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Finest music streaming providers 2021: Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music and extra

20 years ago, when CDs were medium number one and musicians could still make a living from selling their records, the idea of having almost every song ever recorded at your fingertips seemed the stuff of science fiction. 

Even when Spotify launched out of the blue in 2008, few predicted the seismic shift in music consumption that would follow. Yet today’s streaming services make the idea of building an MP3 collection look positively stone age. Each platform hands users the keys to a millions-strong library of on-demand music, often available to stream in CD quality. And it’s all accessible via mobile, tablet, computer, web player or a growing gaggle of internet-connected devices.

But with such a sizeable catalogue of listening delights on offer, the choice can be crippling – and we don’t just mean picking which song to play next (see our best albums for audiphiles list here). How do you know which streaming service is right for you? We’ve run the rule across six of the top options to see how they compare. Read on to find out which one tops the charts.

Apple Music (from £4.99 per month)

What’s the story?

Still a relatively new kid on the streaming block, Apple Music launched in 2015 – but quickly caught up to the frontrunners. It now tempts prospective subscribers with a three-month free trial and the inclusion of both lossless ALAC music (at CD and, in some cases, hi-res quality) plus a selection of tracks mixed in Dolby Atmos at no extra cost.

Apple Music also puts more focus on video than other services, though few are likely to sign up just to watch Dua Lipa prancing about.

There’s no free tier here: Apple Music is £9.99 each month, £14.99 for a six-account family plan, or £4.99 for students. With around 75 million tracks in its catalogue, it’s ahead of the pack when it comes to choice.

Is it any good?

Like its rivals, Apple Music offers a wide selection of curated playlists based on a particular mood, genre or other unifying theme, as well as algorithm-generated playlists designed specifically for the user. These don’t quite hit the heights of Spotify’s discovery algorithm, but that’s really the only way in which Spotify feels like the superior service.

To have lossless and Dolby Atmos tracks included at no extra cost makes Apple Music cheaper than Deezer, Tidal and possibly the forthcoming Spotify HiFi. Spatial audio has more obvious room for different compositional elements, but it doesn’t sound significantly different from the tracks mixed in Sony’s Atmos rival, 360 Reality Audio, which is available on Deezer and Tidal – so it’s not strictly unique to Apple Music.

If Spotify HiFi does end up costing more, we suspect many will flock to Apple Music without feeling too sad about it. For those that make the switch, Apple has built a very solid house for them to play in – especially if you have an existing iTunes library to integrate.

Stuff says: ★★★★★

Amazon Music Unlimited (from £3.99 per month)

What’s the story?

Amazon has offered a digital music service of some kind since 2007, but it still feels like a newcomer next to Spotify. Not to be confused with Prime Music (which is included with Prime Membership), Amazon Music Unlimited is the company’s current Spotify rival. It has a library of over 70 million tracks and recently made higher bitrate tracks (which it calls “HD” and “Ultra HD”) available to all subscribers at no extra cost.

Music Unlimited is priced at £7.99 a month for Prime members (£9.99 for non-members), making it marginally cheaper than Spotify’s offering. There’s also a six-account Family plan available for £14.99 a month, plus a student plan for £4.99 a month. If you only ever plan to listen through the same Echo or Fire TV, there’s also a single-device subscription that’ll set you back just £3.99 a month.

Is it any good?

You can listen to Amazon Music Unlimited through a web player, iOS and Android mobile apps or the desktop app, as well as requesting tracks, albums and artists from Alexa through Echo speakers. However you access it, the player feels utilitarian and generic: you can browse suggested albums and playlists, make your own playlists and occasionally see a song’s lyrics or background info via X-Ray, but there’s not much personality.

For finding new tunes, the “My Discovery Mix” is updated in your library every Monday (an idea clearly borrowed from Spotify), but the suggestions feel both uninspired and uninspiring. There’s little sense of the algorithm-derived magic you get with Spotify suggestions, and not much in the way of editorial curation.

Still, with its high audio quality, big library and reasonable pricing, Music Unlimited is a very credible alternative, particularly if you’re already a Prime member.

Stuff says: ★★★★☆

Spotify (from £free)

What’s the story?

The original all-you-can-eat music streaming service, Spotift is still the go-to option for millions of listeners. Price-wise, it offers an ad-supported free tier (with some of the most annoying commercials you’ll ever hear), which restricts track skipping and doesn’t allow for offline listening.

The Premium version nixes the ads, increases streaming quality to 320kbps, enables downloads for offline playback and gives you real control over what you’re listening to. It’s £9.99 a month for a single subscription, £5.99 for students, £13.99 for a Duo (two-account) subscription and £16.99 for a six-account Family plan.

Is it any good?

It’s easy to see why Spotify is so popular. The desktop app, mobile apps and web player are slickly designed and a breeze to use. There’s an extensive library of around 70 million songs. Plus the service’s recommendations and music discovery capabilities are second to none.

The personalised Discover Weekly playlist seems to have a supernatural sense of your tastes. Sure, it’s just an algorithm building something based on past listens, but it seems more finely tuned than rivals, offering suggestions that are less obvious but somehow more apposite. The vast selection of themed playlists is great, too, while Friday’s Release Radar keeps you abreast of your favourite artists’ latest material.

It also feels a step ahead in terms of integration with other apps and services. It’s easy to share Spotify music via social media; you can use it on tonnes of third-party devices, including Amazon’s Echo speakers; and you can follow what your Facebook friends are listening to.

Spotify’s lossless HiFi tier is set to arrive by the end of 2021, but its main rivals offer hi-res audio already, most at no extra cost. The competition has clearly stepped up and Spotify will need to keep innovating if it wants to remain most people’s default music streaming service.

Stuff says: ★★★★☆

Tidal (£20 a month)

What’s the story?

Tidal launched with superlative audio quality as its USP. While it’s no longer the sole streaming service to offer lossless and hi-res music, it’s the only one with MQA-encoded Master files.

Tidal now has 70 million-odd tracks. Though not all of them are Master or CD quality, the base level is a very respectable 320kbps – the same as Spotify’s highest setting.

Tidal HiFi is where the ear candy really starts. At £19.99 a month, it’s quite a bit pricier than Apple and Amazon’s similar offerings. In return, you get a better base level of streaming quality (16-bit/44kHz), plus access to a steadily growing number of Master tracks. If you’ve got the requisite hardware, Tidal HiFi also features some Dolby Atmos and 360 Reality Audio tracks.

Is it any good?

Master tracks offer studio-quality recordings but require you to have MQA-certified DAC hardware to enjoy them at tip-top 24-bit/192kHz. Most users will only have access to the first “unfolding” of the MQA process, which is still hi-res (24-bit/96kHz) and sounds wonderful, albeit not that different from the hi-res tracks on Amazon, Apple and Deezer.

The user experience across Tidal’s apps and web player is consistent and clean. Put in a few weeks of listening and you’ll get polished personalised playlists. There are also editor-curated mixes, radio stations, sections dedicated to MQA tracks, plus albums and podcasts. And that’s all before you dive into articles on classic albums and the like.

The basic £9.99 Tidal service is fine, but Tidal HiFi is where the appeal really lies. Yes, it’s pricey, but audiophiles who’ve shelled out for the necessary gear to fully unfold MQA files aren’t likely to baulk at an extra tenner a month. If you’re listening on non-MQA hardware, you’ll probably find Amazon and Apple offer slightly better value.

Stuff says: ★★★★☆

Deezer (from £free)

What’s the story?

With 73 million tracks – about half of which are available in CD-quality 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC – Deezer comes in three main tiers. The free, ad-supported level includes six skips per hour of mobile listening, unlimited skips on desktop and a streaming quality of just 128kbps.

For £9.99 a month (£4.99 for students, £14.99 for a six-account family plan) you get Deezer Premium, which removes ads and skip limits, adds an offline listening mode and increases the streaming quality to 320kbps. You can save 25% on the cost of Deezer Premium by coughing up for the annual plan instead of paying monthly.

Finally, there’s Deezer HiFi, which costs £14.99 a month and includes access to CD-quality audio, as well as Sony 360 Reality Audio.

Is it any good?

Deezer’s desktop and mobile apps are clean and functional. Open the iOS app and you’ll see a scrolling page full of albums, playlists (of both the pre-made and auto-generated variety), genre shortcuts and the like. It’s all very familiar and easy to get to grips with.

Music discovery once again is a major theme. When initially logging into your account, you’re prompted to select artists you enjoy so that the recommendations system can get going right away; over time, your listening activity will hone it further. We found the Flow playlist – an endless selection of new and old music Deezer thinks you’ll like – to hit the mark more often than not.

Deezer is a very competent streaming service. That said, if you’re already using Apple or Amazon, there are few incentives to switch to Deezer HiFi, while Deezer Premium doesn’t offer anything different to Spotify Premium. Tidal HiFi users who can’t get the most out of MQA might fancy saving £5 a month by moving to Deezer HiFi, but right now it’s lacking that special sauce to make it stand out.

Stuff says: ★★★★☆

YouTube Music Premium (from £4.99 per month)

What’s the story?

A paid YouTube music service might sound redundant. After all, a few taps in the site’s search bar will pull up pretty much any song you could want to hear – and won’t cost you a penny to play. But that’s hardly a ‘proper’ streaming service. Any lengthy listening session will be peppered with annoying ads, while background listening isn’t supported at all: once your phone screen locks or you switch to another app, the music stops.

YouTube Music is the answer. Available on iOS, Android or through the web player, Google’s sole music streaming service features more than 60 million songs – a number which dwarfs the libraries of most rival services reviewed here. There’s a reason for this, though: it includes both ‘official’ recordings and anything that’s ever been uploaded to YouTube which can be classed as a song. So you’ll often find tracks that aren’t on any other platform, but also a lot of garbage muddying the musical waters.

Is it any good?

Given how much Google probably knows about your taste in music, we expected YouTube Music’s recommendations to be more on the money. Instead, it works much like other platforms, prompting you to pick a selection of favourite artists when you join and basing initial picks off those. Expect suggestions to improve the more you stream.

After a month’s free trial, YouTube Music Premium costs £9.99 a month. There’s a Family plan (£14.99 a month) that gives you up to five household accounts, while the Student plan costs £4.99 a month and requires annual verification that you’re actually enrolled at a learning institution. There’s also a free tier (YouTube Music) but that doesn’t support background playback, features frequent ads and limits streaming quality to 128kbps.

There’s no higher bitrate option here. The best that YouTube Music offers is 256kbps AAC, which makes it the worst in terms of streaming quality. Even the non-HiFi tier of Spotify trumps it with 320kbps. So we can’t see golden-eared audiophiles plumping for Google’s platform over the likes of Apple Music or Tidal. That’s not to say it sounds bad, though: most people won’t be able to tell the difference between 256kbps and 320kbps – especially when the beats are pumping through tinny old earphones.

One thing we can say about YouTube Music Premium is that, with its vast library and proliferation of videos, it feels genuinely different from the other services here. If not necessarily better.

Stuff says: ★★★★☆

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