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The Best Online Music Streaming Services for 2020

The State of Streaming Music Services

Physical music sales have plummeted, but that doesn't mean that people have stopped listening to their favorite tunes. Thanks to streaming music, people are listening as much as ever in their homes, offices, or any other location where their devices can connect to the internet.

Streaming music services are so vital to the industry that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) now factors music streaming into its Gold and Platinum album certifications. In fact, Kanye West's The Life of Pablo was the first album to go platinum based entirely on online plays, streaming more than 3 billion times worldwide. Streaming music services are a big deal.

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Music Quality and Other Features

The RIAA's move is a wise one, as streaming music services have become a part of our everyday lives. Most streaming music services have some base-level commonality, such as letting you create customizable channels, but a handful stand out from the very crowded pack due to their unique feature sets.

For example, Amazon Music Unlimited, Primephonic, Qobuz, and Tidal pride themselves on sound quality, delivering premium Hi-Res Audio tunes that boast uncompressed audio that surpasses your typical music stream. Considering that most online music services' streams are in the compressed, 128Kbps to 320Kbps range, this trend is impressive.

Some services, such as LiveXLive Powered by Slacker and Spotify, have free options that let you try before you subscribe, while others, such as Amazon Music Unlimited and Tidal, are strictly premium experiences (typically starting at the $10-per-month mark). Many services have lyrics, too, so you can sing along, word-for-word, with your favorite song. In addition, family plans, a relatively recent industry feature, let six household members sign up for a shared premium account for $14.99 per month.

There are many differences between the free and paid streaming music tiers in most services. Free accounts typically limit your ability to skip songs to just six per hour, and they feed you ads in either audio or video form. The free tiers are for more casual listeners or people who don't find it worth spending a dime on music. Premium accounts, however, offer unlimited song skips, on-demand playback, and other goodies. The for-pay levels of service are aimed at customers who really want to explore the depths of what a streaming music service offers.

In addition, each of the reviewed services offers mobile apps, so you needn't be tied to your PC to enjoy tunes. A valuable feature that you'll find in these services' mobile apps is the ability to cache music for offline playback, a feature generally reserved for premium subscribers. This is a technological godsend for folks who are frequently in locations that have spotty signal coverage.

You'll find even greater streaming audio diversity should you dig deeper into the space. LiveXLive, for example, differentiates itself with ABC News updates, so you can stay on top of trending happenings. The service also has Stories, a hosted program that features interesting tales, ranging from love to horror. Tidal sells concert and sports tickets, and has an expert editorial staff that produces feature-length articles. Amazon Music Unlimited lets you upload your own audio files and stream them along wiht the songs in the company's catalog. Most services have a robust selection of comedy albums.

There's a lot of content to explore beyond simple music. These platforms are quickly transforming from streaming music services into overall streaming audio services.


Some Stumbles

Unfortunately, all isn't swell in this musical wild, wild west. Thanks to—you guessed it—money, some platforms have either gained or lost content. Taylor Swift, Prince, and other artists have seen their catalogs vanish from streaming platforms (and later reappear) due to low royalties. The issue of artist compensation has always dogged the recording industry, and it hasn't disappeared with the advent of streaming music—quite the contrary, in fact.

Tidal aimed to stand out from the crowd, as a platform built on the idea of properly paying artists. It was also the only service to host Prince's catalog for a hot minute (though that's no longer the case). In some cases, you're unable to play particular songs on demand; those tracks are only available within the scope of a themed channel. Content restrictions and missing artists and tracks are still a problem in the space, though—Swift notwithstanding—the situation has improved markedly in recent years.

Trying to figure out where things live and how you're able to access them can prove quite vexing to the uninitiated. It's one of the entertainment challenges that we face in the digital age.

It's Your Move

Thankfully, you don't need to wade through the numerous services to find the one that best suits your listening needs. PCMag has reviewed both popular and niche streaming music services to separate the musical wheat from the auditory chaff. Below, you'll find capsules that link to our full reviews of 10 streaming services; up top, you'll find a chart that highlights the features you should expect in a high-quality service. Check out the reviews and chart to discover which streaming music services are best suited for your music listening tastes.

If you're curious about why certain streaming music services aren't featured in this story, here's the skinny. It's very likely they've been surpassed by the 10 superior services highlighted here, absorbed by a rival, or gone out of business. For example, AOL Radio is no more, and Rdio sold its tech to Pandora. I expect to see more shakeouts in the space in the next few years, as there are so many players providing broadly similar services.

That's not to say they are the same, however! Read on to find the pros and cons of the best online music streaming services we've reviewed. Put on a pair of headphones or crank up your speakers and explore the options below.

If you're concerned about streaming your favorite tunes over, say, a Starbucks Wi-Fi signal, you need to get yourself a VPN. A virtual private network safeguards your mobile devices from snoopers and, depending on the location of the VPN server, may let you access music licensed to other regions. Using a VPN to get around licensing restrictions probably violates Spotify's terms of service, though, so tread carefully.

Do you have a favorite music service, or is there one that particularly grinds your gears? Let us know in the comments below.

Pandora Radio

  • SiriusXM Internet Radio

    Pros: Numerous live talk, sports, and music channels. Ability to pause and rewind tracks. Useful TuneStart alert system. Song recommendations. Deep channel customization options. High-profile exclusive content.

    Cons: No lyrics. No longer has the excellent Start Now feature.

    Bottom Line: SiriusXM Internet Radio's crisp audio, numerous live stations, and talk radio is a must-have for radio-streaming fans, despite a few niggles.

    Read Review
  • Tidal

    Pros: Excellent sound quality. Long-form editorial pieces. Themed playlists. On-demand playback. Exclusive backstage content, live streams, and concerts. Early access to select concert and sports tickets.

    Cons: Lacks lyrics. No free version.

    Bottom Line: Tidal, with its high-quality audio, music-related articles, and first dibs on tickets to hot concerts and sporting events, is one of the best and most unique streaming audio services around.

    Read Review
  • Amazon Music Unlimited

    Pros: Large music library. Cool scrolling lyrics. Useful Alexa-specific features. Tight integration with Amazon device family. HD and Ultra HD audio quality tiers.

    Cons: Besides comedy, not much other non-music content.

    Bottom Line: Amazon's standalone streaming music service provides an intriguing alternative to the many competing products on the market, especially for people who own Echo or Fire TV hardware.

    Read Review
  • Apple Music

    Pros: Streams more than 50 million tracks. Siri and Apple Watch integration. Family Plan. Cool video playlists. 24/7, human-curated Beats 1 radio station. New browser-based version.

    Cons: No free version. Doesn't offer truly standout extra features.

    Bottom Line: Apple Music boasts a deep music well Siri and Apple Watch compatibility, but this well-rounded streaming music service falls just short of joining LiveXLive and Spotify as the best in class.

    Read Review
  • Spotify

    Pros: Collaborative playlists. Optional desktop app that lets you play locally stored audio files. Premium accounts let you hear select albums before they're released. Podcasts. Free version.

    Cons: Lacks high-resolution audio. No lyrics in web or desktop apps. Not much video.

    Bottom Line: Spotify, available in both free and premium versions, remains a top-tier streaming music thanks to its deep library, collaborative playlists, early album access, and podcasts.

    Read Review
  • LiveXLive Powered by Slacker

    Pros: Excellently curated stations and fun playlists. Intuitive design. Informative DJs. Optional news updates.

    Cons: No family plan. Lacks lyrics. Some branding confusion.

    Bottom Line: The revamped LiveXLive combines the company's live music streams with Slacker Radio's knowledgeable DJs and deep music well to produce one of the most complete streaming music services on the market today.

    Read Review
  • Deezer

    Pros: Library of 53 million songs. Family and Student plans. Live radio. Lyrics. Podcasts. Lets you upload MP3 files on the desktop. Free version.

    Cons: No offline mode in desktop app. Mobile apps lack MP3 compatibility. Can't rewind live radio streams. No free mobile version.

    Bottom Line: Bursting at the seams with content, Deezer is a well-rounded streaming music service, though it lacks some of the fun extras found in the competition.

    Read Review
  • Google Play Music

    Pros: Good audio quality. Lots of music. Links to YouTube videos. Option to buy tunes from the Google Play Store. Handy music locker. Affordable family plan.

    Cons: Annoying setup. No lyrics. Needs more non-musical content.

    Bottom Line: Google Play Music, with its music locker and YouTube and YouTube Red integration, offers more unique features than your typical streaming music service.

    Read Review
  • Pandora

    Pros: Unlimited skips, unlimited replays, and ad-free listening with Pandora Premium. Good song recommendation engine. Lyrics. Breezy lean-back experience. Family plan. Showcases tour dates.

    Cons: No live content. Some tracks aren't available for on-demand streaming. Can't browse by category. Some lag in testing when switching sections.

    Bottom Line: The once-pioneering streaming music platform finally has the feature set to compete with rival services, though it doesn't dethrone the top players.

    Read Review
  • iHeartRadio

    Pros: Many live and curated artist streams. Lyrics. Informative artist bios and news articles. Events section.

    Cons: Catalog holes. Unable to rewind live radio. No family plan. Unattractive design.

    Bottom Line: iHeartRadio attempts to merge live radio and a curated catalog, but the streaming music service lacks many of the features found in its rivals and its interface is clunky in places.

    Read Review

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