A woman on a sofa wearing headphones to listen to music streaming.

There used to be obvious differences among music streaming services. But over the past few years, offerings have matured, eliminating many of the contrasts in pricing and music selection. Most of the services grant access to a wide variety of songs for around $10 per month.

More on Listening to Music and Streaming

However, competition has been heating up in 2019. Spotify and Apple Music—who lead the market—have engaged in a public battle for music streaming supremacy. Google and Amazon both launched free versions of their services, which smart speaker users can access on demand. And other services, such as SiriusXM, have updated their offerings to meet with changing consumer demands.

All these services have unique benefits and idiosyncrasies, and some may be better suited to your needs and interests than others. Below, we’ve detailed what sets each service apart.

Most music streaming services have a free option or at least an unpaid trial period, so you can take them for a test drive to make sure they’re right before you punch in your credit card info.

Amazon Music Unlimited & Prime Music

Price: Prime Music is included with Amazon Prime, Amazon’s paid subscription service that costs $13 per month or $119 per year. Amazon Music Unlimited costs $8 per month for Prime members or $10 per month for non-Prime members. In addition to a free three-month trial and a family plan for the service, you can receive a special rate of $4 per month if you sign up via an eligible Amazon Echo device. The one caveat: You can use Music Unlimited only on that single device.

Alexa users without a Prime account can also access free, ad-supported playlists and stations by asking Alexa to play music.

Who it’s best for: Amazon Prime members.

Pros: Both are ad-free, on-demand services. Amazon Music Unlimited gives you access to 50 million songs, thousands of hand-curated playlists, and personalized stations. If you have an Amazon speaker, you can summon songs using Alexa and get some additional content, such as commentary from selected artists.

Cons: The dual music plans can be confusing. Prime Music has more than 2 million songs, but that’s still a thinner selection than what other streaming services offer.


Apple Music

Price: There’s a three-month free trial. After that, individuals must pay $10 per month (or $15 for up to six family members). Apple Music also has a discounted rate of $5 for students. There is no free tier.  

Who it’s best for: Consumers who already have large iTunes libraries or who are otherwise committed to the Apple ecosystem.

Pros: Apple Music has a library of 50 million songs that can be accessed on macOS, Windows, iOS, and Android. Human curators create a variety of themed playlists that help users discover new music.

Apple Music sometimes has exclusive early releases of new music from popular artists, such as Drake. This is the only service that will stream directly from the HomePod, Apple’s connected speaker. It also has a novel feature that lets you search for songs using lyrics, which is useful if you can remember the words but not the title.

Cons: The desktop experience, which is integrated with the iTunes app, is a little clunky. If you have a Google Home smart speaker, you won’t be able to listen to Apple Music directly from the speaker, though you can set up Apple Music on, say, a smartphone and stream to a Google Home speaker over Bluetooth.


Google Play Music

Price: Google Play Music, which launched in 2011, has a free ad-supported tier as well as an ad-free $10 per month All Access option and a $15 All Access family plan. Google offers a 30-day free trial for the paid tier.

Users who sign up for the paid tier of Google Play Music get access to YouTube Music Premium (see below), and vice versa.

Who it’s best for: Heavy Google users, and consumers who want to stream audio files they’ve downloaded from the internet or ripped from old CDs.

Pros: The free and paid versions of Google Play Music both let you upload 50,000 of your own audio files to Google’s servers that you can then stream from any compatible device using the mobile app. While other services have a similar feature (commonly referred to as a digital locker), Google Play Music is the easiest to use and offers the fewest restrictions on what you can upload. The service also grants you access to a 40-million-song library, comparable with those of other services. 

Cons: The app’s future is uncertain. Google’s developers have promised to bring Google Play Music’s digital locker, the only feature that sets it apart, to YouTube Music. There’s also speculation that YouTube Music will replace Google Play Music as the company’s default music app.


LiveXLive Powered by Slacker

Price: Streaming radio is free with ads or $4 per month without ads. For $10, you also get access to an on-demand music library. There’s no trial period for the paid service.

Who it’s best for: LiveXLive Powered by Slacker—the new name for the service previously known as Slacker Radio—is similar to Pandora, and best for people who prefer a more laid-back listening experience and aren’t picky about exactly which song comes next.

Pros: Access to a variety of stations, including ABC News and ESPN Radio, in addition to the usual music genres.

Cons: The service is more geared toward listening to stations than streaming tracks on demand.


Pandora

Price: The streaming radio feature is free with ads or $5 per month without ads. For $10 per month, you get ad-free streaming radio and access to an on-demand library. A $15 family plan is also available. Pandora offers free trial periods for both paid plans.

Who it’s best for: Consumers who want tailored recommendations and the kind of laid-back listening experience you get with a live radio station. You don’t need to scroll through lists of songs or do a lot of searches—you just sit back and listen to what the service picks for you.

Pros: It’s easy to get started. Tell Pandora which artist you want to hear and it creates a channel with selections from that artist and others with similar styles, which you can then tweak to match your tastes. Apps are available for most major platforms, including web browsers, Android and iOS smartphones, and most smart speakers.

Cons: Pandora’s maximum audio quality isn’t as high as some of its competitors’. Plus, you can’t upload your own songs to the service.


SiriusXM Essential and SiriusXM Premier

Price: SiriusXM’s recently launched Outside the Car packages that let users without satellite radios listen using an app or a web browser.

The Essential package costs $8 per month and gives you access to hundreds of channels, including comedy, sports, talk radio, on-demand shows, and commercial-free music with skipable tracks. For $16, you can upgrade to Premier, which adds two dedicated Howard Stern channels and play-by-play sports, which are missing from the Essential package.

There’s no free trial, but $1 buys you a three-month test run for either package.

Who it’s best for: Consumers who like terrestrial radio stations but want more options and a commercial-free experience with the option of skipping tracks. SiriusXM is also the only game in town for Howard Stern fans.

Pros: SiriusXM has a wide variety of options that will almost certainly be a significant upgrade over your local radio stations. And if you have good cell service on your commute, plus an unlimited data plan, you could stream to your car stereo from your phone. You’ll get cheaper access to the same content offered in the company’s satellite radio packages.  

Cons: Choosing a package is surprisingly complicated. When you factor in the satellite radio tiers, new users need to choose from more than a dozen subscription options with a confusing variety of offerings, optional add-ons, and hidden fees. The SiriusXM app and web interface are also difficult to navigate, and there’s no automated way to cancel after you sign up. You have to call customer service to end your subscription.


Spotify

Price: Users can stream songs on demand free with ads via desktop and web apps. On a smartphone, users can stream playlists and stations free with ads, but on-demand song selection is limited to a small selection of tracks. The Premium tier, which costs $10 per month for individuals or $15 for up to six family members, grants full on-demand access to Spotify’s library of 35 million-plus songs. Premium subscribers who sign up before June 10 also get free access to Hulu (with commercials). A 30-day trial period is available.

Who it’s best for: Consumers who want to hear plenty of music on a variety of devices and who want a package that includes TV and movies. The free tier is also one of the better options for users who don’t mind ads and want to listen to songs on demand.

Pros: Spotify combines a large library of popular songs with a series of robust playlists. These playlists are often geared toward specific activities and genres, helping consumers find music for, say, the gym or long car trips. Podcasts and other original programming are also available. The inclusion of Hulu also makes the service the first to bundle free TV and movie streaming into its baseline package.

Spotify works with a variety of connected devices, including the Sonos One and Google Home Max smart speakers, as well as the Sony PlayStation 4 game console. Desktop apps are available for macOS and Windows, and mobile apps are available for Android and iOS.

Cons: Syncing music you already own to your Spotify library can be confusing.


Tidal

Price: Tidal has many tiers. It starts at $10 per month for standard audio quality; $20 per month unlocks high-resolution audio. Discounted plans for families, students, and members of the military are also available. The service offers a free one-month trial.

Who it’s best for: Music lovers who want high-quality audio (including hi-res audio) and offline listening. The service is also great for hip-hop and R&B fans; its offerings are particularly comprehensive, including some exclusive material.

Pros: Tidal offers CD-quality and hi-res audio (via HiFi, its top-tier service). Tidal’s library features 60 million songs and 240,000 videos.

Cons: $20 per month is steep, even for most audio snobs, and even if you feel high-quality audio files are worth the price of admission, they can use up small cellular data plans pretty quickly. And though Tidal has a wide selection of tracks that will stream at CD quality, the entire library isn’t available in high resolution. You also can’t upload your own songs.


YouTube Music

Price: YouTube Music is free with ads. YouTube Music Premium, which is ad-free, costs $10 per month. A free one-month trial is available. Consumers with a Google-powered smart speaker can also access free ad-supported playlists and stations without signing up for the service by asking their device to play music.

Users who pay for YouTube Music Premium get access to the paid tier of Google Play Music (above), and vice versa.

Adding to the potential confusion, a separate service called YouTube Premium, which costs $12 per month, includes the same music streaming service plus ad-free videos and some original video content.

Who it’s best for: Heavy Google users, particularly those who spend a lot of time listening to music or watching videos on YouTube. And like Spotify, the free version of YouTube Music is one of the few options for users who want to listen to songs on demand.

Pros: Both services come with access to a large library of songs (including personalized playlists) and music videos available via mobile and desktop apps. Location-based playlists will even suggest songs—think high-tempo music at the gym—at appropriate times. The premium tier offers extras, such as the ability to download music and videos for offline use.

Cons: YouTube Music and YouTube Premium are accessed via separate apps, which could be cumbersome for some users. And you can’t upload your own songs to either service, but that feature is available through Google Play Music.

How to Listen

Whichever service you choose, you’ll have a better time with your music if you play it on equipment that sounds great. Here are a few of the best-rated headphones and speakers from CR’s ratings.

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