The best music streaming apps and services give you access to massive artist catalogs, personalized playlists, exclusive Internet radio and so much more.
Today, we’re going to compare three of the big players on the music streaming scene: Google Play Music, Apple Music and Spotify. We’ll weigh the differences between each one and let you in on the benefits and drawbacks.
Get the freebies. We’ll point you towards the best free streaming options.
Google Play Music
30-day free trial of the All Access version.
Receive music recommendations with context.
Upload up to 50,000 of your own music files and match your music for better quality tracks.
Available as a free and paid subscription service.
Free, you say?
The free version of Google Play Music is ad-supported. Google lets you upload up to 50,000 of your own songs to Google Play Music so you can stream them anywhere for free. Google will also match those tracks to songs in their catalog, replacing your songs with higher quality versions where possible. You can stream all of your music anywhere for free and download your own tracks for offline use on your phone. Purchases from the Google Play store don’t count against your 50k, so go nuts.
With the free version you also get access to Internet radio. Google has stations by genre and for artists. It also has stations tailored for your mood, activities and situations. My favorite, recently discovered station is Impromptu Patio Party. It’s an eclectic, upbeat mix, perfect for sunny barbecues. You get limited skips of songs, just six an hour. If you’re more of a background listener or if you’re looking for a mix for a party, then this is perfect for you.
The all access version
You can try Google Play Music Unlimited for free for 30 days. After that it’s $9.99/month for an individual and $14.99/month for a family of up to six people.
With the paid version you get access to 35 million songs, on-demand and ad-free. You have the ability to create playlists, listen to stations with unlimited skips and see what’s coming next in your queue. Most importantly, you can download tunes for offline use.
Interface and experience
I found Google’s web and app versions to be clean and simple to navigate. There are social options embedded if you want to share playlists, stations or songs with friends. It’s worth mentioning as well, this is where Google Play’s podcasts live which is a nice feature for audio consolidation.
Google Play Music also has some really personal recommendation capabilities. It adjusts to your tastes and habits and predicts what you want to hear. That way, when you’re home on a Wednesday evening, your Google Play Music might offer you a selection of stations with music for unwinding, resting and relaxing.
How it stacks up
The free version of Google Play Music is like the Songza of my college days (of course it is, Google acquired Songza at the end of 2015). It’s perfect for throwing on some music at a party. If you want something more, like full access to albums and on-demand streaming, you can go with the paid version.
Exclusive to Apple content with artists like Elton John and Drake.
Three-month free trial and easy iTunes integration.
No free version.
That’s right. There’s no free version of Apple Music. The best you can do is get the three-month free trial. After that it costs $9.99/month for an individual, $14.99/month for a family and $4.99/month for a student.
I recently grabbed the free trial and gave it a test run. The experience seems to build off the iTunes interface of old, with some personalized features and Apple-only access to Beats 1, Apple’s very own radio station.
Apple Music integrates with iTunes. Your Library in Apple Music is still your iTunes Library, except now you can add songs and albums from the Apple Music catalog. You can grab music for online streaming and you have the option to download it for offline use.
Your For You section is based on what you listen to and like. When you listen to songs and albums, you can like or dislike them to help Apple show you more of what you’ll like. In this section you’ll see daily playlists, albums, artist spotlight playlists and new releases, all selected to suit your taste. Apple has curated playlists, which are put together by a core editorial team and freelancers to help people find their way through the catalog. One helpful kind of playlist is the Essential by artist, which gives a kind of overview of an artist so you can find out if you’ll like them.
Apple has standard radio stations for top tracks and genres and also offers access to Beats 1, a 24/7 music station owned and operated by Apple. Beats 1 is known for its eclectic selection and high-profile and celebrity on-demand radio hosts including Zane Lowe, Elton John, Drake and Frank Ocean.
Listening offline with Apple Music is easy. Once you’ve added the songs for streaming (to your Library and on the cloud) you’ll have the option of downloading them to your device for offline use. Just click on the little iCloud symbol with the arrow.
You can also add your own files to your Apple Music Library. Just navigate to File > Add to Library > Select the music you want to add and open it in iTunes > Select the music and right click > Select Add to iCloud Music Library. It will then appear in your Library on your desktop and on your phone for streaming.
Interface and experience
The app and desktop versions of Apple Music both suffer from being a little cluttered up. It’s not as easy to navigate as Google Play Music and it doesn’t have the cool, pared down look of Spotify. It’s kind of like an extended iTunes.
Apple Music has some cool features to add to your listening and downloading experience. You can view lyrics on your phone and desktop while a song plays. You can also grab any song from the play pane for your Library. When you’re listening to Drake’s radio show, you can see the songs he’s playing and download them straight away.
How it stacks up
This is a natural choice for an iTunes user like me. I’ve got a pretty extensive existing library in iTunes. I get that I could upload it all to Google Play Music, but maybe I just don’t want to, okay?
You can listen to Apple Music with the Music App on iOS and Android. iTunes is your desktop application for listening.
Build playlists with your friends.
Try Premium free for 30 days.
On-demand streaming with free service (!).
Spotify is Swedish (so you know this is cool).
Free? No. This is freemium.
When you listen for free on the Spotify desktop you get ad-supported and on-demand streaming. That means you can open the desktop application, search for a song and listen to it. It’s a simple idea, and one Google Play Music and Apple Music don’t allow for.
On the free desktop version you can browse for songs and artists and radio stations including artist radio and genre stations. Your music is arranged in the traditional way, by albums and artists with the inclusion of stations.
Discover Weekly is a great Spotify feature. It’s a weekly mix of music Spotify thinks you’ll like. Spotify creates your mix using data from other listeners who have similar tastes as you. Discover Weekly connected me with Electrelane, a band I’d never heard of and was very pleased to discover was indeed, totally in line with my taste.
Spotify is known for its mixes and preference based playlists and always works to give you the latest of music you’ll love. Release Radar is a playlist that showcases brand new releases from artists you listen to. Your Daily Mix consolidates genres of music you like and introduces you to new artists within those genres. The more music you listen to, the more mixes you get.
With the free version you can also get access to Spotify’s social features, can follow your friends and get followed back, create public playlists and share and contribute to playlists with friends. It’s kind of like making a mix tape or CD for someone that you can keep adding to all the time.
As great as the free desktop version of Spotify is, the mobile version is another story. You can’t listen on-demand, just shuffle play with five skips per hour. You also can’t download for offline use so this isn’t a really viable option for taking music with you on the go.
You can try Spotify Premium free for 30 days. After that an individual account is $9.99/month, a family account (up to six people) is $14.99/month and students get it for $4.99/month. There aren’t any ads on the paid service and you get high quality audio.
The biggest upgrades from the free service to the paid service is allowing for mobile on-demand, the use of multiple devices as well as downloading for offline use. If you’re new to Spotify Premium check out our blog post on how to take Spotify offline and reduce your data.
Mobile on-demand gives you all the freedom of the desktop version on the go. You can grab music whenever you want and download it for offline use. With multiple devices you can walk into your house and connect Spotify on your desktop to your app, using your phone like a remote.
Spotify also shows the local music files you have on your computer or device that you didn’t necessarily upload to Spotify. You can download these local files onto your phone just by adding them to a playlist and syncing for offline use.
Interface and Experience
Spotify has a slick, simple interface. Clutter is kept to a minimum with an easy navigation left sidebar for your music and playlists. The social features seem to be on greater display on the desktop, and while they are available in the mobile version, they’re not at the forefront and a little harder to access.
How it stacks up
Hands down, Spotify has the most to offer in terms of free service. I started my exploration into music streaming on Spotify and assumed on-demand streaming was the norm with free services. Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed to discover that Google Play Music and Apple Music don’t let you stream a specific song, artist or an album for free.
Don’t forget, if you want to stream music to your phone or download for offline use, you’re going to have to go Premium.
To me, the biggest draw of Spotify is the social aspect. Spotify users can create and engage with their own music communities. I think Spotify understands that most of us get our music recommendations from friends and family, and runs with that concept. Spotify also emphasizes discovering new music, so if you’re always on the look out for the next cool thing, this streaming service might be right up your alley.
Didn’t see your favorite music streaming service in our top three? We haven’t forgotten the rest. Here are some honorable mentions worth checking out:
Pandora keeps it simple and streams interest and genre radio. You can create stations, and rate songs with a thumbs up or down to refine your selection.
Amazon Prime Music comes with the Amazon Prime subscription. It’s ad-free and has unlimited skips. Think of this as bonus service on your Prime membership
SoundCloud Go is a subscription service for listeners to access an expanded SoundCloud catalog and listen offline.
Jay Z’s Tidal is a high fidelity music streaming service that offers access to artist exclusives.