Beginner’s guide to music streaming

Over the past decade, music streaming services have become perhaps the most popular way of listening to music. Streaming offers a convenient and cost-effective way to enjoy tunes and podcasts. Rather than spending big bucks on albums, you have millions of songs at your disposal for a monthly fee. And forget about clunky hardware, it’s super simple to stream music from a variety of connected devices. Over 611 million people around the world are currently signed up for some sort of music streaming service. Americans blaze the trail when it comes to the phenomenon, streaming 1.15 trillion songs in 2019. 

There are over 30 music streaming services on the market. Spotify leads the pack with 113 million paid subscribers and 248 million users worldwide. Apple Music has the largest US base with 28 million subscribers.

Ways to start streaming music 

Music streaming services are largely compatible with most Android/iOS mobile devices, smart TVs and smart speakers. Some services, such as Tidal, require you to use a third-party account like Plex to listen on select devices.  

Mobile devices

Mobile devices consist of smartphones and tablets. Apple Music and YouTube Music come as the default music apps on iPhones and Android phones, respectively. Choosing another music streaming service is simple — it’s a matter of a simple download from the App or Google Play Store. 

Computers 

The major streaming services have apps designed for desktops and laptops alike. Spotify and Pandora, two of the most popular options, have online media players. Desktop interfaces sometimes come with more features than their mobile counterparts. Spotify’s free version, for instance, doesn’t let you fast forward or select specific songs to listen to — the desktop interface, on the other hand, does. If you have an iMac Pro or other Apple computer, it makes sense for you to gravitate towards Apple Music. 

Smart devices

Coming in the form of audio streamers, smart speakers and wearables, smart devices give you additional ways to listen to music. Amazon took note and developed a range of devices to facilitate its music app. Amazon Music Unlimited has a symbiotic relationship with the Alexa personal assistant and Echo smart speakers. 

Top music streaming services 

SpotifyApple MusicAmazon Music UnlimitedTidalPandora
Monthly price$8.99/mo.$8.99/mo.$7.99 Prime or $9.99 non-Prime $9.99, $19.99 HiFi plan $4.99, $9.99 for Premium
Family plan$14.99/mo.$14.99/mo.$14.99/mo.$14.99/mo., 29.99/mo. HiFi plan$14.99/mo. 
Student plan$4.99/mo.$4.99/mo.$0.99/mo.$4.99/mo., $9.99/mo. HiFi plan$4.99/mo. 
Free streaming optionYesNoNoNoYes
Free trial length3 months3 months30 days60 days60 days
Number of songs50+ million60+ million5+ million60 million+30 million+
Number of subscribers113 million60 million55 million3 million6 million

Free music streaming services 

Dozens of music streaming services and internet radio players have flooded the market in recent years. Free music streaming apps such as Jango or iHeartRadio function essentially as online radio stations. But there’s one aspect nearly every free service has in common — they’re all supported by ads. 

Some serve as gateways to premium subscriptions such as Spotify, Pandora and YouTube Music. Others like SoundCloud allow you to listen to and share of music, free of charge. Older services like Deezer give you free listening in much the same way as Pandora, but you won’t be able to skip songs unless you upgrade to a paid membership. 

What to consider when selecting a music streaming service 

What kind of listener are you? If you’re a casual listener who enjoys radio, one of the many free options may do just fine. But if you’re a huge fan of music, need great lossless CD-quality audio or want access to new hits as they drop, a premium streaming plan like Spotify or Apple Music might be more appropriate. Some services offer discounted family and student plans. 

Best value: Spotify 

Standout Features 

Spotify has earned major points with its free streaming platform. You’ll have to sit through, ads but if you aren’t throwing a massive party (or a huge music fan), Spotify free is a perfectly good option. Spotify also has a fantastic app featuring cross-compatibility across a wide range of devices

Drawbacks 

Spotify doesn’t offer a plan that competes with sound quality you can find on Amazon Music HD or Tidal HiFi.

Compatible devices

Spotify is compatible with most devices, including Android and iOS, game consoles and smart speakers, among others

Best for Apple device owners: Apple Music 

Standout Features

Apple Music plays well with Apple devices. If you have an Apple ID, you can store up to 100,000 songs in the iCloud, which matches local songs in your library with iTunes. If the song isn’t in iTunes, it will upload the original song. 

Drawbacks 

Apple Music doesn’t offer a free version, which makes it more difficult to get started with the service. 

Compatible devices

Apple Music is compatible with various devices, most notably Android and iOS phones and tablets. You won’t be able to stream Apple Music from your PlayStation 4.  

Best for Amazon Prime members: Amazon Music Unlimited 

Standout Features

Amazon Music Unlimited excels when connected to Amazon devices like Echo smart speakers. Amazon’s HD music tier also elevates the brand among music aficionados. 

Drawbacks 

Amazon Music Unlimited’s has a tragically bland interface, at least when compared to what Spotify and Apple Music have going on. And you need an Amazon Prime membership to make it truly worth your while. 

Compatible devices

Amazon’s app works across Android and iOS mobile devices, smart TVs and web browsers. The service shines when paired with Amazon Alexa or Echo.  

Best sound quality: Tidal 

Standout Features 

Owned and operated by artists like Jay-Z, Tidal offers an extensive library of 60 million songs and provides a superior listening experience with Master Quality Authenticated HD sound quality. The company champions artists’ rights, paying musicians more for their music compared than competitors. 

Drawbacks 

Tidal is designed to encourage you to become an active participant in searching for and discovering new music. This can make it difficult to discover music outside of your comfort zone. 

Compatible devices

You can listen to tidal on most Android and iOS smartphones and tablets. It also works with Roku products, smart speakers and smart TVs. Tidal is also supported by high end brands like Astell&Kern. To stream on game consoles, you need an account with Plex

Best for music discovering new music: Pandora 

Standout Features

Pandora’s Music Genome Project is an exceptional tool for discovering new music. Its detailed algorithm suggests music based on your previously likes. 

Drawbacks 

Pandora’s social features, like song sharing song, leave a bit to be desired — the service essentially subs non-premium users. Its free version plays more like an internet radio and hardly stands up to Spotify or YouTube Music.

Compatible devices

When it comes to listening from your Google Home, Roku or Xbox One, Pandora’s got it covered. Travelers will have issues streaming outside the US.

The takeaway 

With plenty of music streaming services on the market, there are plenty of options to choose from. If you’re an Amazon Prime member with an Alexa, Amazon Music Unlimited is a great place to start. And Apple lovers will probably feel right home with Apple Music. But if you’re new to music streaming, try cutting your teeth with a free service from Spotify or YouTube Music. 

Zack Kulm

Zack Kulm is a writer and contributor of soda.com. He covers a variety of topics from entertainment and gaming technologies to pop culture commentary. Kulm received a degree in English from Penn State University and Film Studies from Pittsburgh Filmmakers Institute. He also produces award-winning documentaries.