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Best music streaming services 2021: how do Spotify, TIDAL, Apple Music, Qobuz and others compare?

Best music streaming services 2021: how do Spotify, TIDAL, Apple Music, Qobuz and others compare?
(Image credit: Getty/Alessandro Biascioli/EyeEm)

By now you’ve probably been a streaming addict for years, but is your monthly fee being spent on the best music streaming service available? Are you getting the best quality audio or the widest range of artists at your fingertips? Maybe it's time to flip to a fresh-faced rival?

While it’s true that there’s a great deal of commonality between the various streaming music services, with new album releases hitting at roughly the same time, there can be big differences when you scrutinise usability and plan prices of the likes of Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music and others.

So which music streaming service will suit you best? Read on to find out.

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Best music streaming services: The Louder Choice

We’ll forgive you for thinking that there’s not much between the various music streaming services. After all, they all pull from the same vast catalogues and offer more or less the same levels of access. Those about to rock, will not be left wanting.

But when you filter the best music streaming services based on quality and price, clear favourites begin to emerge. Qobuz is our streaming service of choice right now, as it offers the sharpest combination of high quality audio (CD and upwards), general usability and value – it’s significantly cheaper than rival high-performer Tidal (although Tidal's current offer of 4 months of high-res audio for £/$4 per month is pretty damn tempting).

Running Qobuz a close second is new kid on the block, Amazon Music HD. Amazon actually leads the field when it comes to audio innovation, even throwing in Dolby Atmos for users of its Echo Studio smart speaker, but it loses points for its generally rubbish user interface.

If high-res audio isn’t a prerequisite, perhaps because you use streaming services on the go, but listen to vinyl and CDs at home, then Spotify remains a service worth sticking with.

Best music streaming services: buying advice

If you want to hear every riff, backbeat and guttural gargle of your favourite bands, then a music subscription plan offering some level of high-res audio (24-bit upwards) definitely warrants investigation.

A high-res audio plan also makes sense if you stream music at home through your hi-fi system, rather than just headphones when commuting. High-res audio always rewards those with high spec home systems.

Of course, cutting edge streaming isn’t just about sonic clarity, it’s about usability. To test the various services (and thinking ourselves quite clever), we put each catalogue under the microscope. It’s a racing certainty that you’ll find the likes of Kiss and Nirvana pretty much everywhere, but how do these services fare when it comes to more esoteric choices? To check their metal credentials we went looking for Norwegian metal outfit Kvelertak, and Greek symphonic metal band Septicflesh, certain we’d find some failings. But with one notable example, we didn’t. While there are some differences in catalogue depth, we couldn’t catch them out.

Far more significant, it turns out, were their discovery and curation tools. Let’s take a closer look at the best music streaming services.

The best music streaming services right now

Best music streaming services: Qobuz

(Image credit: Qobuz)

1. Qobuz

The best music streaming service for high quality audio right now

Free trial available: 30 days | Price: £/$14.99/month or £/$149.99/year (Hi-res audio tier as standard), £249.99/year (Sublime plan) | Sound Quality: CD quality, Hi-Res Audio, 24-bit/96kHz High Res | 3D audio: No

Superb High Res Audio
High Res Audio download plan
Excellent value
No 3D audio options

Qobuz stands alone in only offering subscribers high quality streams. Lossy MP3 has been given the boot, in favour of a single monthly hi-res streaming subscription plan using the moniker Studio Premier.

All albums are streamed either in lossless CD-quality or hi-res (variable from 24-bit/44.1 kHz up to 192 kHz). And if you like the idea of owning music files, Qobuz also offers its high-end Sublime+ plan, which throws in a discount on hi-res downloads to keep.

The catalogue isn’t as large as its main competitors, so inevitably that means less choice, but it had no problem with our band searches. Kvelertak was quickly found, with CD quality downloads ready to buy. Septicflesh was also comprehensively represented.

Comparable audio quality is available from Amazon Music HD and Tidal, but neither can match it for usability and value.

Best music streaming services: Amazon Music HD

(Image credit: Amazon Music HD)

2. Amazon Music HD

The newest music streaming service in town

Free trial available: 30 days | Price: £/$9.99/month / £/$15/month (family tier), £/$14.99/month (Music HD) | Sound Quality: 320kbps, CD quality, 24-bit/96kHz High Res | 3D audio: Dolby Atmos, 360 Reality Audio

Excellent value
Widest selection of quality sound formats
Generally terrible interface

The newest streamer on the block, Amazon already offers more high quality streaming options than any other service, it’s also available on its own FireTV streaming media platform complete with album art and scrolling lyrics (for that Friday night Karaoke singalong with your housemates). It’s also temptingly affordable, with its HD tier an umbrella for all those advanced sonic treats.

Where it falls down is a user interface that goes out of its way to obfuscate. Despite knowing that we have zero interest in ‘hot singles’ (not literally, obviously) it insists on serving up Rita Ora and Little Mix front and centre. We love you Amazon Music, but you’re really testing our patience! 

Still, if you can put up with its foibles, consider it good value.

Best music streaming services: Spotify

(Image credit: Spotify)

3. Spotify

The biggest music streaming service in town, but is it the best?

Free trial available: 30 days | Price: £/$9.99/month, £/$4.99 (student tier) or £/$14.99 (family tier)/month | Sound Quality: 320kbps | 3D audio: No

Class leading usability
Extensive cross platform integration
Home to a gazillion playlists
Not the highest of fidelity

Let’s not beat about the bush. The world’s biggest streaming service is beginning to show its age. With streaming quality locked at 320kbps (great when we all went MP3, not so much now), it doesn’t have the chops to compete with bigger bit-bucket rivals.

Conversely, it remains ridiculously usable. With an unmatched catalogue, no shortage of rock, metal and prog, and decent personalisation, you’ll not miss out on any new releases, and with so many hours invested in personal playlists, most regulars will probably be prepared to stick with it. 

Spotify also leads the field when it comes to integration with other technology platforms, from Sonos to Sky Q. Not the best, quality wise then, but highly likeable – and the recent integration of podcasts is a big plus and more than earns Spotify its place on this best music streaming services round-up.

Best music streaming services: Tidal

(Image credit: Tidal)

4. Tidal

Jay Z’s streaming service is rock and metal-friendly

Free trial available: 30 days | Price: £/$9.99/month or £/$19.99/month (high quality Hi-Fi tier) | Sound Quality: 320kbps, CD quality, 24-bit/96kHz High Res MQA encoded | 3D audio: No

Excellent audio quality
Above average search and curation

The original premium quality streaming service, Tidal boasts a range of quality options if you’re prepared to pay for its top tier, including better than CD 24-bit/96kHz High Res (some stuff even 24-bit/192kHz) MQA encoded Tidal Masters. We’re talking Michelin-starred audio quality here.

But with Jay-Z at the helm, you might wonder if there’s enough rock to roll with. The good news is with a 60-million-track catalogue we think it’s a fair bet your mosh pit will never run dry. The more we used Tidal, the more we got used to its audio quality, but it is increasingly looking like a rather expensive option (although they are currently offering a free 30 day trial). If you want to keep some cash in your pocket, the basic stream comes in at 320kbps, which is in line with Spotify, Google Music and others.

Tidal HiFi is currently available for £/$4 per month for 4 months.

Best music streaming services: Apple Music

(Image credit: Apple Music)

5. Apple Music

The best music streaming service if you’re a playlist fiend

Free trial available: 3 months | Price: £/$9.99/month, £/$14.99/month (family tier), £99/12mths | Sound Quality: 256 kbps AAC | 3D audio: No

Designed with iOS users in mind
Slicker than an otter’s pocket
Rivals sound better

The default music service of choice for Apple enthusiasts, Apple Music charts something of a MOR course, with no high-res audio option or free tier. On the plus side, it boasts an easy to navigate user interface, offers excellent music curation and makes short work of playlists. 

Audio quality can be considered good enough, even if it is sub CD quality rather than hi-res.

Usability is fine – Apple’s user interface is predictably easy to browse, and catalogue content depth excellent (infuriatingly, our searches for esoteric death metal consistently came up trumps).

Best music streaming services: Primephonic

(Image credit: Primephonic)

6. Primephonic

Great for classical music and soundtracks, not so great for rock

Free trial available: 14 days | Price: £8/month, £80/year (MP3-quality) / £15/month, £150/year (hi-res audio tier) | Sound Quality: 320kbps, CD quality, 24-bit/96kHz High Res | 3D audio: No

Great value
Fine hi-fi sound
Not the place for your rock fix
Limited catalogue

The world’s leading classical music streaming service might seem an odd fit here, but amongst all the Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart is an extensive original soundtrack selection, and there’s nowt more metal than Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight Rises score (that’s a fact not a question). There’s also a very thin line between the classics and the wizarding keyboards of Rick Wakeman. Editorial curation is best in class – it didn’t take long before we were served The Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra playing the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno. Lovely with a pot of Earl Grey and a salmon sarnie.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Primephonic failed our Kvelertak and Septicflesh hurdles. But on the plus side, it boasts an excellent user interface, and a high quality 24-bit tier that’s on the right side of cheap.

Best music streaming services: Deezer

(Image credit: Deezer)

7. Deezer

A user-friendly music streaming service

Free trial available: 30 days | Price: Free, £/$9.99/month, £/$15/&/month (family tier), £/$20/month (CD-quality Hi-Fi tier) | Sound Quality: 320kbps, CD quality, 24-bit/96kHz High Res | 3D audio: 360 Reality Audio

User friendly interface
Solid sound quality
High-fi tier expensive

A good option if quality is uppermost, Deezer also uses high quality MQA encoding, although its streams are currently limited to CD clarity. The service also supports 360 Reality Audio, although this requires a separate app. 360 Reality Audio works with any stereo headphones, creating an immersive surround experience, and is quite a hoot.

What we really like about Deezer is its personalisation and curation talents. It offers metal and rock strands, and clearly signposts new releases that might otherwise have gone unheard.

Helpfully, you can try before you buy, as Deezer also allows you to listen for free. In fact, now is actually a good time to try Deezer’s top Hi-Fi tier, as it’s offering three months free. Which by our reckoning is worth 60 quid.

Best music streaming service: Google Play Music

(Image credit: Google)

8. Google Play Music

A reliable option, but features won’t knock your socks off

Free trial available: 30 days | Price: Free, £/$9.99/month, £/$14.99/month (family tier) | Sound Quality: 320kbps | 3D audio: No

Fully integrated with other Android platforms
Affordable service
No high-res audio
Not as good as Spotify

Often overlooked amongst the streaming giants, Google’s subscription music service is a somewhat scrappy alternative to the market leader, which can be accessed on Android smartphones and smart TVs. 

While the quality is rudimentary, the music catalogue is undeniably comprehensive, and the app also allows you to integrate your own Google music purchases with your streaming plan, under a Music Library tab.

Even so, we’re left wondering why anyone would choose this over Spotify’s standard-fi offering. It’s like buying one of those old Pickwick Top of the Pops albums featuring session musicians rather than the real thing (and if you don’t know what we’re talking about, ask grandad...or Ozzy).

Steve May

Steve is a home entertainment technology specialist who contributes to a variety of UK websites and mags, including Louder Sound, Yahoo UK, Trusted Reviews, T3, The Luxe Review and Home Cinema Choice. Steve began his career as a music journo, writing for legendary rock weekly Sounds, under the nom de plume Steve Keaton. His coverage of post punk music was cited in the 2015 British Library exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, as a seminal influence on the Goth music scene.