Despite a revival in physical media, most of us still use music streaming services when we want a head full of tunes. Most operate on a subscription basis, charging monthly rates for access to their respective libraries, as well as offering tiers which may give higher quality, a larger roster of services or multiple-user access.
The problem is that such prices only continue to rise no matter which paid tier you pick. Little wonder many aren't keen to pay for such privileges, instead opting for the free versions of these respective apps in a bid to cut costs. Millions of songs, no storage woes and no bills either– that's the promise of the best free music platforms.
While the proliferation of music apps has provided users with greater choice, distinguishing between them all can be tough. Spotify is currently top dog, but it's far from the only service around, or the only one to offer a free tier. The picture is only made more complex by each free platform giving and restricting different things.
When you spend most of your time testing hi-fi, you tend to become au fait with the range of music streaming platforms on offer. For the savvy consumer, these are the best services that will give you quite a few notes without charging you a penny.
How to choose the best free music app for you
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Most major music streaming services have a free tier, barring Tidal (unless you're lucky enough to live in the US), Qobuz and Apple Music, and while free services inevitably include adverts and have more limited functionality and audio quality than their paid-for stablemates, they're still pretty tempting.
Keep your ear to the ground and you'll often find one, two, three, or even six-month free (or almost free) deals on certain streaming service's paid-for tiers too, to try the sonic goods before you buy. Just remember when your trial starts and finishes, as most will automatically renew and become paid memberships once they end, rather than simply terminating automatically and leaving you back where you started.
We would always nudge you towards better quality streams (for which you'll pay a fee), but if you're only an occasional listener (or on a very strict budget), free music streaming services also make more sense than paying for something you barely use.
We've rounded up the best free options around so you can see which suits you.
The best-known free streaming service is also one of the finest– and certainly one of the most sociable. You will have to put up with irksome ads if you don't want to pay and you'll also have to listen to most playlists on shuffle mode rather than being able to pick the specific track that you want to hear at a given moment, but there's still plenty to like: decent sound quality, over 100 million songs, offline listening, bags of podcasts, new features arriving daily and compatibility with almost any device imaginable.
It's not the easiest to get the hang of as a novice, but once you're in, Spotify's user interface is actually rather good, and certainly provides you with access to the platform's broad plethora of abilities without too much fuss. If you want free music streaming, Spotify will probably be your first port of call.
Read the full review: Spotify
You might not know it, but if you have Amazon Prime then you can access Amazon's entry-level music streaming service right now. That's right, as well as free one-day delivery and Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Prime entitles you to Amazon Music, which gives you over two million songs to stream on-demand at no additional cost. And the best bit? They're ad-free.
As you would expect, the selection is pretty mainstream, and the sound quality isn't going to blow you away, but Prime customers can't really complain. And if you're not happy, you can always step up to Amazon Music Unlimited, which costs £9.99/$9.99 (or £8.99/$8.99 with Prime) a month and now includes HD, its hi-res tier, for no extra cost.
There is, we would point out, also a tier titled Amazon Music Free which doesn't require a Prime Membership but does give you access to music, podcasts, curated playlists and stations, although you'll have to contend with ads and a lack of offline playback.
Read the full review: Amazon Music
Deezer is usually seen as the 'other' service when compared with the more mainstream quadrumvirate of Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music and Amazon Music, but that's not necessarily a reason to skip over it without thought. It isn't quite at the level of its rivals right now, but it is notable for being one of the first music streaming services around, as well as one of the earliest adopters of 360 Reality Audio.
Deezer's free tier means you have to suffer ads, and the track quality is only 128kbps. The mobile app for this tier is also a little limited, though no more so than any of its rivals. However, when it comes to what to listen to, there's masses of choice (an impressive 90m-strong catalogue), and the layout is pleasingly simple to navigate. There are also lots of podcasts and other non-music content to get your ears into, making Deezer a strong choice for anyone looking beyond just music.
If you do sign-up for the full service, you can enjoy CD-quality (though not hi-res) audio, too, but you'll have to pay £12/mth ($11 / AU$12) for a Premium plan account.
Read the full review: Deezer
Yes, it's strange to think, but YouTube isn't just for videos. Launched back in 2015, YouTube Music is the video-sharing site's attempt to take on Spotify et al. for the music streaming crown, and just like Spotify, it too offers a free tier. Sure, there are adverts as you would expect, but not as many as you might fear from a platform that for a time became the only reason half of us installed ad-blockers on our internet browsers.
Extras such as downloading for offline listening are pay-only (prices start from £10/$10/AU$12 a month), so you're limited to streaming the service's selection, but there's a considerable catalogue to choose from, the layout is nice and clean, and its selection of music videos is, of course, unrivalled.
If you love music videos, YouTube Music is the one to check out.
Read the full review: YouTube Music
If you're looking for something a bit different, TuneIn Radio might be a little more up your street. This isn't a pure music streaming service – rather the focus is on radio stations, so think of it as getting your music fix that way, as well as all of the appeal that comes from the traditional radio format.
TuneIn offers a range of stations, including BBC Radio, NPR, All India Radio and C-SPAN, as well as news from the likes of CNN and Fox News and a host of podcasts. There are even local and genre-specific radio stations to choose from, so there should be something for everyone.
For those who want to pay full price, TuneIn will offer (on top of its free content) access to more than 100K ad-free audiobooks, comprehensive radio sport coverage and a further 100+ commercial-free music stations.
Featuring a wide choice of radio apps, this is the best we've come across for services of its kind.
BBC Sounds took the place of the Beeb's iPlayer Radio app, a decision that feels utterly vindicated. As well as the usual BBC radio stations (Radio 1, Radio 4, 1Xtra, etc.) which you can listen to live or on-demand, it brings together all sorts of podcasts, music mixes, live sets and more. There are hundreds of podcasts, loads of exclusive content, even free audiobooks, not to mention curated playlists, TV soundtracks and more. History, comedy, science, sport, there's a vast array of high-quality content just waiting to be discovered, free for anyone to use, anytime.
You can search by genre, and then download and listen on-the-go, as well as being able to continue listening where you left off on another device. The app has experienced some teething issues and will occasionally bug out on you, but the platform as a whole has blossomed into a suitably rich and slick home for the BBC's excellent audio output. As the kids say, don't sleep on BBC Sounds.
SoundCloud is known as the home of emerging artists, so if you want to check out new acts and predict which bands are going to make it big, this is the place to do it. Post Malone and Lizzo started their respective careers on SoundCloud, so you can very much take that however you see fit. The free tier offers over 120 million tracks, mixes, podcasts and more, though we can't vouch for the quality of each (that's the trouble with 'up-and-coming' artists).
The upside is you can connect with friends and even the artists directly on the platform, make playlists, and get curated tracklists based on your taste. The downside is that, like many free services, you do have to put up with adverts.
SoundCloud is more of an alternative choice, but there's obviously nothing stopping you from using it as a place to discover offbeat offerings while also making use of a more traditional service as you do so. Still, if you are truly tired of the mainstream, perhaps it's time to take a trip to SoundCloud.
In the US? Lucky you. US customers can now gain access to the service’s first-ever free plan, called (unsurprisingly) ‘Tidal Free’, which offers streams of the complete Tidal library at 160kbps with “limited interruptions”.
For anyone not domiciled in the States, a fee is still involved. The 'Tidal Premium' tier (£10.99, $10.99, AU$11.99 per month) that offered 320kbps quality has now been rebranded as ‘Tidal HiFi’ and gets you audio at up to 1411 kbps (i.e. CD quality), as well as offline capabilities and access to features such as Tidal Connect, for that same monthly price. Tidal’s basic Family Tier has also seen the same increase in standard bit rate streams.
The top tier, formerly ‘Tidal HiFi’, is now known as ‘Tidal HiFi Plus’ and remains £19.99 ($19.99, AU$23.99) per month. It brings audio quality up to 9216 kbps (i.e. hi-res) by supporting Tidal Masters via Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) technology, although things are slightly up in the air thanks to MQA recently going into administration. It is also the tier you have to subscribe to in order to listen to immersive music in Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Audio.
This new subscription model puts Tidal's CD-quality offering more in line with the competition from Amazon and Apple, although its hi-res streaming remains at a premium that might put some people off. That said, Tidal has ensured its HiFi Plus tier has extra appeal for audiophiles and, besides, will no doubt still appeal to those with MQA-supporting hardware.
Read the full review: Tidal
How we test free music apps
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, where streaming services are concerned, a dedicated listening facility isn't always necessary, but we make sure to test each streaming platform using a variety of portable and home products (and various headphones), using iOS, Android and desktop apps. What is important in our reviewing process is that each service is compared to the best in its price and class. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, so we keep our Award-winners nearby to enable unbiased comparisons between new services and ones we know to have performed highly in the category.
We are always impartial and do our best to make sure we're hearing every proposition at its very best, so we'll try plenty of different types of music and give each service extensive listening time. It's not just about sound quality, of course. If a service has unique and noteworthy features (including smart skills, playlist curation or the option to tip your favourite acts) we'll ensure part of our testing involves trialling the claims made by its makers.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the entire team, rather than an individual reviewer, to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdicts or star ratings in our reviews.
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Want the best hi-quality streaming? Read our Tidal review