Back in the days of the iPod, the future of digital music looked like a more convenient, a la carte version of the past: customers could buy single tracks for relatively little money, but the paradigm was still about owning music that you then managed yourself. With the advent of smartphones and always-on connections, the streaming service reigns supreme. Now you can pay a monthly fee (or listen to advertising) for an all-you-can-eat selection of millions of songs.

But now that the concept has been around for a while, everyone and their dog seems to be making a streaming music service. Which one is right for you? That’s a complex question, actually. Since a lot of them share millions of songs in their libraries and similar free/paid splits, the difference depends a lot on intrinsic qualities and personal preference. So we’ve decided to break them down into some less conventional categories. Let’s have a look at the field.

The Best “No-Frills” Radio Service: Pandora

Pandora is one of the oldest streaming music providers around, and they’ve survived for over a decade by sticking to relatively simple principles and easy-to-use apps. The main “radio” interface is basically the same as it’s been since the service’s launch way back in 2004: start a station based on a single song or artist, give songs “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as they come in. After a few hours of listening, you have a radio station that’s tuned to the genre and artists you’ve selected.

Pandora has evolved, of course, especially when it comes to paid content—see below. Multiple stations per user and promotional music mixes from advertising partners keep things fresh. And the company has wisely made a point of putting an app on just about every possible tech ecosystem, including smart refrigerators. But its simplicity and direct focus on the music and nothing but the music have preserved its massive following, despite only being available in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

Free and Paid Options

The vast majority of Pandora’s users are on the free service tier, limited to six song “skips” per hour per station with fairly frequent commercial breaks. There are two paid tiers, however: Pandora Plus and Pandora Premium.

The Plus service is $5 a month, which gets you unlimited skip options, no commercials, the ability to replay songs, higher quality audio, and stations that can cache for offline playback. If you’re a big fan of the simple radio service it’s a nice set of perks. The $10 Pandora Premium option creates more of a total music subscription service, a la Spotify…which isn’t all that useful if all you’re using is the semi-randomized radio tools.

The Best Desktop and Social Music Service: Spotify

Spotify on the desktop is a lot like a full music manager program—the kind that isn’t really in vogue anymore (like iTunes). The only difference is that everything is online. And if you’re serious about crafting your own playlists or doing deep searches for specific artists and songs, it’s a great tool.

Spotify also seems to be the service that most effectively leverages music as a social experience. If that sounds a little too buzzwordy for you, I’ll put it this way: it’s easy to share individual songs and albums with friends through direct links or through Facebook. The desktop player includes a friends interface that lets you see what they’ve been listening to (assuming they have sharing enabled, of course). You can even make collaborative playlists with your friends.

There are plenty of Spotify apps to be had on all major platforms, but the mobile experience is limited to ad-supported radio on the free account, which is very constrained versus the wide-open desktop/web interface. The full interface can also be a bit intimidating for new users, especially on mobile.

Free and Paid Options

On Windows, macOS, and browsers like Chrome, there’s only one clear difference between the free version of Spotify and the paid version: ads. The $10-a-month Spotify Premium removes them from all music across its huge library. That’s a nice perk, but the real bonus is for mobile users: in addition to ad-free listening, they get access to the full Spotify library for playback any time, unlimited skips on Spotify’s radio stations, and the ability to download songs and albums for offline playback. Families of up to six can get access for $15 a month.

The Best Mobile Music Service and Music Uploader: Google Play Music/YouTube Red

Both Apple and Google have music services that tie into their branded smartphones and tablets, and which very roughly compete with the likes of Pandora and Spotify. Both are, in fact, offered on their competitor’s products: Apple Music can be downloaded on the Play Store and Google Play Music is on the App Store.

But Google wins out for two reasons. The first is something that should be appreciated by all those who’ve amassed a vast library of digital music: Google Play Music allows any user to upload up to 50,000 songs for free, available for remote playback on any mobile or desktop device. The songs can even be downloaded directly to smartphones or tablets for offline play—again, for free.

Scondly, a $10-a-month subscription to Google Play Music Unlimited also unlocks YouTube Red (and vice versa). Unlimited is more or less the same as other services, with a library of millions of stream-anywhere songs that can be downloaded for free, but YouTube Red offers the same perks via the dedicated YouTube Red app, plus ad-free viewing of nearly all YouTube videos, video downloads, and background listening on mobile devices. If you’re one of the sizable population of people who use YouTube as their primary means to consume music (or video, for that matter), it’s definitely worth considering.

Free and Paid Options

Google Play Music can be used for free with Pandora-style radio stations, plus the 50,000-song upload at no extra charge (something that Apple wants $25 a year for). $10 a month unlocks ad-free radio, millions of streaming and downloading songs, and YouTube Red’s features mentioned above. There’s also a family plan for $15 a month that allows up to six Google accounts access to all that premium content.

The Best Music Service for Audiophiles: Tidal

Ask any vinyl-spinning hi-fi fanatic and they’ll tell you that the MP3 era has permanently set the bar low for digital audio. But even the pickiest of consumers are being courted in the world of online streaming. Right now Deezer and Tidal are duking it out for the title of best high-quality streaking service. Tidal gets the nod, however, because Deezer’s Elite high-quality service isn’t available in all countries and on all devices—in the US, it’s only compatible with the pricey SONOS system.

Tidal, on the other hand, streams CD-quality music on Android, iOS, the web (only on the Chrome browser), and via downloaded clients on Windows and macOS. Its 25-million-strong library streams in the FLAC format, with 16-bit, 44.1kHz tracks streaming at over 1000 kilobits per second. If all that’s Greek to you, then don’t worry about it; the people who have spent extra on their headphones and speakers know what it means, and they’re the ones Tidal is trying to woo with its premium service.

Paid Options

And woo they must. Unlike most other streaming services, Tidal has no free tier, and the only paid option is a costly $20 a month. That gets you access to the desktop, web, and mobile apps, with unlimited ad-free streaming of all tracks and high-fidelity downloads. Since it’s also billed itself as something of a premium package, Tidal customers also have access to “exclusive” tracks, music videos, and concert tickets, along with celebrity playlists and import tools that allow them to bring playlists over from other services.

Honorable Mentions

These aren’t the only music streaming services out there, of course, but they are the best in our eyes. Some honorable mentions include:

  • Slacker: Slacker is a popular alternative that combines a lot of the features of the services above, but doesn’t excel in any one area. Dedicated users like the curated music stations, and the ad-free radio tier is fairly cheap at $4 a month.
  • Amazon Prime Music: If you’ve subscribed to Amazon Prime for free shipping and video, you also have access to the free tier of Amazon Prime Music. This includes two million tracks on mobile and web players, but unfortunately, the larger Unlimited library costs an additional $8 a month. (It is, however, the best way to get your personal music library playable on the Amazon Echo.)
  • Qobuz: This Tidal alternative offers the same “CD quality” sound as Tidal in more packages, including pricey one-time payments for lifetime access. It’s only available in Europe at the moment.

That should be more than enough to get you started, no matter what your needs are.

Image Credit: Will “Bongonian”/Flickr

Profile Photo for Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider is a veteran technology journalist with a decade of experience. He spent five years writing for Android Police and his work has appeared on Digital Trends and Lifehacker. He’s covered industry events like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Mobile World Congress in person.
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