January 15, 2022•1,603 words
Something took over me earlier in the year, even before I was thinking about how great Peacock is, where I started really thinking hard about the music streaming services available. Sure, I was thinking about the quality of what I was hearing, but also about how well the service treats the artists themselves. I tried to find information (and asked a few friends who'd put out albums) about how good the payout is from the various services, but didn't really come away with anything definitive. This inevitably lead me down a rabbit hole and putting the services through their paces.
I'd like to acknowledge upfront that I am completely aware that everyone's needs are different, that everyone will have a different way of listening to music, and that the streaming quality available may be observed differently through different systems, setups, and ears. I can't even hear many low- to mid-range frequencies in my left ear (thanks, toddler Eric's ear infection!), and I originally went into this thinking, with my less-than-great hearing, that the quality of audio wouldn't matter. What I walked away with, however, was that the higher the quality of the audio, the greater the pleasure I had listening with the service. Who'd've thunk?!
Since the listening experience can be so personalized and intimate, here's what I'm using: Google Pixel 5, Jabra Elite Active 75t (calibrated using Jabra MySound), IKEA/Sonos Symfonisk Bookshelf (calibrated using Sonos Trueplay), Marshall Stanmore (manually tuned to taste), Chevy Cruze (via USB a la Android Auto, manually tuned to taste) (worth even mentioning?).
And without further ado...
The services I've tried in alphabetical order:
... and in the order in which they left my phone:
Pandora was really pretty cool when it first came out. I might even argue that it still has one of the best "like this" style of streaming radio through which to discover new artists/tracks/albums, but there's a lot that holds back Pandora from even coming close to being a service worth paying for:
- From all the info I could find, and across all the services I tried, it seems that artists may be receiving the least (per stream or otherwise) from Pandora.
- The audio quality is still quite limited. Even at its highest-quality, it's not even as good as basic Spotify.
- If you play an album that should have no gaps between tracks, I've found that there will be gaps between tracks.
- They bought what was left of Rdio and then further killed Rdio's already dead corpse without doing a single thing with the superior-to-Spotify (at the time) service that Rdio offered. (RIP Rdio)
For these reasons, Pandora was the first service on which I closed the box.
Spotify, Spotify, Spotify... What a frickin' mess. Your app is ugly and not easily navigable, though maybe if I'd been using Spotify for years and years it wouldn't bother me. Maybe I might also find that it knew my tastes better than I knew them myself (as many longtime Spotify users claim), and then I might be more inclined to enjoy what's on offer, but(!):
- While Spotify appears to pay out more to artists than Pandora, it's still on the lower-end compared with the other services on this list (so far as I could dig up).
- The audio quality is fine. Spotify announced lossless streaming earlier in 2021, but it does not yet offer lossless streaming.
- Spotify really seems interested in absolutely everything other than music. I love podcasts, but I'm not interested in using Spotify to listen to them or discover new ones. Also, listening to podcasts through Spotify seems like a chore because...
- ...the Spotify app. I can't stress enough how needlessly busy and tedious I found the app to be.
After all the shitting on Spotify I just did, I will give it this: Spotify Connect allowed for direct control of the Sonos listening experience right through the Spotify app itself, which was a nice convenience. (Though it was probably only made possible because Spotify does not make any audio hardware to lock itself into.)
And I suppose Spotify Wrapped is fun enough, though I don't disagree with The Guardian's Elle Hunt's take on it either.
With that said, Spotify was the second service from which I removed myself.
I was surprised to find that there's actually lot to like about Deezer. Using and listening to stuff in the Deezer app feels like if someone at Spotify gave a shit about anything at all, like if someone said: let's tidy up this mess; let's offer things in a similar fashion but make it easier for new users to use; let's offer a really nice-to-pretty great experience; let's actually offer high-quality audio (for a price).
It seems like Deezer wants artists to get paid fairly too, which is nice. So why didn't Deezer make the cut?
- There were a few albums I own that were missing, or artists I like whose full catalogs were not available. This is something I could not abide.
- While the highest-quality audio available is really quite good, I still found that I prefer that of a couple other services just a little more.
That's really it. I was kind of hoping to love Deezer, and I think the service deezerves more recognition for everything it does right, but it just fell a tad short, so for that reason: I'm out.
Tidal is in a weird spot right now. The app is good-not-great, the audio features offered are nice (if you have the hardware to take advantage of it/pay a little bit more), it's a music-forward service, it seems to maybe pay the most to artists (or at least has things coming down the pike to make it so), and I think it could be making it even better for artists (now that Tidal is under the umbrella of
Square Block, I can see them doing more with crypto/NFT type stuff which, regardless of where anyone stands on this topic, might be good for artists to at least safely explore?).
Similar to Deezer, however, a few niche albums were missing from Tidal's catalog, and there was one other service that sounded just a hair better to my ears, so I ended up leaving Tidal at bay.
I kinda love Qobuz. The app is a frills-free experience, and feels like a walking into a digital music store (partially because it also is one); Qobuz lets you narrow down your favorite genres, then it displays new releases from what you've selected. Scroll down further, and there are articles about the artists from said genres; a magazine-lite approach to highlighting artists and albums.
There are myriad audio qualities to choose from to match your streaming/downloading preferences, and the service doesn't hide behind vague terms like "lossless," "MQA," or "Mastered for" to define what you're listening to, opting instead to identify the quality of audio by the resolution and bit-rate offered.
Like Deezer and Tidal (though to a slightly lesser degree), a few albums were not available. And I honestly have no idea how well the payout is from Qobuz to artist. The experience, however is honestly the least confusing and most appealing of all services tested and it's the service I ended up using the most -- in fact,
until only just recently when Qobuz started having an issue processing any credit card I've tried to use to continue an active streaming service subscription. I still have the app on my phone and connected to Sonos (I purchased a couple of albums that were on sale through their digital music storefront), and through Qobuz I was loving music again(!), but I also still have and use...
Rating: A (UPDATE 01/15/2022: Payment processing issue resolved; Rating updated from A-.)
As an app, Apple Music is not without its faults. It's cleaner than many, but still not the easiest to explore. The recently released no-extra-charge addition of "lossless" audio for a large portion of the albums on offer here is a nice bonus (though to my ears, it doesn't get better than what Qobuz has on tap). If I'm being honest, though, it's the fact that my entire iTunes music catalog (even the weird and out-of-print stuff) not available elsewhere is still alive here that's probably the thing that most keeps me subscribed to Apple Music.
It's nice to have the ability to share playlists and to see what friends are listening to, but I can't help but feeling like there has to be a better way to be doing it (RIP Rdio).
From what I can tell, Apple Music pays artists decently enough -- maybe less than Deezer or Tidal, but more than Spotify, Pandora, or YouTube Music (as best as I can figure), so there's a little less guilt in continuing to use the service (due to library lock-in?).
I do wish Apple played nicer with non-Apple hardware (I'm mostly just thinking of Sonos here), but I suppose what's the incentive for them to do so?
Regardless of what service you use to stream music, I hope you're having a good time with it and that you're able to love what you listen to and listen to what you love.