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 - if we were to revise this review every time a development (or rumour of a development) came forth, we'd never leave the office. And now Spotify is a listed company, it's more-or-less obliged to keep developing, keep innovating and maintain its market position - shareholders tend to demand nothing less.
'Music discovery' is one of the areas where pretenders to Spotify's throne are made to look just that: pretenders.
It's not just with the power of its discovery algorithms that Spotify maintains its position. It's reduced the price of its Family Plan subscription to £15 per month (for up to six users); it's matched with Tinder so you can see who shares your music tastes and have even more reasons to "swipe right"; it's branched out into video, with content available on the Android and iOS apps.
Despite burgeoning competition, Spotify continues to stay true to its founding “music for everyone” ethos by remaining one of the only streaming services to offer a free, ad-supported subscription tier alongside its premium service. And (perhaps unexpectedly) it's recently thrown a bone to its free-tier customers (those 90 million-or-so users who endure ads in order to enjoy the service gratis) with 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 still the same (officially, at least), but in the meantime rivals appear to have caught up. YouTube Music, Qobuz, Apple Music and Google Play Music also claim to have ‘over 30 million’ tracks, and Deezer even more at 35 million.
However, the number of paying subscribers does appear to be on the rise. This year, Spotify has reached 70 million (almost double what it had 18 months ago), and can claim over 150 million active users altogether.
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, there are the adverts to be put up with, and they crop up every few songs. Sound quality is capped at (at best) 160kbps - but at least the new 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, TV or stereos, is now a more attractive feature than ever thanks to it becoming a built-in feature in many hi-fi and AV products, from Sonos multi-room speakers to Sony’s PlayStation, from Onkyo and Yamaha home cinema amps to TVs running on Android’s OS.
Previously, and on several occasions, we've predicted a lossless option (like Tidal’s) ‘wouldn’t be too far behind’. But, alas, there’s still no sign of it.
Better sound quality remains the next logical step for Spotify – especially as Apple Music’s streams offer the more open and involving listen, with greater space, subtlety and punch, not to mention the higher resolution on offer from both Qobuz and Tidal.
Still, Spotify’s 320kbps streams still 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.
The Browse (or ‘home’) page is a well-maintained section that throws up context-based playlists, constantly updated UK and global charts, and new releases for your attention, as well as content based on tracks you’ve previously listened to. A new ‘Concert’ tab that flags up gigs based on your music tastes and location is a nice addition too.
Music discovery through a series of personalised algorithmic playlists seems to be at the forefront of Spotify’s innovation, though, and is essentially where the service leapfrogs its rivals.
Among them is Discover Weekly, which uses Spotify’s ‘deep learning’ system to generate 30 songs a week, relevant to your listening habits and 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 are a stack of complimentary playlists complementing Discover Weekly - and generally they all seem more-or-less spot-on, and even include new remixes of songs from artists you have listened to.
In case you need even more songs to soundtrack your procrastination, there’s now a New Music Friday UK playlist that ties in with the official UK chart, featuring a few handfuls of tracks from new album and single releases.
Listened to them all by Wednesday? Within the Browse section of the app (and on the desktop) there are sections for podcasts, genre (and mood) -specific playlists ('romance', 'indie' and 'black history is now!' are among our current favourites) and country-by-country selections (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 really compelling reasons to choose Spotify as your streaming service.
Video content, too, can be found under the Browse section (Android and iOS smartphones only), and features a diverse range of short clips, from the Ellen talk show, to snippets from popular BBC, TED talks or MTV programming, to Spotify’s own original content.
It's hardly ready to take on YouTube, but we can see its potential for a quick browse, providing short, engaging entertainment.
While local files on your computer can be accessed within Spotify in the ‘Your Music’ section – just check that your preferences allow it – it’s not as well integrated.
Spotify’s algorithmic radio, which curate 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. Barring that CD-quality audio.
It’s little wonder that competitors have come and gone in the time it’s been around, 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 its CD-quality lossless streaming, Tidal is growing a fanbase of audio enthusiasts, while Qobuz’s Sublime tier offers something different with its cross between a streaming service and hi-res download store.
But Spotify is the mass market choice for those interested in discovering old and new music, and is the most comprehensive and complete we’ve come across for the money.
For some, it will come down to preference. Luckily, most services offer a free trial, so you can try before you buy.
But in our opinion, Spotify remains the £10 per month, standard-quality audio option to beat. But if your main concern is sound quality, both Qobuz and, even more pertinently, Tidal, should be considered.