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 keep popping up and up and challenging its streaming supremacy.
The service is historically renowned for its invention, providing a steady stream of new software developments – and promises of those, like the higher-quality Spotify Hi-Fi tier, which are yet to materialise. Ever since Spotify became a listed company in 2018, it has been more or less obliged to keep growing and innovating to maintain its enviable market position.
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, 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 past 82 million, as of 2021, but is also more closely matched by the library size of rivals Amazon Music Unlimited, Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz. Apple Music’s library, also as of last year, passed 90 million tracks, surpassing Spotify as the service with the largest library, while YouTube Music is right at Spotify’s level, having accumulated 80 million tracks by 2021. In the modern day, Spotify’s peers have as many songs (or more) as Spotify does.
More recently, though, Spotify has focused on podcasts for its content growth. Since the acquisition of podcasting production specialist Gimlet Media in 2019, over four 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 also has a podcast subscription service, similar to Apple's platform, where creators can choose to monetise their content with paid subscriptions.
A good metric of Spotify’s growth is the number of paying subscribers and that's on the rise too. As of Q2 2022, Spotify had reached 188 million premium users, up from 158 million in 2021. In total, Spotify claims it has around 433 million active monthly customers in 2022.
That tells you two things: the majority of users take advantage of the free tier, but more and more are paying out.
Spotify’s free tier isn’t nearly as robust as Premium, but there’s a lot on offer. Of course, the adverts must be tolerated – and they pop up every few songs. Sound quality is capped at 128kbps with the web player and at approximately 160kbps on desktop and mobile. Free users have access to most of Spotify’s premium library, including podcasts and audiobooks, as well as the ability to play any track on mobile with select playlists. 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 (approximately 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. Spotify Connect is still more widely available than competitors like Tidal Connect, too, which may be the difference between your kit supporting a Connect and it not.
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 ($4.99, 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 £13.99 ($12.99, AU$15.99). With Premium Duo, Spotify also creates a special playlist called Duo Mix, which combines music drawn from the tastes of both users.
Spotify prices remained static for a long time, but due to mounting legislative and market pressures, in recent years, Spotify has increased prices multiple times across various markets internationally. Like Netflix, it’s safe to say that prices will, likely, only continue to get higher.
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 extremely slow to materialise. Finally, at the start of 2021, Spotify promised to launch Spotify HiFi “beginning later this year”, but that self-imposed deadline came and went without any fanfare. A year after the announcement, in early 2022, Spotify finally responded to the endless queries on its Spotify Community Forum with this statement: “We know that HiFi quality audio is important to you. We feel the same, and we’re excited to deliver a Spotify HiFi experience to Premium users in the future. But we don’t have timing details to share yet. We will, of course, update you here when we can.” So, frustratingly, we’ll all have to be a bit more patient.
Better sound quality remains the most logical next step for Spotify. The rest of the competition has already gotten 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) – and some for the same price as Spotify’s standard tier!
That said, Spotify’s ‘approximately equivalent to’ 320kbps streams (activated by selecting ‘Very High’ streaming quality in Preferences anywhere other than the web player) offer reasonable detail levels and a tonally balanced presentation that’s refined enough and easy on the ears.
Podcast quality on Spotify is listed as ‘approximately equivalent’ to 96kbps everywhere but the web player (where podcasts are 128kbps), while on mobile, changing audio quality preferences to ‘Low’ gets you 24kbps.
If you’re concerned about the ‘approximate’ and ‘equivalent’ caveats when it comes to Spotify’s audio quality, don’t be. When Spotify says these things about its audio quality, it comes down to codecs more than it does lower-than-expected-quality music. See, Spotify’s web player supports 256kbps AAC, while the ‘approximately equivalent to 320kbps’ quality can be achieved on desktop and mobile by selecting ‘Very High’ quality, the speculation being that Spotify’s non-browser playback relies on a different codec from AAC (like MP3, or Ogg Vorbis – an open-source alternative to MP3 that Spotify has used). In general, a 256kbps AAC stream will be very similar in quality to a 320kbps MP3, so it’s likely that regardless of how you’re listening to Spotify, you will be getting a stream ‘approximately equivalent’ to 320kbps in quality.
Features and usability
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 ‘Live Events’ section, which flags up gigs fitting with your music tastes and location. The same goes for the 'Podcast' tab, which opens up a rich list 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. In your playlists, you’ll find your own personalized Discover Weekly playlist that 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 generally, you’ll find that you’ll like what Spotify suggests, thanks to its algorithms. There’s now also more concentration than ever before on discovering new music.
There's a stack of playlists to complement Discover Weekly, like ‘Your top mixes’ or ‘Made For You’, among others, that rely on both your listening habits as well as Spotify’s algorithms to suggest new kinds of music you might like. 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 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 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.
Still, in terms of accessibility, ease of use and content, Spotify has it all – apart from that lossless CD-quality and hi-res audio support.
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. Questions around artist pay-outs and other political reasons that have cropped more recently may well push you elsewhere, too.
Yes, Tidal, Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited are growing in popularity with audio enthusiasts due to their extensive libraries and higher audio quality. 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 remains the mass market choice for those interested in discovering new and old music with a comprehensive library and, crucially, an accessible free tier. 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 offering 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
Here's our rundown of the best music streaming services available right now