We definitely live in the era of streaming entertainment — music, movies, digital book libraries — everything is in the cloud. It’s quick, it’s convenient, and it helps you find works and artists that you may have missed otherwise.
So, let’s talk about music streaming in particular. There are a lot of kids on this particular block, but it goes without saying that Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, and YouTube Music are the biggest names you hear around those parts.
For the most of it, they deliver the same type of product — their libraries vary between hosting 40 million to 70-ish million tracks. At first glance, it might seem like these are some widely different libraries, but in reality — the services seem to cover a lot of similar ground. Look, songs come from the same distributors and are usually sent to all the platforms. No official statement has been made about what these “70 million” songs are — my guess is, a ton of remixes and super-niche recordings are on there. In general, any artist that is even remotely popular will be on all platforms and I’ve had no issues listening to my favorite music on any one of the four.
In general — you get the same libraries, similar quality, similar pricing, and the same basic function of, you know… streaming music. One might wonder “What are the differences here and which streaming service should I go for?”.
The numbers above don’t really provide any clear answers. To be honest — just pick the service that best suits your platforms right now. If you are on Apple, you’d be hard-pressed to not get an Apple One bundle, which includes iCloud space, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and Apple Music. Then, there’s also carriers that offer a music subscription bundled with their unlimited plans. So, just go ahead and use that one, if you got such a deal.
- Spotify is available on the widest range of devices. It also offers playback transfer from one device to the other and remote playback control, so you can seamlessly move your listening experience.
- Apple Music offers some interesting playlists, leveraging both algorithms and human curation. Plus it’s the only service that will play after you say “Hey, Siri, play music” and it’s the one that works best with Apple HomePod. Yep, it’s that walled garden thing.
- Tidal is the high-quality service for the bitrate junkies. Even at the $10 Premium subscription, you get 320 kbps AAC, which is pretty good.
- YouTube Music is the weird kid on the block that nobody knows what to think of just yet. A weird mix between YouTube and Google Play Music that doesn’t really stand out with anything in particular.
First place: Spotify
That’s kind of cliche, I know. Back in the day, Google Play Music was my favorite since its “discover” worked wonders for my musical tastes, but unfortunately, Google Play Music is now dead.
Spotify is pretty good at mixing up my favorite artists and throwing in a new name in there, which often matches my tastes. I value a good “discover” function baked into my main mix very highly — I just drop into the app and start my radio like any day, but every once in a while, the playlist surprises me with shiny new jewel. Sure, it sometimes misses the mark and I go about skipping the song, but I appreciate the willingness to take a bit of a risk. Most other apps will “play it safe” and you have to actively go and look for a special “Discover” playlist on them.
Also, Spotify has been around longer than Apple Music, Tidal, and YouTube Music, which allowed it to get a head start in entrenching itself in multiple platforms and 3rd party user interfaces. I mean… there is a Spotify app on my PlayStation 4, which can work in the background while I am gaming. There’s a Spotify integration for Xbox Game Bar on PC. No such offer from the other 3 competitors here.
Spotify has a very solid multi-device control. You can play a song on your tablet, then switch playback to your phone as you put your shoes on and get ready to leave the house. You can stream your music through your PlayStation and control the playback and playlist from your phone. It’s pretty great and the competitors don’t do it, which boggles the mind.
Now, Spotify’s audio quality is a bit of a meme — a quick Google search will tell you that many users prefer the audio quality of any other music service over Spotify’s. But it offers up to 320 kbps, so what gives? Well, thing is, Spotify uses the Ogg Vorbis codec, which is free to use and — consensus is — performs worse than the AAC codec variations that the competition uses. So — for example —, even if it maxes out at 256 kbps, Apple Music will sound a bit crisper than Spotify, with the right tracks.
Spotify also lacks a good built-in lyrics feature, which is a shame, considering how long the app has been around. There has been news of Spotify testing this all the way back in 2020, and it was officially confirmed as being worked on this year. But it still hasn’t reached us.
Second place: Apple Music
Whew, picking a second spot was actually tough, but Apple Music gets it for its looks, its discover feature, and its lyrics integration. Apple put a huge emphasis on how its playlists are human-curated and you will be listening to the top songs at all times.
I appreciate this a lot — getting a bunch of hard-to-choose-from playlists at the start is not how I want to kick off a listening session. And, a lot of the times, my Apple Music station hits the nail right on the head and offers a good bit of “discovery” sprinkled in, with new songs or bands I haven’t heard. But, I found that my playlists are sometimes a bit too… wide-swinging, or — dare I say — pretentious. You can’t play me a Slipknot song and then immediately follow it up with an old-timey jazz piece, Apple Music. I am not that broad-minded.
Aside from the weird surprises from time to time, I would say the Apple Music discover does a good job.
The app looks pretty and has a very beautiful synced lyrics feature, with a soft glow appearance and a karaoke scroll.
But then, getting around the app is a bit of a drag. I mean, it has this weird delay when — for example — you choose to dive deeper into a song’s details and tap “show artist”? There’s like a half a second delay, then the app starts flipping through multiple pages until it gets to the artist page. And then it takes another breath to load it. And that’s on an iPhone 11 Pro and iPad Pro (2020).
Not to mention that if I want to “like” a song that’s currently playing, I need to go into Apple Music, tap the triple-dot menu next to the song, and scroll down to find the “Love” option. Like… what happened to a simple thumbs up? Spotify lets you “like” or “dislike” a song straight from the persistent notification, and it’s not that hard to do the same on Tidal and YouTube Music. On Apple Music, I just rarely bother.
Lastly, and I truly do not get this — considering that Apple prides itself on having a wide range of devices that “just work” with each other… The Apple Ecosystem, right? Why is there no cross-device talk? I could be listening to a pretty awesome playlist on the iPad. But when I decide it’s time to go and I want to resume that very same playlist on the iPhone — nope. No multi-device hopping.
Kind of weird that Spotify has this down, but Apple doesn’t. Yes, I know you can tap a HomePod Mini and transfer your playback that way, and then control it remotely. But this is strictly limited to one product — what about the Mac, iPad, iPod, and Android phones (yes, Apple Music is available for Android)?
Third place: Tidal
Tidal is pretty solid, but I have to say, I absolutely dislike its “discover” capabilities. Or, to be more exact, the seeming lack of a “discover” feature.
But, the app is snappy and solid and I’ve no complaints about the UI. Yeah it doesn’t look shiny, but it is definitely functional, at least I found it to be so. Tidal was also testing a lyrics feature some time last year, but it is still a legend that we’ve seen no proof of.
Of course, Tidal also offers the HiFi package with “lossless” quality streaming, Dolby Atmos surround, and 360 Reality Audio for Sony headphone owners. I am not super-sold on these features — I consider myself to have a good ear but can’t for the life of me hear those “compression artifacts” that people claim are present 320 kbps AAC tracks. As for 360 Reality Audio — tracks need to be re-mixed and re-mastered to be 360 Reality-compatible, so you can guess that there are not many songs that support the feature yet. And I am not sure I liked the effect on the ones that did.
Fourth place: YouTube Music
At the start of this list, I mentioned that Google Play Music used to be my favorite music streaming platform. So, how did YouTube Music end up being last, isn’t it the spiritual successor of the former?
I hoped it would be. But it really is not. See, YouTube Music takes your musical tastes, which you provide when registering, and then mixes them up with the hodgepodge of “interests” that YouTube itself has gathered on you through your years of watching YouTube videos.
Turns out, the result might not be that great.
I consider “music” to be a separate art from whatever my favorite vloggers are doing on YouTube, right? If I sit down to listen to music, it’s either there to help me concentrate, help me unwind, or provide some tone-appropriate background.
Here’s how YouTube Music gets this wrong — If I’ve watched a few YouTube commentaries, I might end up having a couple of meme songs in my playlist. I watched a few covers to “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” back when it was hot, and today — YouTube Music still offers me some covers to check out. I followed the whole Last of Us II debacle in 2020, and now I sometimes get tracks from the game’s soundtrack.
The good news is that the “discover” feature that used to work so well in Play Music seems to have carried on. There’s just a lot of “noise” introduced by your video interests as well. Maybe it’d be better if I register for YouTube Music on a “clean” account, instead of my main Google one.
The app prioritizes the YouTube music videos library, so you might end up finding the shortened (and censored!) “radio edits” of the songs you are looking for as a top result, which is always annoying. But the full songs are on there — you just need to look down at the results.
YouTube Music offers a free service, which lets you look for and listen to any songs and playlists you wish, which is better than what the free Spotify subscription offers. The caveat? If you leave the app or try to turn off your device’s screen, playback stops. Also, of course, it has ads.
There’s another big player in this game that I’ve yet to talk about, and one that just refuses to give up. Currently up for evaluation: Amazon Music Unlimited and Deezer.