Music is ubiquitous. We all know it, we all love some form of it, and nowadays, it’s easier to access than ever before. The advent of streaming music services has made staying on top of all the latest tunes as easy as a couple of clicks, all for the paltry price of $10 a month. Considering that a crisp Hamilton could get only you one album a month just a few years ago, these are pretty nice deals.
None of these services are perfect, but the summertime demands summer jams, so it’s time to figure out which one will suit your everyday musical needs. Since all of these platforms offer largely similar features – instant radio, playlists, on demand access to full albums, ‘most popular’ charts, high quality streaming, mobile apps, offline storage, and enormous music libraries – picking the best one really comes down to what sort of music listener you happen to be.
So which are you? Well, let your friends at TechnologyGuide help you out. Note that we’re only talking about the more fully featured, on demand services here, not just radio platforms. (No offense, iTunes Radio or Pandora.) Sound good? Alright then, let’s press play.
Best Streaming Music Service for App Lovers: Spotify
Spotify is the current king of music services thanks to its reliability, tight Facebook integration, and full list of features. You can get it on just about every platform out there, it’s simple to navigate, and it has even signed exclusive streaming deals with popular artists like Metallica. It’s as ugly as a mud fence no matter where you use it, it’s bland, and its web app is still lacking some functionality, but those don’t seem to have been problems for its millions of subscribers. If you just want a no-frills, give-me-the-music-now experience, Spotify is your best bet.
Spotify’s real ace in the hole, though, is its nifty selection of apps-within-the-app that come on top of all of its other features. On the desktop client, you can get recommendations from top music critics like Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, specially curated selections across a variety of genres (even gospel music lovers are thrown a bone), tools to see song lyrics as they’re sung on screen and more. Are these always necessary? No, but they add a little diversity and extra utility to the core listening experience.
There’s a free version of Spotify that can be used on desktops only, but its ads are maddeningly frequent. For app lovers and those who’d like to be on the most popular on demand streaming service, a fuller, ad-free version of Spotify can be had on PCs for $5 a month, while a premium version that supports offline mobile playback can be had for $10 per month.
Best Streaming Music Service for People Who Like Pretty Things: Rdio
Rdio has been Spotify’s biggest streaming competitor for quite some time now. It hasn’t quite reached the highs of its greener rival, but that’s not for a lack of looks. Simply put, Rdio is gorgeous across all platforms. Its clean, crisp, white and blue interface is friendly on the eyes on the web or on the go, and it’s almost always smooth thanks to Rdio’s frequent updating. On pure aesthetics, it’s the most pleasurable of the bunch.
Rdio’s approach to streaming is a tad different than the competition due to its reliance on social discovery. When you sign up, you’re prompted to follow other artists, publications and Facebook friends that use the service, whose tastes fill up the “Heavy Rotation” tab that serves as Rdio’s default page. You can still add songs to your own library (on the web, at least), but the idea is to share and learn about new artists with the wider music community. Of course, this is all neutered if you follow people with bad taste, but wiser users will be able to find good new tunes with a more human touch.
Like Spotify, Rdio has a little bit more than 20 million tracks in its library. It can be had for either $5 or $10 per month for individual users, while a two subscription “family” plan is available for $18 per month. Its free options are limited to a 14-day unlimited trial or a desktop client that only provides a limited amount of streams per month, but apparently that’s just the price of beauty.
Best Streaming Music Service for Windows 8 Diehards: Xbox Music
Xbox Music is the forgotten child of the streaming music family, but that’s only because Microsoft has kept it locked away in a Windows 8 prison. The service has enough features and flair to compete with or even surpass the likes of Rdio and Spotify, but whereas those two giants can be had on almost any relevant platform, Xbox Music is only available on the far-from-ubiquitous Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and Xbox 360. Even Windows 7 users are stuck with the old Zune platform. It’ll get a popularity boost when its web client launches next week, but it’ll still be unavailable for the vast majority of PC and smartphone users.
And that’s a shame, because Xbox Music is a high-quality product that’s only going to get better once Windows 8.1 launches. It’s a mix of on demand streaming, cloud storage and a proprietary music store that lets you rest your own purchased music side-by-side with tracks from the cloud. (However, like Spotify and Rdio, you can’t upload all of your own music to the service.) It carries 30 million tracks globally, more than anyone else, and it’s all wrapped up in a good-looking, “Metro”-style interface. It’s going to be even more integrated into its OS when Windows 8.1 hits too, as it will then sport an improved radio feature that’ll let you start a station right from the Charms search bar.
Xbox Music has a free, ad-supported version as well as a premium edition for $10 a month. If you’re an up-to-date Windows user, there’s really no reason not to use Xbox Music. TG may (may) even consider it the best of the bunch if it was on more widely-used platforms. But the fact of the matter is that it’s not, so it’s going to stay out of reach to most consumers for the time being.
Best Streaming Music Service Overall: Google Play Music All Access
This was a tough choice, but ultimately TG thinks the newest service out there is also the best. Let’s get one caveat out of the way first: Yes, Google Play Music All Access is only available on the web and Android right now, and yes, we just picked on Xbox Music for its lack of device compatibility. But Google’s Sundar Pinchai recently promised that its new service will be on iOS “soon,” and being on Android makes All Access much more widely available than Xbox Music and its Windows Phone 8 support. Okay then.
We think All Access is tops right now simply because of how flexible it is. Since it’s really just a streaming service laid on top of Google’s existing Google Music locker and marketplace, it stands out by letting users seamlessly blend any of the service’s roughly 20 million subscription tunes alongside any other track in their own library — including personally owned ones uploaded from their PCs.
There’s a 20,000 song limit on how many songs you can upload to Google Music, but that should be plenty of room for most users, and any song purchased from the Google Play Store doesn’t count towards that space (and Google Play often sells albums for cheaper than iTunes). Using Google’s music uploader is still a slightly tedious process, but All Access is as close as any streaming service gets to providing a unified music library in one locker. It feels similar to something like Grooveshark, only, y’know, legal.
All Access lacks a desktop client, which is unfortunate, but its icon-centric web and mobile apps are much sleeker and smoother than they used to be. It allows for both custom and automated playlists. Its radio feature is also a standout, as it lets you see a couple dozen of the station’s upcoming tracks and then skip or rearrange them without any limits. It only has social media support with Google+ (a stubborn move on Google’s part), but like Xbox Music and Windows, it runs almost flawlessly on its native platform.
Add it all up and you have TG‘s favorite streaming music service – for now, at least. Google Play Music All Access’ features are only available to paying subscribers in the US, but it’s available for just $8 per month for those who sign up by June 30. Afterwards it’ll be available for the standard $10 a month, a price well worth paying for any streaming music newbie this summer.