Last year, members of the Recording Industry Association of America reported that music streaming services now represented their biggest source of revenue, edging ahead of digital downloads, CDs, and vinyl records in sales.
This year, streaming music services continue to evolve as competition heats up. For instance, Pandora is now rolling out its first ever on-demand streaming tier, Pandora Premium, for $10 per month. This new top-tier service is being offered to current Pandora Plus subscribers, who already pay $5 monthly, for a half-year at no additional charge.
And Pandora isn’t the only service that’s been re-working its service. Earlier this year, Tidal added the ability to play its version of Hi-Res audio files, which it calls Master Quality Authenticated, or MQA files, to its top-tier customers, who pay $20 per month.
If you're thinking about giving music streaming a try—or perhaps just contemplating a shift from one service to another—here's what you need to know about six popular options.
|Service||Cost||Best for||What We Like||What We Don't Like|
Amazon Music Unlimited & Prime Music
Prime Music is free to Amazon Prime members or $99/year for non-members; Amazon Music Unlimited is $8/month or $80/year for Prime members or $10/month for non-Prime customers. Special subscription offer for using Music Unlimited on either a single Amazon Echo, Echo Dot or Tap speaker: $4/month.
Amazon Prime members and those who like options with their music plans.
Both are easy-to-use, ad-free, on-demand services. Amazon Music Unlimited gives you access to tens of millions of songs, thousands of hand-curated playlists and personalized stations. When paired with an Amazon speaker, you can summon songs with a voice command. ("Alexa, play the Rolling Stones' 'Tumbling Dice.'") Like Apple, both Amazon music plans let you upload songs from your personal library using its Amazon Cloud Player. Using Alexa on an Amazon speaker, users can access additional content (via voice commands), such as behind-the-scenes commentary by select artists. Includes ability to download files for offline listening.
Dual music plans can be confusing; Prime music (over 2 million songs) has a thinner selection than others.
|Apple Music|| |
Free three-month trial; $10/month.
|Music on the go.|| |
Apple Music, with 40 million titles, is available on Android and iOS devices and makes for a good choice if you're a frequent traveler. It lets you download songs to fill those seemingly endless hours between Wi-Fi hot spots. It also offers exclusive content from artists like Taylor Swift, Beats 1 radio (curated by real DJs), and Apple radio, as well as Siri's voice commands, and videos and music uploaded from your personal library using its iTunes Match.
|Oddly enough, the app design and navigation tools are less intuitive than we would expect from Apple.|
Free with ads, $5/month ad-free (Pandora Plus) or $10/month on-demand service (Pandora Premium).
|Listening to your favorite artists and discovering new ones.|| |
It's like having a personal DJ. Tell Pandora the artist you want to hear and it creates a channel with selections from that artist and others with similar styles. It's a terrific way to be introduced to new music from the service's 40-million title library. Pandora is expanding the service to include an on-demand option for $10 a month (beginning March 15, 2017).
You can't upload your own tunes.
$4 (Plus) or $10 (Premium)/month.
|Curated and on-demand music.||The extensive library and easy-to-use interface let you create tailor-made stations of your favorite music. There are also more than 300 expert-curated stations devoted to specific musical genres, sports, news, and weather. The pricier plan grants you offline listening and personal playlists as well.|| |
Slacker's free service gives you less say in the selection of songs, though you can skip past the duds a limited number of times.
Free one-month trial; free with ads or $10/month ad-free.
|Anyone looking for a versatile service with a large catalog of titles.|| |
With a library of more than 30 million songs and easy access via most digital platforms, Spotify is popular for good reason. It's a great place to find favorite artists, create and share playlists, and enjoy exclusive live sessions. You also get better sound quality with the paid plan.
Spotify doesn't offer music videos.
Free one-month trial; $10/month ($20/month for HiFi, with access to Hi-Res audio).
High-quality audio (including Hi-Res audio) and offline listening.
It has files that offer CD-quality and Hi-Res-audio sound (via HiFi, its top-tier service). Library has 40 million songs, and includes 130,000 videos. Also, includes HD music videos and excellent app compatibility with Denon, Sonos, and other multiroom speaker models.
|$20 per month is steep even for most audio snobs, those high-quality audio files can quickly devour small cellular data plans, and though its rap and R&B offerings are comprehensive, the rest of its catalog can be spotty compared with some competitors.|
Editor's Note: This article appeared in the July 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine. The article gets updated periodically to reflect new offerings.
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