For most of us, a music streaming service is our first port of call for new releases, playlists and music discovery, but Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal each offer a very different music experience. So what service should you be subscribing to, and how do they differ when it comes to audio quality, ease of use, content choice and cost?
We slapped on a pair of high-res headphones in order to unpick each offering. Streaming music services may seem as interchangeable as Saxon albums, but which one is best for prog, rock, punk and metal heads?
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The first question any potential subscriber should ask is: ‘Does this music service have what I like?’
The answer, almost certainly, is yes. Whether you dig Bad Religion or Crass, have a soft spot for Gong’s Camembert Electrique (OK, so I once did, but we all make mistakes) or trim your beard to ZZ Top, you’ll be well served by any and all of our combatants.
When it comes to bands and artists, there’s no real difference in choice. Obscure Norwegian death metal, classic prog or pop punk, you’ll find they’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.
Our key takeaway is, it’s not the catalogue of titles which differ, more the playlists and suggestions offered, and the street cred of the algorithms at play…
There’s a free basic version of Spotify, but functionality is limited and it’s ad supported. Spotify Premium will set you back a tenner a month, but there’s a Student Tier for half that. If you want to split costs, the Duo tier supports two users for £12.99, while the Family Tier, at £14.99, allows up to six people to have their own account. These co-op plans are better than sharing a single log-on, as it means your personal recommendations won’t be polluted by other user’s terrible tastes.
Tidal Premium also costs a tenner a month, however this doesn’t unlock the service’s hi-res streams. You’re limited to 320kbps. Step up to the Tidal Hi-Fi tier, at £19.99 per month, and you’ll get access to both CD quality FLAC files and High-Res Master files, as well as Dolby Atmos streams (available from its media player apps only).
Apple Music offers free basic access, but you’ll be limited primarily to Internet radio. For all the toys, you’ll have to pay a tenner a month. An Apple Music family subscription is priced at £14.99/month, and supports up to six individual users.
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Spotify ticks all the boxes when it comes to ease of use. We particularly like its collaborative playlists and on-point new music recommendations. Playlist variety and depth is impressive. You can invite mates to contribute to your playlists, find friends on Facebook and laugh at what they’ve been listening to, and post songs to your Insta story.
The app itself is easy to navigate, but it’s not what it was. The streaming giant has made some big changes, moving hard and fast into podcasts, both from a curation point of view, and with exclusive content. Joe Rogan was an early star to commit to the platform.
Consequently, podcast recommendations now claim as much screen estate as music. The overall app design is fine though, with crisp graphics and text on a black background.
Spotify boasts quality curation, with recommendations both current and throwback. It’s generally on the ball, which in my case seems to consist of a disproportionate number of classic rock (oh go on then, hit me with some Judas Priest if you must) and only a modicum of poor choices (Stealers Wheel? I don’t think so…).
Rival Tidal tends to do personalised curation even better. Using Tidal, we get the feeling that the service actually knows what we’re interested in, accurately showcasing albums and playlists of particular relevance.
Overall design is similar to Spotify, but unlike Spotify, Podcast content is definitely secondary. We really like the Tidal Explore tab, which offers top Staff Picks, and Tidal Rising, which throws the spotlight on new and upcoming artists.
What you can’t do is add your own local music files to the mix. For that, you’ll need to turn to Apple...
Apple Music may be the default music app for iOS users, but it’s also available for Android fans, via the Google Play store.
Apple Music is hands down the best choice if you’ve amassed a large collection of music downloads. Tracks can be uploaded to the iCloud Music Library (up to 100,000 songs), and even better, quality gets automatically upgraded. Good news if you’ve been hanging on to some ropey MP3 emo tracks from back in the day.
App design is a little bland compared to rivals, but navigation remains intuitive. The Library tab recalls iTunes, a place to find those tunes you’ve saved, while new music discovery is covered by the For You tab, which recommends new stuff, based on your preferences.
Internet radio is also a strong suit for Apple Music, with station and genre search.
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While the range of artists and recommendations on our three chosen music services have barely a plectrum to separate them, there’s a far more decisive winner when it comes to sonic quality.
Tidal stomps its two rivals like Gene Simmons in full stage drag, offering high-res MQA studio audio. Tidal’s HiFi tier doesn’t just sound marginally better, it's the difference between a seventies bootleg and an Abbey Road remix.
Of course, if you’re only shelling out for Tidal Premium, don’t expect any significant differences over rival service providers.
Tidal Hi-Fi streams up to 24-bit/96kHz, with MQA (Master Quality Assured) encoding. The service has also started to offer Dolby Atmos, for users of its TV app.
If you listen on high quality, hi-res audio headphones, or stream to a higher music system, you’ll hear greater resolution with more pronounced dynamics. Music simply sounds brighter, cleaner, more realistic.
High Resolution tracks on Tidal are signposted by a Master logo beneath the artist listing. The app offers rails dedicated to Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) albums and playlists, simplifying access.
It’s worth noting that the majority of metal and rock releases still don’t come in high-res, so you may wonder why you’re paying top dollar, but when one comes along, all seems worth it. The Sickness by Disturbed in Hi-Res MQA is akin to shoving your head up against a Marshall stack without any accompanying distortion. And the Dragonforce live album Twilight Dementia, in MQA, is a belter.
Spotify may be the biggest dog in the yard, but it doesn’t offer any 24-bit hi-res content. Delivered in an Ogg Vorbis wrapper, Spotify Premium brick walls at 320kbps. While this is clearly good enough for most, it won’t scratch your premium quality itch.
Apple Music doesn’t currently offer hi-res audio either. Indeed, it looks to be the runt of the litter, as Apple’s AAC codec is locked at 256kbps. But as the codec is more efficient, the perceived audio quality is pretty much the same.
Out in the wild, we think Apple Music sounds just as good as Spotify Premium. As evidence we offer Eskimo Callboys faux club anthem, Hypa Hypa, which is brilliantly bonkers on both platforms.
When it comes to sound quality, Tidal aces it. Unlike Spotify or Apple Music, subscribers to Tidal’s HiFi tier get 24-bit MQA audio, as well as the option of Dolby Atmos. That’s cake and eat it. Spotify and Apple Music just don’t come close.
Spotify slides into second place, a comfortable pair of old slippers, but wins out if you’re a podcast addict, while Apple has your back if you’ve an existing collection of music downloads you’d like to integrate.
Ultimately, everyone’s a winner. Just like Saxon albums after all.
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At a glance
The star performer in our music streaming face-off, Tidal offers the best audio quality and has excellent discovery tools. But you’ll pay a hefty price to enjoy its full fat goodness. If you can’t afford the premium tier or you kind find a decent cut-price deal (see below), then you might be better off subscribing to Spotify.
Tidal HiFi: £3 for 90 days of high quality streaming
Here's your chance to experience the majesty of high-end, hi-res audio at a very affordable price for the next 90 days. For just £3, you can load up on all the 24-bit/96kHz rock and metal – and everything else – you can fit into your ears!View Deal
The market leader when it comes to streaming audio, Spotify offers brilliant curation and social features, even if it’s not the last word in sonic clarity. It’s also betting big on the podcast boom…
The default choice for many iOS users, Apple Music is similar to Spotify but has unique appeal if you’ve amassed a large collection of purchased music files (presumably because you were once an iTunes addict).