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How to Choose the Right Streaming Music Service

The State of Streaming Music Services

Physical music sales have plummeted, but that doesn’t mean that people have stopped listening to their favorite tunes. Thanks to streaming music, people are listening as much as ever in their homes, offices, or any other location where their devices can connect to the internet.

Streaming music services are so vital to the industry that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) now factors music streaming into its Gold and Platinum album certifications. In fact, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo was the first album to go platinum based entirely on online plays, streaming more than 3 billion times worldwide. Streaming music services are a big deal.

Music Quality and Other Features

The RIAA’s move is a wise one, as streaming music services have become a part of our everyday lives. Most streaming music services have some base-level commonality, such as letting you create customizable channels, but a handful stand out from the very crowded pack due to their unique feature sets.

For example, Amazon Music Unlimited, Primephonic, Qobuz, and Tidal pride themselves on sound quality, delivering premium Hi-Res Audio tunes that boast uncompressed audio that surpasses your typical music stream. Considering that most online music services’ streams are in the compressed, 128Kbps to 320Kbps range, this trend is impressive.

Some services, such as LiveXLive Powered by Slacker and Spotify, have free options that let you try before you subscribe, while others, such as Apple Music, are strictly premium experiences (typically starting at the $10-per-month mark). Many services have lyrics, too, so you can sing along, word-for-word, with your favorite song. In addition, family plans, a relatively recent industry feature, let six household members sign up for a shared premium account for $14.99 per month.

There are many differences between the free and paid streaming music tiers in most services. Free accounts typically limit your ability to skip songs to just six per hour, and they feed you ads in either audio or video form. The free tiers are for more casual listeners or people who don’t find it worth spending a dime on music. Premium accounts, however, offer unlimited song skips, on-demand playback, and other goodies. The for-pay levels of service are aimed at customers who really want to explore the depths of what a streaming music service offers.

In addition, each of the reviewed services offers mobile apps, so you needn’t be tied to your PC to enjoy tunes. A valuable feature that you’ll find in these services’ mobile apps is the ability to cache music for offline playback, a feature generally reserved for premium subscribers. This is a technological godsend for folks who are frequently in locations that have spotty signal coverage.

The Best Music Streaming Service Deals This Week*

*Deals are selected by our partner, TechBargains

The Best Music Streaming Service Deals This Week*

  1. Amazon Music Unlimited — 3-Month Free Trial
  2. Tidal — Free 30-day trial
  3. Apple Music — Free three-month trial

*Deals are selected by our partner, TechBargains

You’ll find even greater streaming audio diversity should you dig deeper into the space. LiveXLive, for example, differentiates itself with ABC News updates, so you can stay on top of trending happenings. The service also has Stories, a hosted program that features interesting tales, ranging from love to horror. Tidal sells concert and sports tickets, and has an expert editorial staff that produces feature-length articles. Amazon Music Unlimited lets you upload your own audio files and stream them along wiht the songs in the company’s catalog. Most services have a robust selection of comedy albums.

There’s a lot of content to explore beyond simple music. These platforms are quickly transforming from streaming music services into overall streaming audio services.

Album art

Some Stumbles

Unfortunately, all isn’t swell in this musical wild west. Thanks to—you guessed it—money, some platforms have either gained or lost content. Taylor Swift, Prince, and other artists have seen their catalogs vanish from streaming platforms (and later reappear) due to low royalties. The issue of artist compensation has always dogged the recording industry, and it hasn’t disappeared with the advent of streaming music—quite the contrary, in fact.

Tidal aimed to stand out from the crowd, as a platform built on the idea of properly paying artists. It was also the only service to host Prince’s catalog for a hot minute (though that’s no longer the case). In some cases, you’re unable to play particular songs on demand; those tracks are only available within the scope of a themed channel. Content restrictions and missing artists and tracks are still a problem in the space, though—Swift notwithstanding—the situation has improved markedly in recent years. And Google is sending yet another service to the graveyard when it replaces Google Play Music with YouTube Music later this year.

Trying to figure out where things live and how you’re able to access them can prove quite vexing to the uninitiated. It’s one of the entertainment challenges that we face in the digital age.

It’s Your Move

Thankfully, you don’t need to wade through the numerous services to find the one that best suits your listening needs. PCMag has reviewed both popular and niche streaming music services to separate the musical wheat from the auditory chaff. Below, you’ll find capsules that link to our full reviews of 10 streaming services; up top, you’ll find a chart that highlights the features you should expect in a high-quality service. Check out the reviews and chart to discover which streaming music services are best suited for your music listening tastes.

If you’re curious about why certain streaming music services aren’t featured in this story, here’s the skinny. It’s very likely they’ve been surpassed by the 10 superior services highlighted here, absorbed by a rival, or gone out of business. For example, AOL Radio is no more, and Rdio sold its tech to Pandora. I expect to see more shakeouts in the space in the next few years, as there are so many players providing broadly similar services.

That’s not to say they are the same, however! Read on to find the pros and cons of the best online music streaming services we’ve reviewed. Put on a pair of headphones or crank up your speakers and explore the options below.

If you’re concerned about streaming your favorite tunes over, say, a Starbucks Wi-Fi signal, you need to get yourself a VPN. A virtual private network safeguards your mobile devices from snoopers and, depending on the location of the VPN server, may let you access music licensed to other regions. Using a VPN to get around licensing restrictions probably violates Spotify’s terms of service, though, so tread carefully.

  • SiriusXM Internet Radio

    SiriusXM Internet Radio

    Pros: Massive content well encompassing live and curated channels.
    Large buffer lets you pause and rewind live radio.
    High-profile exclusive content.
    Video shows.
    Massive three-month free trial.
    Useful TuneStart and alert systems.

    Cons: No free tier.
    Lacks a true family plan.
    No lyrics or artist/album information.

    Bottom Line: Combining live radio and traditional streaming audio services elements, SiriusXM Internet Radio boasts the features and content to keep music, news, and comedy fans happy for a long time to come.

    Read Review

  • Slacker Radio

    Slacker Radio

    Pros: Deep library.
    Excellently curated stations and fun playlists.
    Intuitive design.
    Useful fine-tuning controls.
    Good sound quality.
    Live ESPN Radio.
    Lifestyle stations.
    News and The Weather Channel updates.

    Cons: No family plan.
    Lacks lyrics in browser-based version.

    Bottom Line: Slacker Radio’s deep music library, informative DJs and DNA stations, along with quality non-music content make the streaming audio service the big dog in a very crowded and competitive pack.

    Read Review

  • Amazon Music Unlimited

    Amazon Music Unlimited

    Pros: Large music library.
    Cool scrolling lyrics.
    Useful Amazon-specific features.
    Ad-free listening.
    Mobile apps.
    Tight integration with Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap.

    Cons: Requires a separate subscription for each Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap in your household.
    No free version.
    Lacks live radio (non-music) content.
    Family plan not yet available.

    Bottom Line: Amazon’s fully realized streaming music service provides an intriguing alternative to the many, many competing products on the market—especially for owners of Echo devices.

    Read Review

  • Deezer


    Pros: Truly free version on mobile.
    Good crop of original content.
    Live radio.
    Lets you upload MP3 files on the desktop.

    Cons: Free version on non-mobile devices only offers 30-second song snippets.
    Mobile apps lack MP3-upload compatibility.
    Can’t rewind live radio streams.
    Lacks Hi-Res Audio.

    Bottom Line: Bursting at the seams with content, Deezer is a well-rounded streaming music service, though it lacks the competition’s fun extras.

    Read Review

  • Spotify


    Pros: Deep music catalog.
    Collaborative playlists.
    Good sound quality.
    Desktop app lets you view lyrics and add MP3 files to your music library.
    Ability to crossfade songs in a playlist.
    Premium accounts let you hear select albums before they’re released.
    Affordably priced family plans.

    Cons: Missing some high-profile artists.
    No live radio or optional informative DJs.
    Desktop app occasionally wouldn’t play an MP3 file.
    The browser-based Spotify lacks lyrics.

    Bottom Line: The feature-packed Spotify, available in both free and premium versions, is a top-notch streaming music service, despite a few quirks.

    Read Review

  • Tidal


    Pros: Excellent sound quality.
    Informative long-form editorial pieces.
    Themed playlists.
    On-demand playback.
    Exclusive content, live streams, and concerts.
    Early access to select concert tickets.

    Cons: Lacks lyrics.
    Competing services offer a wider variety of audio content.
    No free version.

    Bottom Line: Tidal has transformed from a head-scratching venture into one of the best streaming music services.
    Tidal lacks some features found in the competition, but its exclusive content and excellent audio quality make it well worth a listen.

    Read Review

  • Apple Music (for iPhone)

    Apple Music (for iPhone)

    Pros: Streams the vast majority of the iTunes song library.
    Exclusive albums and Apple’s Beats 1 radio station.
    Ad-free music videos.
    Siri and Apple Watch integration.
    90-day free trial.

    Cons: Buggy.
    Missing some big songs.
    Curation could be more specialized.
    Lackluster social media features.

    Bottom Line: Apple Music may be a me-too to Spotify, but the service does have the library, the brands, and some exclusive features that make it a serious streaming-music competitor.

  • iHeartRadio


    Pros: Many live and curated artist streams.
    Informative news articles and event listings.
    Free plan.

    Cons: Plus plan lacks a web version.
    Unable to rewind live radio.
    Bland interface.
    lacks Hi-Res Audio tracks.

    Bottom Line: iHeartRadio culls live radio, customizable stations, and podcasts in an impressive package. That said, the streaming music service lacks features, like curated artist streams, that its chief rival offers.

    Read Review

  • YouTube Music

    YouTube Music

    Pros: Cool location- and time-based playlists.
    Numerous videos.
    Can search for songs by lyrics.
    Comedy tracks.
    Family Plan.
    Free version.

    Cons: Doesn’t offer much non-music programming.

    Bottom Line: YouTube Music leverages search giant Google’s massive database to deliver music and video to desktop and mobile. Though it isn’t a groundbreaking streaming audio service, it does have a few interesting aspects.

    Read Review

  • Pandora


    Pros: Free plan.
    Pandora Stories offers insightful album commentary.
    Displays artist tour and ticket information.

    Cons: Odd listening requirement with free tier.
    Playlist creation walled behind Premium tier.
    Website occasionally slow to load.
    Interface lacks visual cohesiveness.
    Lacks Hi-Res Audio tracks.

    Bottom Line: The once-pioneering streaming music platform finally has the feature set to compete with rival services, though it’s nowhere near dethroning the top players.

    Read Review

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