With a seemingly ever-growing number of streaming music services available via the Web and dedicated mobile and tablet apps, choosing the online player that best fits your need is an increasingly difficult task.
Obviously, there are some big names that you might already be aware of, but there are also some newer services that launched in the last 12 months, and some of the existing ones have changed features, so we thought it well worth putting together a roundup to give you some insight into what each offers before you hand over any hard-earned cash.
Perhaps paying for one that lets you download tracks for offline listening, or upload your entire music library for playback anywhere could be worthwhile in the long run, even if it seems more expensive at first. Or perhaps you don’t listen that often, so you prefer a free option. Do you need access via a mobile app for listening while on-the-move? Do you want a radio streaming-style experience or do you decide exactly which song or album you to listen to?
There are lots of options out there, but here are some of the biggest and most notable online music players that are worth checking out.
Spotify is one of the best-known music services available, and as such it has a 20 million strong catalogue of tracks available to listen to – it also means there’s a thriving hub of third-party apps too, like the BBC’s Playlister service among many other, with which to extend your listening.
Most people will probably use it to listen to individual artists or bands, to create playlists of tracks or to listen to individual albums. However, there’s also a ‘radio’ option that plays music it deems related to your original artist of choice. In reality, this isn’t the smartest radio out there, so if what you want is automatically created radio stations, there are better options.
At it’s most basic, access to streaming is free on all platforms – although depending on which device you’re using, you might get either only the option to play music on ‘Shuffle’ mode, and/or the occasional audio ad between tracks.
Spotify used to charge for mobile access, so its recent changes for Android and iOS are for the better if it wants to stay competitive with rivals’ offerings. In December last year, it also removed the 10-hour listening limit for free account holders in some parts of Europe – making it all the more useful for the cost-conscious tech aficionado. The caps were never in place in the US, but used to be in full effect for the UK and Europe. A full list of countries where Spotify is available can be found here.
Nonetheless, there’s still a paid-for Spotify Premium plan available for $9.99/£9.99 per month, which removes all advertising, offers higher quality audio tracks (320kbps vs 160kbps) and opens up the option of downloading specific tracks, albums or playlists for offline listening. The slightly perplexing offline sync limit of 3,333 tracks is still the most you can download, though.
While Spotify might be seen as the industry standard of mainstream music streaming services nowadays, its mobile apps lack some of the more sophisticated features of other platforms. The desktop isn’t coming on in leaps and bounds either, and has maintained many of the same features of the same service since it launched years ago, albeit with newer discovery options. For example, it still only lets you listen back to your locally stored library via the desktop app, rather than uploading them to some sort of cloud storage for access from any device.
However, the single biggest missing feature from Spotify is a better way to manage your listening, other than an almost endless ream of playlists.
One of the strong points for Spotify is its sheer ubiquity. As one of the largest services, there’s a good chance that your friends are using it too, and thanks to the social integration with Facebook you can keep an eye on what you friends are listening to (or share directly) for new inspiration.
For: People who don’t mind paying for offline access. People that want to listen to what their friends are listening to.
Although Pandora is still only available to users in the US, Australia and New Zealand, it’s a veritable granddaddy of online music streaming, but walks a different line to Spotify.
Rather than providing tracks on-demand, Pandora users pick an song and let it create a radio station of similar and related music. Thankfully, and as you might expect given its the primary function, this actually works pretty well and keeps recommendations sensible.
As with others, there’s a free account tier that lets you get going without handing over any cash, but there’s a limit to the number of tracks you can skip per hour, per station, as well as how many skips you are allowed to perform per day. Free account holders are able to create up to 100 personalized radio stations of new and old, well-known or obscure, music and comedy.
For a yearly payment of $36 or a monthly payment of $3.99, Pandora listeners can, however, upgrade to a Pandora One account, which removes all the advertising, and provides access to the service through the standalone Pandora One Desktop app.
Similarly to Spotify, Pandora reserves its highest quality audio for paying users, although it won’t please audiophiles as much as Spotify.
On the Web, tracks are played at 64k AAC+ for free listeners and 192kbps for Pandora One subscribers, the Desktop app also streams at the same rate. In-home devices play 128kbps audio, and (slightly unhelpfully) mobile devices run different rates depending on the capability of the device and the network, but never more than 64k AAC+.
It also lets you perform more skips per day than a free user, although the six skips per hour, per station limit remains. If you’re the kind of person who likes to customize everything you can, you’ll probably like the custom skins that are available too.
Mobile access follows these same restrictions too, and there are apps available for Android, iOS and Windows Phone devices.
For: People who want to stream radio stations rather than on-demand tracks across a variety of platforms for free, in the US.
Google Play Music All Access
OK, so it has an unwieldy and cumbersome name that we wish Google would change, and we’ve already given you a pretty deep dive into Google’s music service, but here are several good reasons it deserves consideration in your short list.
Google Play Music All Access is another $10 per month option that allows users to stream whichever of the more than 20 million catalog tracks that are available, but it offers a radio-style listening experience too, for users to create a station (with unlimited skips!) based on any artist, album or song that they want to choose.
As well as beating Pandora to the unlimited skipping game, it’s also a step ahead of Spotify in a few ways too: mobile users can access all of the music they’ve uploaded locally via the iOS or Android apps (as well as on the desktop, of course), rather than just being restricted to the available streaming catalog. Currently, there’s a 20,000 track limit on the number of songs you can upload, but this should be enough for a modest music collection.
Naturally, given that Google has its own mobile OS, there’s no problem with accessing Google Play from an Android device through the dedicated app, but Apple owners are in luck too, as there’s also an iOS app. Thankfully, offline sync is also an option, so you can keep listening to your music while you’re on the go, even if you drop offline.
Google Play Music All Access is available in the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States.
Its solid and simple UI, availability across many platforms and devices, and blend of on-demand tracks with optional radio-style listening makes Google Play Music All Access a compelling option.
For: Android users; people who want to access their entire catalog of music from any device; iOS users disenchanted with iTunes.
Sony Music Unlimited
Sony’s music streaming service, like many others, touts a catalog of more than 25 million tracks (“from indies to superstars”) available to play on demand, however, it’s a little different to some of the options here, in that there’s no free streaming plan available.
Instead, to entice you to dip a toe into the water, there is a free 30 day trial so you can take it for a test run before deciding to carry on with monthly payments, or not. If you do decide to go ahead and pay for it, the service has two tiers: an Access Plan and a Premium Plan. It’s probably also worth mentioning that at the time of writing, there’s also a 3-month offer for $3/£3.
The Access Plan is the cheaper of the two — $4.99/£4.99/€4.99 — and allows users to access premium Channels, chart listings and editorial playlists curated by the team. Naturally, it also includes unfettered streaming access to the entire catalogue of tracks, or there’s the option to download playlists to your library for offline access – but only up to a limit of 1,000 tracks.
Given the breadth of Sony’s business, it’s little surprise that Music Unlimited is accessible from a range of different devices, and the Access Plan will qualify you for access via a Sony games console or via the Web.
However, notably, what’s NOT included in the Access Plan is access from a smartphone or tablet app. For that, you’ll need a Premium Plan, which costs £9.99/€9.99/$9.99 per month.
As well as providing access to the service via Android smartphones or tablets, iPod Touch and the iPhone, the Premium Plan also opens up the option of listening via Blu-ray players and Bravia/Sony Internet-connected TVs, which is worth bearing in mind if you have a decent TV and sound system set up in your lounge.
Whichever plan you opt for, tracks are delivered in 320kbps AAC format, which means they’re of a higher quality than some of the other services. Sony used to offer a MusicSync feature too, which scanned your hard drive to add details about existing non-DRM protected music tracks. However, now Sony offers its similar functionality via its Walkman app for select Xperia models.
The major weakness of the Music Unlimited service is the recommendation and discovery aspect, which is far less sophisticated than some of the rivals’ services, although there are pre-populated playlists and Channels.
Sony Music Unlimited is currently available in: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the USA and UK.
For: Sony fans (Xperia/Brava/PlayStation owners), who can benefit from tight integration of Music Unlimited on TVs, smartphones, consoles and tablets.
Mixcloud touts itself as the place for long form audio. In real terms, this means that it’s a great repository for DJ mixes, radio shows, podcasts and any other longer audio formats. The company says that the average length of an upload on its platform is in excess of 40 minutes, and that the average listener stays tuned in for more than 20 minutes, and its long form format means it’s great at just running unattended in the background for hours at a time.
While it’s certainly not the place to head if you want to listen to one specific track or a whole album, if you want to listen to a whole mix or radio show it should definitely be on your short list. And there’s another good reason, too – it’s completely free for end users.
However, just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s lacking features. You’ll find all the usual things like favoriting tracks and creating playlists, and thanks to a recent revamp and relaunch of Mixcloud X, it now includes more streamlined playback options and branded profile pages for partners.
There are also dedicated Android (below) and iOS apps too – which, again, are free to download and use, although you will need to create an account to start listening. On the Web, you don’t even need to do this.
While it doesn’t boast the same kind of track figures as on-demand platforms like Spotify or Google Play All Access Music, it doesn’t really need to. Instead, what it does have is more than 500,000 partners on board that have uploaded more than 3 million mixes – most of which are between 20 minutes and several hours long.
There’s a general music selection and nothing is excluded, but the company said that the most of the catalog “has strengths” in curated music, focused on Electronic Dance Music (EDM), hip-hop, jazz, funk and world music.
For: People who want access to radio shows, podcasts and DJ mixes from a mobile or the Web, but never want to pay a penny; fans of EDM.
Rdio is an ad-free music subscription service that allows users to listen to music on-demand, as well as to stream pre-made stations and playlists of tracks created by other users.
Like many of the others, Rdio claims to have that magic 20 million song catalog and offers mobile access for iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry devices (via a Web app). Although you’ll need to pay a monthly subscription fee for access from a mobile.
On the desktop, the service will give you six months of uninterrupted ad-free listening. After this, users get a limited number of tracks per month which can be played – once this has been used up, you’ll need to subscribe to carry on listening.
For $4.99/£4.99 per month, you can get access to unlimited streaming on the Web, shown above. Increasing this to $9.99/£9.99 broadens access to include mobile devices (Windows Phone shown below) and streaming via devices like a Roku media player. There’s also a family plan which includes two (by default, although more can be added) unlimited subscriptions starting from $17.99/£17.99 per month.
Audiophiles might be left pondering over the fact that Rdio doesn’t offer the same level of audio quality in its music as some of the rival options, but 192kbps should be good enough for most people. If it’s going to be the main source of music for a serious sound system though, you might want to aim for 320kbps tracks, at least.
What’s particularly good about Rdio is the clean and crisp UI and – whether this is a good or a bad thing is up to you – the integration with social media, should you wish to track your friends or share what you’re listening to. Rdio is currently available in these 51 countries.
For: People who want cheap access to unlimited streaming on the Web, people who want multiple accounts/a family subscription.
iTunes Radio is obviously, by its very nature of being tied to the largest digital music store, a big player in this list.
Offering access from a range of [mostly Apple] devices, iTunes Radio can be used on your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, PC, or Apple TV and allows seamless syncing of playlists between them.
Rather than focus on user-created playlists at its core, iTunes Radio offers users a choice of more than 250 human-curated and genre-focused radio stations [Note: link opens in iTunes] to tune in to. Naturally, buying recently played tracks is as easy as a click of a button directly from the recently played list (shown above).
If none of those 250 or so take your fancy, you can always create your own personalized iTunes Radio station based around any song, artist or genre that you like.
Like Amazon and Google’s music services, Apple also offers users the option of storing all your locally stored music in iCloud via the iTunes Match service, so you can play it back from any compatible device.
To use this feature, you’ll need a premium subscription to iTunes Match costing $24.99 per year.
Alternatively, if you don’t mind the occasional advert and can live without the iTunes Match service, then you can use Apple’s iTunes Radio service gratis.
There’s one big and very large drawback to using iTunes Radio though, and that’s its limited reach. It launched in the US in September last year, and for now, there it remains.
For: People in the US who own multiple Apple devices and are happy listening to radio format streaming.
The French company Deezer has been offering music streaming since way back in 2006, although back then it was called Blogmusik. It became a fully fledged business in August 2007.
With many years under its belt already, Deezer is now a mature service with a catalogue of 30 million tracks available for playback. Like the others, at its most basic it offers playlists, music discovery, favorites and integrated social features but it also offers a wide range of different mobile clients including iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry. It’s also available on Mac/PCs too, as well as via a dedicated Windows 8 app. Failing all that, you could of course just fire up a browser and use the Web player (below).
The free listening option provides unlimited music for the first month, but after this you’ll have just two hours per month. If that doesn’t cut the mustard, Deezer has Premium and Premium+ plans available for $4.99 and $9.99 per month respectively.
Upgrading doesn’t only remove the listening restrictions, it also unlocks access to higher quality tracks (320kbps) and allows access via mobile apps too.
Like Spotify, Deezer also gives you the option to import your local library of MP3’s for playback through the desktop client, but it stops short of actually cloud syncing your library so you can play them back from anywhere.
Users that sign up for a free trial of Deezer Premium+ via Facebook are given 15 days to test out the service, before needing to enter card details to carry on using it. Happily, it’ll work in a lot of different countries too, a full list can be found here.
For: People who are happy to pay for access to one of the largest digital music catalogues available to stream and want most of their use to be via the desktop client. It’s also one of the few services that offers a native app for BlackBerry device owners.
Microsoft clearly has ambitions in the space, as Xbox Music already offers more than 30 million songs – more than most others here. Streaming is free and you can create radio stations based on a particular artist, but the music is ad-supported. Free streaming then becomes limited to 10 hours per month after six months, so if you want to carry on using it, realistically you’ll end up paying.
As well as providing all the usual sort of playlist and playback functionality, it also scans locally stored files and matches tracks with those in existing playlists on its services.
There are benefits and drawbacks to Xbox Music. While it offers multi-platform access, using it on a mobile or console requires an Xbox Music Pass ($9.99/£8.99 per month), this does open up the option of offline listening too, though.
Xbox Music listeners using a Microsoft console that do pay for the service will also get access to more than 70,000 music videos available to stream. A full list of available countries where the service is active is available here.
For: Microsoft/Windows device owners, people who want to stream videos as well as music.
If you’re looking for a huge repository of music, but one that also lets you upload your own mixes and tracks too, then you’re probably looking for SoundCloud .
Primarily intended platform for people to share their own musical creations and mixes, as it has grown in popularity and size, big artists and labels have also signed up, allowing for some of their music to be available through the platform.
It’s been around since 2007, but SoundCloud got a revamp in 2013 that was intended to make it easier to use and attract even more listeners. However, this move also attracted some criticism that it was heading more towards the mainstream, and was less about artists.
Nonetheless, with a Web player and native mobile apps for Android, iOS, Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10 smartphones and tablets (Android tablet shown below), there’s plenty of ways to listen to tracks on SoundCloud.
Like Spotify and Deezer too, there’s also a third-party app ecosystem built around SoundCloud, in which you’ll find more than 100 more apps designed to extend the reach and usefulness of it.
SoundCloud offers three pricing tiers:
- Free – Offers two upload hours, 100 downloads, unlimited playlists and access to some stats, like number of plays, downloads, comments and favorites of tracks.
- Pro (€3 per month/€29 per year) – Allows four hours of uploads, access to posting tracks in ‘Quiet Mode’ (allowing you to control comments) and Spotlight (allowing you to pin up to five tracks to the top of your profile to receive more attention). It also includes more detailed stats, with reports on who is playing your tracks and where they’re located.
- Pro Unlimited (€9 per month/€99 per year) – Allows you to upload unlimited single sound file sizes up to 2GB each and within an upload time limit of 30 hours per week.
For: People who want to share their own music with the world, as well as listen to others’ creations.
Grooveshark is an online music streaming service for playing back individual tracks, artists or albums since back in 2007.
The free tier allows ad-supported listening of tracks across a wide range of genres, but it’s really the hassle-free listening and good selection of electronic dance music that scored it a place on this list.
Without even creating an account, you can start queuing up tracks in a playlist – although to save a playlist you’ll need to at least create a free account – simply by searching. If, when you get to the end of the list you’ve created (or before that point, in fact), you run out of tracks, there’s the option to start a radio station based on the tracks you’ve been listening to. Handily, if the station then throws up some unknown tracks that you rather like, then you can choose to save the whole tracklist to a new or existing playlist.
If you fancy yourself as having a pretty good taste in music, you can also choose to broadcasts your listening sessions for others to listen along with.
However, while it has an easy to use interface in some areas, free users won’t be able to access the service via anything but the browser. For $50 per year/$5 per month, users can subscribe to the Anywhere premium subscription plan that allows usage via Android or iOS apps (on a jailbroken device). It also brings the option of a desktop download for Mac (OS X 10.7+) and Windows machines.
For: Web listeners. While it lacks some of the finesse or more advanced integrations of rival platforms, if you’re a Web-first listener and would rather not spend any cash, Grooveshark could be well worth a look.
Slacker is another radio-style streaming service that’s available across a range of platforms, but unlike, say, Pandora, listeners aren’t restricted to only being able to listen to radio stations.
At its most basic, users can access the service on the Web and via mobile apps for Android, iOS and Windows Phone (shown below) to access hundreds of playlists curated by Slacker’s music experts and while it doesn’t shout about the exact number of tracks it has to offer you, it does boast about having “more than 10x the music of Pandora”.
On the free tier, listeners get to listen to as much free radio as they can take, but also endure adverts. Skips are also limited to six per hour.
Paying $3.99 per month gives users access to the Premium plan, which allows for unlimited ad-free streaming, unlimited skips, song lyrics and the option to store your favorite stations on your smartphone memory card.
Bumping this up to $9.99 per month turns it into a fully fledged music on-demand platform, with individual artists, tracks and albums available to stream or sync for offline play. It also unlocks the ability to create playlists.
Slacker suffers from the same problem (from an international perspective) as iTunes Radio and some of the other services in this list, as it’s only available to users in the US and Canada, and there’s no word on if or when it might expand beyond these horizons.
For: People who like Pandora, but want more music and a slicker design.
TuneIn Radio is a little different to the other radio streaming services in this list as it focuses on acting as a hub and player for commercially available radio shows. In total, there are more than 100,000 live stations available, and more than 2 million podcasts.
Radio stations can be filtered by location or by genre, but there’s an obvious drawback to listening to regular radio in this way: the adverts remain, no matter what you do.
There is actually a chargeable app for iOS (currently $0.99, but usually $6.99) and Android ($6.99) that allow users to record live radio, but still won’t get you out of listening to those adverts. There are also free apps for Android and iOS too. It’s also available for Windows Phone, BlackBerry, some Roku players, through some Internet TVs – and even directly in some cars.
For: People who like listening to traditional radio stations, but want to do so from one single platform.
MySpace might seem like an odd one in this list, but since it relaunched, it has re-angled itself as a music and video platform, rather than as a social network.
As such, you’ll find a massive library of music on there – but beware of raw numbers, a huge amount of MySpace’s usage before the relaunch was for bands and musicians and so it follows that a huge amount of the music available to listen to on the platform is from little-known artists.
On the positive side, if you’re just looking for a free way to listening to signed and unsigned artists alike on the Web, then this is one way to do that. It’ll particularly appeal to iPhone owners too, who can use the MySpace app to stream personalized radio stations or to listen to stations curated by your connections.
For: People who want a (sort of) social network and a music service rolled into one. People who like discovering unsigned artists.
Beats Music is easily the newest service on this list, so new in fact that it hasn’t even quite started up yet anywhere, but it will on January 21. However, only for users in the US – although further expansion is to be expected, judging from the signup page for people outside the States.
Backed by Dr Dre and boasting a catalogue of more than 20 million tracks, Beats Music will launch with iOS, Android and Windows Phone apps, as well as being available via the Web.
Rather than choose specific tracks, it seems Beats Music users will generate a playlist by using cues in the real-world, like people, locations, activities and genre. So, if context-smart music streaming is what you’re looking for, then this might be worth checking out – although, it should be noted that most if not all of the services in this list offer some form of music discovery or recommendation service.
Once it’s up and running, the service will cost a straight $10 per month, that’s it, there are no other options and no freemium business model. You will be able to take it for a test drive with a 30-day free trial, though.
For: People who want some human recommendation and curation, as well as access from a smartphone or tablet.
Amazon is clearly the elephant in the room when it comes to this, as it doesn’t offer a music streaming service. Yet.
However, we’d be surprised if it didn’t offer one in the future.
What it does have right now is the Amazon MP3 store and the Cloud Player. The former lets you buy MP3s and the latter lets you upload them (and any other locally stored music) into Amazon’s cloud for playback across a range of devices.
With a company like Amazon, one of the most ambitious and diverse around, it’s really only a small step, rather than a huge leap, to see it launch an on-demand streaming music service. For now though, it doesn’t.
As you can see, there are plenty of online streaming options available, with some being more suited to radio listening and others focusing purely on providing individual tracks and albums on-demand.
Most of those included in this list offer an algorithm or human curation aspect to discovery of new music, but you’ll likely need to spend some time using any of them before it accurately learns what you like.
For true multi-device, multi-functional, streaming with the additional benefits of being able to upload your own music collection too – Google Play Music All Access gets a shout out. If you’re looking for the best all-rounder, Google’s is pretty high in the list. Slacker is similar, but US-only and has no provisions for uploading your own music collection to the cloud. And Rdio is a company that’s getting a lot of traction at the moment for its six months of ad-free listening and simple design.
Ultimately, this list should be enough for you to narrow it down to two or three that you’d like to try out, and handily most offer a free trial so you can try them on for size. Get to it.
Featured Image Credit – Shutterstock
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