Best Music Streaming: Apple vs. Spotify vs. Google vs. Amazon
After months of testing, I determined Spotify is the best music streaming service overall because it makes discovering new music easy and it’s compatible with all speaker systems. Apple Music and Google Music are good too, but they’re only worthwhile if you’re invested in the Apple or Google ecosystems.
I’ll explain how I reached my conclusion by comparing four music streaming services (Apple Music vs. Spotify vs. Google Play Music vs. Amazon Music Unlimited) while evaluating five categories: music discovery, apps, compatibility, library, and bonus features.
- Discovery: Discover Weekly and algorithmic suggestions are Spotify’s secret sauce.
- Apps: Mac, iOS, and Android apps look similar and have a sleek, dark interface.
- Compatibility: Works with any smart or HiFi speaker and any smartphone.
- Library: You can't easily upload music that's not in Spotify's catalog.
- Bonus: They have an excellent free option and cool deals for Hulu subscribers.
Best for you if...
You want to find new music based on your tastes. It's the perfect combination of music curation and device compatibility. It'd be nice to upload music that's not in Spotify's library, but they get everything else right. Music is Spotify's only focus, and they excel at it.
- Discovery: They have solid human-made playlists, but the algorithms aren't ideal.
- Apps: The iOS app looks great, but the computer version uses iTunes and it’s messy.
- Compatibility: It’s great with Apple Watch and HomePod, and now Alexa devices.
- Library: You can upload up to 100,000 songs to iCloud to be streamed.
- Bonus: There’s a 90-day free trial. It’s $5/month for students.
Best for you if...
You’re heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem or already have music downloaded in the iPhone Music app. It’s a must-have for HomePod and Apple Watch owners. Apple Music needs work on their music discovery and a web app would be nice.
Google Play Music
- Discovery: It becomes good at predicting what you want to listen to and when.
- Apps: The phone app is ugly with weird cover art and bright white. No desktop app.
- Compatibility: You can “cast” music to any speaker or TV with casting capabilities.
- Library: You can add up to 50,000 songs from your personal library.
- Bonus: There's a free ad version of Google Play Music.
Best for you if...
You’re an Android user, have a well-established music library, and know the music you’re looking for. Google Music might not be perfect, but it has decent algorithms and you can upload your own music for free. The mobile app could be improved.
Amazon Music Unlimited
- Discovery: They have limited radio stations and playlists with bad curation.
- Apps: The phone app is similar to Apple but more confusing. The desktop version is bad.
- Compatibility: It works best with Echo devices.
- Library: You can’t upload your old songs to Amazon as you previously could.
- Bonus: It’s only $8/month for Amazon Prime members or $4 for the "Echo Plan."
Best for you if...
You know what music you want to listen to and have Alexa devices. $4/month is a great value if you ONLY want music on your Echos. It's not for you if you want to discover new music, have a great interface, need to upload your own music, or need a desktop app.
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Pandora was the first company to popularize music streaming with their customizable radio stations.
Spotify took things a step further with on-demand service, which allows you to look up a song, download it, and play it instantly without an Internet connection. Spotify’s vision was to provide you with every song in the world whenever and wherever you want it.
Google released Google Play Music in 2011, but it didn’t pick up much steam.
Apple debuted Apple Music in 2015 but struggled out of the gate. They copied all of Spotify’s features, but the interface wasn’t intuitive.
Amazon sold music digitally for years, but they didn’t take streaming seriously until October 2016, when they released Amazon Music Unlimited. It was considered a supplemental addon to Amazon Echo devices and wasn’t initially recognized as a standalone app. It now has over 10 million paying subscribers.
Spotify went from a being a small Swedish startup to a publicly traded company with a value of over $25 billion. They had a headstart on the competition and have dominated with over 94 million paying subscribers (as of Q4 2018).
Apple, Google, and Amazon have been playing catch-up with Spotify.
My conclusion is if you use any four of these services for a full month, you won’t be disappointed once you get used to the interface. They’re polished, have similar libraries and are priced similarly. The choice comes down to where your current music library is stored and the ecosystem you prefer.
Before getting into streaming, my music was mostly imported from CDs stored on iTunes. I didn’t want to move my music, so I stayed with Apple Music when it was released. I found the magic of streaming from Apple Music, but in the process saw that I had been missing out by not trying Spotify.
I currently use Spotify and Apple Music. They’re similar but I find that I use Spotify 90% of the time.
Things To Know
- You can play almost any song in the world by tapping a button. You don’t need an Internet connection if you’ve downloaded music for offline listening.
- On-demand services are replacing most people’s CD collections.
- You can download your entire music library and play it offline. There is a symbol by the song to let you know if it’s available for offline playing.
- There is some artist exclusivity, but for the most part, Google, Amazon, Spotify, and Apple have the same libraries with over 30 million songs each.
- You won’t notice a difference in audio quality if you’re a paying customer. There are technical differences, (i.e., Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis format at 320Kbps, and Apple Music uses 256Kbps in AAC) but it doesn’t noticeably affect sound quality. And it’s impossible to compare the quality of 30 million different songs. People who’ve tried to compare songs have said Spotify sounds better than Apple Music with some tracks, and vice versa with others. It’s a toss-up, and you shouldn’t base your decision on audio quality.
- Getting all of your music in one place is essential to enjoy the experience fully. You can manually search for each song, or you can use an app like STAMP to copy songs from libraries on different services to a new service.
- Music streaming services charge $10/month and offer at least a 30-day trial.
Music Discovery (A+):
- Spotify shines in its ability to find new music. When you visit an artist’s page, Spotify recommends a bunch of similar artists and songs you’ll probably like. It’s consistently spot on.
- Discover Weekly is a playlist of 30 songs catered specifically for you, featuring songs you might like from artists you haven’t listened to. No service comes close to matching it. It’s one of the biggest innovations in the tech industry that no one talks about and my favorite feature of any app. I look forward to my set of music every Monday morning. (It’s important to note that it’s a machine learning algorithm. The more data it has about your listening habits, the better it’ll know your tastes. It’s essential to let Spotify know when you don’t like songs and to add songs to your collection when you like them).
- When you follow your favorite artists, you can get a notification when they release new music.
- Your Daily Mix is a set of six playlists that are refreshed daily with a combination of music you like and some new tracks. The selection is based on your listening habits.
- My only beef with Spotify’s music discovery is that it only shows the top 10 songs from each artist’s page, whereas other services give you at least the top 20 songs in order of popularity. Spotify is not helpful when you’re trying to find a popular song and you don’t know its name.
- The Mac and iOS apps have similar setups (consistent and easy to navigate).
- I prefer Spotify’s dark interface appearance to everything else.
- Spotify’s AutoFill feature (when searching for an artist) is the best there is.
- If you enable “Private Session,” Spotify doesn’t remember what was played and won’t use it in their algorithm for when finding new music. For example, I typically listen to rock, but while I’m writing, I listen to music without many lyrics. I don’t want similar music showing up in my Discover Weekly.
- Playlists are public by default, and collaborative playlists let you and your friends share and add new music to a playlist.
- Your playlists and songs don’t leave your library if you opt for the free version later. You can see all your music and even listen to your music. You’ll just have to listen to the ads as well.
- After using Spotify as my main streaming service for a year, I’ve noticed annoying bugs in the phone app. A couple of times per week, the display turns completely blank, or the search results don’t show anything, so you have to force-quit the app.
- Spotify works perfectly with Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Sonos. It doesn’t work with Siri on HomePod, but you can AirPlay it to HomePod instead.
- Spotify Connect is a game changer. You can listen to a song on your phone through your headphones, then change the sound source to your speakers when you get home without missing a beat. If you’re tired of listening through the speakers or are on the move again, fire up Spotify on your MacBook and the song will pick up where it left off. Lots of speakers work with Spotify Connect, and it’s a better solution than Bluetooth.
- When you add a song to your library, it automatically saves for offline listening by default.
- You can only save music for offline playback on three devices, and up to 10,000 songs. Some diehard music fans are outraged by this limit, but it’s overblown if you ask me:
- The song limit doesn’t include saved playlists. For instance, you can put songs in playlists and save them and they’re not counted towards your limit. It’s not a perfect workaround and forces you to change your habits, but it’s doable. Plus, you can’t listen to 10,000 songs at once!
- You can match your old music from Spotify collection via an XML file or with a service like STAMP.
- If you have funky music that’s not streamable, there’s not an ideal solution like the other services have to get it into your library. You can upload your own music to Spotify, but it’s not intuitive and the process has to be started via the desktop app to work on your phone. Here are the steps:
- Enable “Show Local Files” inside the desktop app’s settings and tell it where the files are located.
- Your local music will show up in a folder called “Local Files.”
- Create a playlist and drag your local songs into the new playlist.
- Download this playlist on the desktop app, for offline listening, by clicking the “Download” tab.
- Your playlist will show up on your phone and all your other Spotify devices once you’ve hit the “Download” tab.
- Then, you can add the songs from the playlist to your library by pressing the heart button on your phone.
- Spotify offers a free option, though it’s streaming-only (with ads) and you can only shuffle songs with six skips allowed.
- Students get Spotify Premium for $5/month and Hulu for a free bonus.
- Spotify is getting into original content with video series. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.
- While you won’t notice a difference in the default audio quality between these music services, Spotify lets you choose between three lower quality settings. This can be helpful if you’re streaming with your cellular data and want to persevere it.
Music Discovery (C):
- Apple’s created a clone of Spotify’s Discover Weekly, called “My New Music Mix” and “My Chill Mix.” The playlists are awful but should improve as Apple fine-tunes their algorithm.
- Apple Music has the best human-made playlists of all the contenders.
- Apple Music uses the genre system with their algorithmically curated playlists, which has fewer options than Spotify. These curated playlists need some work.
- Apple Music Radio stations are limited.
- Apple Music on iOS was a mess at first, but they made significant improvements with iOS 11. I like its flow and enjoy the experience as much as Spotify.
- Apple’s most significant selling point is that it’s part of the native iOS and Mac landscape. It’s familiar, and there’s no learning curve. If you have previously-downloaded music stored on Apple devices, it’ll still be there and work seamlessly.
- Apple Music’s buttons are big and easily tappable.
- Apple Music optimizes your library (optional) by sending songs you haven’t recently listened to to the cloud. The songs sent to the cloud still show up in your library and are playable. If you’re using a 16GB iPhone, this is a crucial feature to save you from running out of room for new music.
- They have “smart playlists.” For instance, I could make a playlist for every song I’ve rated four stars, that last three minutes, and have artist names beginning with “f” and the playlist will update as I add more songs to my library. I love smart playlists, and Apple Music is the only service to support them. Unfortunately, you have to create them in iTunes first.
- Apple Music uses iTunes on the computer. Anyone who’s owned an iPod knows how iTunes works. It’s clunky, outdated, and isn’t integrated well with Apple Music.
- Apple doesn’t have a web player. I don’t need one, but you’re out of luck if you do.
- You can search by lyrics.
- Apple Music is amazing for those in Apple’s ecosystem.
- It works with Siri on iPhone.
- It works with HomePod via voice, and it’s seamlessly integrated.
- There’s an Apple Watch app. I keep my Apple Music subscription around just for bike rides. Apple Music on my Apple Watch via my AirPods is a brilliant combination, and I leave my phone at home.
- It works flawlessly with Apple TV.
- You can play Apple Music on all Alexa devices now with full voice integration.
- You can play Apple Music on Google Home devices via Bluetooth, but there’s no smart integration. If you’re a big user of Google’s smart speakers, you should look elsewhere.
- You can upload up to 100,000 of your OWN songs to iCloud to be streamed and integrated with your Apple Music collection. This is Apple Music’s biggest advantage over Spotify, especially if you have music that’s not in their catalog.
- When you add a song to a playlist, it’s simultaneously added to your library. For most music services, you need to add songs to playlists and your library separately.
- It’s easy to distinguish what’s in your library and what’s not.
- There’s a free 90-day trial.
- Apple Music is $5/month for students.
Google Play Music
Music Discovery (B-):
- If you use Google Play Music enough, it becomes good at predicting what you want to listen to and when on the Home tab. Occasionally, you see something interesting in the Home tab that you haven’t heard.
- You have radio options for days, and their algorithm gets good at learning your preferences.
- When searching through an artist’s songs, Google will show you the top 20 songs ranked by popularity.
- Google Play Music mobile app is solid and similar to Google’s other apps.
- It’s bright white everywhere, with awkward, zoomed-in cover art.
- If a song you’re listening to has a music video, there’s a button that will bring you to that video and pick up the song where you left off.
- When you tap the “Identify what’s playing” button, the app starts listening to the song playing in the background and pulls it up in the search results.
- You can’t rate songs in your library. There’s only a thumbs up and down option. That’s a smart system for radio but not for songs in your library. Why would I ever thumbs down a song in my own library?
- I hate not having a desktop app because you have to keep a browser tab open all of the time and you can’t listen offline while on your computer. Google’s servicing people who are in their ecosystem (Android phones and Chromebooks).
- You can share playlists by making them public, but it’s seamless, like Spotify or Apple Music.
- You can “cast” music to any speaker or TV with casting capabilities (Chromecast, Google Home, Google Home Max, etc.).
- You can play Google Play Music inside the Sonos app.
- It doesn’t play nice with Alexa devices.
- You can AirPlay to HomePod, but it won’t work with Siri.
- When you click on an artist, it doesn’t show you the songs saved in your library until you scroll to the bottom. It’s a strange method which takes too much effort.
- It’s hard to distinguish what’s available for offline listening.
- You can add up to 50,000 songs from your personal library to mesh with your Google Play Music library. This is huge if you have music that’s mislabeled, unreleased or from an artist who’s unavailable with streaming.
- There’s a free radio version (with ads).
- You no longer get YouTube Red (now Premium) with your purchase.
- There’s a 30-day trial.
Music Discovery (D):
- Amazon has limited radio stations but they’re not bad. It learns your preferences similar to the way in which Pandora does it, allowing you to give a song a thumbs up or thumbs down.
- The playlists are lacking. The human curation isn’t updated often and there’s no algorithmic curation unless you count their radio.
- When browsing an artist’s songs, you get an unlimited list ranked by popularity, which is a nice feature.
- Amazon’s app setup is similar to Apple Music, but it’s more confusing than Apple’s, and you can’t see where the audio’s being played without an extra tap.
- Inside the app, you can ask Alexa to find a song, and it’ll do so. However, I’m not sure when that would be useful considering you have a screen interface right in front of you.
- There’s an extra step to add songs for offline listening instead of automatically adding it to your library.
- There’s a “Stream only when on WiFi” button that’s helpful to preserve data.
- Song lyrics show up in the app as a song plays.
- The Mac and PC apps feel like they were put together haphazardly. Sometimes it doesn’t load.
- Amazon Music works best with Echo devices.
- If you don’t know a song’s name, Alexa can find it if you say some of the lyrics. It’s a neat feature, but there are phone apps for that.
- Even if you have very particular music tastes, Alexa will find you something to listen to.
- You can AirPlay to HomePod, but it won’t work with Siri.
- You can play Amazon Music inside the Sonos app.
- You can store as many songs as you’d like for offline listening on up to 10 devices.
- You can’t upload your old songs to Amazon as you previously could. You can match your collection of songs with Amazon’s library. However, if there’s something Amazon doesn’t have, you’re out of luck.
- It’s only $8/month for Amazon Prime members.
- The “Echo Plan” lets you play music only on Alexa devices for $4/month. This means you can’t create a library of music or listen in an app, but it’s a budget-conscious option.
- Amazon Radio stations can be listened to for free (with ads).
- There’s a free version called “Prime Music” that has 10 million songs that you can play for free on demand. (You have to be an Amazon Prime member).