Best music streaming services 2020: free streams to hi-res audio

Best music streaming services 2020: free streams to hi-res audio

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When it comes to getting your music fix, more and more people are making the switch from physical formats and music downloads to streaming services. And it's easy to see why. The ability to access tens of millions of tracks at the tap of a touchscreen means it has never been easier to hunt down old favorites or discover brand new bands and artists.

There's a wide range of streaming services to choose from, with those such as Amazon, Apple, Spotify and our 2019 Award-winning service Tidal offering unlimited access to huge catalogs of music, which can be streamed over the internet or a mobile network or downloaded directly to your device for offline listening.

So how much can you expect to pay? Some services offer limited free music apps (supported by adverts with limited playback options), but in the main you pay a set monthly subscription fee, which tends to be around the £10 mark for a basic service.

The quality of these streams varies between services. Those concerned less by outright quality and more with getting bang for your buck can listen to compressed streams at 320kbps from the likes of Spotify.

But you don't have to sacrifice quality. Tidal and Qobuz both have subscription tiers which allow you to access CD-quality streams and, where the content is available, even hi-res music. This increase in quality does come with an increase in subscription cost though.

Whether you want choice and convenience, or the highest fidelity possible, our round up of the best streaming services will help you pick the right one for you.

 

1. Tidal

Besides CD-quality streams, as part of Tidal's £20 per month HiFi package you can access millions of hi-res audio tracks, which are typically 24-bit/96kHz, but do go up to 24-bit/192kHz. Called 'Tidal Masters', the music files are encoded using MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) tech, which allows for more efficient packing of the hi-res data. You can access Tidal through iOS, Android, desktop, all of which offer hi-res streams, as well as a browser based player and a good spread of other platforms, such as Sonos.

Ease of use is exemplary and sound quality is exceptional across the board, with the CD-quality streams displaying great levels of detail and expression and hi-res recordings taking this up a level. Hi-res and CD-quality streams aren’t the be-all and end-all of Tidal’s offering, with the 60-million-track catalogue also available to stream in 320kbps to subscribers of its £10 per month Premium tier. But if you're looking for the best high quality streaming experience, this is unquestionably it.

 

2. Spotify

Spotify remains one of the most popular and accessible ways to get your music fix. Not only does it offer decent 320Kbps quality, but there is a huge library of over 40 million songs. These can be played on pretty much any device you own, thanks to intuitive iOS and Android apps and support in numerous smart TVs, connected speakers and other AV kit courtesy of Spotify Connect.

The service is renowned for its new music discovery algorithms, which compile excellent weekly playlists tailored to your music tastes. And the more you listen, the more the playlists evolve – a compelling reason to choose Spotify as your streaming service.

If your limit is £10 per month, Spotify delivers the most comprehensive and complete experience we've come across, and even offers a 50% discount for students. Plus, if you don't have any spare cash to spend, there's a free tier which offers lower quality streams supported by adverts.

 

3. Apple Music

Unsurprisingly, Apple Music is aimed squarely at Apple users, so Android owners should look elsewhere. But, if you're fully immersed in Apple's ecosystem, Apple Music makes a lot of sense. It costs a competitive £10 per month, or you can pay an annual fee of £99. There's also a £5 per month student deal, while a family membership covering up to six people costs £15 per month. There's no high-quality tier like Tidal or Amazon Music, nor is there a free version like Spotify.

Whether you're using the desktop or mobile app, the interface is easy to navigate with a simple yet effective layout. The service does a great job of curating playlists and serving up useful and intelligent recommendations. Apple hasn't revealed the bitrate it uses to stream, but tracks still sound clean, snappy and entertaining. Compared with similar tracks on Spotify (which are 320kbps streams), Apple’s have greater subtlety and more space around instruments. If you're an Apple user, this service is good enough to tempt you away from Spotify.

 

4. Primephonic

If you're a classical music fan, you'll get a kick out of Primephonic. Since launching in 2017, the service has been revamped and now claims to offer over 3.5million classical music tracks – including a good few you won't find elsewhere. What's more, Primephonic is welcoming not only to those who know what they’re looking for, but to those who are looking to explore the genre from a standing start.

The £10 per month (or £100 per year) tier provides access to 320kbps MP3 streams, but you can splash out £15 per month (or £150 per year) for glorious 24-bit FLAC streams. The latter, the 'Platinum' tier, is cheaper than rival 24-bit offerings, though of course the focus is much narrower.

There are still a few gaps in the library around contemporary classical artists and we'd appreciate a desktop app, but thanks to a much-improved interface, the addition of offline playback and excellent all-round sound quality, we have no problem recommending Primephonic.

 

5. Amazon Music Unlimited

Spotify might be our number one pick when it comes to music streaming services, but Amazon's equivalent, Amazon Music Unlimited, makes a lot of sense too. At £9.99 per month, pricing is competitive (if you subscribe to Amazon Prime, this drops to just £8), though there is no free tier.

Music Unlimited is compatible with smartphones and tablets via its Android and iOS apps and PCs and Macs via its web player or desktop app. Fire tablets and TVs are also compatible while some in-car systems and audio products (including Amazon Echo and Sonos speakers) also support the service.

The interface is slick and user-friendly, allowing you to browse Amazon's catalogue with minimal fuss. It's easy enough to discover new music although Spotify does have the edge when it comes to recommendations and curated content.

Sonically, the two are close, but Amazon's service is dynamically subtler. What's more, it now has a £14.99 per month Music HD service, featuring 50 million tracks with a CD-quality bitrate of 16 bit/44.1kHz plus millions more in 24bit and up to 192kHz. We'll be posting a full review of that new tier soon, but it can only be good news for an already sterling music service.

 

6. Deezer

Back in 2017, Deezer became the first music streaming service to celebrate its 10th birthday. As with any significant coming of age, the French company celebrated by making 2017 a year of big change. It rebranded its CD-quality tier, giving it a new name and price, and making it accessible on more apps and platforms.

Roll on to 2020, and while Deezer has partnered with hi-res streaming partner, MQA, there's no sign of hi-res audio streams on Deezer as yet - only 16-bit CD-quality (£20 per month). That puts it at a disadvantage compared to the hi-res music you'll find on Tidal and Qobuz.

Deezer does have one up ace up its sleeve: 360 Reality Audio tracks. The immersive format is a bit like Dolby Atmos, but specifically for streamed music. It's a nice bonus but it's only available to subscribers of Deezer's £20 a month 'HiFi' tier, and only through a separate iOS/Android app.

Thankfully, Deezer's extensive catalogue, vast device support, user-friendly interface and decent non-music content lays the foundations for a service that can still rival the best. And there's a free tier if you want to try it first.

 

7. Qobuz

Qobuz might not be the most well-known streaming service, but it is arguably the most advanced in terms of file quality. Its Sublime+ tier gives users the ability to stream over 70,000 24-bit hi-res albums and download tracks at a discounted prices, but you need to spend £250 on an annual subscription. Below this tier sits a hi-res Studio tier £15 per month or £150 per year.

Qobuz is available on lots of devices. There's web player, desktop and mobile apps, plus a number of networked streaming products are also compatible with the service. The interface is nice to use across desktop and mobile although the curation could be better.

When it comes to the catalogue, Qobuz isn't quite as pop-heavy as its closest rivals, and has some pretty major blind spots in its catalogue, but there's still a decent balance and it's worth the free trial to see if most of what you want is on there.

The only other issue is that, while Qobuz claims to have more hi-res tracks than rivals, Tidal's hi-res streams also sound marginally better for timing and dynamics.

 

8. YouTube Music

We were rather underwhelmed by the service at launch, but YouTube Music is now starting to look like it’s ready for the challenge. The user-interface is solid and the search function is terrific, turning up long-lost musical gems through its video vaults. Problem is, the quality of the competition remains an issue: Spotify and Apple Music are the mass market titans to tackle, and both already offer five-star services.

There are a few good reasons to choose YouTube Music, though. The free tier is easy-to-use and supported by ads but, for £10 per month, you can sign up to YouTube Music Premium, which is ad-free and allows downloads for offline listening too. (Students can get it for just £5).

The app is available through Sonos speakers and anything Google Assistant-powered, such as Google Home devices or third-party devices such as the Sony LF-S50G and JBL Link 20. As for sound quality, the 256 kbps streams are far from unlistenable but sound compressed in a way that main rivals don't.

Still, if you like the USP here – music videos, rather than audio – and the ability to seek out a recording, played live at a certain venue on a certain date, YouTube Music has plenty to offer.