Best music streaming services Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best music streaming services you can subscribe to in 2021.
When it comes to getting your music fix, even those with an affinity for physical formats find it hard to resist the lure of music streaming services. And it's easy to see why. The ability to access tens of millions of tracks at the tap of a touchscreen means it has never been easier to hunt down old favourites or discover brand new bands and artists.
There's a wide range of streaming services to choose from, with those such as Amazon, Apple, Spotify and our 2020 Award-winning service Tidal offering unlimited access to huge catalogues of music, which can be streamed over the internet or a mobile network or downloaded directly to your device for offline listening.
So how much can you expect to pay? Some services offer limited free music apps (supported by adverts with limited playback options) or free trials of up to three months, but in the main, you pay a set monthly subscription fee.
The quality of these streams varies between services. Those concerned less by 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, Deezer and Qobuz all have subscription tiers that allow you to access CD-quality streams and, where the content is available, even hi-res music.
This increase in quality has typically come with an increase in subscription cost, but from June Apple is adding lossless and hi-res tracks to Apple Music without charging extra, and that sent a ripple through the industry. Amazon has already responded by dropping the extra charge it had previously levied for its hi-res and lossless content, and one has to wonder if rivals will follow suit.
In other words, these are turbulent times for music streaming services, but they're also exciting times for those of us who are streaming the music as competition is greater than ever before. So which is the best music streaming service for you? Read on to find out.
Besides CD-quality streams, as part of Tidal's £20 per month HiFi package you can access millions of hi-res audio tracks, which are typically 24-bit/96kHz but do go up to 24-bit/192kHz. Called 'Tidal Masters', the music files are encoded using MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) tech, which allows for more efficient packing of the hi-res data. 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 even easier via wi-fi to a growing list of products.
The ease of use is exemplary and sound quality is exceptional across the board with the CD-quality streams displaying great levels of detail and expression and hi-res recordings taking this up a level. Even with recent changes in hi-res streaming, we still think that sonically Tidal has the edge.
Hi-res and CD-quality streams aren’t the be-all and end-all of Tidal’s offering, with the 60-million-track catalogue also available to stream in 320kbps to subscribers of its £10 per month Premium tier. But if you're looking for the best high-quality streaming experience, this is unquestionably it.
Read the full review: Tidal
- Tidal Masters (with MQA) review
- 10 of the best hi-res albums on Tidal Masters
- 25 Tidal tips, tricks and features
Spotify remains comfortably the most popular and accessible way to get your music fix. Not only does it offer decent 320Kbps quality, but there is a huge library of over 40 million songs. These 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.
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.
If your limit is £10 per month, Spotify delivers a comprehensive and complete experience and even offers a 40 per cent 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.
Oh, and a HiFi tier is coming! Although we still don't know how much it'll cost (or official launch date), we do know it will give subscribers the chance to listen to “music in lossless audio format, with CD quality”.
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 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 (that’s the simplified version). Essentially, we’re excited to see what Spotify has got in the pipeline.
Read the full review: Spotify
Unsurprisingly, Apple Music is aimed squarely at Apple users, so Android owners often want to look elsewhere – although that's slowly changing. However, if you're fully immersed in Apple's ecosystem, Apple Music makes a lot of sense. It costs a competitive £10 per month, or you can pay an annual fee of £99. There's also a £5 per month student deal, while a family membership covering up to six people costs £15 per month.
While there's no free version, Apple has now added support for lossless audio and spatial audio with Dolby Atmos, crucially, without charging extra. The service's 75 million-strong catalogue is available in CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) with 20 million songs available in hi-res (24-bit/48-192kHz) at launch, increasing to the full 75 million available by the end of the year.
It's worth noting, though, that there are some limitations on what kit can playback apples 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.
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. 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 (which are 320kbps streams), Apple’s have greater subtlety and more space around instruments. If you're an Apple user, this service is certainly good enough to tempt you away from Spotify, and if you're looking to get hi-res music for lossy money, it may even prove a lure Tidal fans.
Read the full review: Apple Music
If you're a classical music fan, you'll get a kick out of Primephonic. Since launching in 2017, the service has been revamped and now claims to offer over 3.5million classical music tracks – including a good few you won't find elsewhere. What's more, Primephonic is welcoming not only to those who know what they’re looking for but to those who are looking to explore the genre from a standing start.
The £10 per month (or £100 per year) tier provides access to 320kbps MP3 streams, but you can splash out £15 per month (or £150 per year) for glorious 24-bit FLAC streams. The latter, the 'Platinum' tier, is cheaper than rival 24-bit offerings, though of course, the focus is much narrower.
There are still a few gaps in the library around contemporary classical artists and we'd appreciate a desktop app, but thanks to a much-improved interface, the addition of offline playback and excellent all-round sound quality, we have no problem recommending Primephonic.
Read the full review: Primephonic
Spotify might be our number one pick when it comes to music streaming services, but Amazon's equivalent, Amazon Music Unlimited, makes a lot of sense too. At £9.99 per month, pricing is competitive (if you subscribe to Amazon Prime, this drops to just £8). What's more, Amazon is now including its Amazon Music HD library as part of Amazon Music Unlimited at no extra cost. Featuring 50 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 interface is slick and user-friendly, allowing you to browse Amazon's catalogue with minimal fuss. It's easy enough to discover new music although Spotify does have the edge when it comes to recommendations and curated content. Sonically, the two are close, but Amazon's service is dynamically subtler.
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 2021, 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. That puts it at a disadvantage compared to the hi-res music you'll find on Tidal and Qobuz.
Deezer does have one up ace up its sleeve: 360 Reality Audio tracks. The immersive format is a bit like Dolby Atmos, but specifically for streamed music. It's a nice bonus but it's only available to subscribers of Deezer's £14.99 ($14.99, AU$14.99) a month 'HiFi' tier, and only through a separate iOS/Android app.
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 Sublime+ tier gives users the ability to stream over 70,000 24-bit hi-res albums and download tracks at a discounted prices, but you need to spend £250 on an annual subscription. Below this tier sits a hi-res Studio tier £15 per month or £150 per year.
Qobuz is available on lots of devices. There's a web player, desktop and mobile apps, plus a number of networked streaming products that are also compatible with the service. The interface is nice to use across desktop and mobile although the curation could be better.
When it comes to the catalogue, Qobuz isn't quite as pop-heavy as its closest rivals and has some pretty major blind spots in its catalogue, but there's still a decent balance and 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.
Read the full review: Qobuz
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 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 just £5).
The app is available through Sonos speakers and anything Google Assistant-powered, such as Google Home devices or third-party devices such as the Sony LF-S50G and JBL Link 20. As for sound quality, the 256 kbps 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