A Review of the Best Music Streaming Services of 2016
Streaming music services are fundamentally changing the way we listen to music. Some of us may still cling to our CDs and vinyl, but it’s hard to argue with the convenience of calling up millions of tracks, old and new, from a smartphone, tablet, computer, or some other connected device.
Streaming isn’t a total panacea, however. The sound quality of most streams don’t equal what you’ll hear from a high quality CD player or your treasured turntable on your home stereo rig. Some services may not have the Led Zeppelin collection you love or maybe the latest Taylor Swift, due to the vagaries of music licensing. Maybe you’re not that interested in always seeing what your friends are listening to or broadcasting what your tastes are. Maybe you just miss the physical aspect of studying the CD liner notes or the album cover of your own records while you listen. But nobody says you have to stop doing any of that to try streaming services – and it’s likely you’re doing just that.
Let’s take a look at the current state of music services and point out some of key features. While they’re all more similar than different, there are some significant differences in cost, quality, amount of content, and what devices you can use them on, among other things.
Pandora is the granddaddy of all streaming music services, launching as a web site in 2005. It has maintained its custom radio station model through its history while making some additions. It is still perhaps the easiest service to use, requiring only the entry of an artist name, song, or genre to kick off a custom radio station. Thumbing up or down tracks and skipping help the algorithms learn your musical taste and better tune the station. It still had a free tier with ads, and also offers the $4.99 Pandora One paid tier which offers more –but not unlimited – song skips, higher bit rate 192Kbit streaming (home devices and web, varies for mobile) , and an ad-free experience. Pandora’s library is around a million tracks, far more limited than many of the other services. Part of its strength is near ubiquity, with apps on every mobile platform, a web browser interface, home stereo devices and game consoles, and car infotainment systems. It’s good for no fuss simplicity, availability, and easy to set up, but for deeper features and flexibility it’s been surpassed by other services.
Launching in 2007, Slacker is also one of the pioneering streaming services and tends to be overlooked with big players like Google Music, Spotify, and Apple in the picture, but Slacker rumbles on with a very good user overall experience. It offers a free tier with ads, an ad free tier for $3.99 (like Pandora One), and a $9.99 tier that offers the ability to play any song or album, custom playlists, and more. A larger library rumored to exceed 13 million tracks offers up more content, and a defining feature is predefined artist and genre radio stations tuned by humans rather than just algorithms. It also features wide access from mobile and web platforms, game consoles, and some car infotainment platforms. Another important (premium paid ) feature is the ability to cache content on your phone for disconnected listening, which may be important for commuters or people on limited data plans.
Launching in Europe in 2008 and coming to the US in 2011, Spotify revolutionized music streaming and currently boasts over 20 million paid accounts out of its 75 million active users. One of its innovations, since copied, is the ability to stream any song or album. They maintain this feature even on free accounts, although listening to a specific album, for example, is only in shuffle mode. The free service stream at 160KBPS OGG Vorbis quality, and the paid tier takes that up to 320KBPS. Spotify also pioneered – for better or worse – the social aspects of streaming, allowing the community to share playlists and whatever they’re listening to. It also has tastemaker and other curated playlists you can tap into. Spotify allows local downloads, and has standalone apps for Mac and Windows as well that enable you to integrate your local music library. While it features a large 30 million plus track catalogue, controversy over streaming payouts to artists has kept some new music from artists like Adele and Taylor Swift off its service. One excellent feature for home use is Spotify Connect, which allows a Spotify app on a computer or mobile device to control playback on another Spotify app. This premium feature is great for remote control over a device connected to a home stereo and the feature is also being incorporated into connected speakers, receivers, and audio streamers from a variety of audio vendors.
Tidal bowed in 2014 as a subscription-based streaming service for audiophiles. It’s main feature is streaming in lossless CD Quality (16bit/44kHZ) FLAC format. That’s unique among current streaming offerings, and it also has the music label deals to offer 30 million plus tracks. Tidal is a paid only ($9.95 monthly, $19.95 for lossless) service, but they do offer some short free trials. The service is now part of music mogul/artist JayZ’s empire, and he has used his clout to bring some exclusive content to the service as well as artist curated playlists. They have apps for Android and IOS, and are also gaining some traction in being built in to HiFi oriented connected stereo devices. If the utmost in audio streaming quality is paramount for you, this may be one to check out.
Microsoft’s music service is another oft-overlooked offering. It has had its fits and starts, originally as part of the Zune music player, then renamed Xbox, and now a Microsoft platform offering named Groove that encompasses the media player and the online store and streaming. It is also a $9.95/month paid-only service now, and features local downloads, goos sound quality, a large 38 million track library, and integration with your own music if you store it on Microsoft’s Onedrive cloud storage service. If you’re big into the Microsoft ecosystem, it could be your choice, but it also works in web browsers and has IOS and Android apps.
Amazon Music is another ecosystem platform offering. If you are deep into Amazon’s system as an Amazon Prime subscriber, then this is for you. It is bundled as part of the $99 annual Prime subscription, so aside from Prime Video and all that free shipping, you get ad free music streaming as well. Amazon Music has curated playlists and the ability to import your own music to their cloud. Like other music stores from Apple, Google, and Microsoft, your music purchases (including physical CDs) can be downloaded or streamed from the cloud to multiple devices. Its streaming library is limited compared to other services with a reported million tracks, and the quality varies with speed of your internet connection. But if you’re a Prime subscriber, it may be all you need.
Google’s music service has evolved over the past few years into a tidy offering. It integrates a player, music store, and streaming service. Notably, Google Music let’s you upload 50,000 of your own tracks into the cloud for free, and streams it back to a variety of devices through the app at up to 320KBPS MP3 quality. It offers a free ad-based tier and a $9.99 a month subscription, as well as a family plan for up to 6 people for $14.99 a month. The subscription nets you ad-free music with unlimited song skips. Paired with a Chromecast (either the Audio or video version), you can stream your music from the Google Music app to a home stereo device or powered speaker with an appropriate input. It offers up playlists by mood, activity, and genres, and also tends to blend your own music into these playlists if you have imported it.
Apple Music is the latest entrant into the music streaming game. Its splashy launch last year was helped along by the acquisition of Beats Audio in 2014, which brought the Beats music streaming service, itself an acquisition of the old MOG Music. As everyone knows, of course, Apple’s iTunes was already the largest purveyor of digital music on the planet due to the runaway success of the iPod and iPhone. Prior to Apple Music, the company launched Apple Radio on IOS and iTunes, an ad based and subscription service similar to Pandora. It was subsumed into Apple Music last year, and just recently they have dropped the free ad-supported service for a subscription only model. Apple Music blends features of most of the services described above. It has curated playlists, you can keep your own music in the cloud, it learns about your musical tastes by a simple initialization and then what you listen to, and has its own live DJ Beats1 radio station. Like Google, it offers a family plan at similar pricing, both offering real value for the buck. Like Spotify, it integrates some social features and sharing. It offers a three month free trial for new users, so it’s easy to try it out. Though it seemingly offers everything, uncharacteristically for an Apple product it has some rough edges, and is still a work in progress. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, and perhaps you have a history of iTunes purchases from your iPod toting days, it’s a must try service. Apple’s Airplay streaming technology makes it easy to stream the music to many Airplay compatible devices for home use. And Apple’s Carplay makes it easy to use Apple Music in new cars so equipped.
There’s much more to these services than we have time to cover here. The good news is that all of them are easy to try out for free, and you can see what features or interfaces you like best and fit your needs. If you already use one or two of them, check out the others – you may discover something you really like.