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Vinyl ruled the Sixties and Seventies, cassettes helped define the Eighties, CDs caught fire in the Nineties, and digital music stores like iTunes took over in the early aughts, but nothing has made music more accessible than the streaming services launched in the past decade.
Major tech companies and startups alike are offering you access to millions of songs for the equivalent of one CD purchase per month, and the benefits are clear: easy access to a huge library of music, streaming anywhere from mobile devices, with the option to download music for offline listening, curated playlists based on your music taste, and a constant flow of new music.
All of those great features are offered by every music streaming service, though, so we’ve chosen to highlight the three with exclusive features you’ll actually care about: Spotify, Amazon Prime Music, and TIDAL. These services are available on computers (PC and Mac), smartphones and tablets (iOS and Android), and directly through smart speakers from companies like Sonos and Sony.
The Best Music Streaming Service You May Already Be Paying For
Prime Music has all of the major features I mentioned above with one caveat: its library “only” has a couple of million tracks. For reference, the company’s paid music subscription service Amazon Music Unlimited gives you access to a library of 60 million songs. Amazon Music Unlimited starts at $7.99 per month for Prime members, and $9.99 per month for non-Prime members.
With that restriction aside, Prime Music stacks up really well against other music streaming services.
Although it’s “free,” Prime Music has no ads, offers offline listening with unlimited skips, and access to thousands of radio stations and curated playlists. Those first two features are typically only available for paid music subscription services. Because it’s developed by Amazon, Prime Music is also integrated with Alexa, the company’s smart home assistant.
If you have an Alexa-integrated speaker (we recommend the Sonos One, Marshall’s Uxbridge, and Libratone Zipp), you can play tracks, albums, or playlists by using your voice. This feature is also available through Amazon’s own smart speaker, the Amazon Echo.
Prime Music is an excellent streaming service to try if you’ve already got an Amazon Prime subscription, and want the benefits of a paid music streaming service without an additional monthly cost. If you don’t have an Amazon Prime subscription, you can sign up for a 30-day free trial to check out Prime Music for about a month to see if it’s for you.
The Best Music Streaming Service You Can Get For Free
Spotify recently reported it has 271 million active users, which makes it the most popular music streaming service by several orders of magnitude. One of the reasons it’s so appealing is that the company offers a totally free tier, which is a good deal if you’ve never tried a music streaming service before.
Subscribers to Spotify’s free tier get access to the same 50 million song library, and an increasingly long list of podcasts — some of which are available exclusively through its service. Spotify has a lot going for it, but free subscribers are restricted in a few big ways.
First, you will have to listen to an advertisement after streaming a few songs. If you’re listening to a concept album like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, or any live album, this interruption will be especially noticeable. Second, you cannot download tracks to your device for offline listening, so you’ll always need an active internet connection.
Finally, you won’t be able to listen to any track you want to on a mobile device, and you won’t have access to the highest audio quality Spotify offers. You also aren’t able listen to music from a different country if you’re away for longer than 14 days.
Those restrictions can be lifted by subscribing to Spotify Premium, which costs $9.99 per month. Spotify is offering a free three-month subscription to Premium if you’ve never checked the service out before.
Spotify has become the default option in a crowded field, and its free version is still well-worth considering if you’re deciding whether or not music streaming is for you. You’ve got nothing to lose, and always have the option of upgrading later on if you’d like.
The Best Music Streaming Service For Audiophiles
One of the big knocks serious audiophiles have had with streaming services is the loss of audio quality compared to a CD, high resolution formats like SACD and DVD-A, or high resolution music files encoded in formats like .DFF, .FLAC.
TIDAL, a music streaming service launched in 2014 and acquired by Jay-Z’s Project Panther Bidco Ltd. in 2015 changes that completely. The company offers a subscription called TIDAL Hi-Fi, which allows you to stream a full library at Lossless (CD) quality. Most other music subscription services compress music, which reduces its file size to make it easier to stream.
The company also offers an even higher-end subscription service called TIDAL Hi-Fi, which allows you to stream some albums in higher-than-CD resolutions. We wrote an explainer on the differences between lossy, lossless, and high resolution music streaming if you’d like more information, but the bottom line is that albums available as “TIDAL Master”-quality will sound better than any other streamable version. I’ve had a chance to listen for myself, and the difference is immediately noticeable.
TIDAL Hi-Fi costs $19.99 per month, which is higher than other streaming services, but in this case you’re getting what you pay for. TIDAL is offering a free trial right now, which is a great deal to get into if you want to experience the platform.
One thing to consider is that you’ll need to invest in the right audio gear to take full advantage of TIDAL Hi-Fi. You can stream it through any device, but wireless audio technologies like Bluetooth will compress them, so you’ll lose quality.
If you’re listening through a home theater, we recommend Bluesound’s Powernode 2i or Cyrus Audio One Cast and Q-Acoustic’s 3030i bookshelf speakers. If you’re listening at a computer or on a mobile device, we recommend AudioQuest’s DragonFly Black DAC (digital analog converter) and Shure’s Aonic 50 Headphones, which can be used as a wired or Bluetooth pair.
Like any audiophile endeavor, TIDAL HiFi is an investment, but if sound quality is your chief concern, this is your best bet.