On-demand music streaming services are made for the hardcore music lovers and audiophiles. Not only should they get to know our tastes and preferences over time, on-demand services are also tasked with letting us have more control over what we listen to, when we listen to it. Streaming radio may be fine for some but if you want to listen to an entire album all the way through or be able to play music offline, you want on-demand streaming.
Spotify, Rdio, Beats Music, Google Play All Access, and Slacker are the best on-demand services currently available with full iPhone support. Now the question becomes, which one is the best if any? And more importantly, which one is right for you?
I'm going to preface this by saying that I only looked at true on-demand streaming services for this comparison. That means services like iTunes Radio, Pandora, and Songza can't be compared since they don't support offline playback of any kind. I'll take a look at those services in another comparison.
|Service||Monthly price||Desktop apps||Web app||Offline storage||Sports channels||Comedy channels||Regional availability||Audio quality|
|Beats Music||$9.99||No||Yes||Unlimited||No||No||US only||320kbps|
|Google Play All Access||$9.99||No||Yes||Unlimited||No||Yes||21 countries||320kbps|
|Rdio||$9.99||Mac, Windows||Yes||Unlimited||No||No||51 countries||192kbps|
|Slacker||$3.99-$9.99||No||Yes||Unlimited||Yes||Yes||US & Canada||128kbps|
|Spotify||$9.99||Mac, Windows||Yes||10,000 songs per account||No||No||55 countries||320kbps|
The above chart isn't meant to cover all points but it gives you a fairly good idea of what you can expect with each service at a quick glance. I only compared what you get as a paying subscriber. Free offerings vary from time to time and from service to service so I saw little value in comparing them. If you want on-demand streaming, you're most likely going to pay for it.
When it comes to design, none of them are created equal. I'll start off with the two apps I take issue with. First is Slacker. The layout is confusing at times and the tiles used to represent stations are cheesy. If you can get past that, the actual song information screens aren't terrible. It's just getting there that makes your eyes bleed. Second is Spotify. I've just never been okay with making lime green a themed color. Buttons are also overly large and create a lot of wasted space. The layout has gotten better over time but the design is still not very appealing. Play Music will be familiar to anyone who has used any other Google app for iOS. And if you like that style, you'll like Play Music. If you don't, you won't.
That leaves Beats Music and Rdio. Beats Music is easy on the eyes and makes good use of darker colors. This makes it rather enjoyable to use in the dark even if your screen brightness isn't all the way down. Navigation also makes sense and it easy for anyone to just pick up and use. Rdio is designed equally as well but very different. It exuded iOS 7 before iOS 7 even existed. They may have taken a little longer than I would have liked to update basic design elements like the keyboard, but I dealt with it mainly becasue the design was already so great.
Rdio does design better than the rest with a gorgeous yet simple design that has controls that are smart and intuitive. What more could you ask for?
All five services feature offline listening options. Where they differ is how they restrict those options. All are on an even playing field in regards to price as you'll need the highest offerings to have access to it. Slacker's $3.99 plan lets you store playlists but not specific albums and tracks. For that, you need the $9.99 version.
When it comes to limitations, all services but Spotify give you unlimited offline downloads. As long as you've got the storage space, you can keep downloading albums and tracks as long as you're a paying subscriber. Spotify however taps you at 10,000 songs per account. If you have the max of 3 devices on your plan, that's 3,333 songs each. That doesn't sound like a bad deal if you're only mobile, but what about on your Mac or PC? That may become an issue if you want to build a solid collection.
Play Music pulls ahead as on top of unlimited downloads, you can also upload up to 20,000 songs (300MB limit each) to your own storage locker at no additional cost. That means you save device storage space and can either stream that music or download what you want on demand. It's very similar to how iTunes Match works.
When it comes to offline listening, Play Music All Access wins.
If you like to listen to playlists created for you in radio style, curation is super important. You don't want New Kids on the Block randomly thrown into a playlist based on Black Sabbath. In my time with all four services, I've found that Slacker doesn't have a ton to choose from, especially when you get into more obscure genres. I also didn't find that disliking tracks kept them completely away. Unfortunately I had some of the same results with Spotify when it came to preferences. They had a much better selection of stations but there were songs thrown in that I felt were out of place. I also didn't feel like they were particularly catered to my tastes even though I'd given the service an ample amount of data to go off.
Rdio does a decent job with curation but it took a while to get there. Since Rdio has been one of my personal choices for a long time, I've spent the most time with it. It took a good month or so before I felt as if Rdio really started to cater to my tastes and even then, it still mixed up dance and electronic music regularly. For that I just gave up and started curating my own playlists. Play Music never wants to give me good recommendations. It took me adding several things to my library before it would even suggest anything. That to me was a turnoff.
Last but definitely not least is Beats Music. Given how new the service is, I've been blown away by how good the curation is. In less than 2 weeks, Beats Music gets me. Every time I launch it I can't wait to see what playlists it has picked out just for me.
Beats Music wins the curation war, hands down.
Comedy and sports is the one thing Slacker does exceptionally well. None of the others hold a candle to it. Honestly, it's what Slacker does best. Spotify supposedly has a service called Comedify but I couldn't find much on it. I'll give it a point for that but I couldn't find any radio offerings, which is what most people want. Play Music has a comedy genre but again, Slacker does better.
If you want comedy or sports, there's only Slacker.
Catalog size and selection
None of the services in this comparison give exact numbers but some do give roundabout figures. Some of this probably has to do with licensing in different countries. Each service as of this writing claims the follow when it comes to the size of their song library:
- Spotify - 20 million
- Beats Music - 20 million
- Rdio - 20 million
- Play Music - 18 million
- Slacker - 13 million
One other thing you have to consider is whether or not a service has the music you actually listen to. I have a hard time finding a reason to use Spotify while our own Richard Devine swears by it due to the music he prefers. For example, Spotify has Metallica, Rdio and other services do not.
Even though you should check into catalog selection before you make a final decision, it's a pretty close war between Beats Music, Spotify, and Rdio. Spotify gets the win by a slight margin due to some of their exclusive deals.
In terms of availability, Rdio and Spotify are available in the largest amount of countries. Rdio comes in just under Spotify but by a very narrow margin. You can hit the links below to see complete lists of countries on each respective site. Slacker and Beats Music both have very limited audiences. While Beats may expand that over time, Slacker probably won't at this point. Beats Music is US only and Slacker is only available in the US and Canada. Play Music does a lot better at over 20 countries, but still doesn't touch Rdio and Spotify.
Tie between Rdio and Spotify.
If we're talking true on-demand, pricing is a wash since all three services offer the same exact thing. $9.99 per month. That includes offline listening and complete control over what you listen to and when you listen to it. All services offer free web streaming and some content via their mobile apps without paying, but if you've read this far, you already know that's not what you're after. You can however get away with $3.99 through Slacker if you're okay with just on demand playlists and not whole albums and specific songs.
Slacker gets the win for having a cheaper scaled down version of on-demand. But if you want no compromises, you'll pay the same across all five services.
Which one deserves your cash?
Unfortunately, no one service is the clear winner. They each kick ass in some ways and frustrate in others. So, which is best for you will depend on what's most important to you. Here's the breakdown:
- Slacker: The best options for sports and comedy, poor sound quality isn't great.
- Rdio: Best experience, international availability, okay sound quality isn't great.
- Spotify: International availability, exclusive rights with certain artists, and good sound quality,
- Google Play Music: Combines music locker storage and all the Google things in one place and good sound quality,
- Beats Music: Best for playlist and music discovery, good sound quality,
Figure out what's most important to you, what frustrations you can live with, and then you'll know which is the best streaming music service for you.
- Spotify - Free - Download Now
- Rdio - Free - Download Now
- Beats Music - Free - Download Now
- Google Play Music - Free - Download Now
- Slacker Radio - Free - Download Now
What service did you pick?
Now that we've given you some data to think about, be sure to hop in the comments and let us know what service, if any, you went with. What ultimately brought you to that decision? And does any of the above information have you contemplating switching streaming music services? Be sure to let us know that too!
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iMore senior editor from 2011 to 2015.