I have to admit, I’m a bit of a CD die-hard. The completionist in me likes having ‘the best sound quality’ available, and the freedom to convert content into whatever format is needed for a particular use case. Lately though I’ve been wondering whether it’s all worth the bother, or rather whether it’s worth still using CDs as my sole method of music purchase. Music streaming services cost about the same as 1.5 albums a month – and give you the freedom to listen to as many as you like.
Since I’m increasingly coming round to the idea of streaming as a way to make listening to music much more straightforward, this post is part public information, part ‘thinking out loud’. The selection of comparators is entirely arbitrary, and the decisions made even more so. The important point is that this comparison is made from the point of view of a potential customer, who hasn’t used either service and is thus judging them purely on available information rather than from experience.
Sound quality and format
Spotify Premium offers subscribers multiple quality settings up to 320kbps. Apple Music will presumably offer streams at the same 256kbps bitrate used by iTunes Match and the iTunes Store itself. So clear win for Spotify then? Sort of. There’s a point at which you no longer hear a difference from increased bitrates, which depends on your hearing, the quality of the original track, the quality of your audio equipment, how noisy your listening environment is and so on.
One also has to bear in mind that Apple Music streams will be in AAC format while Spotify uses Vorbis. AAC provides better sound quality at the same bitrate, so the gap between 256kbps AAC and 320kbps Vorbis may be less than it would be if Spotify also used AAC. Apple Music should also use less battery, because most devices have hardware decoding for AAC (which is much more efficient) whereas Vorbis has to be decoded in software.
The $24,000 question. The music labels aren’t fond of Spotify – they insist that imposing greater limitations on the ‘free’ ad-supported service will increase takeup of subscriptions, despite Spotify’s clear evidence to the contrary from earlier trials of this idea. Some high-profile artists have also criticised the amount Spotify pays for streams – though the company pays 75% of its revenue to rightsholders (generally the record labels).
There might therefore be some cases in which content available on Apple Music is not offered to Spotify, though of course competition authorities would be very interested were such a situation to develop: even rumors of these sorts of shenanigans were sufficient to get them interested. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the last time it attempted to enter a new market, it used illegal anti-competitive tactics to try and unseat the dominant player.
The one slight trump card Apple Music has is matching. It appears that an Apple Music subscription will include the features currently being sold as iTunes Match (which will continue, by the way). This could potentially expand the range of content available (audiobooks perhaps?) beyond what’s available in the streaming library itself.
Winner: Wait and see (my money’s on the fruit-themed Californians)
What you have to bear in mind is that Apple is a hardware company. It views its services, and its software, as ways of convincing people to buy more iPhones, iPads and Macs. It’s therefore not surprising that Apple Music’s platform support is very poor. The only non-Apple platform supported by the service is a Windows PC with iTunes installed. Spotify, by comparison, supports virtually any computer with the ability to output sound. There are native clients for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and even a beta client for Debian-based Linux distros. If that isn’t enough of a selection for you, there’s always the option of using the web player – perfect for situations where you don’t want to (or can’t) install a client. Workplaces which allow employees to listen to music on headphones for example.
Of course if you only ever buy Apple products then this may not concern you! About the only thing Spotify doesn’t support is the AppleTV, so if you have one of those connected to decent speakers then Apple Music is definitely for you.
Winner: Spotify, by a country mile
The Spotify clients, on various platforms, are generally quite well-organised and let you get on with listening to music. That’s of course if you ignore the white-on-black theme they force you to use, which can be decidedly Not Fun for people with certain types of poor eyesight.
On the other hand Apple Music will – on PCs and laptops at least – run through iTunes, which has the advantage of not using a white-on-black theme but the disadvantage of being iTunes. The mobile apps (provided you use iOS of course) should be excellent though.
Overall, “slightly crap desktop client” is less of an issue for me personally than “eye-hurting colour scheme you can’t change, on every platform”.
I decided to split this one off from pricing (below), because otherwise that comparison would become largely meaningless. Spotify has a ‘free’ service – where users pay by allowing advertisements to be played on their device, rather than paying directly with cash. Apple Music, on the other hand, offers a three month free trial (admittedly of the full, ad-free service) before requiring users to buy a subscription. So if you only use streaming occasionally (CD fans looking to ‘try before they buy’, for example) then Spotify is obviously the service for you.
Winner: Spotify (rather obviously)
The base price for both services is the same, so the only reason you’d choose between them on price grounds is if you are interested in one of the special account types on offer. Spotify offers a 50% student discount on Premium, while Apple offers a ‘family account’ for £14.99/$14.99 covering up to six family members. The latter could be a huge draw for the Apple service, since even if you only have four people in your household it reduces the cost to £3.75 per person – Spotify on the other hand expects you to buy additional accounts at a 50% discount, meaning that it only matches Apple’s price for a couple. You might think that Spotify will inevitably adjust its family account offering, to avoid Apple Music eating their lunch in Androidless households, but that sort of logic doesn’t always apply to streaming services. Amazon Instant Video for example still doesn’t offer a family subscription (at least in the UK), while Netflix has had one since the beginning.
Note that both services maintain the common fallacy of ‘$1=£1’ pricing. While the UK price includes VAT, that 20% tax doesn’t even begin to justify the 55% price premium users in the UK are charged compared to their US counterparts – at the time of writing $9.99 (USD) was equivalent to £6.42 (GBP) rather than the £9.99 both services charge.
It really all comes down to platform support. Do you use an Android mobile device or a PC with a Linux-based operating system? Spotify is the only viable choice. For those who use Apple devices and/or Windows PCs exclusively, Apple Music may well prove to be the better option – especially given the potential battery savings mentioned above.