Sure, you can stream music for free. And if music is just background noise, then you might be willing to put up with ads and the occasional inability to skip a track you don't really like.
But if you're a real music fan, you're probably willing to pay to rid yourself of those annoyances, and you have plenty of online options to choose from, as we learned in researching this guide.
We focused on sites that offer ad-free streaming, with a large collection to choose from. Most of the mainstream services have access to the same collection of 40 to 60 million tracks; we also included some specialized services that offer alternatives to the major record labels.
Every service here offers ad-free streaming for its paid subscribers, with the ability to save content for offline listening and stream any song or album on demand. Most also offer custom playlists, smart DJs, and other ways to discover new music based on things you already like.
A few of the services in this list also offer the option to buy music and add it to your collection, and several others include tools to upload tracks from your personal collection to mix and match with the online catalog. For an extra few bucks a month, music fans with golden ears can upgrade from compressed audio to ultra-high-quality lossless streams.
Mainstream Music Services
Variety is the spice of life. It's also sweet music to most listener's ears.
Plans and prices: Individual, $10 per month; Family, $15 per month for up to six accounts "for family members living under one roof"; Student (at "accredited higher education institution"), $5 per month, includes ad-supported Hulu and Showtime streaming
The 800-pound gorilla of online music services earned its top status by being downright addictive, with some of the best smart playlists around. It also has the best social connections, as long as you're willing to connect your Facebook and Spotify accounts. You can share playlists easily without having to involve Facebook, and you can always stream your guilty pleasure tracks in a private session if you don't want your music snob friends to know you're crushing on Coldplay.
Our favorite Spotify feature, by far, is the ability to switch outputs on the fly, so you can flip in midstream from the smart speaker in your office to your living room's big sound without missing a beat. The service also lets you upload personal content. For years, Spotify's 10,000-song limit was frustratingly easy for a diehard music fan to hit. As of May 26, 2020, however, that limit is officially removed.$10 at Spotify
Plans and prices: Individual, $10 per month; Family, $15 per month for up to six accounts using iCloud Family Sharing; Student ("college Student only, verification required"), $5 per month, includes Apple TV+ access
If you love iTunes, you'll love Apple Music. Steve Jobs and his heirs have been leaders in digital music for two decades, and even if they were late to the subscription and streaming party, they've since made up for lost time. Apple Music has an enormous library that includes some iTunes-exclusive albums and tracks, and the service is available on a surprising number of platforms, including Android devices and even Samsung Smart TVs.
Using a signature feature of the service, you can upload your personal music collection to the iCloud Music Library. The good news is that your quota is a generous 100,000 tracks, and those you purchased from iTunes or downloaded for offline listening don't count in that total. The bad news is you'll need to use the iTunes software on a PC or a Mac to accomplish that upload. Those who have a love-hate relationship with Apple's legacy music client might want to consider other options.$10 at Apple
Plans and prices: Individual, $10 per month; Family, $15 per month for up to six people
If you're comfortably ensconced in the Google ecosystem, this service has a lot to offer. Its algorithmic playlists are extensive and smart, its streaming catalog is huge, and the apps for iOS, Android, and the Chrome browser are slick and easy to use. Even with a free account, you can upload up to 50,000 tracks from your personal collection using a Chrome extension or the standalone Music Manager utility on Windows or MacOS.
In true Google fashion, the company also offers a competing streaming service called YouTube Music Premium; for $12 a month, you get ad-free YouTube playback and can keep listening even when the screen is off. A $10 Google Play Music includes YouTube Premium and YouTube Music Premium; a $12 YouTube Music Premium subscription includes Google Play Music. And the latter represents the future, with Google coaxing subscribers to transfer their Google Play Music collections to YouTube Music$10 at Google
Plans and prices: Individual, $10 per month ($8 for Prime members); Family, $15 per month for up to six accounts; Single device, $4 per month for one Echo or Fire TV device; Student ("accredited college or university"), $1 per month
Amazon's entry in the streaming category is exactly what you would expect. It has a huge selection, offers apps on every platform, and can be controlled using voice commands ("Alexa, play Erykah Badu") on a wide variety of devices. At $4 a month, in fact, the single-device plan offers an economical option for listening to tunes on one of Amazon's Echo devices.
The service makes the most sense for Amazon Prime members, who get a $2 per month discount and can get an even bigger discount by paying $80 for an annual subscription. If you have a personal music collection, however, this service falls short. Amazon eliminated its upload option several years ago, and the selection is limited to tunes you stream or those you've purchased directly from Amazon.$10 at Amazon
Plans and prices: unRadio, $5 per month; Premier, $10 per month; Family, $15 per month
I know what you're thinking: Napster, the poster child for music piracy that was shut down by court order two decades ago, is still around? Yes, it is. Well, the brand name survives, anyway, after being bought by Best Buy in 2008 and then sold to Rhapsody (another 1990s hit) in 2011. The service is now mostly used to power third-party services like iHeartRadio but the standalone service still has a small but loyal following. If you're in the mood to party like it's 1999, you can still pay your money and stream away with a feature set that's pretty generic.$5 at Rhapsody
Plans and prices: Premium, $10 per month or $120 per year; Student, $5 per month; Family, $15 per month for up to six profiles
Deezer was the first streaming music service in France, and more than a dozen years later, it survives worldwide with a decidedly non-corporate vibe. A free account gives you 30-second previews of tracks in the web browser but plays full tracks (with ads) on mobile devices. Upgrading to Premium unlocks playback in the web browser (and in the Windows progressive web app) and removes the ads.
Deezer's special sauce is an algorithmic recommendation feature it calls Deezer Flow, which generates "an infinite mix of favorites and new tracks" based on your feedback. You can choose lossless audio for $20 a month. You can also upload personal MP3 tracks using any web browser, but you're limited to 2000 such tracks.$10 at Deezer
Plans and prices: Plus, $5 per month; Premium $10 per month
Pandora is the original set-it-and-forget-it, just-play-me-what-I-like service. It started with the Music Genome project, which led to the algorithm that powered Pandora's personalized playlist builder, fine-tuned by thumbs up/down recommendations. Pandora Premium is an effort to compete with the more album-focused services that goes beyond the usual stations and allows subscribers to choose individual tracks. The service includes comedy and podcasts as well as music.$5 at Pandora
When you're looking for alternatives to the major record labels, consider one of these services.
Plans and prices: Individual, €10 per month; Student, €5 per month
Classical music fans are inevitably frustrated by the most popular music services, which treat symphonies and concertos like third-class citizens. If you prefer Bach to Beck and would rather listen to Mozart than Maroon 5, check out Idagio. It offers two million tracks, a fraction of the 50-60 million tracks that the big pop-focused alternative services deliver, but its selection is exclusively focused on classical labels like Deutsche Grammaphon, Decca, and ECM.
Idagio offers an ad-supported free plan, but the paid plans offer major upgrades like lossless audio and the ability to connect to dedicated audio devices.
$10 at Idagio
Plans and prices: Premium, $10 per month or $100 per year; Platinum, $15 per month or $150 per year
Join Primephonic and you'll be in an exclusive club with about 150,000 members, run by absolute classical music fanatics. (Check out their "company values" page for details.) The service boasts of its "definitive catalog" of major labels and obscure indies, as well as smart search that's built for classical music. (If you're a classical fan, you know exactly how frustrating it is to find a specific performance on a mainstream music service.)
The Premium plan delivers 320 kbps compressed tracks, while the Platinum option uses lossless FLAC streaming. The player streams at the highest quality available, including 24-bit recordings$10 at Primephonic
Plans and prices: Standard, $13 per month
The tagline "Live music lives here" and the name, which comes from a slang for high-quality buds, tells you almost everything you need to know about this service. You won't find the traditional pop/rock labels here. Instead, you can stream audio from more than 15,000 live shows, with jam bands like Dead and Company, Metallica, Pearl Jam, and the Dave Matthews Band topping the bill.
Mobile apps on iOS and Android allow subscribers to download concert recordings for offline listening. (You'll find your saved shows in the My Stash section. Old hippies will get the reference immediately.) The service also offers a selection of live concert videos on demand, and you can upgrade to a higher audio quality or purchase live recordings so you can burn them to CDs or even (shudder) cassette tapes.$13 at Nugs.net
Plans and prices: Plus, $4 per month or $30 per year; Plus Student, $2 per month; Premium, $10 per month
If we had to describe this service, we'd probably go with something like "quirky, but in a good way." The Slacker-powered LiveXLive focuses on concert and festival livestreams, with "handcrafted audio stations" as well as an interesting lineup of original shows and podcasts. For fans of live music who aren't jam-band enthusiasts, this is well worth checking out.$4 at LiveXLive
When audio quality is your top priority, check out these offerings.
Plans and prices: Premium, $10 per month ($13 in App Store); Hi-Fi, $20 per month ($26 in App Store); 50% discount for up to five additional family members on either plan
Tidal landed with a very big splash when it debuted in 2015, thanks to its high-profile owners, a group of A-list musicians led by Beyoncé's spouse, Shawn "JAY Z" Carter. The service's commitment to artists is well documented on its transparency page, which includes some charts showing how its subscription fees are distributed.
Audio quality, though, is where Tidal stakes its main claim to fame. The Premium plan promises the highest quality music available in a streaming service, while the Hi-Fi plan delivers uncompressed tracks for lossless audio. Whatever you do, though, don't sign up from inside the Tidal app on an iOS device, unless you are eager to give an unnecessary 30% tip to Apple.$10 at Tidal
Plans and prices: Studio Premier, $15 per month or $150 per year; Sublime+, $250 per year
Did your home audio system cost as much as your car? Then please allow us to introduce you to this service, founded in France in 2007, which is laser-focused on delivering recordings (for streaming or purchase) that are "as close to the original studio recording as you can get." It sounds perfectly good on more modest systems, too.
Qobuz has a quirky vibe, with podcasts and playlists that cover far different territory than the mainstream pop/rock content you find in other services. Like Tidal, it supports a long list of high-end hi-fi equipment; it's also one of the few services with a well-crafted, modern Windows app. And Qobuz wins the contest for coolest name: It's derived from a sacred musical instrument that originated in Kazakhstan.$15 at Qobuz
Plans and prices: $5 per month extra for Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers
For an extra five bucks a month (or $50 a year), you can upgrade the audio of your Amazon Music Unlimited subscription to lossless, uncompressed quality. Otherwise, everything's exactly the same.$15 at Amazon
How we chose
Our selections for this guide are based on market research and hands-on personal experience. For our selections, we included only services that are subscription-based and allow ad-free music streaming on multiple platforms, with the ability to save music for offline playback.
Using those criteria, we chose not to include a few services that were a less than perfect fit. That list includes SiriusXM, which is more of a radio network than a music service, and 7Digital and eMusic, which focus more on selling music than streaming.