Stream Wars: Okayplayers Test Drive Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal + Rhapsody In A Side-By-Side Comparison
Apple Music, Spotify, Rhapsody & Tidal in action. (iDeathstar Wallpaper available via 365daysofdesign)
Stream Wars appears to be the new shaper of the media landscape in 2015. Apple Music entered a crowded (battle)field of streaming services this week, going head to head with platforms like Spotify, industry vets Rhapsody and Jay Z's contentious, star-powered vanity platform Tidal. So who's got the goods? The answer, of course, depends what you're looking for in your streaming experience. Are you an audiophile who'll stop at nothing to hear your favorite music at the highest quality possible? Do you crave slick menus and pretty color schemes? Or are you more of a utilitarian--a "function over form" type who just wants to hear what they want, when they want, anything that gets in the way be damned?
These questions and others like them are critical when it comes to choosing which music streaming service is right for you. Analog holdouts may still prefer sinking their hard-earned cash into vinyl and CDs, but the truth is, if you're reading this, you're probably streaming. A lot. More and more today, our favorite melodies, beats, lyrics and chord structures arrive to us by way of online data. Streaming services have been on a feverish rise across the entire music industry, taking a 54% spike from 2013 to 2014. Spotify and Pandora continue to dominate even as Apple splashes (or, perhaps, slowly wades) into the pool of streaming competitors, which means the trial-and-error, word of mouth method of choosing a music platform is becoming increasingly unreliable--not to mention time-sucking.
With all that in mind we decided to take the wheel for an extensive test drive ourselves, assigning Okayplayer writer Scott Heins and Okayafrica CEO Abiola Oke to strap on their helmets and climb into the cockpit and risk their ears to put together a brisk user's guide on how to navigate new service, and what to consider in its pre-existing competitors. From Spotify's unadorned reliability to Tiday's hi-fi library, there are now clear differences in what each service offers. Which is right for you? Click through to get our takes on the more estabished services, as well as a thorough breakdown of the early promises and problems of Apple Music.
The reliable, imperfect standard by which all other streaming services are judged, Spotify has dominated the North American market for nearly five years--and reigned over Europe for even longer. Updates to its mobile interface and the addition of an in-browser web player have made the company's standalone desktop app all but obsolete in 2015, but in truth using it is still the best way to deal with the service. And the word "deal" is appropriate because for all its great qualities (extensive library, easy playlist editing, direct music sharing with friends) Spotify seems to do its best to throw uninvited playlists and radio stations at you. For me, skipping straight to my own saved music (or the search bar) has been muscle memory for a long, long time.
Library: Spotify's catalog is extensive to the point that one could spend an entire second lifespan "digitally digging" in its interface. New releases seem to make their way onto the streaming service immediately after the official drop time (even in "unexpected" instances such as last year's Black Messiah drop or this spring's To Pimp A Butterfly surprise).
Playlists: No music streaming service seems to have playlist use figured out like Spotify. Dragging and dropping whole albums or individual songs is as easy--or even easier--than doing the same in iTunes and the process of saving an album or self-made list for offline, data-friendly listening is a breeze. Sharing/subscribing to the playlists of friends (or people you just lurk on) is simple and lends at least a semblance of real, human interaction to the cold light of our glowing rectangles.
Web Player: Ever since the creation of play.spotify.com, dedicated users of Spotify who use it for more than just pre-made playlists have had little reason to use the app's RAM-guzzling standalone application. With an open net browsing tab offering you an endless supply of music, Spotify customers can enjoy a heightened degree of seamless integration as they go about their digital days.
Price: $9.99 per month seems to be the socially-agreed-upon (read: corporate-sanctioned) rate for a month of unlimited music listening. That's both something to bemoan and relish in, depending on how you pay your bills.
Sound Quality: A paid subscription allegedly gives you heightened quality sound, but even so there are moments of crashing symbols and deep sub-bass that show the limitations of Spotify's bandwidth. Music streamed from the service sounds great, to be sure, but can't compare to CD or vinyl quality, especially on a great pair of headphones.
Mobile App: Spotify's mobile app has gone through some serious reconstructions over the years and while its current iteration works well, the road has been a bumpy one, riddled with crashes and loading screens that never seem to resolve. Then again, as with all mobile streaming apps, we should keep in mind that these things are offering us pretty much all the recorded music we could ever ask for, from any place at any time to a limitless extent via a few taps of our thumbs. Technical hiccups don't tarnish the fact that you've got warehouses worth of material sitting in your pocket. -Scott Heins
Yes, I’m one of the very few people that continue to use the Rhapsody streaming service, since 2011 I might add. There’s something to be said for loyalty these days, especially when you consider all those disloyal farm tools that rappers keep talking about.
Info: If you were old enough to remember CDs, you’d agree that one of the highlights of purchasing a new CD was reading the liner notes. These booklets were complete with artist details, artwork, biographies and more. Rhapsody still caters to the inquisitive listener. Rhapsody’s streaming service provides artist details beyond the song’s title or running time.
Music Library: Rhapsody quite frankly has the largest music library on record, with over 35 million songs; I’m sure to be entertained by everything from Concha Buika to Fetty Wap or Mahalia Jackson to Major Lazer, Rhapsody’s never at a loss for comprehensiveness.
Sound Quality: Although most of the popular streaming services are streaming at 320Kbps these days, when I initially signed up for Rhapsody, other streaming services were still beaming music notes at 160Kbps (dare I say this old playa was a trendsetter?). Maybe they’ll also offer the first lossless audio quality at a "reasonable price"--or maybe that's just wishful thinking.
Price: The price is just right and comparable to other services at $9.99, including a radio version named UnRadio for $4.99.
Mobile Interface: The interface is simple and easy to use, with equalizers immediately in sight, not that anyone actually uses those features. Have you ever actually listened to Coltrane with the Jazz setting? Neither have I.
Delay in new music release: With all its aforementioned splendor, it seems Rhapsody shows its age when it comes to music releases. Typically, with hot new releases, Rhapsody's always late to the party. The only reason--well, one of the reasons--I subscribe to other streaming services is the immediate availability of new songs/albums (yes, they still make those). I cheat on my fav steaming platform for a reason, but I still love Her.
Social Media: Rhapsody again shows it’s age with its lackluster integration with major social media platforms like Facebook. Spotify, for instance, allows me to send friend’s complete playlists, songs, etc. With Rhapsody, I’m mostly stuck enjoying Nina Simone all by myself except for the share button. -Abiola Oke
Seems there’s a pattern here, I am drawn to the most unpopular music streaming services. Why? Value. Perhaps it’s that I find value in anything that gets me as close to the CD experience as possible.
Sound Quality: During my banking days, weighted averages were a thing when assessing the impact of stock losses in your portfolio. Perhaps I’m complicating the importance of weight averages here, but if sound quality were a stock, with Tidal, I’d be wayyyyy up and feel blessed. When the music service was acquired by Jay-Z, subsequently informing the world of its take-over, I was elated by the 1,411Kbps streaming quality that would be unleashed through my hifi sound system. It certainly lived up to the hype. I could hear every sound detail in every track without the distortion experienced with lower quality services. For me it was like finally watching The Matrix on Blu-ray instead of DVD.
Content: Tidal gives the listener much more than music; the service truly delivers unrivaled exclusive-content; unreleased music videos, BTS interviews and more. If you’re an #IGotItFirst junkie, then Tidal’s for you.
Price: At $19.99 for premium audio, you’d really, really have to care about lossless audio for the price to make sense, especially when all other services are streaming 320Kbps for $9.99.
Interface: The interface is simple and easy to use, a bit monochromatic, but I found it pretty easy to use. Tidal could benefit from exposing their services to other platforms like Windows, Mac, etc as a native app. The app is also very buggy and unstable, with frequent stops and sound dropouts.
Music Library: Tidal’s library is about 10 million songs behind the average streaming service library. They get a pass for their relative newness, but when you consider their lofty marketing campaign, 25 million songs just won’t cut it.
[Abiola & Scott Evaluate the New Platform In Conversation].
Scott: So, Apple Music. Here it is, and my first impression is a good one. The mobile interface is fairly intuitive for anyone who's used the iPhone's native music library (and I have for years now). It looks great with color schemes that seem to take advantage of the screen in ways that other apps don't (or can't).
Abiola: Leading right into it, I honestly felt there needed to be a bit more distinction between its iTunes music player and streaming service. After the update, I could barely tell that I’d downloaded something new. Perhaps that’s a good thing for some?
Scott: I agree--it's now easy to feel a bit lost in the music section of your iPhone. Given that most of the bottom icons all pertain to the streaming service, rather than your own saved music, it seems that Apple is steering us toward a music experience in which really almost all of what we listen to is streamed. If someone has a massive data plan, and no hang-ups about battery life, this must be nice. But I don't think those persons are in the majority...
Abiola: Which would seem like a smart move for them, in fully integrating our music experience. Perhaps it’ll pay off over time, but for now I was expecting a new experience. The new experience is what we’ve all typically enjoyed with Apple products, that was missing here. Sound quality is pretty much the standard 320Kbps, so no striking upgrades there.
Scott: Yeah. I haven't had the chance to really A/B test it with some good speakers against Spotify (or music saved natively on my phone). But then, who *really* is going to take the time to do that?
Abiola: No one, really. Steve Urkel might've. Then again, we can’t be too sure he was an audiophile anyway.
Scott: We're streaming zillions of hours of music with almost instantaneous access across a global scale. Can anyone honestly get on their audiophile high horse and complain about a little compression in the cymbal crashes...?
Abiola: That compression in the cymbal crash specifically drives me crazy. #Shrug. What did you think about the new For You feature?
Scott: The For You feature--I think it's a pretty-well designed version of a process that, across pretty much all apps and platforms, is still kind of a crap-shoot.
Abiola: The distortion in 320Kbps music drives crazy, how can I enjoy “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room,” without going nuts. Or Fela’s musical genius, but I digress.
Scott: Now I'd like to see what your For You page looks like!
Abiola: Yeah, and the slow moving bubbles were annoying to use.
Scott: Yes, but now that I've plugged things in, my For You page seems actually pretty nice. This morning it was suggesting me hip-hop that I either hadn't heard before, or hadn't treated myself to in quite some time, and now it's giving me cool Aphex Twin-based playlists and a lot of other albums that fit in the electronic side of my interests. I feel like Apple might be rotating these suggestion screens in and out, but always sticking to one unifying genre, artist, or theme. Keeping them fresh but also focused--that's commendable.
...Okay so now my For You screen also has a "Rock That Body" playlist on it right now...is Apple telling us it's time to leave work and hit the gym?
Abiola: I think this might be a great feature, I stumbled upon my Pandora the other day and thought about all the songs that I had liked. And frankly, it would’ve been great to get them on my streaming service seamlessly, perhaps this was the way.
Scott: Agreed! I used to relish using Pandora and Spotify in tandem--letting Pandora guide me to new stuff and then using Spotify to deep dive into their entire catalog. If Apple Music really nails their suggestive/discovery features, this could be exactly what I've been looking for.
Scott: Have you noticed a lag at all when it comes to tracks playing after you've selected them? Maybe I'm on overloaded wifi.
Abiola: Yes I have.
Scott: Maybe it's the service being a bit clunky yet.
Abiola: Sometimes songs just stopped playing.
Scott: Yeah, that's unacceptable. If it became a consistent problem I'd have to abandon Apple Music completely. Spotify's mobile app takes a while to load, but once it does it's really instantaneous. Slick features and a nice interface are great, but really what matters most is can I listen to what I want, without the worry of interruption or issues.
Abiola: Yep. Also what did you think about how easy, if at all, to find music?
Scott: It does seem more difficult to find music on Apple Music than Spotify, which is my main point of reference. There's a huge emphasis on aesthetics with Apple Music, it seems. And while that's nice (I bet it looks GREAT on iPads), it's not the main reason I'm coming to the party. Really, the biggest issue is the delay in playback for me. I just waited 5 or 6 seconds for Miguel to come on. I'll never get those seconds back. So unacceptable.
Abiola: Ironically I’ve always enjoyed the iTunes experience on iPads more so than the iPhone. I agree, this would be great on there. Now if only I could update my slow iPad iOS.
Scott: AND NOW IT JUST STOPPED PLAYING.
Abioloa: Damn, that sucks.