Best music streaming services 2018
While digital music downloads are on the decline, music streaming services are soaring in popularity, not least because Apple and Amazon now both have them. Streaming services let you pay a small fee each month, or even get the music for free if you can put up with advertising (Spotify & Deezer), and get access to huge music libraries to listen to whenever and wherever you fancy.
With so many competing services available, it can be tricky to decide which one to use. Here, we put Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, Amazon Music and Apple Music head-to-head to see how they compare.
Note that YouTube Music Key no longer operates. Instead, Google has YouTube Music Premium (free to Google Play Music subscribers or $9.99 per month), a similar service that will let you download ad-free videos and music, but it's available only in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Korea for now. Find out more about YouTube Music Premium here.
How much does a music streaming service cost?
Spotify and Deezer each offer free, ad-supported versions in addition to paid versions, while Tidal, Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited subscriptions are all paid.
Amazon Prime Music (a smaller selection of around 2 million songs) is 'free' as it comes as part of an £79/USD$99 Amazon Prime membership.
With the free version of Spotify, you'll get access to the entire library on mobile, tablet and computer, but you'll hear ads regularly between tracks. Plus, there are lots of limitations. For example, you'll only be able to listen to a lower audio quality, you can't download anything to listen offline or use the service via an Amazon Echo, Google Home, Sonos speaker or other smart home devices.
Upgrading to the £9.99/$9.99 per month Premium Spotify subscription will let you download music to listen to offline, and you won't hear any ads between tracks for uninterrupted listening. Spotify currently offers a two-month free trial of the Premium version, so you can see whether you think it's worth the money before you begin coughing up cash.
Meanwhile, Deezer's free version is not quite as good as the free version of Spotify, though you now get access to a limited version of the service on mobile or tablet, in addition to the web. It also has ads, and delivers a lower audio quality like the free version of Spotify.
If you're interested in getting access to Amazon Prime Music, you'll need to sign up to become an Amazon Prime member. It costs £79/$99 per year which equates to just £6.50/$8.25 per month, and for that price you also get access to Amazon Prime Instant Video, next-day delivery on eligible items purchased from Amazon, cloud storage for your photos and kindle perks. So overall, it's a pretty good deal!
If you have a Prime account and want the 40m tracks in Music Unlimited you can pay an additional £7.99/$7,99 per month, a discount compared to the standard price of £9.99/$9.99 a month.
If you're part of a large family, Amazon also offers an Amazon Music Unlimited Family subscription plan that gives full access to six people for £14.99/$14.99 per month even if you're not on Prime, or £149/$149 per year fro Prime members. Click here for full details.
Amazon offers a free trial of Prime, and it's well worth trying. You can sign up to the free trial here. It also offers a 30-day free trial of Music Unlimited, too.
Apple offers a free version of Apple Music but it's really, really limited. You can view the Connect social feature but you won't be able to comment, but aside from that there's not much else available to you unless you pay the £9.99/$9.99 per month subscription fee.
The good news is that you'll get a long, three-month trial of Apple Music to help you discover whether it's right for you. It’s a similar story with Google Play Music too - £9.99/$9.99 per month for access to its 35m-strong library with a three-month free trial to see what it has to offer.
Tidal is the most expensive of the seven services, with no free option available. For Tidal Premium with Normal and High sound quality and HD music videos, you'll pay £9.99/$9.99 per month. For Tidal HiFi, which offers lossless High Fidelity sound quality, it's £19.99/$19.99 per month. Both offer 30-day free trials.
This table shows at a glance how the services compare:
|Service||Base monthly cost||Library size||Ads||Offline listening|
|Amazon Prime Music||Included with Prime||2m||No||Yes|
|Amazon Music Unlimited||£9.99/$9.99 (£3.99/$3.99 per Echo)||40m||No||Yes|
The most important element of a music streaming service is the music, right? So we'll start by comparing the music libraries of Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play Music, Amazon Prime Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, Apple Music. Each has millions of songs available to listen to – and in the case of some services, there are also videos.
Spotify has more than 30 million songs in its library, which reaches 58 countries, while Deezer has 40 million songs that reach more than 180 countries. The number of songs available in each country varies, so it's likely that the reason for the higher song-count in Deezer's library is local music not available for the UK market.
Tidal has 25 million songs in its library and 75,000 music videos, and is currently available in 31 countries.
Like Spotify, Apple Music also offers 30 million songs, though there are 45 million in the iTunes Library itself so 15 million of those are unavailable to stream. Apple Music is the only streaming service to have won Taylor Swift over so far, exclusively offering her bestselling latest album 1989.
Apple loses out to Google by 5m songs though, as Google Play Music currently boasts a library of 35 million tracks across 58 countries. Deezer seems to present some extras for some artists we searched for, particularly offering live albums that rivals seemed to lack.
As for Tidal, which is owned by Jay-Z and co-owned or associated with many of Jay-Z's big name friends, you'll find exclusive content from artists including Beyonce, Rihanna, Madonna, Alicia Keyes, Usher and more. See also: What is Tidal?
Amazon Prime Music only offers little more than two million tracks, which sounds like a lot but when you compare it with 30 million you'll realise there's going to be a lot missing.
Several of the artists we requested, most of which are very well known, weren't on Prime Music, but we do know that Amazon is adding to its list all the time. Those looking for a more extensive library can sign up to Music Unlimited, which offers a vast library of 40 million songs.
More songs are being added to all of these services regularly, so if there's something missing from the library that you were hoping to listen to, chances are it'll appear at some point in the near future, but we don't recommend holding your breath.
You'll be able to add the songs you find and like to your own playlists and favourites if you choose to in all of the services.
You might be surprised to hear that Apple Music has launched on Android as well as iOS devices, and you'll find Android and iOS apps for each of the other services too. They'll all work on the web and some are available with downloadable desktop apps for both Windows and Mac.
It's worth noting that Amazon’s Music Unlimited service is also available via the company’s Echo and Echo Dot speakers, and can be controlled via the virtual assistant Alexa. The interesting part is that Echo owners have the option to subscribe to Music Unlimited for £3.99 / US$3.99 per month, but they can only use that subscription on a single Echo or Echo Dot.
That means you can't use the multi-room audio feature, nor can you request any song from any of your Echo devices.
Design and user interface
One of the big differences between the seven streaming services we're comparing here is the design and user interface, and we think we prefer Deezer overall.
We like Deezer's light, clear and simple design across both the web/desktop versions of the service and the mobile/tablet versions, and think it's easier to navigate than the dark, quite complex interfaces of Spotify, Tidal and Amazon Prime Music, and the cluttered Apple Music interface.
When we first began using Tidal after long-term Spotify use, we were surprised to see just how much the web player looks like Spotify, right down to the playlist icons and the layout.
Amazon’s Prime Music/Music Unlimited is laid out differently to its rivals, featuring a design akin to the style of the Amazon Prime Video service. We found that we were able to get stuck in immediately Amazon Prime Music and Deezer (which are particularly simple to navigate as there's not many ways to browse and discover music, which is not exactly a good thing).
If you're using the mobile app, you'll get to use Alexa as she's now baked in and no longer just on Amazon's Echo and Fire devices. That means you can tap a button and ask her to play a specific song, album, genre or playlist.
Google Play Music offers a familiar interface, especially for those that use Google’s Play Store on Android as it’s laid out in the same way. It’s much more colourful than its rivals, and offers a relatively easy-to-use experience with many, if not all functions, available within a click or two.
Spotify, Tidal and particularly Apple Music took us a bit longer to figure out, although it’s worth mentioning that Apple Music’s recent redesign has made it much easier to use. Once we had figured each out, however, all seven services became equally enjoyable to use.
Another big appeal of music streaming services is the discovery features. Music lovers are always looking for something new to listen to, and Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Prime Music, Music Unlimited, Google Play Music and Apple Music can all offer up recommendations for their users.
Deezer has a cool feature called Hear This, a music feed that's personalised for you. It shows you new albums and tracks from artists you listen to or add to your favourites, as well as Deezer picks based on your listening habits and playlists created by users with similar music tastes to you, so you'll never run out of tracks to listen to.
We prefer Hear This to Spotify's 'Discover' feature, which we found to be a bit hit and miss. Plus, Spotify doesn't recommend playlists in the Discover section, just artists, albums and individual tracks.
Reasonably new to Spotify, though, is Discover Weekly, which presents a personalised, 2-hour-long playlist of the hottest tracks it thinks you'll love every week. We also like Spotify's Now section, which offers up recommendations based on the time of day and day of the week.
Apple Music offers a similar feature in its For You discovery section, which offers up playlists, individual tracks and artists, and timely content for you to enjoy.
It takes a while for Apple Music to understand what you like and dislike, but the more you use it the more you'll find it gets to know you. And its New section shows you what's hot for other Apple Music users, and also provides you with curated playlists based on moods, industry experts and genre gurus.
Spotify's Browse section is similar to Apple's New section, and has a much easier-to-use interface. You'll be offered an overview, top lists, genres and moods, new releases and news. The genres and moods feature is particularly good, offering playlists that fall under categories like "Focus" for revision sessions or "Chill" when you're having a relaxing evening in.
Deezer's 'Explore' offering is similar to Spotify's Browse, but doesn't have quite as many options to help you find what you might be looking for.
Amazon Prime Music bases its recommendations on your purchase history and reviews on Amazon, so you might need to spend some time on this, too, particularly if you buy a lot of gifts from Amazon for other people with different music tastes to you. It’s a similar story with Music Unlimited, but with over 40m songs available, it should start to offer personalised content a little faster than its free-to-use counterpart.
Deezer offers up 'Similar Artists' for each artist you search for, too, much like Spotify does with its 'Related Artists' tabs. On Apple Music, you'll see 'You May Also Like' at the bottom of any album page for new artist recommendations.
Amazon offers similar functionality, displaying artists/albums that other users have listened to after listening to the song you’re playing in a section along the right-hand side of the music player app (on the web player, anyway!).
Google offers the “Listen Now” feature showcasing curated music and playlists available for streaming by its members based on music streamed via the service – much like with Apple Music. It also allows you to automatically create a playlist based on a song using Instant Mix, which should aid with music discovery.
YouTube Music Premium is also available as part of a Google Play Music subscription, offering remixes, live performances and more that you're unlikely to find elsewhere.
Tidal offers something slightly different called TIDAL Rising, where the company showcases new songs from relatively unknown artists from around the world. There’s also a What’s New section to showcase recently added music, but that’s about it.
There's playlists, which have a pre-set list of tracks tailored to a particular mood or genre, but aside from that it's featured tracks that'll be the same for everyone.
Tidal does offer a range of playlists to suit genres and moods, but there aren't as many choices as you'll find in Spotify or Apple Music. There's only 'What's New' (shown below), which we didn't find as useful.
Deezer, Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Google Play Music, Amazon Prime Music and Amazon Music Unlimited all offer 'radio' services in addition to the music streaming features.
You'll find themed radio channels, partner radio channels and artist radio channels in Deezer, and lots of different genres available to choose from. The artist channels, for example, intelligently pick songs from the artist you've selected and similar or related artists. You'll get a limited amount of skips in the Radio feature on Deezer if you're using the free version, though.
Spotify's radio feature is very similar to Deezer's, offering up Artist Radio for the artists you like in the same way as its rival. There are also lots of genre stations to choose from. Spotify doesn't limit the amount of skips you're allowed on each channel, though, so if you don't like a song that's playing you'll be able to skip right ahead to the next one, or the next one and so on.
Apple Music also offers radio, providing custom radio stations based on music/albums you like. However, unlike other services, Apple Music also has an actual radio station - Beats 1 - which broadcasts online from around the world. Apple uses DJs in the US, UK and more to cover the various topics and styles of music that its audience is interested in, with the station being exclusive to Apple Music.
As of January 2016, Amazon has also added a radio feature to its Music services. Users can listen to ad-free playlists based on an artist or a genre. Give songs you like a thumbs up and anything you're not so keen on a thumbs down to help improve the personalisation.
Tidal and Google Play Music have a radio function for artists or individual tracks in a very similar way, so aside from Apple Music's Beats 1 Radio, there's really not much in the way of radio that sets these services apart from one another.
Offline listening downloads
Helpfully, all of the music-streaming services listed have offline listening options. Spotify Premium subscribers get the ability to download music and listen offline in high-quality, limited to 3,333 tracks that'll be available offline for up to 30 days.
You can sync albums and playlists to your device in Deezer Premium+ for listening to offline, too.
And in Tidal, the Offline Mode lets you save music on your devices to listen to offline. It's available in both subscription plans, as there is no free version available. There's no offline mode for Mac or PC, though.
Apple Music's paid-for option also offers offline listening - as long as you've got space on your device there doesn't seem to be a limit, aside from a device limit of 10, which is plenty.
And finally, both Amazon Prime Music and Music Unlimited lets you download songs and albums that you've added to your music library for offline playback.
But what about Google? Google Music allows you to download as many tracks as you want for offline listening, but with an extra bonus.
Google Play Music also allows user to upload up to 50,000 of their own songs to be made available in-app across all devices, allowing users with existing music libraries to join the music streaming club without having to start again.
With YouTube Music Premium (included with Google Play Music) you'll also be able to download music from YouTube, and listen to it in the background.
Most of these music streaming services also offer some extra features that we've not yet covered, and these features differ between them.
We love Spotify's 'On Tour' feature, which means you'll know if an artist you've searched for is playing a concert in your country any time soon. There is also a merchandise feature in Spotify, meaning you can find T-shirts, badges, mugs and more from your favourite bands and musicians.
Social integration with Facebook is present across both Spotify and Deezer, allowing you to see what your friends are listening to. In this instance, Spotify has a one up on Deezer thanks to its bigger listener base, which makes it more likely that more of your friends will be subscribers.
Tidal also allows you to connect with Facebook, but simply to let you share what you're listening to with your friends directly on Facebook, rather than bringing what your friends are listening to into the app for you to instantly hear.
Apple Music's social element is a bit different. It's called Connect, and only artists can post there. It's designed to let artists share exclusive videos, photos and more, which fans can then like, share or comment on. You can also share playlists, albums and songs to social media, but that’s about it.
Both Spotify and Deezer have apps available to bring extra functionality to the service. Deezer's App Studio has more than 100 apps for anything from lyrics to chord extraction, while Spotify also has apps available in its App Finder feature on the desktop. The apps available are very similar here too.
The big selling point for Tidal, and one of the only things that sets it apart from its cheaper rivals at the moment, is the ability to listen to high-fidelity, lossless tracks. This essentially means that you'll be getting CD-quality sound rather than the compressed quality of an MP3.
For the audiophiles among you, Tidal's quality offering are broken down into Normal, High and HiFi. Normal is AAC+ 96kbps, High is AAC 320 Kbps (which is what you'll get if you sign up to Spotify's Premium subscription or Deezer's Premium+), and HiFi, which means you'll get 16-bit/44.1 KHz 1411Kb/sec FLAC files.
It's worth noting, though, that without good headphones or a high-end hi-fi system you're not going to get the most out of Tidal's HiFI offering. Find out which headphones are the best available in our 20 best headphones article.
Deezer actually offers a lossless option, too, but only for Sonos customers. It's called Deezer Elite, and you should get an email offering an upgrade if you start using Deezer with your Sonos speaker system. Find out more here.
Apple Music offers a maximum of 256Kbps AAC, while Amazon Prime Music/Music Unlimited seems to vary depending on what you want to listen to.
Compatibility with speaker systems varies across all five of these services too, so it's worth investigating how well each will work with the speakers you've got at home.
Additional music streaming social media integration: Muzeit
There's also a pretty cool app for social integration that works across music streaming platforms and connects with social networks like Facebook. It collates what you and your friends are listening to and makes it much easier to share music tastes and playlists with a familiar social network feel.
It is available for iOS and Android. The clever interface lets you view what your mates are downloading or streaming, with the ability to comment and share from there. It's better the more you integrate it with apps like Spotify and Facebook. If you want a hub from which to organise your musical life, this may well be it.
Overall, all seven of these services are excellent music streaming services for different reasons, and if you've never tried a similar service before you should definitely give one a go to see whether you like this new way of listening to, sharing and discovering music.
We prefer the design and interface of Deezer, but once you're used to them the other services are easy to use too. Our least favourite in terms of design is Amazon Prime Music/Music Unlimited, but at least it's familiar and reasonably simple. (It's also great if you have an Echo as you can request a song or album and control playback with just your voice.)
Apple's Music discovery tool is our favourite, very closely followed by Spotify's, though Google Play Music's inclusion of YouTube Music Premium makes it worth a second look in this regard. Tidal's relatively small library is disappointing, and puts us off subscribing to the (rather expensive) service.
Apple Music's Radio features are the best, again closely followed by Spotify's.
If you're looking for a service that you can listen to for free, we'd recommend opting for Spotify, as it'll serve you better than the free version of Deezer and there are no good free options from Tidal, Google, Amazon Prime Music/Music Unlimited or Apple Music.
Plus, the number of subscribers to Spotify is higher than the other services listed here (at least as far as we know so far) and social integration is great, so if you're planning on sharing the experience with friends, Spotify might be the better option.
Tidal and Apple Music are the only services that offer video as part of the package, so if that's something that appeals to you it might sway you towards them.
For audiophiles, Tidal is the best option, but at £19.99 per month it doesn't come cheap and it needs some serious improvement to offer the range of great features boasted by Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer.
SHOULD I BUY SPOTIFY?
We think it's worth giving a few of these services a go with the free trials before subscribing, as it's really down to personal preference which one you'll prefer. They have many, many similarities so it's those small differences that'll help you make the decision between them.