Streaming music is where it's at for music lovers. Music services offer listen-anywhere convenience, variety, and a reasonable price, plus features like playlists and recommendations that vinyl and MP3s just can't deliver. Your streaming-music options are better than ever, but the services are in flux, with new ones popping up and old ones closing up shop.
Much has changed in just the past couple years. In 2014, streaming service revenue eclipsed CD sales, and 98.7 percent of music-listening experiences were streams. Apple realized that the iTunes download model was in danger and released Apple Music in 2015 to compete with streaming power players like Pandora and Spotify. Jay-Z's Tidal, released in 2015 to much fanfare, quickly drifted from memory. In late 2015, Pandora poached Rdio, and YouTube Music launched. As 2015 comes to an end, music-streaming services only continue to grow in popularity, and none more than Spotify, which earlier this month eclipsed Pandora as the No. 1 music-streaming service, just in time to share its capsule of the year in music.
We agree with the masses: Spotify is the best service for us. Read on for our guide to the big six streaming services, from Spotify to YouTube Music, to figure out which one has the right mix of music, features, and device compatibility for you.
For its affordable price, excellent sound quality, extensive song catalog, and innovative features, Spotify tops our list for streaming music.
A free Spotify account is adequate for your desktop or tablet: You can choose what you want to listen to (up to 30 million songs and 1.5 billion playlists) and can create your own playlists, but you have to put up with ads. On mobile, however, the free version means you have ads plus diminished sound quality (160 kbps), and you're forced to listen in shuffle mode -- you can choose artist or album but not song.
A Spotify premium account delivers unlimited on-demand music streaming and playlist building for $9.99 per month on all types of devices, including your TV over Chromecast. A three-month trial costs 99 cents per month, if you'd like to try before you buy. A premium account comes ad-free, with unlimited skips, offline listening, shuffle play, and high-quality audio at 320 kbps. Spotify recently added Concerts, which alerts you when your favorite artists are in town; Running, which provides a playlist to match your running speed; and Party mode for easy beat matching when you're creating a playlist.
Pandora may not offer on-demand music like Spotify, but that's not its wheelhouse. What Pandora provides is a tailored experience for listeners, rooted in its trademark music genome project -- a taxonomy of music info collected by a team of musicologists. Enter a genre, artist, or composer and you'll get a playlist with similar artists and genres that you may like. Out of all the radio stations we've experienced, including Rhapsody and Beats 1, Pandora has stayed truest to the artist and/or genre we selected, while also offering up similar artists -- many of whom we had never heard of -- that are now some of our favorites.
For $4.99 per month or an annual subscription of $54.98 (only available through Pandora's website), you get ad-free music, fewer timeouts, more skips, and the ability to listen on any of your supported devices, including Amazon Kindle. You also get improved, 192-kbps audio quality (in comparison to the free 128 kbps) and custom skins over the Web. You can try before you buy with a free one-week trial.
Google Play Music requests your favorite artists and genres and, like Pandora, uses them as jumping-off points for fun playlists filled with similar artists and genres, which you can listen to on all your devices. While we enjoyed these playlists, they were far more predictable than Pandora's, so we rarely discovered new artists.
Subscribe for ad-free, on-demand access to 35 million skippable 320-kbps tracks, and download them to your devices for offline listening. After a 30-day free trial, a Google Play Music subscription costs $9.99 per month, but now you can also get the more cost-effective Play Music Family Plan with six accounts for $14.99 per month.
Both plans include a free YouTube Red subscription, so you can watch ad-free music videos online or off-. Unfortunately, only Android users can buy tracks. But hey, that YouTube Red subscription more than makes up for it.
Rhapsody's free version won't let you hear exactly what you want, when you want to hear it. If you find that bothersome, you'll want to upgrade. After a 14-day free trial, you'll pay $4.99 per month for Rhapsody's UnRadio, which includes ad-free radio and the ability to save songs, skip as many tracks as you want, and play music (at up to 320 kbps for free or paid accounts) over the Web and your mobile devices.
A Premier subscription costs $14.99 per month and enables you to play unlimited songs from Rhapsody's catalog on any of your devices (up to three per account). You can also download any song, album, or playlist. And the service includes Kids, an easy-to-use, parent-approved music-listening experience. Spotify and Pandora have really failed this demographic, only offering kids' playlists, not an entire subscription service devoted to children. You can try Premier for three months for just 99 cents.
If you're mad that you can't listen to any Taylor Swift on Spotify, then you're better off with Apple Music, which pays Swift enough to keep her happy. In fact, they made her so happy that she recently signed an exclusive video deal with Apple to stream an entire concert from her epic 1989 world tour.
Apple Music helps you move beyond your own iTunes tracks to discover new music with personalized, expert-curated playlists (with limited skipping), based on your favorite genres and bands. Beats 1 radio and more ways to connect to your favorite artists only add to the experience. Apple Music offers a free, three-month trial with unlimited access to over 30 million skippable songs at 256 kbps on all of your devices, including Apple TV, online or offline listening, and expert recommendations. Subscriptions cost $9.99 per month, or you can get the family plan, with access for up to six family members, for $14.99 per month.
Spotify and Apple Music are close seconds, but nothing can compare to YouTube's extensive video collection, which has been growing steadily since 2005 (still no Prince, though). So if you're tired of official videos, you'll love that the YouTube Music app enables you to view rarer videos and helps you discover new musicians. You get full albums, rare remixes and covers, recommended playlists, and playlists that are trending or on the rise. The app is free, but if you pay for a YouTube Red membership ($12.99 per month), you'll enjoy ad-free music, online or off-, on all your devices, as well as listening in audio mode to avoid loading delays. If you're unsure, start with a free 14-day trial.