Like CDs before it, MP3s are becoming obsolete. Today, streaming is king.
With a music streaming service, instead of purchasing a track or album, you pay a flat monthly fee to play unlimited tracks that you don’t actually own. The upside is that you don’t have shell out money every time you want to hear a new song, but the downside is if you cancel your subscription, you no longer have access to that music. You’ll also need an Internet connection to get your jams.
If you’re ready to take the plunge with streaming, or want to switch from what you use now, there are copious options. With numerous similarities between them, including price, it’s hard to tell which one is the best choice for you. This guide details the top music streaming services, plus lesser-known offerings, to help you decide which one is worth your money.
This guide covers on-demand music streaming services, and for that reason, I’ve purposefully left out services that only play music in a radio format. That includes Pandora, iTunes Radio, Slacker Radio,TuneIn and iHeartRadio. Those services play music stations based around a theme or artist, without you explicitly picking tracks.
Many of the services listed below do have radio features that lets you put your music on cruise control, if you want the best of both worlds.
Also, this guide does not include digital music storage lockers, like iTunes Match or Amazon Cloud Player. For a rundown of those services, check out CNET’s guide to music lockers.
|Spotify||Rdio||Rhapsody (US only)||Tidal||Google Play Music||Beats Music (US only)|
|Monthly fee||$9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99||Web only: $4.99, £4.99, AU$5.99 Unlimited: $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99||$4.99 for UnRadio, $9.99 for Premium||Premium: $9.99, £9.99, AU$14.99 HiFi: $19.99, £19.99, AU$23.99||9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99||$9.99|
|Free option?||Yes, with ads||Yes, with ads||No||No||Yes||No|
|Free trial period||30 days||30 days||30 days||30 days||30 days||14 days|
|Advertised music library size||More than 30 million||35 million||More than 35 million songs||25 million||30 million||More than 20 million|
|Family sharing?||Yes, $5, £5, AU$6 per month per additional user||Yes, $5, £5, AU$6 per month per additional user||Yes, up to three devices on one account||No||No||No|
|App availabilty||Windows, Mac, Playstation 3 and up, Android, iOS, Windows Phone||Windows, Mac, Roku, Android, iOS, Windows Phone||Windows, Xbox 360, Android, iOS, Windows Phone||Android and iOS||Android and iOS||Android, iOS and Windows Phone|
Though selection varies from service to service, all of the top streaming options feature both classic tunes and new releases spanning popular genres such as pop, rock, soul and country. Many source their music from the biggest record labels, including Sony, Universal and EMI, so you won’t find a huge disparity in the catalogs of each service.
However, some artists, including the Beatles and AC/DC, are missing from the services mentioned below because the labels or artists which own the rights to that music haven’t made it available for streaming. In recent years, Taylor Swift and other artists have also elected to pull some or all of their music from streaming catalogs. Before you commit to a service, sign up for a free trial to check out the selection and see if it has what you want.
Arguably the most well-known streaming service, Spotify focuses on curation and social sharing, helping you find new music and connect with your friends about it.
Every day Spotify’s homepage in the desktop and mobile apps shows off the newest releases, plus themed playlists for different genres or moods, or activities such as cardio workout or pop ballads. That page changes throughout the day, highlighting new tunes. You can also browse the top music charts for your location and other parts of the world.
There are several social features, the most prominent of which lets you follow your Facebook friends to see the music they listen to. Your friends can share playlists and you can collaborate on playlists too. Spotify also lets you follow artists to see what music they like and be alerted when they release a new album or announce an upcoming show.
Another key social feature is Spotify’s substantial community of users who build playlists that span all kinds of themes, from movie soundtracks and music festivals to party and road trip tunes. Many playlist authors update their selections frequently and you can follow a playlist to get updates.
Beyond streaming from its 30 million-plus catalog, Spotify can also play music files from your computer and add those tracks to playlists. In the desktop app, you select which sources Spotify should draw from (the Music folder on your hard drive, iTunes, etc.) and the app will automatically pull those songs into the service. Your local files will show up in Spotify, but you cannot sync them for offline listening.
Spotify is one of the few services that has a free plan, but you don’t get many features. On the desktop app, you can browse and play songs on-demand, but you’ll hear ads between tracks. With the mobile apps, not only will you hear ads, you also can only play music in Shuffle mode. You pick an artist or playlist and Spotify shuffles the music without letting you pick what comes next or queue up songs.
The $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99 monthly Premium subscription has the most features, with zero ads, music streaming up to 320Kbps and offline listening on desktop and mobile for when you don’t have a connection. You can listen to any song, any time, with no restrictions.
Spotify also has family plans for up to five people. Each additional user saves 50 percent off the Premium monthly fee. Two people would pay $15 total, three people would pay $20 total and so on. Everyone can stream music at once and every user has their own profile to keep their recommendations and playlists to themselves.
Where it excels
- Large catalog of user-built playlists.
- Comprehensive search for artists, albums and playlists.
- It’s easy to build your own playlists and sync them for offline listening.
- User-friendly apps that are updated frequently and have enough features without being overwhelming.
Where it falls flat
- Advertisements in the free service can be intrusive.
- Mobile apps only let you shuffle songs with a free account.
Best for: People who love to browse playlists for any scenario and want to spend time carefully crafting their own. Also, anyone who wants to stream unlimited music for free.
While Spotify is jam-packed with features, Rdio keeps it simple with a streamlined design. It has all of the new releases and popular tracks you want, but Rdio cares more about what your friends are listening to than the general public.
When you sign up, you’re encouraged to connect your social accounts and then follow your fellow Rdio friends. From there, the service builds recommendations based on what’s popular in your network of friends and the users and artists you follow.
Rdio is also big on personalization, carefully creating stations (more on that below) that match your listening tastes over time. You can also save your favorite songs and albums to your personal collection, and Rdio pulls from that to get a better sense of your musical preferences. You can have Rdio only play songs you’ve saved or let it suggest new music you may not have heard.
Instead of playlists, Rdio emphasizes stations, which play a continuous stream of songs you don’t pick, like a radio station. Rdio creates a personalized station that changes as you listen, and you can create your own stations based on songs, artists, genres and more. For each station, you can choose if you want the tracks to stay close to a theme or an artist’s catalog, or get more adventurous, pulling in more obscure choices. You can also thumbs up and thumbs down tracks to fine-tune your stations.
If you’re more into playlists, you can create those too, and search other playlists from users in the Rdio community. Playlists can be downloaded for offline listening too, while stations need an Internet connection to play.
With a free account, you get unlimited, ad-free access to play most tracks for free on the Rdio website and desktop apps, for up to 6 months. After that, you’ll only be able to listen to radio stations in the service, with a limit of six song skips per hour. On mobile if you have a free account, you can only play stations, not on-demand music.
Rdio’s Unlimited account costs $9.99, £9.99 or AU$11.99 per month, and gets you unlimited streaming access in mobile apps and offline listening. Rdio also has a family plan for $5, £5 or AU$6 per user per month, up to five people.
Where it excels
- Minimalist design doesn’t get in the way when all you want to do is play music.
- Simple features for organizing your favorite music.
- Radio stations that expose you to new songs.
Where it falls flat
- The free plan gets less enticing after 6 months, when skip limits and ads are added.
- With just the free plan, the mobile app won’t let you play on-demand music.
Best for: Minimalists who want a no-fuss streaming experience.
Rhapsody is one of the oldest music companies on this list, and because of that, has a large crowd of fans. The company has two streaming plans as of 2015: Premium and UnRadio. Premium gets you on-demand streaming, while UnRadio simple lets you listen to Internet radio stations, like Pandora. I’ll be covering Premium here, since UnRadio is built into that subscription.
What sets Rhapsody apart is its straightforward design that highlights today’s popular music. In the mobile apps especially, the homepage offers up featured playlists, new releases and genres. In just a few taps, you can find an album or playlist and start listening, without digging around.
Rhapsody actively tries to learn your music tastes when you sign up, asking for your favorite genres and artists in the mobile apps. From there, it builds playlists around those artists and genres, and creates new ones based on your listening habits.
While Rhapsody doesn’t have a desktop app for Mac, there’s one for Windows and a Web player for any operating system. The mobile apps, available for every platform, best the desktop and Web options with a more modern, visually appealing design. The apps are also rich with recommendations and playlists, while the Web player is a bit bare. However, the Web player has one redeeming feature — for every band you look up, it shows who influenced them and their contemporaries. It’s a great way to find new artists you may have never heard.
A neat extra tool in the mobile apps is TrackMatch. Like Shazam, it listens to music to help you identify the song, and it’s accurate when it can identify the track.
Another helpful feature is The Mixer, which is essentially your play queue of all of the songs from a playlist or album you’re listening to. You can manually drag albums or tracks into the Mixer to customize it and then create a new playlist with one button. The Mixer is only available on the Web and in the Windows app. On the mobile apps, you can add songs to the Queue to play them later or create new playlists.
Rhapsody is not available in the UK, but its sister service Napster is. It costs £9.99 per month and offers similar streaming features to Rhapsody with a catalog of 30 million songs.
Where it excels
- Available nearly everywhere, including most mobile platforms, some MP3 players, select carinfotainment systems and many home speaker systems.
- The experience across platforms feels familiar, with a no-fuss design and straightforward features.
Where it falls flat
- The desktop app feels disorganized and is hard to navigate.
- The Web player is bare bones and doesn’t offer many recommendations.
Best for: Those who want simple music streaming, on-point recommendations and fewer bells and whistles than others.
Launched by hip-hop mogul Jay Z, Tidal is a newcomer streaming service focusing on high-fidelity music and HD music videos. It cost $19.99, £19.99, AU$23.99 around $10 more than most of its competitors. The less expensive Premium subscription is just $9.99, £9.99, AU$14.99 but doesn’t include hi-fi streaming.
With both plans, you get access to 25 million tracks and 75,000 music videos from artists big and small. You’ll find playlists from Beyonce and Coldplay, behind-the-scenes videos from Madonna, and new, exclusive tracks.
Tidal differentiates itself from other services with high-fidelity streaming, which promises superior sound quality, like you would get on CDs and other physical media formats. Tidal has a maximum streamingbitrate of 1,411Kbps with lossless FLAC files. In contrast, the other services in this guide max out at a bitrate of 320Kbps.
Tidal is also big on helping you to discover new, often exclusive, music thanks to its partnerships with artists. The homepage of the Web player and mobile apps show off new and featured tracks, albums and videos, which include music videos and behind-the-scenes content. Though Tidal promises crystal-clear videos, I wasn’t impressed with the playback quality, both on the Web and on the mobile apps using a fast Wi-Fi connection. I’d rather head to YouTube or Vevo for music videos instead.
Like Spotify, you can browse playlists by genre and mood or activity. You can also save favorite songs, artists, albums and playlists to your music library. Playlists and entire albums can be downloaded for offline listening within the app, but you can’t download individual tracks. You can also control the sound quality for downloaded music, from normal to high-fidelity.
The service launched initially in October 2014, then quietly disappeared. It relaunched in April 2015 and is still working out its kinks. Most noticeably, the mobile apps have bugs and some stability problems. However, Tidal has promise as a music service for those with more discerning tastes, both in music selection and streaming quality.
Where it excels
- High-fidelity music streams, which aren’t available on many other top services.
- Strong ties to the music industry for exclusive songs and playlists.
Where it falls flat
- The mobile apps and Web player are both cluttered with too much information on the screen, making them hard to use.
- The mobile apps have bugs and stability issues.
Best for: Music purists who care deeply about sound quality over other features.
Google Play Music
Not to be left out of the streaming music world, Google built Play Music, a music service with a twist. With it, you can stream music from its 30-million strong library, which includes new releases and classic hits. And Play Music works as a music locker too, where you can store and stream your entire music library (up to 50,000 songs) you’ve accumulated over the years, imported from CDs and purchased from Google Play, iTunes and other online stores.
Play Music seamlessly blends your personal collection with the streaming catalog. You can access all of the albums you’ve uploaded, streaming them over the Internet, and download them for offline listening. You can also build playlists of uploaded songs and streaming titles, and then listen to it offline. This setup lets you add music to Play Music that you cannot stream from any other service. For instance, I have most of The Beatles discography in my account and I could stream those tracks alongside a brand-new album from Rihanna.
Well-curated radio stations are the standout feature of Play Music. Unlike playlists, which are finite and contain specific tracks, radio stations play endlessly and are updated often. What makes these stations unique from other services is that you can view the entire track list and save it as a playlist.
You can create a radio station based on a single song, an artist, an album or even an entire genre, and then thumbs up and thumbs down tracks to personalize it. Google also pays close attention to your listening history to recommend stations, and you can pick stations by mood or activities such as powering through work or relaxing. There’s even an “I’m feeling lucky” option where Google creates a station it thinks you’ll like.
Play Music also has playlists which contain a specific number of tracks. You can build a playlist on your own, selecting tracks you want, or you can pick from any of the existing options. Finally, Google creates “auto playlists” of your most recently added tracks (ones you’ve purchased or uploaded) and tracks you’ve thumbs upped.
Google music service also comes with YouTube Music Key. This feature is still in beta and lets you watch music videos for the current song playing on the Web and in the mobile apps.
Play Music offers two plans. The free Standard option lets you upload 50,000 of your own music files and stream them anywhere, with offline listening. The paid option costs $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99 per month and lets you stream music from Google’s catalog, along with your own tunes and listen to stations.
Where it excels
- This hybrid service seamlessly integrates your personal collection with the streaming catalog.
- You can download songs from your personal collection to listen offline.
Where it falls flat
- It’s not great for discovering new releases because it emphasizes stations and recommended music.
- The design of the mobile apps for Android and iOS is a bit messy and overwhelming.
Best for: Google fans who want to blend the music they’ve purchased with streaming selections.
Apple purchased Beats Music in 2014, and there’s been much speculation that it will either create a new service or integrate Beats into iTunes. Expect to hear news on that front at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June 2015, but in the meantime, Beats Music still works just as it did when the app was released.
The service is keen on getting to know your music tastes and asks you to identify your favorite genres and artists when you sign up. It then uses those insights to recommend albums and playlists, which you’ll see on the home screen.
Beats also uses your personal tastes for its unique feature called The Sentence. With it, the service crafts a playlist for specific scenarios you input. To get started, you plug in where you are, what you’re doing and what you want to do from the pre-populated options. Beats then uses your choices and listening history to build you a playlist.
Though you can browse for music, check out new releases and get curated picks from the Beats staff, those features are less prominent. Instead, the service focuses a lot on playlists, most of which are created by Beats staff, artists and brands such as Rolling Stone, Target and SoulCycle.
There are no desktop apps, so on your computer you must use the Web player, which is bare-bones to say the least. Common features like adding songs to a playlist are hidden away in menus and you cannot control the playback quality from the Web. The mobile apps for Android, iOS and Windows Phone have many more features for finding and streaming music.
Beats Music is only available in the United States.
Where it excels
- Hip design that’s unlike other streaming services, with lots of color and bold graphics.
- The Sentence is a cool feature that gets you listening to music quickly, without picking out an artist or album.
Where it falls flat
- Beats’ endless supply of playlists, recommendations and content, can get in the way if you just want to listen to your tried-and-true favorites.
Best for: Those who want to discover new music, or get served tunes they’ll probably like, without hunting for them.
Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody and others might be the top music streaming options, but they are hardly the only ones. Plenty of other companies offer some form of streaming services too, so there’s an option for everyone’s needs.
From Microsoft, Xbox Music costs $9.99, £8.99, AU$$11.99 per month, lets you stream music and upload your own music files to your account. There are mobile and desktop apps, and you can also listen to music on your Xbox with the service. You can purchase tracks from Xbox Music, or listen from its catalog of 18 million songs.
Another option is Grooveshark, a streaming service with a strong community where you can share songs and have conversations with other users about them. You don’t even need to sign up for an account to use Grooveshark, but if you do and you fork over the $9 (available for £6.06 or AU$11.58) monthly fee for VIP access, you get unlimited streaming, no ads and access to the mobile and desktop apps.
Already have Amazon Prime? Then you can use Amazon Prime Music right now for free. The service works much like other streaming subscriptions — you can listen to entire albums, playlists or individual tracks on the Web, desktop and mobile apps for Android, iOS and Kindle Fire devices.