Best music streaming service for 2021 – CNET

While the cool kids and audiophiles are creating a vinyl resurgence and arguing over the best turntables, streaming music is still the most convenient way to listen to your favorite songs. Streaming used to mean sacrificing sound quality, but that’s no longer the case — it may surprise you that streaming music can sound indistinguishable from, or even better than, an old-fashioned CD

The question is, which streaming music service is best for you? We checked out SpotifyApple MusicTidalAmazon MusicYouTube Music, Deezer, Qobuz and Pandora Premium to see how each platform stacks up for your subscription buck. While most offer music catalogs of more than 50 million songs, each has its own unique pros and cons. We’ve also left out services that only play music in a radio format and don’t offer a la carte listening that lets you choose your own songs.

Services typically charge $10 a month and don’t have a contract, but swapping between them isn’t as straightforward as TV streaming. If you don’t want to rebuild your library and playlists from scratch if you switch, you have two main options — a music locker service such as YouTube Music, or the library import tool Soundiiz. The latter option can read the library from each of your music services and transfer them, and while there is a $4.50 monthly charge you can always cancel once you’ve converted your library. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

So which music streaming services offer the best combination of price, library size and sound quality? Read on to find an in-depth look at each of the services and a feature comparison, along with a full price breakdown in the chart at the bottom of the page. And if you want the TL;DR, these are the top three.

Angela Lang/CNET

Spotify is the pioneer in music streaming and arguably the best-known service. It offers a number of curated music discovery services, including its Discover Weekly playlist, and is constantly implementing new ones, such as Stations. It’s also ramping up its non-music content with a push towards podcasts.

It’s a close race between Spotify Premium and Apple Music, but Spotify wins as the best music streaming service overall thanks to a fun, easy-to-use interface, an extensive catalog and the best device compatibility. Spotify also offers our favorite free tier: Without paying a dime or providing a credit card number, you can still stream Spotify Connect to numerous Wi-Fi devices.

While Spotify recently announced a new HiFi tier it appears to be capped at CD quality unlike similar options from Tidal or Qobuz. It also hiked prices on Family plans in the US and other plans in the US and Europe, but the base price remains $10 per month in the US.

The Good 

  • Free version is impressively robust
  • Spotify Connect simplifies connecting to wireless speakers and AV receivers 
  • Easy to build your own playlists and sync them for offline listening
  • Allows you to follow artists and to be alerted when they release new music or announce an upcoming show
  • Now with podcasts!

The Bad

  • Advertisements in the free service can be intrusive
  • You can’t listen to specific songs in the free tier, just a mix based on the requested music

Best for: People who want a solid all-around service, and especially for people who love to make, browse and share playlists for any scenario.

Read our Spotify review.

 

Read more: Apple Music vs. Spotify: The best music streaming service for you

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Apple Music is a close second to Spotify, and it’s the only one of our top three with a digital locker to store your own library of songs — YouTube Music, below, is the other music locker option. There are two ways to upload your music: free with a Music subscription, but with DRM; or $25, £22 or AU$35 a year for iTunes match which will let you download again even without a Music subscription.

Not surprisingly, Apple Music is an excellent choice if you’ve invested heavily in Apple devices. If you own an Apple HomePod or Mini, it is the default subscription service to summon music with your voice. Apple Music also makes the ideal companion for an iPod Touch, which, amazingly, is still a thing. There’s also ton of curated playlists, many handcrafted by musicians and tastemakers, but it lacks the robust sharing options built into Spotify. 

The Good

  • Combines your iTunes library with music you don’t own and a choice of music lockers
  • Human music experts and algorithms help find music you’ll want to hear based on what you play
  • You can control what you hear or search for new music using Siri on Apple HomePod or other Apple devices

The Bad

  • The Android app and experience isn’t as smooth as the iOS one
  • Doesn’t work with old iPods (except the iPod Touch)

Best for: Those who want to listen to albums and songs they’ve added to iTunes or use an Apple HomePod device.

Read our Apple Music review.

 

Read more: Best noise-canceling headphones of 2021

Sarah Tew/CNET

In third place is Tidal, which offers a wide selection of music beyond its seemingly urban focus. Its higher-priced options are especially suited to people seeking the best audio quality. While Qobuz promises arguably better sound quality (no MQA decoder required) both its subscriber base and catalog are dwarfed by Tidal’s. 

Now partly owned by Jack Dorsey’s Square, Tidal offers lossless audio streaming with sound quality that is virtually identical to — or better than — CD. Tidal says its catalog exceeds 70 million tracks, and now includes longtime holdouts Metallica as well. If you’re an audiophile, a fan of urban music, or a mix of both, then Tidal should appeal to you. 

The Good

  • High-fidelity music streams including Dolby Atmos surround mixes
  • Lots of video content, including concert livestreams
  • Profiles and record reviews on every page, plus up-and-coming artist spotlights

The Bad

  • The mobile apps and web player aren’t as straightforward as some others
  • The catalog isn’t as exhaustive as Spotify Premium
  • Most high-res music uses MQA, which needs a specialized decoder

Best for: Musically inclined purists who care deeply about sound quality and discovering new, up-and-coming artists.

Read more.

 

The best of the rest 

Amazon Music Unlimited


Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Amazon Music Unlimited is the “grownup” (a.k.a. paid) version of Amazon Prime Music, which any Prime subscriber gets for “free.” It offers a greatly expanded catalog for an extra outlay per month: $8 for Prime members and $10 if you don’t have Prime. Rather than focusing on the cutting edge of music as some others here do, the Amazon music service features recommended playlists and radio stations that are grouped around artists you’ve already listened to.

The Good

The Bad

  • Artist profiles don’t have biographies
  • Officially advertised as “tens of millions” of tracks strong, it’s unclear if the catalog is quite as large as its competitors
  • The service no longer includes a music locker

Best for: Amazon Prime members who want to save a few bucks on a decent music catalog


YouTube Music

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Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET

YouTube Music is the successor to Google Play Music, and if you sign up for the ad-free YouTube Premium you get YouTube Music thrown in for free. The good news is that YouTube Music is a mostly impressive service, and Google has retained the predecessor’s music locker system. If you have a legacy Google Play Music account you may be able to still transfer your library over to YouTube Music. And it’s not just legacy content: YouTube Music allows users to upload new tracks to its online music locker, too.  

In even better news, YouTube Music offers a cleaner interface than Google Play Music. Instead of playlists, YouTube Music offers well-curated radio stations, which are the standout features. Unlike playlists, which are finite and contain specific tracks, radio stations play endlessly and are updated often. 

The Good

  • Monthly fee includes subscription to YouTube Music: commercial-free streaming on YouTube and YouTube Music
  • Over 40 million tracks
  • Retains Google Play Music’s music locker system: You can transfer existing songs from the old service, plus upload new ones in YouTube Music

The Bad

  • The continued existence of Google Play Music is confusing for existing users 

Best for: Heavy YouTube users and Android device users.


Pandora Premium

One of the most popular streaming radio services in the US, Pandora also offers the a la carte Premium ($10 a month) and no-ads Plus ($5 a month). The result is more flexibility than most competitors, and Premium has gained plenty more subscribers in recent years, even if the service is behind in terms of overall catalog size.

The Good

  • One of the largest user bases, thanks to its free version
  • Pandora’s Music Genome Project analyzes each track according to 450 different attributes in order to give better suggestions

The Bad

  • Its audio quality is among the lowest available, even on the Premium subscription (192Kbps)
  • It doesn’t really offer enough of an incentive for an upgrade from the free tier compared to the others here
  • Not available outside the US

Best for: Pandora Premium is of most interest to people who already use Pandora and want to be able to pick exactly what they listen to. We’d recommend it to almost no one else.


Qobuz

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Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Qobuz launched in the US in February 2019 with a clean interface, hi-res audio streams (which unlike Tidal’s don’t need an MQA decoder) and the ability to buy lossless music. It offers two plans — the hi-res Studio Premier for $15 a month and the $249 annual Sublime Plus, which offers discounts on the store. At 50 million tracks, Qobuz’s streaming catalog isn’t quite at the level of Tidal or Spotify, but it should be sufficient for everything but the more obscure artists.

The Good

  • The app is really clean and fun to use
  • Ability to listen to 24-bit music without needing a specialized decoder
  • One of the most affordable hi-res services
  • First 24-bit streaming service on Sonos  

The Bad

  • Some gaps in the catalog 

Best for: Audiophiles who want hi-res music for a decent price plus the ability to buy and download albums


Deezer

French stalwart Deezer has been operating in the States since 2016, and it has a lot to offer, including a free tier (mobile only) and 56 million tracks. It has more than subscribers than some others on this list thanks, in part, to its previous affiliation with Cricket Wireless. The main Premium plan is $10 a month but users are also able to upgrade to a lossless version (CD quality) for $15 a month. While it reportedly boasts more users than Tidal, the service doesn’t offer enough to differentiate it from its similarly priced competitors.

Best services compared

Amazon Music Unlimited Apple Music Spotify Tidal YouTube Music
Monthly fee Prime members: $8, £8, N/A; Non-Prime members: $10, £10, AU$12; Alexa-only service: Free $10, £10, AU$12 $10, £10, AU$12 Premium: $10, £10, AU$15; HiFi: $20, £20, AU$24 $9.99, £9.99, AU$11.99
Free option? Yes, with ads No Yes, with ads No Yes, with ads
Free trial period 30 days 3 months 30 days 3 months 30 days
Music library size 70 million 60 million Over 50 million 60 million Over 40 million
Maximum bitrate 256Kbps, 3730 Kbps (HD) 256Kbps 320Kbps 1,411Kbps 320Kbps
Family plan? Yes, $15, £15, AU$18 for up to 6 people Yes, $15, £15, AU$18 for up to 6 people Yes $16 per month, up to 6 Yes, 50% off each additional account, up to 4 Yes, $15, £15, AU$18 per month for up to 6 people
Student discount No Yes, Price varies by country Yes, $5, £5 with Hulu and Showtime Premium: $5, HiFi: $10 (US only) Yes, $5
US military discount No No No Yes No
Offline listening Mobile and desktop Mobile only Mobile and desktop Mobile only Premium and mobile only
Radio stations Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Podcasts No No Yes Yes Yes
Music videos No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Music locker functionality No Yes No No Yes

What else do you need to know? 

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The ’60s are alive and well on my Spotify app. 


Erin Carson/CNET

Streaming radio vs. on-demand

This guide covers on-demand music streaming services, and for that reason, we’ve purposely left out services that only play music in a radio format. Until recently this list excluded Pandora, but now that the company also offers a Premium tier we’ve included it here. Slacker RadioTuneIn and iHeartRadio are other radio-style services that play music stations based around a theme or artist, without you explicitly picking tracks. 

Music lockers: Your MP3s in the cloud

Amazon was one of the first services to offer uploading your MP3 collection into the cloud, but this was officially discontinued in 2018. Meanwhile, the Apple and Google services listed either allow you to combine your personal music collection with the streaming catalog, though tagging and organization can be a time-consuming challenge (your myriad live Phish tracks won’t organize themselves). Still, if you’ve invested money in digital music over the years, those two services offer a patch to continue enjoying that music online.  

Music catalog sizes compared

The number of songs offered by a music service used to be one of the main differentiators, but most now have between 50 million and 70 million songs or more. However, depending on your favored genre, some of them have a more robust catalog that include many under-the-radar, indie or hip-hop artists. If you’re musically inclined, constantly on the hunt for your favorite new band, a streaming service like Spotify or Tidal may be more up your alley. Users who are less ambitious about expanding their musical taste will be satisfied with the smaller catalogs Amazon Music Unlimited or Pandora offer. Apple Music is somewhere in the middle, offering a healthy mix of mainstream tunes and underground unknowns.

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