In 2008, Spotify gave the music industry a kick up the bottom.
Sure, there were streaming services before it (hello, Napster), but Spotify hit the mainstrean. Suddenly everyone was aware they could access millions of tracks, on demand. CDs and even MP3s became old-hat overnight.
Umpteen rivals have since appeared (Rdio, Aupeo!, Pure Music, Qobuz), but until recently Tidal had the best shot at wrenching the spotlight from Spotify, promising higher-quality streaming, editorial curation, and Taylor Swift.
Now Apple has entered the fray, with a human touch, a new radio station and an embedded social network. And also Taylor Swift.
Which one will make your ears do a happy dance?
By the numbers
Spotify says it has over 30 million tracks; Apple’s estimated to have the same. By comparison, Tidal was recently reported to have only 25 million (in what must be the most ridiculous use of ‘only’ on the entire Stuff website), although it now also claims 30 million.
Yet on exploring the catalogues, you do notice more gaps in Tidal, notably when it comes to rarer bands, albums or singles. It’s about 95% of a Spotify.
Spotify, meanwhile, is more than 100% of a Spotify, in the sense the desktop version enables you to plug gaps by integrating local music collections.
Apple Music is largely similar, and with even better integration. So although Tidal has the odd bit of exclusive content and one or two artists who quit Spotify in a strop, this round is a tie between the other two.
Winners: Spotify and Apple Music
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As you’d expect, you can search in each service for music you want to listen to, which Spotify handles in a clearer and generally more pleasing manner than its rivals.
However, Tidal‘s cunning plan is to be an editor, showcasing up-and-coming talent, unsigned greatness, and, in terms of playlists, the current fancies of involved celebs.
It does this quite well, but Apple Music‘s stolen that crown, with a ton of superb playlists, and a ‘For You’ section that learns what you like, quickly returning excellent recommendations. Then there’s how the services later help you find your favourite tracks. Spotify has Your Music, which houses starred tracks, albums and artists, along with your custom playlists. Tidal appears to have photocopied this bit of Spotify and cunningly called it My Music.
Apple Music ‘thinks different’, in the sense flagged tracks are welded to your iTunes library (now dubbed ‘My Music’). Previously, we called this as a Spotify/Tidal tie, but Apple Music now nudges ahead, due to its excellence in music discovery.
Winner: Apple Music
On the desktop
Again, Tidal appears to have largely aped Spotify, and so both apps offer basic browserish navigation, a sidebar for accessing genres and stashed music, and a playback bar across the foot of the window. They’re also both all moody and dark, interface-wise, although Spotify’s refinements come off as friendly, while Tidal is stark and unpleasant unless you’ve a high-res display. Apple Music is inside iTunes, which is, well, iTunes. (i.e. broadly usable but quite often clunky and cluttered.)
On extended use, Spotify’s age becomes clearer, and the app’s iterated to a really good place that’s fairly elegant (although avoid the browser-based version).
Tidal feels a bit like a cheap copy that’s simultaneously trying really hard to be modern and hip. It also lacks offline playback — although that’s reportedly coming soon — and tends to buffer fairly regularly if you’re on a ‘HiFi’ subscription. Apple Music feels a bit messy, isn’t as responsive as it should be, and feels hamstrung being smashed into what was already a bloated, complex app. So we’re giving this one to Spotify.
On smartphone and tablets, all of the apps are at their best from an interface standpoint, although the quality of audio you get out is of course largely dependant on your device’s capabilities — a potential problem for Tidal’s HiFi subscribers.
Spotify and Tidal are resolutely full-screen and usable, stashing the nav sidebar off-screen until it’s needed. Apple Music more or less takes over the Music app, and although there’s a tendency towards clutter, this isn’t as evident as in iTunes.
Streaming and download quality can, in the cases of Tidal and Spotify, be individually set, so you can have high-quality streams but relatively low-quality offline tracks to save space, or the other way around if you want to download higher quality tracks on Wi-Fi but save data by streaming smaller files when on the move.
In use, we gradually gravitated towards Tidal on Android and Spotify or Apple Music on iOS. Spotify for iPad is especially impressive, with some lovely bits of interface design that improve browsing and general use; but, really, it’s shared honours here.
(Note that Apple Music for Android isn’t out until the autumn, so we can’t check on that unless a tame Time Lord drops by.)
High-quality vs. HiFi
At their amusingly named ‘normal’ settings, Spotify and Tidal are a bit rubbish, spitting out 96 kbps that’s only good for mobile. Maxed out, the £9.99 premium options provide broadly comparable 320 kbps, but Tidal’s HiFi subscription (£19.99 monthly) offers CD-quality 1411 kbps FLAC.
Apple Music‘s settings aren’t public, but sources reckon they’re 256 kbps AAC on Wi-Fi and 128 kbps on cellular connections. There’s no manual override.
We spent ages flicking back and forth between the top tiers of each, initially wondering whether our ears were defective, because it was hard to tell the difference between them, bar Tidal being, without fail, louder.
But with the right music (most notably Aphex Twin and some classical), Tidal HiFi is a touch clearer and punchier, while the others are comparatively soupy, although never to the point our ears got sad.
You might also argue there’s a certain subjectivity regarding which you’ll find better, especially if you’ve spent years listening to MP3s, but we’re nonetheless giving this round to Tidal.
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Give us yer money
Spotify has two tiers: free and £9.99 per month. For free, you get annoying ads; on mobile, there’s also enforced album shuffling and limited track skips (six per hour). On premium, this goes away, and the maximum audio quality is ramped up from an iffy 160 kbps to a rather good 320 kbps.
Tidal also has two tiers, the cheapest of which essentially matches Spotify’s premium offering. The more expensive, the £19.99 per month HiFi, is where you get FLAC quality. Apple Music costs £9.99 per month, too (can anyone say ‘cartel’?), although for free you can still use risible social network Connect and listen to Apple Music radio, including the fairly decent Beats 1.
Things get a little more interesting price-wise when families are involved. With Spotify, each additional account costs £4.99. Tidal was once apparently aimed at loners, with no offers, but has now announced the means to bolt on four extra accounts to any ‘primary paying user’ account, at half price. But with Apple, a single extra fiver nets you a six-person family plan, which seems comparatively generous.
All the services are also trying to figure out what lies beyond music. Tidal’s got music videos, some of which are exclusives and interview-based. Spotify’s shortly rolling videos out, too, along with podcast support. And there’s a new system for runners that matches pace with song tempos. Spotify’s also got plenty of social clout in terms of playlist collaboration and sharing, and support across a wider range of devices, plus a whole bunch of integrated value-added apps.
Apple Music has videos (can you spot a trend?), and the aforementioned social network and radio. If you’re a dedicated diehard audiophile who’s rolling in money, Tidal HiFi will be the only choice you’ll be able to live with, regardless of the extra outlay.
For everyone else, it’s a toss-up between Spotify and Apple Music, with the latter winning out fractionally, due to its family plan. That said, if you refuse to pay anything, Spotify at least has its ad-supported option, versus Tidal’s locked door and Apple’s miserly leftovers.
Winner: Apple Music
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Tidal‘s a decent service, with a lot to like about it. We’re fond of the editorial curation and the audio quality. But the apps aren’t as mature nor as usable as Spotify’s, the catalogue seems smaller, (admittedly infrequent) buffering is annoying, and to get HiFi, you’re splashing out an extra ten quid per month. Tidal’s main differentiator is also, ultimately, a single feature. If Spotify switched on a FLAC option tomorrow, Tidal would be nowhere.
Apple Music is an audacious land-grab that doesn’t offer an awful lot that’s new, but nonetheless lays the groundwork to swallow up the streaming industry. The playlists and recommendations are especially impressive, and with a three-month free trial, you’d be mad to not give it a go. But it’s still very young, quite buggy, and very messy from an interface standpoint.
So unless compressed audio makes your ears hurl themselves out of the window (in which case, sign up to Tidal), we reckon, by a whisker, Spotify‘s the best streaming music giant around right now.
Still, expect any gaps to narrow rapidly as each service copies bits of the other, until you wonder if they should all be called Spotapplidal. Either that or Apple will properly get its act together, squash all of Apple Music’s teething problems, and obliterate everyone else in the industry by 2016.
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