Table of Contents
Streaming services have transformed the way we consume music and even audiophiles with a stubborn fondness for physical formats have to admit that it’s hard to fully resist the allure of online platforms when it comes to getting your music fix – especially now that the quality of streaming is getting better and better.
With the entire history of music collapsed into the modern streaming era and access to tens of millions of tracks at the tap of a touchscreen, it has never been easier to hunt down old favourites or discover brand-new bands and artists.
Here at What Hi-FI?, we’re not only concerned with the physical hardware that goes into a great listening experience, we’re also here to help you decide which less tangible formats will really help the music you love to shine. We’ve spent time with the streaming scene’s major players to assess each brand’s strengths, weaknesses and unique selling points to give you the most coherent picture possible when choosing to whom to pledge your allegiance. Choose wisely…
How to choose the right music streaming service for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi?
Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.
There’s a wide range of streaming services to choose from, offering unlimited access to vast catalogues of music, which can be streamed over the internet or a mobile network or downloaded directly to your device for offline listening.
The good news is that most services offer new users free trials – typically a month but sometimes up to three – and some, like Spotify, have a free tier (supported by adverts with limited playback options) so you can try out a services interface and curation before you buy. You can also check out the best free music apps if you’re tight on budget.
Once you decide to pay, it’s usually by way of a set monthly subscription fee, though some services, such as Qobuz, offer a reduction if you sign up for a full year. There are also discounts to be had for students, as well as savings if you share your account with another person or your household.
The audio quality of these streams varies between services. Those concerned less by the outright quality and more with getting bang for your buck can listen to compressed streams at 320kbps from the likes of Spotify. But you don’t have to sacrifice quality; Tidal, Apple, Amazon and Qobuz all have subscription tiers that allow you to access CD-quality and even hi-res streams.
As paid-for access to music takes over from outright ownership, users are likely to be signed up to one service or another for decades to come, so it makes sense to fully investigate what’s out there before blindly committing to a rolling subscription for the rest of your life. After all, when your playlists are set up and your listening habits are learned by a certain service, it’s harder to decide to switch.
So if you’re looking to try something new, which is the best music streaming service for you? Read on to find out.
Tidal has long been at the forefront of high-quality streaming, but the service has recently made several changes to its pricing structure that sees it becoming more accessible with the inclusion of lossless 16-bit 44.1kHz audio streams in its standard plan. Now, you can sign up starting at just £10 /$10 / AU$12.
Subscribers to the newly rebranded ‘Tidal HiFi’ plan get interruption-free access to audio at up to CD quality. However, there are still some perks that are reserved for Tidal’s top tier. Besides CD-quality streams, ‘Tidal HiFi Plus’ affords its subscribers access to millions of hi-res audio tracks that are typically 24-bit/96kHz but do go up to 24-bit/192kHz. Called ‘Tidal Masters’, these music files are encoded using MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) technology, which the company says allows for more efficient packing of the hi-res data, though it has its detractors. It also includes tracks mixed in immersive sound formats (Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Audio recordings).
But hi-res and CD-quality streams aren’t the be-all and end-all of Tidal’s offering. Customers in the US can take advantage of the service’s first-ever free plan, called ‘Tidal Free’, which offers the company’s complete library of 100 million tracks at 160kbps with “limited interruptions” from Tidal that will “aim to educate consumers on the music industry.”
You can access Tidal through iOS, Android, desktop – all of which offer hi-res streams – as well as a browser-based player and a good spread of other platforms, such as Sonos. Tidal Connect also now allows you to connect via wi-fi to a growing list of products from manufacturers including NAD, Naim, KEF, Bluesound, Dali, Cambridge Audio, McIntosh and more.
It may have the priciest premium account tier on our list, but Tidal’s ease of use is exemplary, and sound quality is exceptional across the board. The CD-quality streams display excellent levels of detail and expression, and hi-res recordings take this up a level. Sonically Tidal still has the edge over almost all the competition, although Apple Music’s ALAC streams manage to match it for openness and subtlety.
Tidal is also now distinguishing itself from the rest of the pack by introducing initiatives designed to provide artists with direct payments (from HiFi Plus subscribers only) that represent each user’s listening habits rather than being attributed by aggregation.
If you’re a conscientious music fan looking for the best high-quality streaming experience, with an extensive catalogue, immersive content, broad device support, and improved discovery features (and you aren’t already tied into the Apple ecosystem), Tidal is unquestionably it.
Read the full review: Tidal
Despite its critics, Spotify remains comfortably the most popular and convenient way to get your music fix. Not only does it offer decent (by most people’s standards) approximately 320kbps quality, but it also boasts one of the most exhaustive and easy-to-navigate catalogues – though some big artists, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Grahame Nash, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, India.Arie and Nils Lofgren, are absent after recently taking issue with the service’s stance on Covid disinformation.
The rest of the platform’s offering of over 82 million songs can be played on pretty much any device you own, thanks to intuitive iOS and Android apps and support in numerous smart TVs, connected speakers and other AV kit courtesy of Spotify Connect. Plus, Spotify starts out at £10 / $10 / AU$12 for the pleasure.
The service is renowned for its new music discovery algorithms, which compile excellent weekly playlists tailored to your music tastes. And the more you listen, the more the playlists evolve – a compelling reason to choose Spotify as your streaming service.
Spotify delivers an accessible, comprehensive and complete experience and even offers a meaty discount for students. Plus, if you don’t have any spare cash to spend, there’s a free tier that offers lower-quality streams supported by adverts.
Of course, the elephant in the room is that Spotify remains the only major platform not to offer music at lossless quality, with rivals all supporting at least CD-quality streams for the same price or less. The company had announced its intention to launch its eagerly anticipated Spotify HiFi tier by the end of last year but failed to do so. Apparently, HiFi tier is still coming, although we still don’t know how much it’ll cost (or the official launch date), we do know it will give subscribers the chance to listen to “music in lossless audio format, with CD quality”.
But we’re still excited to see what Spotify has got in the pipeline. As noted above, the best option within Spotify’s streaming quality settings right now is ‘Very High’, which delivers audio tracks with a bitrate of approximately 320kbps. By comparison, a CD contains a 1411kbps bitrate. So, ‘CD-quality’ of around 1411kbps should be a solid step up from what Spotify users are used to. A higher bitrate means more information, which should translate to a better sound, eventually.
Read the full review: Spotify
Unsurprisingly, Apple Music is aimed squarely at Apple users, so Android owners often want to look elsewhere – although that needn’t be the case. However, if you’re fully immersed in Apple’s ecosystem, Apple Music makes a lot of sense. What’s more is that Apple Music starts out at just £5 / $5 / AU$6 per month with Apple ‘Music Voice Plan’.
Crucially, though, ‘Apple Music Voice Plan won’t let you use the Apple Music app to play songs and doesn’t offer access to Apple Music’s premium offerings, including Spatial Audio, Lossless Audio, Lyrics and music videos. You’ll need to switch to Individual or Family plans if you fancy any of those features.
Whether using the desktop or mobile app, the interface is easy to navigate with a simple yet effective layout. The service does a great job of curating playlists and serving up useful and intelligent recommendations. While there’s no free tier, Apple has now added support for lossless audio and spatial audio with Dolby Atmos without charging any extra. The service’s 100 million-strong catalogue is available in CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) with most tracks available in hi-res (24-bit/48-192kHz).
However, there are some limitations on what kit can playback Apple’s new high-quality offering. For example, although Apple Music with Dolby Atmos will work with all headphones and Apple’s own HomePod and HomePod Mini will support Lossless at some point (following a software update), Apple’s own headphones don’t support lossless audio.
Also, while Apple’s iPhones (since the iPhone 7) natively support lossless, that only applies to Apple Music Lossless and not the highest quality Hi-Res Lossless. So if you want to listen to Apple Music tracks above 24-bit/48kHz on your iPhone, you’ll need to shell out for an external DAC and use a wired pair of headphones.
Apple hasn’t revealed the bitrate it uses for its standard streams, but tracks still sound clean, snappy and entertaining. Compared with similar tracks on Spotify (approximately 320kbps streams), Apple’s have greater subtlety and more space around instruments while its ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) streams match Tidal for openness and subtlety even sometimes sounding just a touch clearer.
If you’re an Apple user, this service is undoubtedly the most attractive and best-value hi-res streaming service out there.
Read the full review: Apple Music
At £10 per month, Amazon Music Unlimited’s pricing is competitive with our top picks for streaming services. And if you subscribe to Amazon Prime, this drops to just £9 (from May 2022), which just undercuts the rest of the field and there’s also a Single Device plan, which lets you use the service on a single Amazon Echo or Echo Dot wireless speaker for £4.99 / $4.99 / AU$5.99. Otherwise, this service starts off at £9 / $9 / AU$12 per month, and while there is a bare-bones free version, it’s pretty limited in what it gives you access to.
Amazon includes its Amazon Music HD library as part of Amazon Music Unlimited at no extra cost. Featuring 100 million tracks with a CD-quality bitrate of 16 bit/44.1kHz plus millions more in 24bit and up to 192kHz, we gave it five stars under intense review back when it incurred an extra £5 charge.
Music Unlimited is compatible with smartphones and tablets via its Android and iOS apps and PCs and Macs via its web player or desktop app. Fire tablets and TVs are also compatible while some in-car systems and audio products (including Amazon Echo and Sonos speakers) also support the service.
The mobile app looks good on smartphones and tablets, but isn’t quite as intuitive and reliable as those provided by Apple or Spotify. Those rival services also have the edge when it comes to music discovery and curated recommendations although Amazon does provide plenty of suggestive guidance, allowing you to browse the catalogue with minimal fuss and find new music.
Amazon has been coy about revealing its streaming bitrate for its standard tier, claiming to support “multiple bitrates”, but it sounds not dissimilar from Spotify’s approximately 320kbps streams. Listen to the two side-by-side and differences are barely audible: Amazon is a touch better in terms of dynamic subtlety, and there’s a pleasantness to its rounder-sounding presentation.
While it may be evasive about its standard tier, Amazon Music has gone all-in on high-res and 3D formats and is not at all bashful about it. The number of Ultra HD songs on the platform has tripled since the format was introduced in 2019 and unlimited subscription-holders also have access to a rapidly growing catalogue of songs mixed in Dolby Atmos and Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, an offering that (according to Amazon) has grown by more than 20 times since spatial audio was originally introduced to its listeners.
Notably, Amazon Music Unlimited listeners can now stream music mixed in spatial audio on the new Sonos Era 300, iOS and Android devices with their existing headphones – no special equipment required – as well as on select devices that support Alexa Cast.
For Prime subscribers looking to take advantage of the reduced subscription cost and the added CD-quality and hi-res tiers provided by Amazon Music HD, Music Unlimited makes a lot of sense and is certainly a tempting alternative to more premium services.
Read the full review: Amazon Music Unlimited
Back in 2017, Deezer became the first music streaming service to celebrate its 10th birthday. As with any significant coming of age, the French company celebrated by making 2017 a year of big change. It rebranded its CD-quality tier, giving it a new name and price, and making it accessible on more apps and platforms.
Fast forward to 2022, and while Deezer has teamed up with hi-res streaming partner, MQA, there’s no sign of hi-res audio streams on Deezer as yet – only 16-bit CD quality which refers to as high-fidelity. That puts it at a disadvantage compared to the hi-res music you’ll find on Tidal and Qobuz. Meanwhile, its core, non-HiFi subscription, falls just a whisker short of Spotify when it comes to ubiquity, discovery and presentation.
Its single user Premium plan costs £12/mth ($11 / AU$12), while a Family tier for £18/mth ($18 / AU$18) offers 6 different accounts. If you pay upfront for a whole year however the cost of a single account is reduced by 25% to just £9/mth.
Deezer was also the first streaming service to offer 360 Reality Audio tracks, an immersive format that’s a bit like Dolby Atmos, but specifically for streamed music. It’s a nice addition but Deezer has since been joined by the likes of Tidal and Amazon Music HD making it no longer a unique offering.
Thankfully, Deezer’s extensive catalogue, vast device support, user-friendly interface and decent non-music content lays the foundations for a service that can still rival the best. And there’s a free tier if you want to try it first.
Read the full review: Deezer
Qobuz might not be the most well-known streaming service, but it is arguably the most advanced in terms of file quality. Its Studio tier gives users access to FLAC streams up to 24-bit/192kHz, starting at £12.99 / $12.99 / AU$25 per month (or £129.99 / $129.99 / AU$229.99 for an annual payment). If you opt for the Sublime tier, this includes discounts of up to 60% on the hi-res downloads store – an annual subscription is £179.99 / $179.99 / AU$$299.99.
Qobuz is available on lots of devices. There’s a web player, desktop and mobile apps, plus several networked streaming products that are also compatible with the service. While its ‘Carplay Online’ feature allows users to view and launch their favourite playlists and tracks directly from the integrated screen of their car. Overall, Qobuz’s interface is nice to use across desktop and mobile, and it has more filter options in its search engine than any other service, although the curation could be better.
But to remedy this the service recently introduced the weekly ‘My Weekly Q’. This AI-powered recommendation engine serves up a personalised playlist of musical discoveries it thinks you’ll enjoy, based on the listening habits of other users with similar tastes to yours.
When it comes to the library, Qobuz isn’t quite as pop-heavy as its closest rivals and has some pretty major blind spots in its catalogue and when building our monthly playlist of test tracks we almost inevitably find one or two are missing from Qobuz’s catalogue that are easy to find on other services. But there’s still a decent balance and of course, it’s always growing so it’s worth the free trial to see if most of what you want is on there.
The only other issue is that, while Qobuz claims to have more hi-res tracks than rivals, Tidal’s hi-res streams also sound marginally better for timing and dynamics. Qobuz is, however, the first music service to bring 24-bit hi-res audio streaming to Sonos speakers, making it a good choice if you’ve invested in the Sonos ecosystem.
The service rather underwhelmed us at launch, but YouTube Music is now starting to look like it’s ready for the challenge. The user interface is solid, and the search function is terrific, turning up long-lost musical gems through its video vaults. The problem is that the competition’s quality remains an issue: Spotify and Apple Music are the mass market titans to tackle, and both already offer five-star services.
There are a few good reasons to choose YouTube Music, though. The free tier is easy to use and supported by ads but, for £10 / $10 / AU$12 per month, you can sign up to YouTube Music Premium, which is ad-free and allows downloads for offline listening too. (Students can get it for even less). Students can get access to a discount that knocks the price down to £4.99 a month.
The app is available through Sonos speakers and anything Google Assistant-powered, such as Google Home devices or third-party devices. As for sound quality, the 256kbps streams are far from unlistenable but sound compressed in a way that main rivals don’t.
Still, if you like the USP here – music videos, rather than audio – and the ability to seek out a recording played live at a certain venue on a certain date, YouTube Music has plenty to offer.
Read the full review: YouTube Music
How we test music streaming services
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door. Of course, music streaming services are software-based and used in different scenarios – in a hi-fi system via a streamer, and out and about using a phone, to provide two examples.
When we test a music streaming service, we use it across these different scenarios and with different kit, from headphones to smart speakers and, of course, our reference hi-fi system. We’ll try out both the desktop and smartphone versions of the interface and, as What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, we directly compare the service to others in its price and features class.
We are always impartial and do our best to make sure we’re hearing content at its very best, so we’ll try plenty of different styles of music with both advanced and standard audio formats. We’ll check all the features, and allow for plenty of listening time before we begin reviewing.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we’re being as thorough as possible, too. There’s no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
Is Amazon Music Free with Prime?
In a word, yes. If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, you can access Amazon Music Prime for free. It’s a stripped-down version of Amazon Music Unlimited, so while you do have ad-free access to Amazon’s entire music catalogue, it’s only available in SD quality, not CD or high-res. And, you can only play via shuffling artists, albums or playlists. Want higher quality or more specific control over playback? You’ll need Amazon Music Unlimited which is £9.99/$9.99/AU$9.99 if you don’t have a Prime subscription and £8.99/$8.99/AU$8.99 if you do.
Why is Spotify so popular?
Spotify is the longest-running music streaming service out there so it has a run on most if not all of its rivals. And it has a fine track record of launching new software developments that keep moving the streaming game on (even if we’re still patiently waiting for its CD-quality Hi-Fi tier) and it’s also one of the streaming services to offer a free music app alongside its premium service. Spotify Connect also exists in its armoury, which sees the service baked into compatible speakers, TVs and a range of hi-fi and AV products, which just adds to the appeal.
What has better sound quality over Spotify?
If you’re looking for sound quality better than Spotify, you don’t have far to look. In our opinion, both Apple Music and Tidal offer a step up. Apple Music in particular offers not only better standard-quality streams than Spotify it also offers higher quality streams too, with both CD-quality and hi-res available to stream through the service. And the best part? Apple Music is the same price, so you won’t be out of pocket if you make the switch (Tidal demands a premium).