While there are lots of music streaming services around, there are three major ones that stand out above the others: Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play Music. The others, such as TIDAL, Grooveshark, Rdio, and Deezer have either fallen by the wayside or failed to take off.
Obviously these three services are competing with each other, pretty much on an equal footing. The problem is you’ll only want one, unless you’re made of money, so let’s look at which one you should choose. After all, each has its pros and cons.
Spotify offers three tiers: a free tier, a $9.99-a-month Premium tier, and a $14.99-a-month Premium for Family tier.
The Free tier is ad supported. Features like song selection, skipping tracks, and saving music for offline listening are limited or blocked compared to the other tiers.
The Premium tier is what you think of as Spotify proper. For $10-a-month you get unlimited access to Spotify’s catalog, the ability to save tracks to the mobile apps for offline listening, and the warm fuzzy feeling that you’re supporting your favorite artists.
The $14.99 Premium for Family tier is the same as the regular Premium plan, except you and up to five family members get accounts for a fraction of the price it would cost if you all signed up individually.
At one point Spotify offered a half-price discount to students, but it appears to have removed that option. The link now just redirects to its homepage.
Apple Music has three plans: a regular $9.99-a-month plan, a $14.99-a-month Family plan and a $4.99-a-month student plan. Instead of offering a free tier, Apple Music offers a three-month free trial. After that you’ll need to start paying.
Apple’s regular tier is just as you’d expect. For $9.99-a-month you get access to its full library, all the apps, and everything else that comes with the service.
The Family plan is the same as Spotify’s. For $14.99-a-month, six people (including you) can have unlimited access to Apple music from their own accounts.
Unlike Spotify, Apple Music still offers a $4.99-a-month Student plan. There are a few catches though. First, it’s validated so you can’t just claim to be a student and get the discount. Second, it’s limited to 48 months, after which your account will be automatically changed to a regular one.
Google Play Music
Google Play Music only has two tiers: a free one and a $9.99-a-month plan. Its two tiers are much the same as Spotify’s tiers.
On the Free tier, you’re limited in how you use the service and have to listen to occasional ads. On the Premium tier you get full use of the service.
I could find no student or family offers.
Winner: It’s a Three-Way Tie!
The winner here is hard to call. If you’re just one person signing up, all three services have the same asking price. If you’re a family, then you should go with Spotify or Apple Music. If you’re a student then Apple Music offers the best price. Finally, if you don’t care about the limitations and just want to listen for free, you should go with Spotify or Google Play Music.
Not all music files are equal. The higher the bitrate of a file, the better it will sound. Once you reach a certain point, however, you’ll need superhero ears to tell the difference between different tracks.
Spotify streams tracks at 160 kb/s by default but you can turn on an option to stream them at 320 kb/s. This is about the point where, at least on standard audio equipment, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between a compressed file and the original.
Apple Music is rumored to be launching a high quality streaming service but, for the time being, all tracks are streamed at 256 kb/s. For most people listening with computer speakers or Apple’s earbuds, this won’t sound any worse than Spotify’s higher bitrate tracks. If you have good headphones or a proper audio setup, there’s a chance you’ll hear a difference.
Google Play Music
Google Play Music also streams tracks at a maximum of 320 kb/s. If your internet connection won’t support that speed, they’ll be streamed at a lower bitrate.
Winner: Spotify and Google Play Music
Both Spotify and Google Play Music stream at 320 kb/s. If you really care about audio quality, go with one of them. The only major service offering better bitrate is TIDAL which is, in lots of other ways, terrible. Unfortunately.
Apple Music may soon offer high bitrate streaming, in which case this point is moot. Until then, the tracks are marginally worse but most people won’t be able to tell the difference.
Spotify boasts over 30 million tracks in its library. That’s far more music than even I could listen to in 1,000 years. Assuming each track is three minutes long, it’s over 170 years of non-stop music.
More importantly, Spotify has the majority of tracks that are popular right now. Things have become a bit messier thanks to some artists launching exclusives on Apple Music or TIDAL, but, for the most part, if you want a popular track it’ll be available on Spotify.
This is where Apple Music shines. A few big artists like Taylor Swift (who Apple has had a love-hate relationship with) aren’t available on Spotify or Google Play Music. The main reason for this is that they object to the free tiers the other services offer but which Apple has rejected.
Aside from Taylor Swift, Apple’s catalog is as ridiculously large as Spotify’s with massive amounts of overlap.
Google Play Music
It’s the same deal with Google Play Music. Most acts that offer their music to streaming services put it on all of them. Google Play Music’s catalog is as big as its competitors.
Winner: Apple Music
While all the services have a few exclusive acts, Apple Music has the biggest and best. Taylor Swift is the biggest pop star on the planet at the moment (with the possible exception of Beyonce) and her presence gives Apple Music the edge.
For anyone who doesn’t like Tay Tay (you heathens!) it won’t make much difference which service you use. While there are some small variations between the different libraries, for the most part you won’t even notice. If a particular act you love is missing from one service, have a look at the others and see if they’re there.
The extra features is where these three services start to really differentiate themselves.
Spotify has its phenomenal Discover Weekly playlists and the best social sharing. Every week with Discover Weekly, you get 30-or-so new tracks to listen to. Spotify uses its massive amount of listener data to select them for you, and it works really well.
Spotify also has great social features. You can share tracks on any social media service, send them directly to other Spotify users, and even create collaborative playlists.
Apple Music’s biggest extra feature is the Beats 1 radio station. Before Apple Music launched, it hired Zane Lowe to curate the station. If you like the nostalgia of listening to a proper radio station, then Beats 1 might be a big feature for you. We previously took an in-depth look at Apple Music and we weren’t overly impressed with Beats 1, but I quite liked it when I checked it out. The music definitely trends towards modern pop songs.
Google Play Music
When you sign up for Google Play Music, you also sign up for YouTube Red. You get access to original YouTube content, no ads on regular videos, and a few extra little bits. If you watch a lot of content on YouTube, this could be the deciding factor.
Winner: It’s a Three-Way Tie!
Once again, it kind of depends what you’re looking for. Spotify’s playlists and social features are the best for pure music fans. If you like the ease of having a radio station to throw on and not have to worry about deciding what to listen to, then Apple Music and Beats 1 are a good choice. Finally, if you watch a lot of YouTube videos, Google Play Music might be right for you.
At this point I could flip a coin between the two and not even be secretly wishing that it lands on one side over the other… #indecisive
— Nadia Younis (@NadYounis) May 30, 2016
The Final Verdict
When I sat down to write this article I had intended to come to a clear verdict, but the truth is that Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play Music all offer pretty much the exact same service. There is very little to choose between them all.
For any advantage that one service has, it also has a disadvantage. Spotify is the purest music experience but lacks Apple Music’s popstar credentials. Apple Music might be cheapest for students but it doesn’t have a free tier like Google Play Music for those who are on a budget. And Google Play Music is a great service, but Google has an unfortunate history of killing beloved products, so maybe don’t get too attached to it.
The easy answer to this conundrum is that there is no bad decision. Streaming music is the future and all the major players offer brilliant services. So, you can confidently sign up for whichever one suits your needs the best.
What music streaming service do you currently use? What made you choose that one over the competition? Why do you think it’s the best of the bunch? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.