Head to Head Comparison of 14 Streaming Music Services

When I wrote up Rhapsody's unRadio service on Wednesday, my knee-jerk reaction was "Who cares?" The streaming music market is already crowded, the independent services aren't making any money, and unRadio was just more of the same.

That got me thinking about the market, though, and I realized I couldn't put my finger on exactly which services offered which features. I also had no idea who was charging what. The obvious solution was to put together a chart and discuss the differences and advantages of these services.

Apples to Apples

Note, however, that I've spent little time using most of these services. iTunes Radio and Pandora are what I use when not listening to music I quaintly own, and this feature comparison is more about paper specs than user experience. I researched the ever-loving crap out of these services, however, and the difficulty of finding all of this information only emphasized the usefulness of the chart.

First, we'll look at the chart. My thoughts follow, below the fold.

[Update 2: Sony's service was corrected to Music Unlimited and more compatible devices were added. In addition, Rhapsody's flagship service was added as a separate entry from unRadio making a total of 14 services. A clarifying statement about Rhapsody's catalog was also added. - Editor]

[Update: the table has been updated with additional services that are available on Sonos. - Editor]

Streaming Music Feature Comparison
 Free
(Ads)
Ad-Free StationsPlaylists

Human
Curated
Content

AlbumsPlatformsQualityCatalog Size
iTunes RadioIncluded with $25 iTunes Match subscription  iOS, OS X, Windows, Apple TV256 Kbps26M
Beats Music $10/mo. iOS, Android, Browser, Windows, Sonos320 Kbps20M
Spotify$10/mo.  

(paid)

iOS, Android, BlackBerry, OS X, Windows, Sonos320 Kbps20M
Pandora$5/mo.   iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Browser, Pandora192 Kbps1M
Google Play $10/mo.  iOS, Android, Browser, Sonos320 Kbps20M
Last.fm$3/mo.  iOS, Android, OS X, Windows, Linux, Browser, Sonos, Xbox128 Kbps 
Rdio$10/mo iOS, Android, BlackBerry, OS X, Windows, Browser, Sonos192 Kbps20M
iHeart RadioN/AFree   iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows, Browser, Sonos, Roku, Xbox 15M
Music Unlimited
(Sony)
 $5/mo. (desktop and gaming only)
$10/mo. (+mobile)
 iOS, android, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 PlayStation Vita, Browser, Sony TVs & Blu-ray Players320 Kbps25M
Amazon Prime MusicN/AIncluded with $99 annual Prime subscription  iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Fire Phone, OS X, Windows, Roku, Sonos, Browser, Samsung TVsUp to 256 Kbps1M
Rhapsody unRadio $5/mo. √ (limited)iOS, Android, BlackBerry, OS X, Windows, FordSync192 Kbps32M*
Rhapsody/Napster $10/mo.iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Windows, Browser, Sonos, Xbox, Car, Various Receivers, Various TVs, FordSync192 Kbps32M*
Slacker$4/mo.
$10/mo.
  iOS, Android, Windows, Browser, Sonos, Xbox128 Kbps13M
Xbox Music$10/mo.   iOS, Android, Windows, Browser, Xbox192 Kbps

18M (US)

30M (Global)

*32 million tracks are available in Rhapsody's global catalog. The company doesn't break down availability by country, and it's not clear if all tracks are available in all markets, including the U.S.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Next: Price, Catalog Depth, and Quality

Part 2 - Price, Catalog Depth, and Quality

 

Price

Price

Everything being equal, price is likely of paramount importance to many users interested in a streaming music service. The services above break down into one of three categories: ad-supported, paid (ad-free) subscriptions, and services that are a perk included with another paid service.

Most of the services have free, ad-supported options. Beats Music, Google Play, Sony Music, and Rhapsody's new unRadio are the exceptions. The ad-free services all have varying levels of access control, number of skips allowed, and limited features. At the end of the day if you're going to choose a service based on what you get for nothing, it's six of one, half dozen of the other.

iHeart Radio is unique in that it's all free, all the time, so long as you want to listen to Clear Channel-owned radio stations and the content that company licenses. The live radio stations have whatever ads those stations are already playing, but you can also create band, album, or song-centric stations that are commercial free. For a free option, that's a lot of bang for your lack of buck.

Seven of the services offer ad-free subscriptions for US$10 per month (more like $9.99). Last.fm at $4 and Pandora, Sony Music, and unRadio at $5 are the exceptions.

Apple's iTunes Radio and Amazon's Prime Music are the last category in that they are services included as a perk with other subscription services. In the case of Amazon, there is no free option. It comes only with the $99 per year Amazon Prime. Frankly, this is the weakest offering of the bunch. 1 million songs, limited features, and no songs from Universal Music Group as of this writing, makes this a real snoozer, even if you're already a Prime subscriber.

At $25 per year, Apple's iTunes Radio is the surprise price leader for all of the paid services. Apple's ad-free version is included as part of iTunes Match, the company's service for hosting your music in the cloud, and $25 per year makes either feature a great value.

Catalog Depth

Whether or not the number of songs available on a service matters to you will be highly subjective. If a service has every song you want, who cares if the total catalog is only 1 million deep? Conversely, if none of your favorite tunes are there, the fact that there are 32 million tracks available is irrelevant.

Most of us will fall somewhere in the middle, and that's where the subjectivity really comes into play. At 32 million songs, Rhapsody has the deepest catalog, by far. That said, that number is for the company's global catalog, and Rhapsody won't break down those numbers by market. Accordingly, I am not sure if any single market has all 32 million tracks.

Apple comes in second, with 26 million tunes, and Sony's service is a close third at 25 million. Most of the rest of the companies come in the 13-20 million range, with Amazon Prime and Pandora bringing up the distant rear at a million tunes.

I suspect that the vast majority of users will be content with the libraries of all of the services with 13 million or more songs. There is only so much time in the day to listen to music, and after that first 10 million, I'm personally listened-out. The big numbers are really for bragging rights, and at some point technology will allow most of these services to have all the songs.

Quality

File quality is a thing for me, but it's subjective. I know someone who thinks I am lying about hearing the difference between a 128Kbps file and anything higher, and there are audiophiles who sneer at anything less than lossless compression.

My subjective cutoff, though, is 256Kbps. I prefer 320Kbps and above, but 256Kbs is the worst quality I'll listen to without whining about it. My research found that Beats Music, Spotify, Google Play, and Sony Music are offering streaming at 320Kbps, and that is likely to satisfy most folks.

Apple's iTunes is the only service streaming at 256Kbps—Prime Music is "up to 256Kbps," and that's a big bucket of hogwash if you ask me. Come on, Amazon, show us enough respect to be more specific.

If sound quality matters to you, I'd dismiss the rest of the services right away. 128Kbps and 192Kbps sound like crap unless you're listening to your music through crappy speakers anyway.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Next: Stations, Playlists, and Album/Song Streaming

Part 3 - Stations, Playlists, and Album/Song Streaming

 

Station to Station

Ground Control...Another big pain point for users will be how these services offer their music. Most of them have "stations," either pre-programmed stations or stations that get built around an album, song, or artist. These stations work best for folks who just want to sit back and hear songs without necessarily knowing what's coming next.

This was a model first made popular by Pandora, and it's based squarely on the terrestrial radio station model that is nearly a century old. Since Pandora launched, almost every service has adopted it because it's an obvious model. The downsides are that you get little control over what you're hearing. The upside is that it can be a great discovery tool, depending on the quality of the service's algorithm.

Since I haven't listened to all of the services, I am hesitant to offer a winner on this front.

Playlists

Playlists are another approach, and is one that is quite similar to the station model in that they are lists of songs. Playlists can offer you more control, and at the least you'll know what's coming. The real difference is that some playlists are generated by algorithms and some are generated by people.

Beats Music is probably the standout winner here. While there is algorithm-generated content on the service, the backbone of Beats's effort to differentiate itself is curated playlists designed to fit moods and situations. If Beats Music, which has been purchased by Apple, is able to claw out significant market share, it will be due to its human-curated content.

Apple's own iTunes Radio also has human-created playlists, but these are much more limited than with Beats. Apple has mainly focused on celebrity-curated lists that go hand in hand with promoting new album releases. It's a solid feature, but it won't make everyone switch to iTunes Radio. The proof is in Apple's purchase of Beats Music.

From an algorithm-generated playlist standpoint, Spotify and Rdio are the leaders, and both services have rabid fan bases. Spotify, in particular, is clearly doing something right.

Album/Song Streaming

For many users, the ability to simply stream any song or album is what they really want from their music rental service. Spotify is the market leader here, and Beats Music looks like a strong contender, too. Rdio, again, has ardent fans. All three services have similar catalogs, and they're priced the same. Pick one and you'll probably be OK.

Conclusions

As I noted up top, this is a crowded space, and within three years I expect it will be less crowded, not more. It is also likely to be dominated by services owned by deep pocketed parent companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and maybe Microsoft. Facebook could get into the game, too, and if Marissa Meyer sets her eyes on this market, expect Yahoo! to make a dent.

All of these companies can approach this market as a value-added service for their broader ecosystems. They won't need to worry about turning a profit, and they'll have the clout to ink deals that work for them. The road to such a future will be paved with closures, mergers, and acquisitions.

I think the winners in streaming music will be those who best tackle discovery. On this front Beats Music has an edge. When it is eventually combined with Apple's iTunes empire, Apple will be a formidable force in this market. To that end, if I decide to subscribe to any of these services, it will be Beats Music, and I would not have said that before I began researching for this article.

My next choice would be Spotify.

Edit: Having added Rhapsody to my comparison, I find it to be a compelling service. The company was one of the first streaming competitors, and it has had many years to develop its service. From a feature standpoint, Rhapsody has a lot of checks. It's also available on a number of large devices, though a company spokesperson told most user are listening on their mobile devices.

Image courtesy of Shuttersock.