It may not seem like it at first glance, but YouTube was always perfectly positioned to take over music streaming. You might already know that Google is the most popular search engine in the world, but not many people know that the second most popular search bar that people type things into is YouTube. Now that Google Play Music (RIP) has officially been turned into YouTube Music, it’s worth asking how it stacks up against some of the other most popular music streaming services. In this article we’re going to be comparing it specifically to Spotify to see which one is worth your money.

What are the differences between the free version of Spotify and YouTube Music?

While both Spotify and YouTube Music offer premium subscription plans, it isn’t required. Both services offer decent free tiers that let users use the service without needing to spend a dime. Of course, be prepared to be blasted with ads if you choose to go this route. Both Spotify and YouTube Music will play ads in between songs which can really get in the way of a good playlist. It isn’t just ads that get in the way either as both have other limitations to their free tiers. The first, and most important limitation when talking about a music streaming service is sound quality. If you’re on the free tier YouTube Music will stream at 128kb/s and Spotify maxes out at 160kb/s on mobile.

Pictured is an iPhone 11 Pro running YouTube Music next to a Pixel 3 running Spotify.

Spotify and YouTube Music both have their strength and weaknesses when it comes to UI design.

It’s true that neither of these services are known for their superior sound quality, but being able to choose something other than the bare minimum would be nice. Aside from the streaming quality, there are also limitations on functionality. If you’re not on a paid Spotify plan, it isn’t possible to search for and select individual songs that you want to listen to. Instead, you can only choose songs that are already in select playlists. Though it’s worth mentioning that in researching this I found that Spotify was letting me access certain premium features while on an unpaid plan for some reason. On Spotify, you also won’t be allowed to skip more than six times if you’re on a mobile, and you also can’t download music for offline listening. Neither of these limitations exist on YouTube Music.

The free version of YouTube Music also has some annoying limitations.

Before you go dancing off to use YouTube Music though, you should know that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The free version of YouTube Music also has notably annoying limitations. For example, if you’re on mobile you can’t leave the app to go do something else because then the the music will stop playing. So if you turn off the screen—it will also cut off the music. This isn’t a problem on desktop (you can just open up a new tab in your browser), but it’s really annoying if you’re using a smartphone.

What content do they offer?

A picture of the Google Pixel 3 held by a hand with the Spotify app open.

Spotify offers both music and podcasts side by side.

If you’re torn between Spotify and YouTube Music, this is the section that will most likely be the deciding factor for most. Both are primarily music streaming services but that isn’t all they offer. Let’s start with Spotify. The company is one of the most popular music streaming services in the world, so obviously they have a lot of music. The music library numbers in the tens of millions and in my usage they have almost every song I can think of readily available to listen to.

The company has also been making a huge push to dominate podcasts. Not only does it have almost all of the programs I regularly listen to, but Spotify has been dropping some serious cash to bring a number of exclusive podcasts to the service including Joe Rogan, Kim Kardashian, and Michelle Obama. True, you might not really care about what any of those people have to say, but you have to admit those are some big names. If Spotify is willing to spend that amount of cash just on a few podcasts then it’s clear they have big plans for this part of their business down the line. If you consume a lot of podcasts like I do, it’s something to be aware of.

Pictured is Spotify podcasts screen on iPhone 11 Pro on top of books

Spotify is making a huge push into podcasts.

While there are certainly plenty of podcasts that are uploaded to YouTube in video form, it’s by no means a priority of the service. Meanwhile, Spotify added video support to supplement their podcasts. So if you’re big into podcasts then Spotify is the clear winner here. That said, where Spotify falls short is where YouTube Music excels: songs that are off the beaten track. This includes covers, remixes, and any kind of live jam that a user might upload.

I also found some songs I had never even heard before.

While poking around YouTube Music, I not only found mixtapes from some of my favorite artists that aren’t available on Spotify (like this one) but I also found some songs I had never even heard before. For example: Blue Room by Chet Baker is one of my favorite jazz pieces, and I had no idea that there was a gorgeous acapella version until coming across it on YouTube Music. The same thing happened with this Frank Sinatra song that I was unable to find on Spotify or Apple Music.

Pictured is close-up of "song" toggle on YouTube Music in iOS

In YouTube Music you can toggle between the full video or just the audio.

It’s in these random finds that slip through the cracks of the major publishing deals Spotify signs where I find myself really enjoying using YouTube Music. As long as someone, somewhere uploads it the chances are you can listen to it. And if you can’t find a song anywhere on the platform you can also plug the gaps yourself by uploading your own personal library. If you were a Google Play Music subscriber that already did this, YouTube Music also has a handy tool to transfer it all over automatically so you don’t have to go through the entire process again. YouTube Music also takes advantage of its huge music video library. If you search for a song you can either let the video play or, if you want to save some data, hit the “song” toggle up top which will just serve you the audio. If all you really care about is song availability then it’s hard to beat what YouTube Music has to offer.

Is Spotify or YouTube Music better for music discovery?

Close-up shot of the recommended playlists on Spotify and YouTube Music on two phones on a magazine

Both services do a good job at recommending new music once they get to know your listening habits.

Listening to your own music library is all well and good, but eventually you’ll run out of things to listen to. That’s why music discovery is also very important. Both of these services use a mixture of algorithms and curated playlists to show you new artists and songs you might like. While YouTube Music isn’t bad at this, Spotify has been putting on a masterclass in algorithm-based music discovery for years, to the point where the Spotify Discover Weekly playlists have gone pseudo-viral as so many people find it extremely good at surfacing music they would like.

Spotify has been putting on a masterclass in algorithm-based music discovery for years.

YouTube Music has its own version of this called “You Mix,” which is an endless playlist of music that the algorithm thinks you’ll enjoy and it’s truly impressive. Once it got to know what kind of music I liked I rarely found myself skipping songs here. Basically whichever service you choose, you likely won’t be disappointed once the algorithm gets to know your listening habits.

Man holding iPhone 11 Pro with YouTube Music playing.

Just like regular YouTube, the strength in YouTube Music lies in its user-generated content.

Then there are the playlists offered by both services. In this aspect it’s safe to say that Spotify has the clear lead here just in terms of how many playlists are offered, but that’s mainly because they’ve had more time to make them. I’m sure YouTube Music will catch up in this aspect but as of right now I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve searched for an artist on Spotify and found a pre-made playlist with some of their most popular songs.

Pricing and plans

Data usage on smartphone next to cash.

Depending on how much you pay for data, it might be a good idea to save your favorite tunes for offline listening.

Pricing between the two services is almost identical. A subscription for an individual will run you $9.99 USD/month on both platforms and student plans are also both $4.99 USD/month. Then there’s the family plans which are also identically priced at $14.99 USD/month for up to six accounts. This is the point where things start to differ. Spotify recently added a Duo membership for two people to share that’s priced at $12.99 USD/month which works for couples.

Streaming ServiceFree Model AvailableBasic PlanPremium PlanHi-Res PlanFamily PlanStudent PlanMilitary Plan
Amazon Music HDNo-$12.99 with Prime
$14.99 without
Amazon Music UnlimitedNo-$7.99 with Prime
$9.99 without
Apple MusicYesRadio is free$9.99-$14.99$4.99-
DeezerYesFree with ads$9.99$14.99$14.99$4.99-
QobuzNo-$9.99$19.99/$24.99 monthly
$299 annually
SoundCloud Go/Go+Yes$4.99$9.99--$4.99 for premium-
SpotifyYesFree with ads$9.99-$14.99$4.99-
YouTube MusicYesFree with ads$9.99-$14.99$4.99-

Spotify occasionally has random promotions where you can also get Hulu added on for an extra $3 USD so it might be worth checking that out too if you want to bundle your music and video services together. YouTube Music also has their own version of a bundle, and I bet you can guess what video service gets bundled here. If you sign up for YouTube Premium ($12.99 USD/month) which lets you watch YouTube Videos ad-free you’ll get access to YouTube Music thrown in. So if you’re looking for which service is going to give you the best bang for your buck this is something to keep in mind.

Which has better sound quality, YouTube Music or Spotify?

Close-up of the YouTube Music interface,

The YouTube Music interface is a weird mashup of YouTube and Spotify.

As these are both music streaming services, it’s only right that we talk about the sound quality. As I mentioned above neither of these are known for their superior sound quality. For that you’ll need to look at Tidal, Amazon Music HD, or Deezer. That’s not to say that either of these services sound bad, they’re fine.

Streaming ServiceMax streaming qualitySupported Formats
Qobuz24bit / 192kHzAIFF, ALAC, FLAC, WAV, WMA Lossless
Amazon Music HD24bit /192kHzFLAC
Tidal HiFi24bit / 96kHzAAC, ALAC, FLAC
Deezer HiFi16bit / 44.1kHzFLAC
Google Play Music320kbpsAAC, ALAC, FLAC, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WMA
Deezer Premium320kbpsMP3
Spotify Premium320kbpsAAC, Ogg Vorbis
Apple Music256kbpsAAC
YouTube Music Premium256kbpsAAC
SoundCloud Go+256kbpsAAC
Slacker Radio320kbpsMP3
Spotify Free160kbpsAAC
Deezer Free128kbpsMP3

Choosing the highest quality on Spotify will get you a stream of 320kb/s using AAC, while YouTube Music maxes out at 256 kb/s and also uses AAC. Technically Spotify wins out here, but it’s worth mentioning though that the actual number fluctuates depending on your connection so you might be kicked down to a lower quality if you have a poor connection. Plus, unless you have some seriously good equipment to A/B test on you likely won’t be able to hear the minute differences here.

Other features you should pay attention to

I’ve gone over some of the more important similarities and differences between the two services but there are plenty of other smaller differences that might matter to you as well. For example, the design of the UI might be enough to draw you to one or the other but that’s something you’re going to have to try out for yourself. I can say in my experience neither service is what I’d call intuitive. Searching on Spotify rarely gives me what I want without a few extra clicks and while the filters on the YouTube Music search is cool, I’m sure there is a better way to display the results than a just a list.

Shot of man holding Spotify with available devices listed to play music from

Spotify and YouTube Music both have the option to cast, but they’re not compatible with everything.

Each service also has its own Cast functionality so if you want to play your music on something like your surround sound system at home you can do so just by clicking on the Google Cast button or on the Spotify Connect in their respective apps. In my experience I found that I prefer to use Spotify Connect as it doesn’t forget that it’s connected to someway halfway through a song like Google Cast constantly does. But again, which one is best for you really depends on your particular setup. Some receivers and speakers might be compatible with just one or the other (or neither). So make sure to check whether the service you choose plays nice with your existing hardware.

So which one is right for you?

Close-up shot of the YouTube Music and Spotify appi icons on iPhone

Both apps are available on desktop and mobile.

I usually recommend people to just go with Spotify, as I find it the safer bet for most people. Unless you have very particular preferences, chances are that you’ll be happy with Spotify. But if you can’t tell by now, picking between Spotify and YouTube Music really depends on what you’re looking for in a streaming service. If you value podcasts then you’re probably better off using Spotify, but in my time using YouTube Music I found that it excels at more of the random finds that make music fun in the first place. They’re also both priced similarly so you’re not missing out on much there, and while Spotify technically has a higher bitrate you likely won’t be able to tell the difference unless you find a particularly bad upload of a song on YouTube Music.

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