The last few years have seen tremendous change and maturation in the streaming music space. Despite streaming overtaking digital downloads as the primary source of revenue for the music industry, low margins have forced the sale or closure of popular options (RIP Rdio!), leaving only a few viable players.
Thankfully, many of those players are exceptionally healthy, buoyed by other facets of their respective businesses. Others, like Spotify and TIDAL, are playing the long game, hoping that the addition of new features — and exclusive content — will help them differentiate.
To come up with this list of the best streaming services, we performed a number of surveys, both internally at Mobile Nations, and through various social media networks.
The Best: Spotify
Spotify has emerged as the unlikely incumbent in the streaming music space in Canada, especially since the untimely demise of Rdio last year.
Much of Spotify’s praise was centred around Discover Weekly, a personalized list of songs updated every Monday culled from new releases and older content generated by the company’s increasingly intelligent algorithm. Many people talked up Spotify’s extensive body of content, which appears to be slightly deeper than the competition.
We like Spotify’s no-nonsense interface, which makes it easy to dig into music you return to every day, or albums and artists just emerging. From the mood-based playlists to those built specifically for Canadians, Spotify has also invested heavily in building a service that Canadians will see as localized.
Spotify has also recently added podcast support, but hasn’t yet expanded its TV and movie selection to Canada. Also notable is Spotify Connect, which works independently from Apple’s AirPlay to send music output to connected speakers or receivers.
Price: $9.99/monthFamily Plan: Not available in Canada.Free tier: Yes, ad-supportedFree trial: No, 3 months for $0.99Offline playback: Yes
Great sound quality (320kbps)Easy-to-use interfaceDiscover Weekly playlistsFree tier with adsPodcast integration
Divisive all-black designMood-based playlists are hit and miss
See at Spotify
Apple Music, the natural first choice for iPhone users, is barely a year old at this point, emerging from the ashes of Beats’ streaming service. Many people praised Apple Music for its integration into the core iOS Music app, while others decried the confusing amalgam of local and cloud-based playback. (For more on that, check out our Apple Music Ultimate Guide.)
Apple Music has managed to garner some mainstream attention for its exclusives, such as Drake’s Views, along with a three-month trial during which all of the service’s features are available at no cost to the user. On the other hand, there is no free tier, so once the three months is up, it’s $9.99 per month, or bust.
We love Apple’s For You playlists, which work like Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist on a macro scale. Instead of one custom playlist each week, Apple’s human curators are constantly releasing new playlists in a variety of categories, and an algorithm suggests the right ones for you.
Price: $9.99/monthFamily Plan: $14.99 for up to six peopleFree tier: NoFree trial: Yes, 3 monthsOffline playback: Yes
Exclusive albumsIntegration with core iOS appLong free trialExcellent Siri integrationBeats 1 provides always-on radio
Confusing integration with locally stored tracksConnect is a wasted social opportunitySlow update cycle due to core app being tied to iOS updates
See at Apple
What began as a niche service aimed at high-fidelity audiophiles has turned, with the help of “artist-owners” like Jay-Z and Beyonce, into a vehicle for exclusive content and urban lifestyle.
TIDAL was praised for having an excellent collection of exclusive content, such as Beyonce’s Lemonade, along with a hefty number of music videos unavailable anywhere else, including YouTube or Vevo. Many others lauded its customized playlists, which are based on activities like “dinner” or “workout,” or themes like “love” and “focus.” (One, Post-Rock Essentials,” has powered most of this article.)
We like TIDAL’s quality-first approach to curation, focusing on up-and-coming artists through its TIDAL Rising section, along with its small selection of unique video programming, a feature Spotify has yet to bring to Canada just yet.
Price: Premium (320kbps) $9.99/month | HiFi (lossless) $19.99/monthFamily Plan: $14.98 for two people, $19.97 for three people, $24.96 for four people, $29.95 for five peopleFree tier: NoFree trial: Yes, 30-daysOffline playback: Yes
Great sound quality (320kbps)Intriguing unique content like video documentariesExclusive albums from prominent artistsOption for lossless streamingExcellent mood, activity-based playlistsFocus on up-and-coming artists
Clunky interface with too many tabsExpensive family plans
See at TIDAL
Google Play Music
Sort of an outlier on iOS, Google Play Music has a couple major advantages over its competitors: Songza’s core technology, which it acquired back in 2014; and a locker of up to 50,000 songs for customers to store their own music.
People praised Play Music’s activity- and mood-based playlists, which, after years under Songza’s watchful eye, are some of the best in the industry. They also liked the way Google’s free tier delivers significant value in exchange for ads, though some said there are too many interruptions to the music since Google took over.
We like Play Music’s recent foray into podcasts (coming soon to the mobile app), and its attractive Material Design interface. The company also offers an extensive one-month free trial for all new users, but iOS users will need to visit the web player in a browser to sign up.
Price: $9.99/month Family Plan: $14.99 for up to six peopleFree tier: Yes, ad-supportedFree trial: Yes, 30-daysOffline playback: Yes
Best-in-class playlistsOption to upload up to 50,000 local tracks to cloud lockerGenerous amount of content in free tier
Limited to four device de-authorizations per year
See at Google
Of course, these four services are by no means the only games in town. Slacker Radio, which has been around for longer than any of them, is still a viable alternative, but its heavy focus on artist- and themed-based radio stations makes it difficult to recommend for those looking for a full-service solution, even though its $9.99 tier does offer a là carte streaming.
Similarly, Deezer has also been in Canada for some time, and is another great option, but its uninspired app design doesn’t stand up to the competition. It does have some neat features, like Apple Watch integration, along with real-time lyrics support.
Things to consider
All four services are around the same price, at least for a single monthly user. The industry has decided that $9.99 is a sustainable number for distributing revenue between all parties involved, though based on all the hand-wringing by artists in recent years, that number may rise (or at least, not fall) in the future.
Apple Music and Google Play Music provide the best value for multiple parties, with $14.99 family plans that include unlimited, ad-free streaming for up to six people. Spotify announced the same package for all of its countries but Canada, so it’s unclear whether that deal will be extended here at any point. TIDAL’s family plan tacks $5 per month for additional users, which seems like fair value, but doesn’t compete with the better deals from Apple and Google.
TIDAL also offers a $19.99 HiFi version with lossless audio, which pairs nicely with rumours of an upcoming Lightning-only headphone transition in the iPhone 7, but most users will be just fine with the various grades of compressed audio offered by each of the above choices.
Every service in the list offers at least two streaming quality tiers, usually parsed as “Normal” and “High” or something equivalent. This usually takes the form of a highly-compressed 96-128kbps stream, which is considerably easier to stream over bandwidth-constrained cellular connections, and a more capacious 256-320kbps stream that is, by default, reserved for Wi-Fi streaming (unless otherwise specified). Google Play Music offers a third tier, Low, which is likely in the 64kbps range.
All this is to say the streaming quality is going to be fairly uniform throughout each service, and to our ears, even using Lightning-based headphones on our iPhone 6s Plus, we didn’t hear much of a difference between the apps at their highest quality. Of course, the source itself must have been encoded properly, too. (This is anecdotal, but for a long time Apple Music mistakenly had a live version of the title track of my favourite album, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, in place of the studio version, much to my dismay. That has since been corrected).
Selection and availability
Canadians are used to having less content to choose from when it comes to video services like Netflix, but thankfully over the last few years the gap has narrowed considerably on the music streaming front.
From The Beatles to Kanye West (who famously pronounced that his latest, The Life of Pablo, would remain a TIDAL exclusive forever, only for it to not), all four services have most of the content you’d expect from the mainstream. Of course, Apple Music remains the sole purveyor of Taylor Swift’s 1989, and TIDAL, as mentioned earlier, hasn’t given up Beyonce’s Lemonade just yet, but those albums are few and far between.
I did find that Apple Music and Google Play Music have somewhat of a deeper bench, so to speak, than Spotify and TIDAL. A search for Mos Def, one of my favourite rappers, revealed four albums on Play Music, three on Apple Music, two on TIDAL, and only one on Spotify.
Despite this idiosyncrasy, I found Spotify to have almost every new relevant release, and a huge back catalogue of impressively obscure artists. Given that Spotify is our pick for best service, we feel confident that you’ll find what you need.
With Apple Music and Spotify both poised to receive massive interface overhauls in the coming weeks, this section may not stay relevant, but all four services divide their apps into similar pies: new content; playlists; stations/radio; and offline content. There is certainly variation in that — TIDAL also has separate tabs for music videos, movies, and up-and-coming content, for example — but generally the services try to cater to those who like to curate their own listening, or those who want to let an algorithm do it for them.
Every service allows for offline playback, too, along with on-the-fly playlist creation, and radio stations from individual songs or artists. At this point, these are all table stakes, but Spotify’s acquisition of The Echo Nest, along with Google’s purchase of Songza, put them in a better position to reliably create on-the-fly playlists that will include content you’re sure to like.
You can’t go wrong with any of these services, though we’re giving the edge to Spotify for its intelligent playlists, approachable (if divisive) user interface, comprehensive music library, and expansive feature set, including podcasts and original video content.
Apple Music is our next pick, as it is not only poised to receive a significant visual overhaul with iOS 10, but Apple is clearly committed to attracting the best talent in the world. If you’re after Drake or T-Swift, look no further.
TIDAL and Google Play Music each have their strengths, but unless you’re in need of a Bey infusion, or are committed to Songza’s mood-based playlists, we’d recommend the other two ahead of them.
What are your thoughts? Did we miss one of your favourite services? Let us know!