Music streaming services: how do you choose the right one for you?

The big differences between the big-name music streamers

(Image credit: Deezer)

It’s easy to assume that all music streaming services are the same. But there are some crucial differences in terms of what they actually offer, especially in terms of sound quality, device compatibility and music discovery. That means the biggest names might not be the best choice for you. Let’s look at and listen to the key differences.

At home on all your hardware?

Hardware support varies from service to service and different services have different focuses. For example, Tidal has been very focused on high-end audio hardware, which is great if you have high-end kit from the likes of Linn but not so good if you want to stream to your Xbox One, because Tidal doesn’t have an official Xbox app. 

Deezer HiFi doesn’t have the same gallery of audiophile firms, but it works on your Xbox and it also works with Google Home, Alexa and Sonos smart speakers; Samsung, Sony, LG and Hisense Smart TVs; and home audio hardware from Bose, B&O, LG, Onkyo and Yamaha.

And Spotify supports many more devices than Apple Music – although Apple’s offering does work with Android and Alexa as well as Apple kit.

Why streaming services don’t all sound the same

You can’t just compare bitrates across services, because they use different file formats – so while Apple Music streams at up to 256kbps and Deezer and Spotify up to 320kbps, they don’t use the same compression algorithms and to our ears they sound the same. But that changes when you get into hi-res audio.

Not all services offer high fidelity audio, which promises to deliver CD-quality or better. Tidal does it, Deezer has been doing it for ages it and Amazon started doing it last year, but Apple doesn’t and neither does Spotify. Speaking in late 2019, Spotify VP Paul Vogel said that Spotify bosses “haven’t talked much about” HD music: “It’s not really something that’s been a big differentiator among the different services.”

That might be true for lo-fi hardware such as cheap speakers, but if you’ve got decent kit then the sound quality really starts to matter. That’s why premium audio manufacturers recommend premium audio services: the difference between heavily compressed and lossless audio can be dramatic. If you’ve got decent headphones, there’s a world of difference between a 320Kbps MP3 and one of Deezer’s 53 million uncompressed FLAC files.

Hear music in a different dimension

While we’re on the subject of Deezer’s FLAC files, it also supports another kind of file: Sony’s new “360 Reality Audio” format. Designed for headphone users (but also supported on the Amazon Echo Studio), 360 Reality Audio features tracks that have been digitally remastered to create 3D positional audio.

If you imagine that you're in the centre of a sphere, 360 Reality Audio can place instruments and ambient effects with great accuracy anywhere in that sphere. It's quite extraordinary: check out the demo on Sony’s site to hear it for yourself. 

Fun for all the family

Most streaming services offer family packages, usually for up to six people including you, and in some cases their free trials apply to their premium services, too.

However, once again there are differences in terms of what’s available and how long it’s available for. Tidal and Deezer both include their hi-fi services in their free trials, but Tidal's offer is for one month compared to Deezer’s three months; Spotify and Apple Music also offer three-month trials across their services, but don’t have hi-fi tiers. Additionally, some trials are limited time offers. For example, Spotify offers a three-month free trial until 30 June while Deezer's offer is rolling and doesn't have an end date currently.

More than just music

If you want to listen to more than just music, that will affect your choice of streaming service too. Apple has a separate app for podcasts, while Tidal's podcast selection is limited. Spotify and Deezer do a much better job: For example, Deezer’s Shows tab offers a curated mix of original and third-party podcasts alongside live radio.

Curation is becoming a really big deal in streaming: when you’ve got a global jukebox it can often be hard to find the really good stuff. Different services approach that in different ways so, for example, Deezer uses local editors around the world and mixes their personalised recommendations with an in-house algorithm that learns what you like, which they call Flow. It also offers channels dedicated to particular topics, so for example the At Home channel is designed specifically for lockdown listening.

How to choose the right music streaming service

Today’s music services are pretty much guaranteed to have the music you love, but there are key differences in the hardware they support, the sound quality they deliver and the way they recommend music and other audio content.

The major services are all very good at what they do, but we think it’s a very good idea to use the free trials to find the one that’s very good at what you need it to do.

T3 would like to thank Deezer for being a sponsor of the T3 Awards 2020 where we will be naming the best products in almost 100 categories. The winners of the T3 Awards 2020 will be announced throughout the week of Monday 8 June and will appear in T3 magazine on sale Friday 12 June.