additionally, Tidal joins Deezer and Amazon Music HD in the Sony 360 Reality Audio rollout. While it’ll be a while before it hits primetime, Sony’s new 3D-audio feature will work on just about any set of headphones out there, so be sure to check out our impressions below:
What else you should keep in mind
|Streaming Service||Free Model Available||Basic Plan||Premium Plan||Hi-Res Plan||Family Plan||Student Plan||Military Plan|
|Amazon Music HD||No||-||$12.99 with Prime|
|Amazon Music Unlimited||No||-||$7.99 with Prime|
|Apple Music||Yes||Radio is free||$9.99||-||$14.99||$4.99||-|
|Deezer||Yes||Free with ads||$9.99||$14.99||$14.99||$4.99||-|
|SoundCloud Go/Go+||Yes||$4.99||$9.99||-||-||$4.99 for premium||-|
|Spotify||Yes||Free with ads||$9.99||-||$14.99||$4.99||-|
|YouTube Music||Yes||Free with ads||$9.99||-||$14.99||$4.99||-|
Even more streaming services
For starters, these aren’t the only streaming services out there. These are just the best. There are also some others like Pandora, SoundCloud, Deezer, and Amazon Music HD, just to name a few. We included these services in the comparison charts, but they all fall short in one way or another. Except for Deezer, that one came very close to being on the list, but alas, we limited our choices to five. That isn’t to say that the rest of these services are bad, but they’re a little more niche and specialized than the ones we chose.
For example, SoundCloud does have an on-demand service now called SoundCloud Go+, but their premium music library isn’t the biggest and a lot of what’s available is user-uploaded content. Again that’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just specialized. There’s plenty of amazing independent musicians uploading great music every day, but discovering those artists is a hassle and through streaming quality isn’t the worst out of anything we looked at it also isn’t the best.
What about Google Play Music?
It was good. Really good. In fact, it was so good, even some of our staff stubbornly use it even though it’s going to die any day now. However, it’s got a few fatal flaws when it comes to listening that most probably won’t want to put up with if you’re looking for the “best” streaming service. Namely, while it is capable of playing back user-uploaded content, it is incapable of maintaining the original bitrate/sample rate and instead converts to the usual 320kbps if you’re uploading FLAC or WAV files. This cannot be changed. No matter what, you’re stuck at your normal listening quality or worse, signal strength depending.
Beyond that Google Play Music was an excellent music streaming platform if you want to be able to upload your own music, and not think too much about janitoring your music library or playlists. Unfortunately, it’s on life support, and will be succeeded by YouTube Music.
|Streaming Service||Max Mobile Quality (kb/s)||Max Desktop Quality(kb/s)||Supported Formats|
|Amazon Music HD||320||3,730||FLAC|
|Tidal||1,411||1,411||FLAC, ALAC, AAC|
|Google Play Music||320||320||MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, or ALAC|
So when it comes to audio formats it’s hard to really know what means what, especially if this is your first time hearing about such things. What’s the difference between MP3 and FLAC? What does kb/s even mean? You should definitely read our primer on the subject before putting too much stock into the numbers above.
MP3 is a compressed or “lossy” file and uses clever tricks to delete information that humans shouldn’t be able to hear. It does this with algorithms that delete bits of data at, for example, really high frequencies. It also deletes frequencies that are right next to each other since the human brain can’t differentiate between them. By deleting this information that’s technically inaudible, it’s able to make the overall file much smaller which is perfect for streaming. But it’s still deleting data. The benefits of MP3 are all in its size. The files are so small that you won’t need super fast internet speeds to stream your music.
But that convenience can sacrifice quality. If you want the full quality file with no data cut out, that’s where lossless files like FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and WAV ( or Waveform Audio File Format) come into play. The problem is these are larger files, so it isn’t really ideal for mobile. But ideal doesn’t mean impossible. There are still services like Tidal that let you stream uncompressed files, and the desktop versions of Tidal, Qobuz Sublime+, and Deezer can stream extremely high bitrates.
You don’t have to pay
If you don’t want to spend any money, it might be good to hear that you don’t have to. Most streaming services have a free model that lets you listen to music with varying levels of control. Just be prepared for ads. Lots of them. They have to make money somehow right? Some services, like Spotify and Pandora, just play a station on shuffle with ads dispersed in between. Spotify even beefed up their free model recently to include a few of their most popular playlists.
With more music that you could listen to in a lifetime, finding songs that you like can be difficult. So part of what makes streaming companies so successful is the ease of which their users can find new music that they actually like. With some services, like Spotify and Pandora, for example, you can start a “radio”. So after picking listening to a song that you picked, the service will continue to play songs that are by similar artists or in a similar genre. Other services, like Apple Music, take it a step further with a more traditional approach. One of Apple Music’s main features is live internet radio with popular DJ’s doing what they do best: playing a mix of new and popular music.
Of course, the radio function in any of these services isn’t always enough to find new music, so we recommend you bust out of your comfort zones and hunt for new music using more than just an automated feature. We feel like it’s really the only way to ensure you get the most out of your subscription.
Personal Music Lockers
But what if you already have a massive collection of digital music that you’re proud of? With some services like Spotify, Pandora, and Tidal, you’re out of luck. But others let you bring that music with you wherever you go thanks to Music Lockers. YouTube Music and Apple Music will let you upload tens of thousands of songs for free to their cloud servers. So if you ever get the urge to listen to something that isn’t included in their massive libraries you can. It’s worth noting that Amazon used to have this option but got rid of it. Luckily, for YouTube Music and Apple Music subscribers there isn’t an end in sight.
Why you should trust SoundGuys
Each writer at SoundGuys has accumulated years of experience reporting on the consumer audio market, and our staff adheres to a strict ethics policy. We never use ads or sponsored content on the website at a time when doing so is the norm. SoundGuys’ survival depends solely on readers enjoying their purchases. We pride ourselves on transparently outlining objective facts, while accounting for the subjective experience to contextualize an audio product’s performance. When we do misspeak, we correct and own up to it.
Frequently Asked Questions
We didn't forget Qobuz.
As fellow Canadians, Chris and Sam can commiserate. But it looks like Deezer actually has the HiFi listening you're looking for. They also have a library of 360 Reality Audio tracks too, if you have the Sony app: https://www.deezer.com/en/offers/hifi