Best music streaming services compared: Spotify vs 7 alternatives
21st Aug 2013 | 09:39
The best music streaming services tried and tested
With the UK launch of its Play Music All Access service Google is late to a very busy party: when it comes to streaming music, you're spoilt for choice.
But there are big differences between the major players - and if you're a music lover on a metered mobile data plan, shelling out for offline access could save you a fortune. Let's explore the options.
Google Play Music All Access
Price: £9.99 / £7.99 if you sign up before 15 September
Platform: Web, Android
With the iOS app still AWOL, Play Music All Access gives you the choice of Android app or browser-based music player (you may need to disable ad-blocking for the latter), and if you install Google's Music Manager you can upload your own music library to the service, plugging any gaps in the 18 million-strong catalogue. Your library size is limited to 20,000 songs plus any Google Play purchases.
In addition to your own songs there are Radio and Explore options. The first creates playlists based on your music library and the second gives you other people's playlists and the Play charts. Rather surprisingly the social networking side of things is barely there: you can share via Google+ and see songs your Google+ contacts have shared, but you can't follow people as you can with other services.
Sound quality peaks at 320Kbps (downloads are the same), although you can tell the difference between Google's MP3s and Sony's AACs, which often sound brighter and clearer at the same bitrate. You won't notice a big difference on standard earbuds, though.
Best for: Android
Price: free (10 hours) / £4.99 / £9.99 for mobile and offline access (bundled with some Vodafone plans)
Platforms: Web, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, PC, Mac, AV devices
Spotify is the UK's best-known streaming music service, with a catalogue topping 20 million songs. There are apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry and desktop apps for PC and Mac; if you wish, the desktop apps can sync your existing local files (MP3, MP4, M4A and M4R) and make them available on mobile. The service also works with Sonos, Squeezebox, Onkyo, WD and Boxee Box hardware.
Spotify streams Ogg Vorbis at three bitrates: 96Kbps for low bandwidth mobile connections, 160Kbps for desktop and "high quality" mobile streaming, and 320Kbps for the the high bitrate setting (desktop, iOS and Android). Premium customers can save playlists for offline listening on up to three devices.
It's hard to fault Spotify: the catalogue is extensive (although there are hold-outs: for example, the Beatles and Led Zep are missing), the discovery features are excellent, the sound quality's superb and the Facebook integration (particularly the ability to see what friends have been listening to) works well.
Best for: all-round entertainment
Price: Free unlimited streaming for 12 months - £4.99 / £9.99 for mobile/offline (bundled with some Orange/EE data plans)
Platforms: Web, iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, AV devices
Deezer is a very big deal: it boasts 25 million tracks, is available in 182 different countries and supports pretty much everything: not just the usual iOS and Android but BlackBerry and Windows Phone, smart TVs, Sonos hardware and some in-car audio systems.
There are two subscription plans: Premium for unlimited, ad-free computer-based listening and Premium+ for mobile devices and offline access. The free discovery mode is ad-supported and doesn't offer the same 320Kbps streaming as the paid-for plans. On demand music used to be limited to 30 second clips, but now registered users can listen to full tracks for free - you just need to sign in with Facebook, Google or an email address. As with Spotify some artists are largely absent: if you're a Beatles or Led Zep fan you'll need to go elsewhere.
Best for: international users, Spotify refuseniks
Price: £5 / £10 for mobile and living room
Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Nook, AV devices
Today's Napster only shares a name with the former bad boy of online music. The track selection is smaller than some - 15 million songs compared to the 20 million Sony and Spotify offer - but it's cheaper: the Unlimited plan is £5 per month, and £10 gets you mobile access and offline music.
Sonos and AV equipment compatibility is a big plus and sound quality is excellent, but we found the radio services a little too eclectic: starting from Daft Punk's Get Lucky treated us to endless house bangers and ancient John Peel-approved indie led to Bad Brains, some guys from Buena Vista Social Club and Sonic Youth.
Best for: high tech living rooms
Platforms: Web, iOS
MySpace was Facebook before Facebook was Facebook, but these days it's solely a music service - and when you try to access it from the iOS app, you'll discover that it's a music service that doesn't work on UK iPhones. "Music playback is unavailable in your location".
The web player requires you to disable third party cookie blocking in order to play anything, and despite the promise of a massive catalogue of 42 million songs you'll find some notable omissions: for example, we were surprised to discover that Arctic Monkeys weren't on MySpace.
It turns out that the 42 million figure isn't quite as impressive as it seems: it includes some 27 million tracks by unsigned artists.
Best for: Americans
Platforms: web, iOS, Android, Xbox 360, PS3, compatible Blu-Ray players and TVs
Blinkbox is the music service formerly known as WE7, and it's a free, ad-supported platform. It's a radio-only service so there's no music on demand, but you can create new stations based on your favourite artists. Stations can be saved for offline access and while the 192Kbps streams can be a bit splashy sometimes, sound quality is generally very good.
We found the radio service smarter than rival ones: when we built stations from 80s ambient pop music, most services apparently looked at the date and gave us random 80s chart pop. Blinkbox was more savvy, segueing into David Sylvian, The Blue Nile, Brian Eno and Scott Walker.
Best for: discovery
Price: £4.99 / £9.99 for mobile/offline and living room
Platforms: Web, iOS, Android, AV devices
Rdio comes from the brains behind Kazaa and Skype, and it offers the best of both worlds: on demand streaming of 20 million songs and a new feature, Stations, to deliver themed and personalised radio stations with Facebook integration.
It's far and away the prettiest of the streaming services in both web and app incarnations, but it isn't necessarily the best sounding: we found the streaming audio sounded a little more compressed than we'd like, which is usually a sign of lower bitrate encoding; comparing Haim's Forever on Rdio and Spotify, the latter sounded noticeably brighter and more spacious - although in fairness we were using high-end headphones, not standard earbuds.
Rdio doesn't publish its bitrates - it says it experiments with rates and formats "to provide the best possible listening and user experience" - so if you're an audiophile you might want to try the free trial before committing any cash.
Best for: aesthetes
Sony Music Unlimited
Price: Free (ads) / £9.99 (50% discount if paid up front)
Platforms: Mac, PC, iOS, Android, PS3, PSP, PS Vita, compatible Blu-Ray players and TVs
Sony's music offering has two personalities, one nice and one not so nice: Nice Sony streams superbly with pristine 320Kbs AACs and supports a massive range of (Sony) hardware, but Not Nice Sony drops the bitrate to a barely listenable 48Kbps for offline listening and flat out refused to work in our copies of Chrome and Safari (it's a plugin issue: it was fine in a clean copy of Firefox).
There are 20 million songs in the catalogue and when you enable the high quality streaming the sound is excellent, but the web app is pretty horrible-looking and social network integration is limited: you can Facebook Like and Tweet, but you can't see what your social media-using friends have been listening to.
Best for: PlayStation owners
There are no bad services here: Blinkbox doesn't do on-demand but its suggestions are superb, Sony's downloads might be tinny but the streams sound fantastic, and even MySpace is okay if you don't want mobile access.
But there can only be one winner, and that's Spotify by a narrow margin: while the desktop app may seem clunky to some, the combination of your library and its catalogue is a winner.