The arrival of Google Music on UK shores has added to the tumbling pile of digital music service options for people to consider. With so many out there now, which are the ones worth signing up for and, indeed, is there one catch-all service to use at the expense of all of the others?We've taken a look at six of the big ones. There are the three major download services in the shape of the Apple iTunes Store, Amazon MP3 and Cloud Player, and, of course, Google Music. On top of those, there's also the advantages of streaming subscriptions to consider, with Spotify, Xbox Music and Sony's Music Unlimited the three we've chosen to consider. This is how they line up.
One of the oldest and most rigid services out there, the iTunes Store is strictly a non-streaming affair, despite the number of times that it's been predicted Apple will finally change things.AccessThe iTunes Store has the second best library of available tracks out there by pure numbers at a quoted 26 million tracks, and that's good. Even better is that you don't have to buy them all in order to get access to them. The iTunes Match service allows you to create a 25,000-song personal library as well as anything you buy from the iTunes Store itself, although that does come at a subscription cost.The only trouble with the iTunes system, in terms of access, is that there's no streaming service apart from the on-the-spot downloads through iCloud. It works but it's a little cumbersome on an ad hoc basis, which much of listening to music on the go needs to be.Audio qualityThe iTunes music files themselves are bought as AAC encodes at 256kbps and, indeed, anything of your own that you choose to add through iTunes Match is, by default, upgraded to this file type. Compared to the other services here, 256kbps AACs are right up there. The AAC type should out-perform MP3s at the same bitrate, so it's really only Google Music with its 320kbps files that might arguably be of higher audio quality.
Clients and devicesIf you own an iPhone, an iPad and have Apple TV at home, then buying music on iTunes and using iCloud to drag what you're after to the required device is very convenient. It's not streaming but, in terms of the hardware access, you might want for little more. That said, there are plenty of Apple users who do not entirely bathe themselves in the ecosystem and, once you step outside to other devices, there's a lot of sideloading to be done.Ease of useAs ever, Apple is the master of ease of use. iTunes may not be the most pleasant of desktop applications but the Store is straightforward enough, as is pulling down tracks from iCloud to your device wherever you are. It all works with very little complication whether synching through hard connection or over the air.CostThe price of track and album downloads is a little bit more on the iTunes Store. There are 59p and 79p downloads but the one you'll come across most often is 99p. The other cost to consider is iTunes Match and that comes in at £21.99 a year; not insignificant.
Out in America for a few years now, Google Music has arrived in the UK and elsewhere. Predictably, it's largely a cloud-based service with those on Android the most obvious to benefit but its competitive pricing is hard to ignore for a user on any operating system. AccessGoogle has been fairly quiet about the actual size of its music catalogue but it seems that there's around 15 million tracks available for purchase along with plenty that are free as well. You can download as much as you like to store locally but, in terms of cloud storage, there's an upper limit of room for 20,000 tracks and that's it for now. All of those are accessible to stream wherever you are.In all, it's a very compelling offering. There might not be the largest store but, given that you can add any of your own tracks - from wherever you happened to buy them - perhaps that doesn't really matter. On the other hand, access to a maximum of 20,000 songs rather pales into insignificance next to the millions at your fingertips with services like Spotify, Xbox Music and Music Unlimited, even if you'll never truly own any of them.Audio qualityWith purchased tracks encoded as 320kbps MP3 files, Google Music probably offers the best in audio quality. When streaming to a mobile, Google Music will automatically use a variable bitrate to best reflect your connection speed, however it's possible in the app settings to force it to use the 320kbp maximum.
Clients and devicesGoogle Music doesn't have many apps. Naturally, Android is well covered but there's nothing on iOS nor any other mobile platform at present. Instead, Google encourages you to use the web player which has been optimised for mobile browsers but, nonetheless, that leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth. By the same token, there's no desktop player, so you'll need to open your browser if you're at your computer too. Fear not though, there are plenty of offline playback on offer and a link up with your desktop music application of choice.Ease of useGoogle Music is surpisingly not a total pain in the arse. Google has something of a habit of releasing things a long time before they're anything like smooth but perhaps all that time when the service was only available in America has had its plus side too. Saving tracks to listen to offline is much the same mechanism as Apple uses with iCloud, and the only desktop software required is the uploader manager which is really no bother at all. The Google Play store could be a bit prettier but we've no complaints of any real kind here.CostWhere iTunes comes in at 99p, Google Music undercuts at 79p. In much the same way, albums are two or three quid less too, and that's a big advantage. Other than that, there's not an awful lot to consider. The streaming is free, the storage is free; it's all down to how much you'd like to spend on buying songs.
Like Google, Amazon is all about rock bottom prices. It's platform agnosticism is also something of a benefit.AccessAmazon's MP3 collection is pretty good, with the company claiming a library of over 20 million songs but, much as with Google Music, that's really not an issue given that you can add your own bits and pieces to your cloud storage locker. What should be noted though is that it's possible to have up to 250,000 songs up there along with anything you purchase direct from Amazon MP3. That does come at a cost of $24.99 a year, though. It's only your first 250 imported songs that the service will hold for free.Nonetheless, whatever's up there can be streamed down to your device and, ignoring the cost, the access potential is greater than that of Google Music at the time of writing because of the sheer volume of space available. At the same time, of course, it's nothing compared to the millions at your fingertips with any of the subscription-based streaming-only services.Audio qualityMP3 files are the music of choice, as the name Amazon MP3 would suggest. The standard bitrate is set at 256kbps or thereabouts but, when listening through a mobile connection, the quality of the stream does vary according to what the Amazon Cloud Player app thinks you can handle.
Clients and devicesAmazon Cloud Player has a very decent array of client and app support. There's no Windows Phone app and nothing specific for iPad but, otherwise, pretty much all the bases are covered, and that includes Sonos integration too.Ease of useIt's not the world's prettiest system but the Amazon Cloud Player set-up certainly works. The web player could do with some aesthetic thought and the mobile app isn't wildly imaginative but it's all okay. The Amazon Cloud Player uploader is a bit of a chore but it certainly beats dragging and dropping into Cloud Drive.CostThe price per track is pretty much the same as you'll find on Google Music with an average of around 79p but album prices seem even a touch cheaper here. On top of that Amazon MP3 is very good at pointing users towards free downloads and bargain albums which is rather nice. The only snag to all of this is with storage. You get to import only 250 of your own songs with a normal account. Cloud Player Premium is how you max up to the 250,000 locker and that comes at $24.99 a year.
Another newbie is Microsoft's Xbox Music. The service has all but replaced Zune and is still in its early stages but it's all part of the important coming together of the Windows ecosystem on mobile, on desktop and on your TV too.AccessXbox Music claims the largest natural library of all of these music services at 30 million tracks and that's rather important, given that it's not possible to import your own music into the collection. You can download tracks as well as stream to where you are, and you can sync those downloads across devices but it's a fairly closed loop otherwise. As such, the notion of storage space is not relevant.Audio qualityXbox Music's 192kbps streams don't seem wonderful but Microsoft claims that its WMA codec is far better than MP3. All the same, we wouldn't rate the audio quality as highly as Google Music or iTunes. The Xbox Music downloads come as MP3 files at 256kbps, much the same as Amazon.Clients and devicesXbox Music is very much the service that's bringing up the rear right now in terms of device compatibility. If it's not Microsoft kit, it's not happening, and even then not everything Windows is going to qualify.
Naturally, it's early days and we're promised that Android and iPhone apps are in the works but, currently, if you don't have a Windows 8 or RT PC or tablet, a Windows Phone or the Xbox 360, then it's a dead service for you.Ease of useIt's slightly unfair to judge Xbox Music at the moment because it's the most recent of the lot. The interface is attractive on PC, on your phone and through the Xbox too but there's quite a bit of zapping of bugs to be done before it's good. Fortunately, there's no uploading to worry about, which takes some of the potential frustration away, and syncing across your hardware is automatic. In theory.CostXbox Music seems, at first sight, to be cheaper with the tariff set a quid lower each month than the other two subscription streaming services at £8.99. The trick, of course, is that it's a subscription within a subscription. You need to be an Xbox Live Gold member already to access the service and that costs £40 a year. So, in total, that's £147.88 - £28 more than both Sony and Spotify. If you're already Xbox Gold anyway for all the other services you might use, then it works out at £12 cheaper, though. It all depends on your point of view.
The popular choice of streaming services for many years now, Spotify's biggest move was when it launched its mobile service complete with music caching that meant the tunes can keep playing even when you're out of mobile connectivity. With every other service having some kind of offline listening too, has Spotify run out of places to go?AccessSpotify brings the same situation as Xbox Music, only with a smaller library of around 18 million and, on the surface, that effectively means less music to choose from. Of course, once you take devices into consideration, as we'll see in a moment, the picture changes for Spotify significantly. Still, with a big music collection wherever you are at any one time, it's a very impressive offering.Audio qualitySpotify is a slightly frustrating one in terms of audio quality. The desktop experience of Spotify Premium comes in as a thumbs-up 320kbps in the Ogg Vorbis format. Sadly, though, the best you can achieve while on the go is 160kbps. Just how well your ear is attuned to these differences is another matter but Spotify mobile might not be the choice of the purist.
Clients and devicesIt's Spotify and, surprisingly, Sony's Music Unlimited service that are the most flexible as far as devices go. Spotify does well because it has apps for just about everything under the sun - Symbian, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and a whole bunch of home entertainment devices including Onkyo amps and Sonos speakers. In fact, there's no web player because there's just never any call for one; something of an opposite to Google Music.Ease of useSpotify has had quite a few years now to get things right and - with no other part of its business to work on except from how to better get music from A to you - get it right, Spotify has done. On top of the player and the apps, there's also the social integration that works very nicely. Throw into the mix that there's none of the uploading or matching to worry about that other services require, then it's falling off a log stuff. CostSpotify Premium comes in at £9.99 a month. You can pay half as much for the Spotify Unlimited service but there's no offline playlists and no mobile access at all to enjoy. Over time, it gets quite expensive but that's what 18 million tracks in your pocket costs.
Sony Music Unlimited
Why have we included Music Unlimited? Well, the fact of the matter is that all you need is a single connected Sony device in your house and suddenly it can become a very interesting proposition. What's more, at the same price as Spotify and offering very much the same service, what's not to like?AccessThe smallest of the straight streaming libraries at 15 million tracks, Music Unlimited is pretty good for access to music but by no means the best.As with Spotify and Xbox Music, Music Unlimited brings streaming access to the entire catalogue wherever you are but yet there is something called Music Sync which you can use too. It would seem that Music Sync matches anything in your personal library to the streaming catalogue. However, Sony also states that it cannot upload anything that it doesn't already have on its books which seems something of a contradiction. So, the point of Music Sync appears to be useful only in terms of importing playlists. Audio qualityAt the bottom of the pile for audio quality would seem to be Sony's Music Unlimited streams with just 48kbps bitrates. Given that it's HE-AAC files that it uses though, it's not as far away from the leaders here as it might seem. This file type is particularly good at low bitrates and might end up saving you on data or even sounding better a lot of the time when on the move. All the same, it's never going to keep up with the others in favourable connectivity conditions.
Clients and devicesMusic Unlimited misses out Windows Phone and BlackBerry for app support but what's a big bonus is that it will bring your music to your living space if you happen to have any Sony connected home entertainment device hooked up to your TV and speakers. So, that's amps, Blu-ray players, TVs, the PS3 and all sorts. Lots of potential there. On top of that, of course, there's also a perfectly good web player too.Ease of useMusic Unlimited wasn't exactly a treat in the early days when it was on Xperia phones only and while it was still under the name of Qriocity. Fortunately, Sony has spent quite a bit of time homogenising the experience across devices and it's particularly good when used through your TV via one of the Sony home entertainment devices. The look and feel of the web player isn't as nice and there are plenty of forum threads dedicated to the Music Sync service being less than helpful, so perhaps that side of things is best avoided.CostPricing is essentially identical to Spotify. It's £9.99 a month to get the unlimited and mobile access to the complete music library and £4.99 for the desktop only and home version.
Which should you use?
The truth of the matter is that none of these services is perfect and, indeed, there's no reason why you shouldn't mix and match as you need. The ideal situation is probably to use just one of the three streaming services and as many of the pay-per-track download stores as you like. For streaming services in their current state, you'd be hard pressed not to go for Spotify. There's really little reason not to unless you happen to live in a house full of Sony hardware. The music library might not be as big as Xbox Music but it's far better to use and has superb support across just about any device you'd like to use with it. On top of that, the audio quality you'll get out of it is generally excellent. It's well worth your £9.99 a month.The downside to Spotify is that, like all of the subscription models, it adds up quite considerably over the year. It's hard to deny that access to all those tracks is worth it but, if your listening repertoire isn't that broad, then you might want to try out Amazon, iTunes or Google Music instead.As for those three, well, Apple is the trap that most will end up falling into. If you own any kind of iDevice, then it's frustratingly simple and convenient to use, even if you're paying quite a bit more than perhaps you ought: Apple in a nutshell.We would recommend Amazon MP3 and Cloud Player instead but being able to store only 250 of your own songs before signing up for another annual subscription is unnecessary in the face of Google Music and its locker of 20,000 all for free. The other reasons that Google Music should be your download service of choice are both the audio quality and the price which are as good as, if not better than, the other two services in question, even if the app support isn't there yet.That's not quite where the story ends though. Don't ignore Amazon and Apple. Those music matching services of theirs are a very useful way of cleaning your music libraries. Both will upgrade any of your tracks to either the AAC or MP3 formats at 256kbps and will sort out their metadata and file names at the same time. You can pay a one-off subscription for Apple's iTunes Match and then put all your nice, clean music files into Google Music where you can have 20,000 of them for free and with no annual subscription to pay. Or indeed, you can do them in batches of 250 with Amazon for nothing whatsoever.
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