No one could suggest Spotify has reached its position of pre-eminence by accident. Not content with being the longest-running, most subscribed-to streaming service out there, it isn’t resting on its laurels even as rival services – most recently from Amazon and YouTube – constantly pop up to challenge its streaming supremacy.
The service is renowned for its innovation, with plenty of new developments (or rumours of ones) all the time. And now Spotify is a listed company, it is more or less obliged to keep developing, innovating and maintaining its market position – its shareholders will demand nothing less.
Music discovery is one area where pretenders to Spotify's throne are made to look decidedly second-rate.
Not content to rest on its algorithmic laurels, Spotify is continually trying to refine the way you listen to music, from genre-specific personalised Spotify Mixes to adding filters to your Liked Songs.
And it's not just with algorithms that Spotify maintains its position. It has branched out into podcasts, audiobooks, added an in-app voice assistant and matched with Tinder so you can see who shares your music tastes as you 'swipe right'.
Despite increased competition, Spotify continues to stay true to its founding “music for everyone” ethos by being one of the only streaming services to still offer a free music app alongside its premium service. And, perhaps unexpectedly, it occasionally throws a bone to its free-tier customers (those 150 million-or-so users who endure ads to enjoy the service gratis), such as delivering a much-improved mobile app experience.
At the time of our last review, Spotify’s catalogue had over 30 million songs – ‘significantly more than competing services’ we said, and more than you could ever listen to.
That figure is now up to something closer to 70 million but is also more closely matched by the library size of rivals Amazon Music Unlimited, Apple Music, Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz, while YouTube Music is hard to measure because it can play music from its enormous archive of videos too.
More recently, though, Spotify has focused on podcasts for its content growth. Since the acquisition of podcasting production specialist Gimlet Media in 2019, over 2.2 million podcasts have been made available to stream and download on Spotify, including a raft of Spotify exclusives with big names such as Joe Rogan, Barack Obama and the Sussexes.
If that amount of choice sounds overwhelming, there's a set of human-curated podcast playlists to help you find your new favourite shows with names such as 'Best Podcasts of the Week', 'Brain Snacks' and 'Crime Scene' – all well worth delving into. Paid subscribers can access most podcasts but Spotify recently introduced its own podcast subscription service, similar to Apple's new platform, where creators can choose to monetise their content with paid subscriptions.
A good metric of the platform's growth is the number of paying subscribers and that's on the rise too. At the beginning of 2021, Spotify had reached 158 million premium users, up from 100 million at the start of 2019. In total, Spotify claims it has around 345 million active monthly customers.
That tells you two things: the majority of users take advantage of the free tier, but more and more are paying out.
The free subscription tier on the desktop version is pretty unlimited in terms of search and stream options. Of course, the adverts must be tolerated – and they pop up every few songs. Sound quality is capped at 160kbps, but at least the Android and iOS app allows free users unlimited listening to as many as 750 tracks across 15 playlists each month. And that includes 'Discover Weekly', one of the real jewels of Spotify's music discovery algorithms.
There’s plenty more to persuade people to go Premium, though: improved 320kbps streams, offline listening, the freedom to search and skip tracks on mobile devices and, of course, no adverts.
Spotify Connect, which allows Premium subscribers to stream its catalogue directly to speakers, TVs, or stereos, is now a more attractive feature than ever, thanks to becoming a built-in feature in many hi-fi and AV products. On everything from Sonos multi-room speakers to Sony’s PS5, from Denon and Yamaha home cinema amps to TVs running on Android’s OS, you'll find Spotify Connect.
Connect is not a total shut-out for the Free listeners, though. Those on the no-pay tier can play Spotify through Sonos speakers, through the PS4/PS5 and a few other devices too.
Those who want to get the full Spotify experience have a few options. A standard, single Premium subscription will set you back £9.99 ($9.99, AU$11.99) per month, while a student subscription is available for £5.99 ($5.99, AU$5.99).
Even better value is Spotify Premium Family, which gives Premium access to up to six people (nominally from the same household) for £16.99 ($15.99, AU$17.95) per month. That's a potentially huge saving. Spotify Premium Family also gets you a Family Mix playlist that combines music liked by all users on the plan, plus the option of Spotify Kids accounts, which serve up a range of audio content aimed at nippers, including singalongs, soundtracks and stories, and block out explicit content.
Spotify Premium Duo is a more recent subscription tier. Unique to Spotify, and currently available in 55 countries, it gives two people living under one roof Premium accounts for just £12.99 ($12.99, AU$12.49). With Premium Duo, Spotify also creates a special playlist called Duo Mix, which combines music drawn from the tastes of both users.
Although its prices have remained static for nearly a decade, Spotify recently raised the cost of all but its Individual Premium tier for UK and EU customers (US users only saw a dollar added on to the Family Plan), breaking away from the uniform structure the big streaming services have shared until now.
As a result, it now has the most expensive ‘standard’ streaming quality student and family plans available, but given market and legislative pressures, Spotify may not remain an outlier for long.
Since as far back as 2017, there have been rumours of Spotify getting a lossless music option called Spotify HiFi, but, alas, it has been slow to materialise. Finally, at the start of 2021, Spotify promised to launch Spotify HiFi "beginning later this year", but there are no further details available yet.
Better sound quality remains the next logical step for Spotify. The rest of the competition has finally got its act together with Apple Music, Amazon Music HD, Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer all offering music in lossless CD-quality (and hi-res in all cases but Deezer), in some cases for the same price as Spotify's standard tier.
That said, Spotify’s 320kbps streams (activated by selecting 'Very High' streaming quality in Preferences) offer reasonable detail levels and a tonally balanced presentation that’s refined enough and easy on the ears.
Spotify’s intuitive interface looks much the same as before, although minor layout changes have been made to accommodate new features, and the desktop app has been brought in line with the mobile version.
The Search page is a well-maintained section that throws up playlists from various genres to suit various moods. It has constantly updated UK and global charts and a 'New Release' area for your attention. Don't miss the ‘Concert’ section, which flags up gigs fitting with your music tastes and location. The same goes for the 'Podcast' tab, which opens up a rich zone of targeted podcast suggestions, genres and playlists to search through.
For more familiar listening, the Home page is where you'll find your current favourites and most played, as well as assorted compilations along the same lines. You won't find much new listening here, but it's a handy welcome splash.
Music discovery through a series of personalised algorithmic playlists is at the forefront of Spotify’s innovation, though, and is essentially where the service leapfrogs its rivals. Head to the 'Discover' tab in the Search/Browse section for this.
Here, you'll find Discover Weekly, which uses Spotify’s ‘deep learning’ system to generate 30 songs a week relevant to your listening habits. It is refreshed every Monday.
Suggestions based on your recent listening activity are a good mix of both old and new – and are accurate. There’s now also more concentration than ever before on discovering new music.
There's a stack of playlists to complement Discover Weekly, including the 'Only You' which displays a selection of your listening data and makes recommendations such as ‘Your artist pairs’, highlighting a user’s diverse tastes; ‘Your Song Year’, showing favoured musical time periods and ‘Your Time of Day,’ which hones in on the artists are preferred at particular times of the day.
Generally, the playlists seem pretty spot-on and even include new remixes of songs from artists you have listened to.
If you need even more music to soundtrack your procrastination, there’s also a New Music Friday UK playlist that ties in with the official UK chart, featuring a handful of tracks from new albums and single releases as well as notifications of new releases from your favourite artists using the 'What's New' feature.
Listened to them all by Wednesday? Then take a deeper look within Search/Browse for more genre tabs and 'Mood' for a matryoshka doll of playlists and content like 'Romance', 'Indie' and 'Car Journey'. There are also some fascinating country-by-country selections under the 'Charts' tab (the Viral Top 50 of Turkey is a particular pleasure this week).
The more you listen, the more they evolve… and the more we use them, the more we think this is one of the compelling reasons to choose Spotify as your streaming service.
Downloading songs and albums for offline listening is easily done by tapping the white arrow on the top left of the playback screen for both the mobile and desktop app. The files are then saved in the 'Download' tab of 'Your Library'.
If you'd like to use the Spotify desktop app to playback local files on your computer, then you can set them to pop up under the ‘Your Library’ section – just check that your preferences allow it – it’s not as well integrated.
Spotify’s algorithmic radio, which curates songs around a particular artist, is not a patch on Beats 1, Apple Music’s live 24/7 global ‘youth-orientated’ station, however.
That’s not surprising considering the resources Apple has put into securing DJ Zane Lowe and celebrity guest appearances. It is varied, unique and comprehensive, and ultimately one defeat Spotify has to take on the chin.
Ease of use
Still, in terms of accessibility, ease of use and content, Spotify has it all – apart from that lossless CD-quality and hi-res audio.
It’s little wonder that in the time it has been around, many competitors have come and gone, but even those alive and kicking don’t quite match Spotify’s level of completeness.
Sure, there’s room for improvement, and reasons why you might look elsewhere: some rivals sound better, some are available in more countries, and some features and functions offered by other services may appeal to you.
With extensive libraries and CD-quality and hi-res lossless streaming, Tidal, Apple Music and Amazon Music HD are growing in popularity with audio enthusiasts. At the same time, Qobuz’s Sublime tier offers something different with its cross between a streaming service and a hi-res download store.
Still, Spotify is the mass market choice for those interested in discovering new and old music with a comprehensive library and, crucially, an accessible free tier. It may have mainstream appeal but the company doesn't rest on its laurels and is continually innovating its technology and user experience. Recent forays into podcasting, audiobooks and concerts have contributed to building Spotify’s influence beyond recorded music to becoming a singular home for all types of audio.
With Apple Music and Amazon HD's recent inclusion of hi-res audio in their basic tiers, Spotify's equivalent £10 ($10, AUS$12) per month for standard-quality audio looks less attractive than it once did. But for those who don't wish to be tied into Apple's ecosystem and maybe aren't as bothered by audio quality, Spotify still has an edge when it comes to availability, curation and expanding musical horizons.
Should you go with Apple instead? Check out our Apple Music review
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