Which Streaming Music Service Sounds the Best?
It's no secret that digital streaming services are now one of the main ways in which people listen to music. In fact, according to Nielsen, streaming audio now accounts for the majority of music consumption at 54% of all listening, which is a number that will only continue to rise in the future.
There are two big drivers in the popularity of streaming audio; first that it's convenient. There's no need to dig through piles of physical media cluttering up your home when it's all digital. Furthermore, streaming media offers a sort of middle ground between your own carefully curated playlist and the more generic catch-all approach of terrestrial radio. You don't have to think of exactly what you want to listen to when you log into Spotify, Pandora or YouTube, as each of these platforms will present you with a myriad of choices based on your previous activity. Then once you start in, they'll just keep on serving you more tracks that the algorithms have predicted you will probably enjoy.
Besides just the convenience factor, there's the price. Many services offer what's known as "freemium" pricing, with basic plans with ads being no cost and then plans with upgraded features available starting in the $4.99 to $9.99/month range. Even at $9.99/month these streaming plans are a huge bargain in terms of music's historical pricing. Since streaming services operate on a "all you can eat" model, you could easily listen to over 100 hours of music per month. Basically, if you are a big time user of one of the audio streaming plans, you are paying mere pennies per hour to listen to curated music tailored to your tastes. Since streaming music is both easy and cheap, it's no wonder that its popularity is sky rocketing.
High Quality Streaming Music: Does it Exist?
But what about streaming music audio quality? What is your money actually buying you in addition to the accessibility? Before we get into it, a quick note on the technical side of things, for the rest of this article we're going to refer to "kbps" which stands for kilobits per second. So when we say kbps, we are referring to the bit rate, or how many bits of data per second is used to encode the audio stream and then play it back. The higher the number, the more data is used per second, which results in higher fidelity sound that is more true to the original source. With that out of the way, let's take a look at what each service provides in terms of the streaming music audio quality.
First up is Spotify, which is the 800 lb. gorilla of music streaming, boasting an impressive 170 million total users and 75 million paying subscribers. With its stock solidly in the green a couple months after its IPO, it looks like Spotify won't be going anywhere for quite some time. So if you decide to join the most popular streaming service what type of audio will you get? For mobile, the default audio setting is 96 kbps and for web it is 160 kbps in the Ogg Vorbis format. Now if you are using the free service, that's all you're going to get. However, in the paid version you have the option of increasing the quality to "extreme", which is 320 kbps and is the highest bit rate you will get without going to a lossless format.
Apple Music is the second biggest player in terms of paid subscriptions, with around 40 million subscribers and plans starting at $9.99/month. Of course the big advantage is seamless integration with iTunes and the well regarded Beats 1 Radio programming. The audio quality is always set at 256 kbps AAC for desktop use and you can get 256 kpbs via mobile by selecting "high quality" in the "Playback" settings of the app. It's worth mentioning that AAC is a better compression scheme with less loss than Spotify's Ogg Vorbis, so the 256 kbps from Apple Music is fairly equivalent to the 320 setting for Spotify.
Pandora was one of the innovators in the streaming music arena, when their service launched back in 2005 it was one of the only games in town and they deserve credit for pioneering the idea of algorithm powered personalized radio. These days you can use Pandora's free version or pay $4.99 or $9.99/month for their tiered subscriptions. Pandora also uses AAC files for compression at a bit rate of 128 kbps for the free version and 192 kbps for the $4.99 or $9.99 options. Pandora is definitely flagging behind both Spotify and Apple Music in the quality department. However, given that you can't choose the exact track you want to hear when using Pandora, it's really the digital equivalent of a radio station and in many respects designed for more of a passive, background type experience. Which is probably why it has an impressive 80 million users, but only about four million subscribers.
Next is YouTube, which is about as bare bones as it gets when it comes to an audio streaming service. Of course it really was never intended to be a music streaming platform, but millions of people everyday use it as such. In fact, so many people look to YouTube as a music streaming service that they have recently launched a new version of their music app YouTube Music, as a subscription service. It offers ad free and fully licensed music for, you guessed it, $9.99/month. Now curiously the audio quality on YouTube Music is only 128 kpbs in the AAC format for mobile and OPUS for web. That's actually the same as the SD audio quality on the free version of YouTube and lower than the 192 kpbs HD videos. So in some cases from a quality standpoint, you'll actually be better off going with regular old YouTube. Now YouTube Music says there will be an option to choose 256 kbps audio soon, but why they would launch without this feature is a big head scratcher. In any event, it's a pretty safe bet that the whole idea of people paying to listen to music through YouTube is going to be pretty much DOA. You can't take what people have been getting for free for years and then start charging for it with much success, especially if there isn't much or any increase in quality. Remember when satellite radio was going to conquer terrestrial back in the early 2000s? Yeah, it didn't really work out that way.
And then there's Tidal, the Rolls Royce of music streaming services owned in part by musicians, most notably power couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé. To answer the question of which music service sounds the best, the answer is simple, it's Tidal. Tidal is the only one to offer lossless, CD quality music streaming. Or in bit rate, a whopping 1411 kbps. But you're going to pay more for that level of fidelity, to the tune of $19.99/month. Tidal does have a "premium" pricing level with 320 kbps AAC files for $9.99/month. So even its $9.99/month tier has better sound quality than all of its competitors, since it provides the highest available non-lossless bit rate with the best compression scheme in AAC. The other big selling point is that Tidal features exclusive content, most recently from Jay-Z and the Queen Bee herself in the form of their joint album titled "Everything is Love". But this time around that exclusivity only lasted two days as the album was up for streaming on Apple Music and Spotify the Monday after it debuted on Tidal over the weekend. So it looks like going forward, if you aren't the type that needs to hear music the day its released, Tidal's exclusive content isn't going to be a huge advantage. You also have to wonder exactly why the album was turned over to the competition so quickly. And Tidal has had no shortage of drama lately, after being accused of vastly overstating its streaming numbers. Additionally, its refusal to release subscriber totals for the last two years doesn't exactly scream confidence either. While Tidal does have a month long free trial, the lack of a free version probably isn't helping the company grow its subscriber base. For strictly audio quality Tidal is the clear winner, but in terms of longevity it seems the prognosis of the company is still very much up in the air.