Most of us now stream our music, from Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Tidal, or something else entirely, and the reasons are obvious: you pay one subscription and get to listen to almost any song out there.
Still, there are lots of music streaming services out there and though they may seem similar, they’re not all created equal. Some offer discounted family plans, some deliver high-quality lossless audio, some offer Hi-Res, some throw in podcasts, some include music videos, and some even let you upload your own music files to keep in the same library.
Even if you still buy physical media like vinyl it’s impossible and not financially sensible to buy all the music you might want to listen to, plus it’s harder to take it with you anywhere you go. So, to help you make the right decision we’ve put together this handy guide which explains what they have to offer and how they compare.
These are the best music streaming services of 2021:
Over 50 million songs Shareable PlaylistsPodcasts Up to 320kbps
Spotify has become synonymous with music streaming, as the company has gone from strength to strength over the past few years and established itself as the world’s most popular service, boasting over 420 million active users.
This popularity is aided by the various tiers on offer. There’s a free version that’s ad-supported, but which still gives you access to the 50+ million songs on the platform. If you want offline listening on your phone (downloads) then the Premium subscription is the way to go, while students benefit from their own tier that offers Premium at half price.
As is now the norm, a family subscription is available which consists of six premium accounts, while Duo covers two accounts. Here’s the full range:
Free ad-supportedPremium: $9.99/£9.99Duo Premium: $12.99/£13.99Student Premium: $4.99/£5.99Family: $15.99/£16.99Lossless: Spotify HiFi still not launched
As we’ve already mentioned, there’s a huge selection of music available, and this is accompanied by playlists Spotify creates based on your listening habits, called Discover Weekly. There’s also Release Radar and Time Capsule that highlight new and classic tracks that the service thinks you’ll enjoy, plus radio stations built around certain songs and artists as well as Daily Mix options.
There are also plenty of podcasts to choose from, and there’s also a splattering of music documentaries and live performance videos. Add to this the social element that allows you to share directly playlists with friends, while also being able to see what they’re currently listening to, and it’s a potent mix for discovering and enjoying new music.
As mentioned above, Spotify HiFi is yet to arrive. This was supposed to launch in 2021 bringing with it lossless CD quality so until it does arrive this is a mark against Spotify compared to rivals.
90 million songsExclusive albumsiTunes library integrationBeats 1 radioUp to Hi-Res quality
Apple may have entered the streaming market a bit later than some of its competitors, but that hasn’t stopped it from taking the top slot in the US as the most used service. There’s an obvious link with iPhones, iPads, and Macs, but Apple Music is also available on Android and PCs, making it an option no matter which hardware you prefer.
A catalog of 90 million songs gives it an advantage over the likes of Spotify in terms of sheer choice, and just like rivals Apple Music offers custom playlists each week created around the songs you listen to regularly. There are also playlists generated by the tracks your friends are enjoying, plus numerous top 100 charts from all around the world.
A number of exclusives are offered, such as live performances, special sessions, and interviews with popular and emerging artists. This is accompanied by the Beats 1 radio station that has live shows with DJs such as Zane Lowe, and a large selection of other stations that cover specific genres. Music videos are also available, so you can turn your iPad or iPhone into MTV, plus the service integrates your existing iTunes library into search results, so you can easily include them in playlists.
In terms of quality, Apple Music now offers lossless (CD quality) and Hi-Res quality streaming as standard, as well as Spatial audio with Dolby Atmos (including head tracking with the right hardware). That’s impressive but there are some caveats such as the fact many of its devices, even the AirPods Max, don’t support listening in the highest audio quality.
Apple Music has come a long way in a short time, making it an excellent all-rounder for music, radio, and video content. There’s a free one-month trial so you can explore its features without spending any money.
The Voice plan is the latest addition and only allows control using Siri, but you still get access to the full library. Here are the paid options (monthly pricing):
Voice: $4.99/£4.99 Student: $5.99/£5.99 Individual: $9.99/£9.99 Family: $14.99/£14.99
Amazon Music Unlimited
2 million songs free90 million songs with Unlimited tierHands-free listening with Alexa-powered devicesSingle device plan for Echo or Fire TVUp to Hi-Res quality
Amazon has rejigged what used to be called Amazon Prime Music. The service is now called Amazon Music with three different options available starting with a free tier that’s ad-supported and gives you access to two million tracks. It included thousands of free radio stations and playlists.
Amazon Music Prime, as the name suggests, is now the middle tier which all Amazon Prime members get included in their subscription. This still has access to just two million songs but is ad-free, supports offline listening, unlimited skips and podcasts.
Really, Amazon wants you to pay for Music Unlimited which is essentially the equivallent to Spotify Premium. For a monthly fee (discounted for Prime members), you get access to 90 million songs in ‘HD’ (lossless CD quality which was previously its own Music HD tier) as well as things like spatial audio.
You can also get ‘Ultra HD’ quality if you have the right hardware and fast enough internet. This is Hi-Res (up to 24bit/192kHz) but is limited to ‘over seven million songs’.
Whichever Unlimited tier you choose, you’ll find the standard features of playlists, themed ‘radio stations’, recommendations based on your listening habits, and ad-free offline listening on your smartphone or tablet. Due to Amazon also making its own Alexa-powered devices, you have the ability to use the music service hands-free simply by asking Alexa to play certain albums, match your current mood, or find a song based on some lyrics you remember.
At the time of writing, Amazon Music Unlimited is available with a free 30-day trial, so that will give you plenty of time to see if it’s the one for you.
One unique tier on offer is for a Single Device. This is limited to the Amazon Echo and Fire TV family, but if you just want to listen to music at your work desk or home then it’s a nice addition for a small monthly fee. Here are full options for listening:
Music Free ad-supportedMusic Prime included with Prime membershipMusic Unlimited options:Individual – $8.99/£9.99Student – £4.99Single Device – $3.99/£3.99Family – $14.99/£14.99
Amazon Music Unlimited
90+ million tracksFlowLossless CD qualityDeezer 360
French company Deezer has been around since 2007 and has grown itself into a service and claims to have the largest music catalog in the business at over 90 million tracks although it’s the same number touted by Amazon, Tidal and Apple. Alongside the copious albums, EPs, and singles, there is also a good selection of podcasts, live radio stations, and specially recorded Deezer Sessions by artists such as Jade Bird, Dua Lipa and The Streets.
The Flow feature is a continuous shuffle mode with tracks chosen to match the tunes you listen to most, and Deezer states that the more you use the service the more it will learn how to hone the selections to your taste.
As you’d expect, there are the regular tiers of Free, Premium, Family (6 accounts), and Student. The Premium plans supplies the music at Hi-Fi quality lossless CD-quality FLAC (16 bit/44.1kHz) so that you can play it through your desktop or sound-system and hear its full glory. There’s also a separate Deezer 360 app for spatial audio listening with compatible devices. You can access this with any paid plan.
Then there’s the option to pay annually for Premium, reducing the cost by around £30/$30. Here are all the options:
Free ad-supportedPremium: $9.99/£11.99Student Premium: $4.99/£5.99Family: $14.99/£17.99Annual Premium Plan: $99.90/£107.88
Fitbit users, at least those with Ionic and Versa devices, will also be glad to hear that Deezer works on their trackers, making those long runs more enjoyable, and the service also has its own SongCatcher technology that works like Shazam to identify whatever tunes you’re hearing. The firm has also added offline listening on the Apple Watch, something Spotify users are still waiting for.
A free ad-supported, tier allows you to sample all that Deezer has to offer, and we think you’ll discover that it’s quite a lot.
YouTube Music Premium
Wide range of music videosLinks to your YouTube libraryExclusive live performancesUp to 256kbps
Google’s newest platform is YouTube Music Premium, essentially replacing Google Play Music, which combines a classic music streaming service with a large selection of music videos. There’s the expected range of playlists and new releases, plus the added features of being able to listen to YouTube in the background, no ads and offline listening.
While you might expect something with YouTube in the title to be a video-only service, you’re able to turn off the visuals and revert all content to audio instead. This saves not only battery life and data on mobile devices, but also means you can put together an impressive collection of live, rare, and official versions of songs that you wouldn’t get on another platform.
A free tier allows you take access all content, but these are interrupted by ads, can’t be downloaded, and require your screen to be on to hear them. Moving up to the Premium level removes these restrictions, and there are the now-standard levels for students, individuals, and families (although this is five accounts rather than six like rivals).
All of these come with a one- or two-month free trial, so you can give the YouTube Music Premium a proper test run to see how it stacks up against the competition. The downside is that streaming is limited to just 256kbps even if you get one of the paid tiers. This is one of the lowest around and not even MP3 quality.
It’s worth noting that YouTube Music Premium is included in a YouTube Premium subscription. It removes all in-video advertising from YouTube videos and costs $11.99/£11.99 per month with Family and Student plans at $17.99/$17.99pm and $6.99/£6.99pm respectively so could be worth the extra cost if you binge a lot of YouTube content such as the Tech Advisor channel.
These are the monthly plan costs:
Free ad-supportedIndividual: $9.99/£9.99Family: $14.99/$14.99Student: $4.99/£4.99
YouTube Music Premium
90+ million tracksUp to Hi-Res quality FLACMaster Quality AuthenticatedDolby Atmos & Sony 360 Reality AudioMilitary discount in the US
Tidal has come a long way since its flashy celebrity-endorsed re-launch in March 2015. Gimmicks aside, the service has established itself as a solid option in the music streaming market and has a number of benefits.
A huge library of audio and videos aside, the lure of Tidal really comes when you look at the more premium tiers. The Standard memebrship provides the more savvy listener with lossless HiFi (high fidelity) quality sound starting with FLAC, a CD-quality streaming format (up to 1411kbps).
It means lossless content that is uncompressed, unlike the inferior MP3. Meanwhile, the HiFi Plus tier offers other benefits such as Sony 360 Reality Audio, Dolby Atmos Music, and the ability to see how your streaming has translated into revenue for an artist.
Something which might seal the deal is Master Quality Authenticated audio which in Tidal’s words “a way of compressing digital music without limitations to deliver guaranteed master-quality sound” allowing users to “hear music just as it was recorded in the studio.”
This comes in audio quality up to 9216kbps. Just note that this isn’t available for the whole library and can be hard to find, but there are “millions of tracks across all genres” with more added weekly.
There’s also the fact that HiFi Plus means direct artist payouts where “up to 10% of your subscription is directed to the artists you listen to the most” to better support artists.
As well as the typical apps for Android and iOS, Tidal is supported on a huge range of audio products including Sonos, Naim, Denon, Devialet along with streaming devices such as Apple TV and even various cars.
Tidal also supports Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio. The main caveat here is that Qobuz (below) offers high-quality streaming for a lower price. That said, US subscribers can take advantage of a free tier.
These are the subscription tiers and prices per month:
Free (ad-supported, up to 160 kbps, US only)Premium: $9.99/£9.99HiFi: $19.99/£19.99Family Premium: $14.99/£14.99Family HiFi: $29.99/£29.99Student Premium: $4.99/£4.99Student HiFi: $9.99/£9.99Military/Community Heroes Premium: $5.99 (US only)Military/Community Heroes HiFi: $11.99 (US only)
80+ million songsMillions in better than CD qualityUp to Hi-Res qualityOption to purchase albums
Qobuz offers lossless music streaming, with a choice of two subscriptions. The Studio plan includes all of its 80 million tracks in FLAC format (CD quality) as well as 424,000 albums in Hi-Res (better than CD quality) – up to 24bit/192kHz. The other is called Sublime and also includes discounts of up to 60% on album purchases if you wish to buy an album outright.
Unlike some other streaming services, for example, Tidal, Qobuz streams all its music in the FLAC open standard format, which is lossless and can be played on every audio capable device – be it a computer, mobile device and many hi-fi stereo systems – though you’ll need compatible audio gear to make the most of the Hi-Res tracks.
The interface is clean, modern, and simple, and all high-resolution albums have a gold Hi-Res Audio logo next to them with the bitrate displayed. The Qobuz library does cater more towards jazz, world and classical music though, so may not suit every taste, and one omission is the lack of algorithm-driven radio stations or playlists.
Another standout feature is the buy option. Yes, Amazon does let you buy music – but only as a compressed MP3. Qobuz sells albums and tracks in CD and Hi-res quality. They’re DRM-free and can be downloaded and played on any device, and you get to keep them forever, even if you stop using the service.
There’s a one-month free trial for Studio, though no trial period for Sublime. Qobuz has also added some new plans incuding Duo and Family for two and six accounts respectively. You can also pay annually for a effective monthly discount.
Studio: $12.99/£12.99 Studio Duo: $17.99/£17.99Studio Family: $21.90/£17.99Studio Annual: $129.99/£129.99Sublime: $15/£15Sublime Duo: $22.49/£22.99Sublime Family: $29.17/£29.17Sublime Annual: $179.99/£179.99
Written by Dominik Tomaszewski
What should I look for in a music streaming service?
It’s fair to say that there has been a fair amount of standardisation in the music streaming landscape over the past few years. When you sign up for one, you can expect a large range of music (both new and old), various playlists that gather together related songs, and recommendations based on your listening preferences.
Many services now include podcasts, and some even have videos too, with YouTube Music Premium being the most advanced in that particular area.
If a service has a free tier, such as Spotify, Deezer, or Amazon Music, then these will usually be quite restrictive, with offline listening disabled, ads played between tracks, and, in some cases, a massively reduced selection of music. Most offer individual plans for around $10/£10 per month and Family plans that cost $15/£15. The latter can be particularly good value as it usually includes six individual premium accounts, albeit ones that need the members to live in the same household.
Some services, like Tidal and Qobuz, also offer higher quality audio files for audiophiles, with lossless tunes in CD quality or Hi-Res. This is great if you have the gear (and the know-how) to appreciate it, though most people will be happy enough with standard MP3 (320kbps).
There’s not really a ‘best’ service, as that particular accolade depends on what you like to listen to and how much you’ll use the additional features. But, with all of the ones listed featuring free trials of their Premium offerings, we recommend trying one after the other to see which one fits your lifestyle and music needs.
It’s also worth checking out subscriptions during flash sales, such as Black Friday, as you may be able to bag a discount on an account.
For other subscription-based entertainment, read our roundups of the
best movie & TV streaming services and
best game streaming services.