Welcome to the future. We used to buy LPs, then tapes, then CDs, then MP3s. Now we rent access to massive libraries of music. It does require a fundamental shift in your thinking — but you don’t need to own physical music anymore. We’ve compared eight streaming music services suitable for a range of platforms and look at what features they offer.
Radio or playlist?
You can stream music two ways: radio and playlists. Some streaming audio services offer both. Radio takes your suggestions and then creates a “radio station” that plays tracks similar to what you like. Some services are better at it than others. For example, Pandora is considered to have an excellent radio service.
If you like more control over your music, playlists are for you. Setting up playlists means you control your listening experience without leaving it to chance. Unlike radio, you can download a playlist to your mobile devices (on some services depending on your subscription). A handy option for those who like listening to music while out and about.
We use the word “tracks” because many services offer more than just music. You can also listen to spoken-word albums and comedy. Some also offer classical music channels. The biggest services don’t release numbers on exactly how many tracks they have. But some, such as Spotify, say “over 30 million”. At an average of three minutes per song, that’s roughly 171 years’ worth of listening!
Streaming audio on mobile data can chew through your data allowance, so be wary. We recommend downloading songs for offline use and turning off mobile data off in the service’s settings (if possible).
What’s great about listening to your music online is you can share what you’re listening to with your friends, by either “suggesting” or sending music to your timeline. A few, such as Spotify and Soundcloud, let you embed music in your website.
To keep file sizes small, music is passed through compression algorithms that remove some of the dynamic range. But with the advent of faster internet and larger storage sizes for portable devices there’s a movement back to higher-quality, larger files.
But will you notice the difference? There’s a good chance you won’t.
You’ll need good audio equipment to listen through. Audio quality is one of the selling points for Tidal, which offers a more expensive plan with higher-quality audio FLAC. But in 2015, Tidal spokesman and co-owner Jay-Z said: “If you have a $10 pair of headphones, you should probably buy the [cheaper] plan.”
We listened to various tracks using Tidal’s normal (96 kbps), high (320 kbps), and “HiFi” (FLAC 1411 kbps lossless) modes, as well as Spotify’s normal (96 kbps), high (160 kbps), and “extreme” (320 kbps) modes. We downloaded the tracks to ensure quality wasn’t subject to bandwidth and listened on a pair of high-quality Sony MDR-7506 headphones. We found there was a slight difference, but it’s very subtle. If you are an audiophile with the right stereo set-up, then the higher quality is worth it.
Spotify has two payment options: free and subscription. Its free service lets you create playlists and listen on any device (or via the website), but you can’t download songs for offline play and advertisements are played periodically. The subscription version removes ads and allows you to download songs for offline play (you can have up to 3333 songs available for offline listening, on a maximum of 3 different devices).
Settings allow you to control the quality — and therefore file size — of the music. Tracks can also be downloaded or streamed to your device using mobile data or (if you want) only over WiFi.
The computer desktop version of Spotify gives you the most control of creating and curating playlists. It is possible to do it from the mobile app as well, though it’s fiddlier. If you have a free account, you can only listen to tracks in shuffle mode. You can also control the music you’re playing from other devices. So if you have a tablet playing music in one room, you can use your phone to choose music to play through it.
Spotify Connect is a service available in some hi-fi and home theatre systems and the PlayStation 4. This lets you play Spotify through any of these devices connected to WiFi. It also works better than connecting your device through Bluetooth, Airplay or Chromecast.
Like other services Spotify allows you to sign in using your Facebook log in details. But Spotify also allows you to see what music your Facebook friends are playing in real time (in the desktop version).
Spotify’s radio service creates a station based on a song, artist, album, genre or playlist that you choose. It’s not as good as some other services. You may hear the same songs coming up a few times if you listen long enough.
Spotify creates personalised playlists for you. Each week, you get a Discover Weekly playlist containing tracks from artists similar to what you’ve been listening to. It also creates a Release Radar list of newly released music from bands it thinks you like. On the mobile app, you can listen to daily playlists, similar to Discover Weekly, but broken down into genres. There is also a range of curated and updated playlists for various genres and “moods” (party, relaxing, working out, etc).
Apple Music allows you to make playlists and radio stations. There is currently only a subscription version available, but the free trial lasts three months (as opposed to the usual month). You can download tracks for offline use as well. It works in conjunction with the iTunes store, allowing you to add any track you like to “My Music”. It is an Apple-only product for mobile but works on any computer running iTunes.
When you first sign in Apple Music tries to get an idea of what music you like by asking about genres and artists and getting you to rank them. There is also a Genius service that makes guesses about music you might like. The connected Apple Match service will add music to Apple Music based on what you have in your existing music selection. So, for example, if you own the CD of David Bowie’s Blackstar and imported the songs on to your computer, Apple Match will automatically find the same songs in its catalogue and add them to all your devices. This is useful if you have a hard-to-find music collection.
Apple Music’s most interesting feature is a live radio station called Beats 1 featuring actual DJs playing tracks. As tracks play, you can add the songs to “My Music” or to your playlists. All of the DJ sets are available after the live broadcast as well (without the DJ banter). Beats 1 is fun, but contains advertising and segues between songs with DJs talking, like regular radio.
Apple music also has curated playlists made by “tastemakers”. These cover moods as well as genres and artists. These curated lists influence what you’ll get when creating your own station based on a particular artist, track or album.
While using Apple Music through iTunes on the desktop, the controls are unintuitive and confusing. It works better on an iPhone or iPad, but still isn’t what I would call “easy to use”. It’s difficult adding songs to playlists and to return back to where you came from after doing so.
There is also no connection between Apple Music on the desktop and your mobile devices. So you can’t control one with the other (useful for playing music in other rooms). However, the integration with Apple products means you can do cool things like use Siri to “Play some music that’s like Nicki Minaj” or “Play the most popular song from last year”.
Apple Music also has curated pages for artists. You can subscribe and follow your favourite artists, when they release concert details, or art, or anything they (or their management team) like.
Price: Free or $7/month
Pandora has two payment options: free and subscription. The free version plays advertisements, and gives you a limited number of song skips. The paid subscription removes advertisements, serves higher-quality audio, allows you to skip more songs, and you can use a mobile or desktop app.
Pandora is an internet radio station. Instead of making playlists, you create stations based on pieces of information you add. So instead of basing it on one song or artist, you can add various artists and songs until you get something you think you’d like. For example, you might be interested in songs that are like both Neko Case and Beyoncé. The general consensus of Pandora users is they use it because its suggestion system feels more sophisticated than other streaming services.
It also gives you examples of why songs are similar. To continue the example above when the stream starts you may see a message like: I Don't Blame You by Cat Power. Based on what you've told us so far, we're playing this track because it features mellow rock instrumentation, a subtle use of vocal counterpoint, a subtle use of vocal harmony, a prominent rhythm piano part and repetitive melodic phrasing.”
Pandora offers various pre-made stations based on genres or groupings such as country, hip hop or new releases. If you like a song, there’s a “buy” button that allows you to purchase the whole album (though often this is a CD from Amazon).
There’s an app for playing Pandora through your phone, even on the free subscription. There’s no way to download songs for offline listening, or to control mobile data usage except by changing music quality.
Google Play Unlimited Music
Google’s Unlimited Music service allows you to make playlists and radio stations. You can also download tracks for offline use. Unlimited Music automatically imports any music you have purchased with iTunes and any playlist you made using iTunes. Google will make suggestions for new music based on what you import.
The free version only lets you play music you have imported or purchased separately through Google’s music store.
Obviously Unlimited is connected to your Google account. So you’ll see music suggestions based on what your friends are listening to. It also comes standard on Android phones.
The most annoying thing with Unlimited Music on your computer is there’s no desktop app, you have to play it in your browser. So if you refresh the page or accidentally close the tab, your music queue or radio station disappears.
Price: $13 or $26/month
Tidal is a subscription service with two different payment plans. The more expensive option offers higher-quality FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) lossless files at 1141 kbps. There is a subtle difference in quality on some tracks, but you should only take this option if you have very good audio gear and hearing.
Tidal’s point of difference is it’s an artist-owned coalition. It claims artists are paid more for plays on Tidal than on other services. Despite this, there seemed to be more missing artists and albums than other services. While mainstream artists are well represented I couldn’t find music from less well-known artists (for example: Childish Gambino, alt-J, and Fat Freddy’s Drop are all unavailable).
Tidal also offers music videos and curated playlists, with an emphasis on promoting new music.
Where Tidal shines is in the depth of information about each artist, album and track. Each artist and album has a lengthy blurb written about them. Clicking on more info for a track or album gives a list of everybody who worked on it, from the writers to the producers to any extra musicians who were brought in.
Price: Free or $15/month
Despite the rise of streaming services, YouTube is still the number one way people listen to music online. YouTube Music is an app that takes music videos and puts them into a playlist and radio station format to play on your devices.
YouTube Music is part of YouTube’s Red service (see Streaming video services). Subscribing to Red unlocks the YouTube Music offline options and removes ads. But you can also use YouTube Music for free.
In the app there’s a switch to change between video and audio-only modes, so you don’t always have a video on your screen.
Stations start by you playing a song and the app chooses the next songs, progressively learning what you do and don’t like. The music keeps playing even if you turn your screen off.
Soundcloud is a free service where artists can release music. You can create lists of your favourite tracks or listen to a single artist or genre. Many artists and labels use Soundcloud to release tracks with a link to places where you can buy it.
Soundcloud is a good way to find new music and rare recordings or remixes. Original music uploaded to the service can be downloaded for offline play. Don’t expect to find many full albums here or new releases.
iHeartRadio is a free service where you can listen to tracks or live radio. You can create a radio station based on a particular artist or listen to an actual radio station broadcast, including lots of New Zealand offerings, over the internet.
The ability to listen to actual radio and similar broadcasts is what sets iHeart Radio apart from other streaming services. This includes many New Zealand radio stations. When you sign up, the site asks you about what you like so it can suggest stations and artists to you.
Because the system is live radio there is no option to download tracks to your mobile device for offline listening. This means you’ll be streaming over WiFi or mobile data, so watch your data usage.