Sure, you can listen to live radio or 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 in a music streaming service's free tier. But if you're a real audiophile, you're probably willing to pay for a subscription service to rid yourself of those annoyances. You have plenty of online options to choose from, as we learned in researching this guide.
Most of the mainstream services have access to the same collection, encompassing tens of millions of tracks from major labels and most independents, and some (but not all) offer free versions. What do paid subscribers get? For starters, ad-free streaming, along with the ability to save content for offline listening and stream any song or album on demand. Most also offer some combination of custom playlists, smart DJs, artist-inspired radio stations, and other new music discovery options based on your previous listening history.
A few of the services in this list of best music streaming services 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 and high-end hardware can upgrade from compressed audio to ultra-high-quality lossless streams.
Plans and pricing: Individual, $10 per month; Family Plan, $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. Also has a free version.
The 800-pound gorilla of music apps earned its top status by being downright addictive, with some of the best smart playlists around and extensive support for podcasts. 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 or Nickelback. Be aware of a big gotcha in the family plan, which allows family members to share the account only if they're at the same address. That's a problem if your kids are away at college in another city.
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 or from your desktop app to your phone without missing a beat. The service also lets you upload personal content, although the procedure is for doing so is cumbersome. For years, Spotify's 10,000-song limit was frustratingly easy for a diehard music fan to hit. As of May 2020, however, that limit is officially removed.$10 at Spotify
Plans and pricing: 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 on your iPhone, you'll love Apple Music. Steve Jobs and his successors 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, as well as curated playlists and live radio. 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 will just have to grin and bear it.$10 at Apple
Plans and pricing: Individual, $10 per month; Family, $15 per month for up to six people; Student, $5 per month, with annual verification required
For years, Google's subscription music service was called Google Play Music. In true Google fashion, the company killed off that product in 2020, replacing it with this spin-off under the YouTube brand. As a longtime fan of the original service, I'm happy to report that YouTube Music Premium is a worthy upgrade. (The music service is also included with ad-free YouTube Premium subscriptions, which cost $12 per month or $18 for a family plan.)
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 100,000 tracks from your personal collection using a desktop browser. Unlike other services, which limit uploads to compressed MP3 or AAC formats, YouTube Music allows you to upload FLAC, M4A, OGG, and other high-fidelity tracks. And even with a free account you can play those uploaded tracks in the background and download them for ad-free, offline listening.$10 at Google
Plans and pricing: 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 at accredited college or university, $5 per month ($1 for Prime members)
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, the single-device plan offers an economical option for listening to tunes on one of Amazon's Echo devices. For an extra five bucks a month, you can upgrade to Amazon Music HD, which delivers lossless, uncompressed audio for albums and songs that are available in that format.
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 Prime Music 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 pricing: 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-focused FAQ page, which includes some charts showing how its subscription fees are distributed. Although there is no free option, Tidal does offer a 30-day free trial period.
Audio quality, though, is where Tidal stakes its main claim to fame. The Premium "Tidal Masters" 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. Also be aware that Tidal users report (and I can confirm) that the iOS app doesn't play well with Apple CarPlay, so use that free trial period to do your own tests before paying.$10 at Tidal
Plans and pricing: 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." Those recordings sound 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. If you're looking for the extensive selection of algorithmic playlists you get with Apple Music or Spotify, you'll be disappointed; but if you know exactly what you like, you'll appreciate the easy-to-navigate interface. The mobile app works smoothly with Apple CarPlay, for those who paid for the upgraded sound system in their car. Like Tidal, Qobuz supports a long list of high-end hi-fi equipment; it's also available as a Progressive Windows App that plays well with Chrome and Microsoft Edge on Windows PCs and Macs.
This service also wins the contest for coolest name: The founders say they borrowed the Qobuz name from the ancient word Kobyz, a sacred musical instrument that originated in Kazakhstan.$15 at Qobuz
Plans and pricing: 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 pricing: 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 pricing: 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
Why are some albums and tracks not available on music services?
The digital catalogs that music streaming services can draw on are governed by contracts between each service the rights holders (artists, songwriters, publishers, and record labels). Some artists (usually big names with market clout) choose to opt out of allowing streaming. In addition, some older albums especially those that are on smaller independent labels, might not be available for streaming. The workaround, if you have a copy of the album in a standard digital format, is to use a service that allows you to upload your personal collection and keep it in your library alongside streaming tracks. YouTube Music is especially good at this task, with support for multiple high-quality formats even with free accounts, as we note in our capsule review above.
Are high-quality streaming music services worth the extra cost?
Most music services deliver audio in compressed formats, using the MP3 standard and Apple's AAC, typically at bitrates of 256 kbps that sound just fine for most people. High-fidelity services typically deliver uncompressed audio or compressed audio at higher bitrates. In a noisy environment, or on a pair of generic earbuds, you probably won't notice the difference. But even an untrained ear can hear the audio difference on high-end headphones or in a quiet listening space equipped with large, audiophile-quality speakers and amplifier. Only you can decide whether that difference is worth an extra $5 a month or more.
Which music service is most popular?
The Chinese service Tencent Music claimed to have more than 650 million users in March 2020, making it the world's largest by far, but most of the people listening to those tunes were using the free version, Among paid services, Spotify is still the champ, with more than 120 million paid subscribers and another 150 million users of Spotify's free product as of March 2020. Apple Music is in second place, with more than 80 million paying customers as of September 2020. Amazon Music claims 60 million paying subscribers, but that includes the Prime Music tier that's included with a Prime membership. YouTube Music probably has more than 10 million subscribers, but that number has not been publicly disclosed.
Are there other music services to consider?
If your tastes in music are sufficiently off the beaten track that the mainstream services listed above aren't satisfying, consider these specialized options.
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. The paid plans offer major upgrades like lossless audio and the ability to connect to dedicated audio devices.
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 sound quality available, including 24-bit recordings
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.
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.
What should you look for in a music service?
Most mainstream subscription-based music services are fairly similar in their broad feature set, with a large collection (50-75 million) tracks available for ad-free streaming and download, along with the ability to create custom playlists and sync them to multiple devices. For our money, the most important questions to ask before settling on a service are these:
- How important are music recommendations? Apple Music and Spotify have the best collection of algorithmically generated playlists and curated collections. You pick a favorite artist or track, and the algorithm assembles a list of music you'll probably like. Other, smaller services aren't as thorough.
- Does audio quality matter? After more than two decades of digital music, our ears have become accustomed to compressed sound, and most services deliver MP3 and AAC tracks at sufficient quality that your ears won't hurt. But if you like to listen to exquisitely mastered tracks at full volume on high-end equipment, look for a service like Qobuz, Tidal, or Amazon HD, which specialize in super-high-fidelity recordings.
- How much time do you spend in the car? In modern cars, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have become standard features, making it easy to find exactly what you're looking for. But not all mobile apps play well in these environments. We've had serious problems, for example, with Amazon Music and Tidal on CarPlay, and we're not alone based on our research. For those who spend many hours commuting, we recommend using a service's free trial period for a thorough road test.
How did we choose these music services?
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, with a full selection of albums and singles from major record labels, with the ability to stream music on multiple platforms, without ads. The ability to save music for offline playback on mobile devices is also a must-have factor.
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.