The digital catalogs utilized by music streaming services are governed by contracts between each service and the rights holders (artists, songwriters, publishers, and record labels). Some artists (typically influential market leaders) choose not to allow streaming. Additionally, older albums, particularly those released by smaller independent labels, may not be available for streaming. If you have an album in a standard digital format, you can use a service that allows you to upload your personal collection and keep it in your library alongside streaming tracks. As mentioned in the preceding section, YouTube Music excels at this task due to its support for multiple high-quality formats, even for free accounts, as described in greater detail above.
Spotify is the best music streaming service due to its superior sound quality, vast catalog of music and podcasts, and unparalleled user features.
The vast majority of music services deliver compressed audio using the MP3 standard and Apple's AAC, typically at bitrates of 256 kbps that are acceptable to the majority of listeners. High-fidelity services typically deliver uncompressed audio or audio with higher bitrates that has been compressed. On a pair of generic earbuds or in a noisy environment, it is unlikely that you will notice the difference. However, even an untrained ear can distinguish the difference in sound quality when using high-end headphones or listening in a room with large, audiophile-quality speakers and an amplifier. Only you can determine if this difference is worth an additional $5 per month or more.
The Chinese service Tencent Music claimed to have more than 650 million users as of March 2020, making it the world's largest by a wide margin. However, the vast majority of those listening to music were using the free version. Among paid services, Spotify is still the leader, with more than 120 million paid subscribers and another 150 million users of Spotify's free product as of March 2020. As of September 2020, Apple Music is in second place with over 80 million paying subscribers. Amazon Music claims 60 million paying subscribers, but this number also includes the Prime Music tier, which is included with a Prime membership. This number is not publicly disclosed, but YouTube Music likely has more than 10 million subscribers.
50-75 million tracks are available for ad-free streaming and download, along with the ability to create custom playlists and sync them across multiple devices. Prior to deciding on a service, these are, in our opinion, the most important questions to ask:
Apple Music and Spotify have the greatest number of algorithmically generated playlists and curated collections. You select a favorite artist or song, and an algorithm compiles a list of music that you will likely enjoy. Other, less comprehensive services exist.
After more than two decades of digital music, our ears have become accustomed to compressed sound, and the majority of services provide MP3 and AAC tracks of sufficient quality so that they do not cause discomfort. Look for services like Qobuz, Tidal, or Amazon HD, which specialize in ultra-high-fidelity recordings, if you enjoy listening to masterfully mastered tracks at full volume on high-end equipment.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have become standard features in modern automobiles, making it simple to locate the information you seek. However, not all mobile apps perform well in such environments. Amazon Music and Tidal on CarPlay have caused us significant issues, and according to our research, we are not alone. We recommend that commuters take advantage of a service's trial period to conduct a thorough evaluation.
The recommendations in this guide are based on market research and hands-on experience. Only subscription-based services with a complete selection of albums and singles from major record labels, the ability to stream music across multiple platforms, and the absence of advertisements were considered for our list. The capacity to download music for offline playback on mobile devices is also a requirement.
Using these criteria, we chose not to include a few services that were not an exact match. This list contains SiriusXM, which is more of a radio network than a music service, as well as 7Digital and eMusic, which focus on selling music rather than streaming.