Picking a music streaming service used to feel like choosing a sports team. For example, Taylor Swift might have been on Apple Music but not on Spotify; Tidal was originally weighted toward hip-hop. These days, it’s more about the user interface than catalog choice. All these services’ libraries pretty much mirror each other, with tens of millions of songs both popular and obscure.
The things that separate streaming services today are the quality of music discovery—whether it’s based on algorithms or human curation—the user experience on desktop and mobile apps, what devices you can use them with, and their sound quality. Most of them have free tiers, but the experience improves if you subscribe and pay a monthly fee. We put ’em all to the test, and these are our favorites. Be sure to check out our many other buying guides, including the Best Wireless Headphones, Best Wirefree Earbuds, and Best Cheap Headphones.
Updated September 2022: Tidal has (again) displaced Apple Music as our audiophile pick, due to audio quality upgrades. Amazon Music has also gone up in price, and several services have added tens of millions of songs to their catalogs since we lasted updated this article in February 2022.
Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-year subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if you’d like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.
If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more. Please also consider subscribing to WIRED
How to Choose a ServiceFiguring Out Your Needs
When it comes to listening to music, you can always upgrade your headphones or speaker system. However, most people pick a streaming service and stick with it for years and years. So how do you know if you’re getting the right one—not only the best one, but the one that’s right for you? Here are some factors to consider.
You may enjoy music more when you can share the experience with friends. If all those friends use Spotify, sharing the same platform will make it much easier. Tyler Hayes has tips for each service at How to Make Your Music Streaming More Social.
If you listen to live recordings alone, in a quiet room, with a great pair of wired headphones, then you’ll probably want to splurge on lossless audio. (I’ll explain lossless audio at the end of this article.) However, if you listen to music while running, with workout headphones or on a Bluetooth speaker, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. Lossless formats also require four or five times as much storage space per song.
The devices or phone you own could also affect your ease of use. If you’re planning to splurge on an Apple Music subscription with Dolby Atmos and lossless audio, you will need a pair of Apple-made headphones (to go with your iPhone and HomePod Mini). If, however, all your speakers are smart Alexa-enabled speakers, you might want to consider Amazon Music, even if it’s not one of our top personal picks.
Spotify via Matt Jancer
Spotify has the best music discovery algorithms and the slickest, snappiest user interface. It led me down rabbit holes to find new artists and old favorites, based on what I’ve already liked and listened to on the app.
The free tier, with advertisements, defaults to a low-quality 96-Kbps streaming bit rate, but you can bump it up to 160 Kbps. For $10 a month, the Premium tier ditches ads entirely and streams up to 320 Kbps, which is the standard streaming quality these days. If you’re looking for lossless, a Spotify HiFi tier is on its way, according to the company, but there’s still no launch date, even a year and a half after it was announced.
There are now more than 82 million tracks on Spotify. That is minus the catalogs of Neil Young, (some of) Joni Mitchell, and others who requested that Spotify remove their songs in protest of Spotify podcaster Joe Rogan’s chronic spreading of Covid misinformation.
Spotify lets you add an unlimited number of songs to your personal library, as well, and you can put up to 10,000 in each playlist. If you turn on social sharing, you can see what your friends have been listening to and create sessions where a group simultaneously streams a playlist. There’s an option on each Artist page to listen to only the songs of theirs you’ve liked, which is a very welcome change from previous years.
Since the last time we updated this story in February 2022, Spotify has combined albums, compilations, and singles into one location, with an option to separate them. It’s smoother and more convenient than the old way of forcing you to view them all separately, all the time. Playlists and albums get their own shuffle buttons, which is a nice touch that lets you know when you’re on shuffle and when you’re listening to everything in order.
Senior writer Lauren Goode also has more tips for getting the most out of Spotify.
Tidal via Matt Jancer
The Audiophile PickTidal
Tidal and Apple Music keep trading places in our guide for Best Audiophile Pick. Tidal had the lead in the earliest days of this article, and then early this year Apple Music stole the spotlight with a $10 lossless-quality tier that undercut Tidal by half, and Tidal’s $10 Premium tier couldn’t compete on audio quality. Tidal has responded by upping Premium (now known as the HiFi tier) from 320 kbps to 1411 kbps streaming quality, which is even with Apple Music’s lossless tier. Now the differences are razor thin.
Tidal HiFi Plus supports Dolby Atmos Music and 360 Reality Audio, and there are even tracks you can play at “Master” quality (up to 9,216 Kbps)—though they’re few and far between. Newly introduced for the HiFi Plus tier is something Tidal calls Direct Artist Payouts. Basically, “up to” 10 percent of your subscription fee is delivered to the artists you listen to most. It’s a very thoughtful addition, and if you care about the state of the music industry (and the effect streaming has had on it), the knowledge that you’re supporting your favorite bands and artists could be enough to swing you toward Tidal. But details about how much is contributed and to whom are still murky.
The $10-per-month Premium tier has been renamed the HiFi tier, and its audio quality has been upped from 320 kbps to 1411 kbps. There’s also Tidal Free. In case you’re wondering: It’s free because it comes with ad interruptions. On Free you can play curated channels, but you can’t watch videos, and the streaming quality is limited to 160 kbps.
Tidal’s catalog now includes more than 90 million songs, a boost from “more than 80 million” it listed when we last updated this article in February 2022. The selection draws from the same broad swathe of genres as its competition, and it no longer leans primarily on hip-hop tracks, as it once did. All its songs are available currently in lossless format.