By Justin Kresse
Let’s face it. Streaming music is convenient, and if modern technology has taught us one thing, it’s that convenience is king. Sure, vinyl and even CD and cassette sales are making a comeback, but you can trust that streaming services are here to stay. So if streaming is sticking around, maybe it’s finally time for you to sign up, or maybe you’re thinking about switching platforms. Well fear not, because I intend to go through all of the major music streaming players to see which one is right for you.
First let’s cover what to look for when comparing services. One new technology that’s become popular recently for streaming services is high-resolution audio. Many music streaming services previously used audio that wasn’t the best quality. The songs on these platforms took the original song file and reduced the sampling rate, reducing the amount of audio information. Streaming services like Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz have offered streaming of higher-quality, uncompressed audio for some time. More recently though, Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited have both added this feature as well. Last year, Spotify announced that they were working on high-resolution music for their service. They even said they’d start rolling the feature out in 2021, but it’s not available yet, and I’m not expecting it to come out soon.
The other streaming service companies have been touting high-resolution audio as a breakthrough, but it will only make a difference to a select few. Mainly, it could be a factor worth considering for audiophiles using either decent wired earbuds, headphones or another music system that supports high-resolution audio playback. If you listen through Bluetooth devices like AirPods, you don’t need to worry about it because it only supports compressed audio. If you’re interested in learning more or want to test if you can tell the difference between compressed and uncompressed audio, NPR has an article about “How Well Can You Hear Audio Quality” that’s worth a look.
Another feature that some music streaming services have been using recently is music mixed in Dolby Atmos. Dolby is a company that has created a lot of formats for theater surround sound, and their recent Dolby Atmos format utilizes point-based surround sound processing to create extremely immersive sound. Of course the most likely way you’ll listen to Dolby Atmos music is through a pair of earbuds or headphones that support spatial audio – a technology that Apple especially has used to simulate a surround sound feel from stereo devices. In my opinion, spatial audio is an interesting gimmick worth a listen but not much more. However, if you have a home theater with surround sound and something like an Apple TV to play Dolby Atmos music, this feature is worth considering.
If you’re one of the select few who want and can use the best sound quality, then Tidal may be the way to go. They offer a lower tier for $10 a month ($5 for students) that gives you access to all their songs in CD quality, uncompressed audio. However, if you want that extra quality or you want to try out Dolby Atmos music (though it has a smaller selection of Atmos songs), you can upgrade to the HiFi Plus option for $20 a month ($10 for students), which also comes with songs in Master Quality Audio and even higher sample rates and bit rates compared to CD quality.
For those who can settle a little, Amazon Music Unlimited for $10 a month ($8 for Prime members or a dollar for students) has high-resolution audio even better than CD quality, though no Master Quality Audio. It also has a large selection of songs in Dolby Atmos as well as Sony’s 360 reality audio. This should be more than enough for 99 percent of users to get a taste of all the possibilities in music streaming today. Amazon also offers Amazon Music Prime, which is included free with a Prime subscription and gives users access to a significantly narrower selection of Amazon’s music catalog with the option to download songs and no ads. However, it’s limited to compressed audio and doesn’t have Atmos or 360 music.
Apple Music is comparable to Amazon’s Music Unlimited service at the same $10 a month ($5 for students including Apple TV+). Apple also includes high-resolution audio – again no Master Quality Audio – and Dolby Atmos music with their service. Apple doesn’t have any free options though. The main difference between Apple and Amazon is probably their music libraries, so if you’re debating between them, it might be a good idea to get a trial of each and see which one has your favorite songs and whether they’re both in Atmos or what quality audio they use – if that’s important to you. If you’re listening to mainstream music both should have what you’re looking for, so price could also be a significant factor – or extra included services.
Spotify, while not offering high-resolution audio or spatial audio as of this writing, does have a very large collection of music – some of them even being songs that artists recorded specifically for the service. The playlist sharing and searching does allow you to discover new music a little easier though, and their student plan of $5 a month with Hulu and Showtime is a compelling deal ($10 a month regular not including Hulu or Showtime). After all, high-resolution audio and Dolby Atmos are not going to be important for a lot of listeners, so why not get the best deal?
Spotify’s free tier is also probably the best music service for those who don’t want to pay anything. It does add commercials intermittently as well as only allows mobile users to shuffle music instead of playing specific songs. (Quick trick: If you really need to play a single song but it goes to an ad when you click play, close out of the app and relaunch it to play the song right away.) It does give you access to their whole music catalog and you can always switch to a computer or tablet if you need to select a specific song.
There are plenty of great options for music streaming services to pick. Spotify is the most popular with 165 million subscribers as of January 2022 compared to the 88 million subscribers of Apple Music and 70 million for Amazon Music. However, if you’re looking for more features, Spotify is probably not the way to go. Amazon and Apple both offer more for similar prices. And if music quality is more important to you than cost, you might want to join Tidal’s 3 million subscribers.