Streaming music has become the norm over recent years and it’s now one of the best ways to discover new artists and dive back into old favourites – but are you getting the best experience for your money? After all, there are many services out there vying for your hard-earned cash, and you may be thinking of changing things up. So what are the best music streaming services available right now? And what are the differences between them?
While there’s a great deal of common ground shared between the various streaming music services, with the vast majority of new album releases hitting at roughly the same time, there can be big contrasts when you scrutinise usability, plan prices and audio quality. So which music streaming service will suit you best? Read on to find out.
Best music streaming services: The Louder Choice
We’ll forgive you for thinking that there’s not that much between the various music streaming services. After all, they all pull from the same vast catalogues and offer more or less the same levels of access. Those about to rock, will not be left wanting.
But when you filter the best music streaming services based on quality and price, clear favourites begin to emerge. Qobuz is our streaming service of choice right now, as it offers the sharpest combination of high quality audio (CD and upwards), general usability and value – it’s also cheaper than rival high-performer Tidal.
Running Qobuz a close second is Amazon Music HD which features Dolby Atmos for users of their popular Echo Studio smart speaker, although it does lose a few points for its generally rubbish user interface.
If high-res audio isn’t a prerequisite, perhaps because you use streaming services on the go, but listen to vinyl and CDs at home, then Spotify remains a service worth sticking with thanks to its ease of use and gazillion playlists.
Best music streaming services: Product guide
Qobuz stands alone in only offering subscribers high quality streams. Lossy MP3 has been given the boot, in favour of a single monthly hi-res streaming subscription plan using the moniker Studio Premier.
All albums are streamed either in lossless CD-quality or hi-res (variable from 24-bit/44.1 kHz up to 192 kHz). And if you like the idea of owning music files, Qobuz also offers its high-end Sublime+ plan, which throws in a discount on hi-res downloads to keep.
The catalogue isn’t as large as its main competitors, so inevitably that means less choice, but it had no problem with our band searches. Kvelertak was quickly found, with CD quality downloads ready to buy. Septicflesh was also comprehensively represented.
Comparable audio quality is available from Amazon Music HD, Tidal and Apple Music but they can’t match Qobuz for usability and value.
The newest streamer on the block, Amazon already offers more high quality streaming options than any other service, it’s also available on its own FireTV streaming media platform complete with album art and scrolling lyrics (for that Friday night Karaoke singalong with your housemates). It’s also temptingly affordable, with its HD tier an umbrella for all those advanced sonic treats.
Where it falls down is a user interface that goes out of its way to obfuscate. Despite knowing that we have zero interest in ‘hot singles’ (not literally, obviously) it insists on serving up Rita Ora and Little Mix front and centre. We love you Amazon Music, but you’re really testing our patience!
Still, if you can put up with its foibles, consider it good value – and remember, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you’ll have access to Amazon Prime Music for free. That gives you access to two million tracks and a number of playlists in standard resolution and is a good place to start.
The original premium quality streaming service, Tidal boasts a range of options if you’re prepared to pay for its top tier HiFi Plus, including better than CD 24-bit/96kHz High Res (some stuff even 24-bit/192kHz) MQA encoded Tidal Masters. We’re talking Michelin-starred audio quality here – and the 360° Reality Audio is out of this world.
But with Jay-Z at the helm, you might wonder if there’s enough rock to roll with. The good news is with a 80-million-track catalogue we think it’s a fair bet your mosh pit will never run dry. The more we used Tidal, the more we got used to its audio quality, but it is increasingly looking like a rather expensive option. If you want to keep some cash in your pocket, the basic stream comes in at 320kbps, which is in line with Spotify, Google Music and others.
Tidal are also looking to update the way artists are paid through streaming, and recently announced their Direct Artist Payout plan. This initiative will see 10% of your HiFi Plus subscription going directly to the artists you listen to most. Another scheme which is being rolled out in early 2022 is Fan-Centered Royalties. This will be based on the streaming activity of fans versus “the industry accepted method of aggregating streams and allocating it to the most popular artists,” according to Tidal. So while you might be paying top dollar for a HiFi Plus sub, the benefits to artists can’t be ignored.
With the recent additions of Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos and lossless audio, Apple Music has become one of the top choices when it comes to streaming music – especially is you’re rocking a set of AirPods (3rd gen), AirPods Pro or AirPods Max.
Audio fed through Apple’s in-house cans can be an amazing experience and even if some albums don’t boast Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos, there are a lot of older albums now with lossless audio which really does make a difference.
And although you’ll miss out on some of the finer points if you use Apple Music through a non-Apple brand, you can still be assured of quality audio that leaves some rivals in their dust.
Add in Apple’s user-friendly interface and choice of 90 millions songs, 30,000 playlists and digital lyric sheets, and you have a streaming service which is most definitely worth considering. And as if that wasn’t enough, Apple are regularly adding albums in Spacial Audio, so there’s always something new to warm your lugs.
It should also be noted that in August 2021, classical streaming service Primephonic joined forces with Apple Music to widen their appeal. The move saw the closure of Primephonic.
Let’s not beat about the bush. The world’s biggest streaming service is beginning to show its age. With streaming quality locked at 320kbps (great when we all went MP3, not so much now), it doesn’t have the chops to compete with bigger bit-bucket rivals.
Conversely, it remains ridiculously usable. With an unmatched catalogue, no shortage of rock, metal, prog and alternative artists, and decent personalisation, you’ll not miss out on any new releases, and with so many hours invested in personal playlists, most regulars will probably be prepared to stick with it.
Spotify also leads the field when it comes to integration with other technology platforms, from Sonos to Sky Q. Not the best, quality wise then, but highly likeable – and the recent integration of podcasts is a big plus and more than earns Spotify its place on this best music streaming services round-up.
We really hope that Spotify consider upping their sound quality soon and make it available at a competitive price.
A good option if quality is uppermost, Deezer also uses high quality MQA encoding, although its streams are currently limited to CD clarity. The service also supports 360 Reality Audio, although this requires a separate app. 360 Reality Audio works with any stereo headphones, creating an immersive surround experience, and is quite a hoot.
What we really like about Deezer is its personalisation and curation talents. It offers metal and rock strands, and clearly signposts new releases that might otherwise have gone unheard.
Helpfully, you can try before you buy, as Deezer also allows you to listen for free.
Best music streaming services: Buying advice
If you want to hear every riff, backbeat and guttural gargle of your favourite bands, then a music subscription plan offering some level of high-res audio (24-bit upwards) definitely warrants investigation.
A high-res audio plan also makes sense if you stream music at home through your hi-fi system or headphones, rather than just for use with headphones while commuting. High-res audio always rewards those with high spec home systems.
Of course, cutting edge streaming isn’t just about sonic clarity, it’s about usability. To test the various services we put each catalogue under the microscope. It’s a racing certainty that you’ll find the likes of Kiss and Nirvana pretty much everywhere, but how do these services fare when it comes to more esoteric choices?
To check their metal credentials we went looking for Norwegian metal outfit Kvelertak, and Greek symphonic metal band Septicflesh, certain we’d find some failings. But with one notable example, we didn’t. While there are some differences in catalogue depth, we couldn’t catch them out.
Far more significant, it turns out, were their discovery and curation tools. Let’s take a closer look at the best music streaming services.