Apple Music vs. Spotify: Which service is the streaming king?

Parker Hall
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When it comes to subscribers, the undisputed king of on-demand streaming music is Spotify. The Swedish-born service helped pioneer the current market, and has tens of millions more paying subscribers than the competition, not to mention countless millions more free users. But Apple Music, known for its high-level exclusive releases and full integration into Apple’s popular iOS ecosystem, is the hottest service on Spotify’s heels. Apple’s streaming service has shown impressive growth in listenership since its inception, garnering about half the number of Spotify’s paying users, now up to about 40 million monthly subscribers since it went live in June 2015 — nine years behind Spotify.

But let’s get down to brass tacks. Apple Music versus Spotify: Which is the best streaming service? Follow us below to see if Apple has what it takes to steal Spotify’s crown. Also, if you’re looking to compare Spotify with Pandora — aka, the former king of internet radio — we’ve got you covered.

Music library

Spotify first gained its dominant position on the strength of its impressive 30-million-plus song catalog. Couple this with the fact that it adds more than 20,000 new songs each day, and the service offers more music than your ears even know what to do with. While several holes do exist in its library, Spotify’s catalog is extremely deep, and even holdout Taylor Swift conceded her protest. The Swedish streaming service also brings all the latest record releases, exclusive live sessions, and various new singles right to its New Releases tab each Friday, providing a great way to hear the latest from established artists and rising stars alike. (Just stroll through our favorite Spotify playlists for a sense of the size is the catalog.)

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Apple’s service touts around 40 million songs, however, which is superior to Spotify’s “30 million-plus” figure (though we’re not sure by how much), and also outdoes newer contenders like Amazon’s paid streaming service and Jay-Z’s Tidal. Moreover, Apple has taken steps to secure many more exclusives than the competition, largely because it doesn’t offer a free tier. The Swedish streaming giant isn’t too happy with artists signing exclusivity deals with Apple, either; Spotify reportedly has a history of altering search rankings for artists who release their music through Apple first.

There’s another area where Apple Music has the leg up on its competition: Integration of the iTunes library. Any music you’ve got — whether previously purchased via the iTunes Store, ripped from a physical CD, or uploaded to iTunes Match — will appear in your Apple Music library, giving you the option to freely browse your own music alongside Apple’s standard catalog. Spotify offers a similar function, relegating your local music files to a separate tab, but you can’t access your local music via broad searches like you can with Apple Music.

Winner: Apple Music

Music discovery

With so many songs at the ready, streaming libraries can seem daunting for those who want to find new music, but Spotify provides a lot of useful tools for finding new songs to suit your individual taste. Playlists like Release Radar, New Music Friday, and Monday’s personalized Discover Weekly provide fantastic opportunities for subscribers to latch on to new music. The program’s deep well of dozens of base genres to choose from makes new music ripe for the picking, and other personalized playlists like Daily Mixes are constantly being added to the mix. Spotify even has a featured series called Secret Genius, which allows fans of pop music to listen to the songwriters behind some of their favorite hits.

Free users will be able to take advantage of these playlists, too, with up to 15 on-demand (meaning not shuffled) playlists to choose from daily. That adds up to about 40 hours of new music in total every day. These lists are curated based on a questionnaire you fill out when you sign up for a free account that asks you to choose your favorite artists.

Discover Weekly in particular deserves high praise in the streaming world (it’s so smart that Google copied the feature). Added to your feed every Monday morning, the feature delivers a two-hour playlist of personalized music recommendations based on your listening habits, as well as the habits of those who listen to similar artists. Playlists are often chock-full of music you haven’t heard before, as well as deep cuts from some of your favorite artists, thus broadening your listening repertoire with a collection of songs right up your alley. Listen to a lot of Black Keys? Your weekly playlist might include The Arcs, a side project of Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach. Fan of Dawes or Neil Young? Expect to find the likes of Laurel Canyon prodigy Jonathan Wilson on your playlist. The feature is not always on point, but it’s often impressive.

Discovery Spot

Spotify also gives you the chance to create, share, and follow playlists of any kind — including those shared by friends — with a simple click, along with expertly curated playlists for any mood or genre you’re into to keep things fresh.

As for Apple Music, upon creating an account, users are prompted to select some of their favorite artists so the service can get a sense of their tastes. The interface for this is a digital ball pit, each ball representing an artist, with users tapping particular balls to indicate artists they like or love. You can also always head back via the Account tab — accessible by tapping the icon in the top right corner of “For You” — to reselect your favorite genres and artists. While it is a visually striking way to dictate music preferences (the pink on a white background is pure Apple-chic), the style stomps on the utility a bit. On mobile devices in particular, the balls quickly clog up the screen, sluggishly bouncing off each other and making it a pain to select more artists.

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Thankfully, once the process is complete, Apple Music does a great job curating playlists to appeal to your preferences. Playlists might be based on style (mellow, jazzy hip-hop), a particular artist, or even a particular activity like driving. Apple claims the playlists are curated by a “team of experts.” This cabal of tastemakers — whoever they are — does a good job creating varied playlists that are at once familiar yet fresh, like a mixtape you might get from a friend.

The level of individual curation is impressive, with one DT staffer quick to highlight a Behind the Boards playlist that encompasses music from audio engineers who have helped create some of the best music of their time from the studio control room. Spotify also offers “expertly curated” playlists, but Apple Music’s playlist selections come from individual DJs on the Apple payroll.

Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio function, which offers live radio 24 hours a day, also plays a major role when it comes to music discovery. It’s refreshing to see Apple move beyond sophisticated algorithms for a human approach to facilitating true music discovery, but Spotify has its own magic at work, and its personalized playlists are only growing.

Spotify’s hands-off playlists, especially its fantastic Discover Weekly, give it the edge here. Until Apple Music can compete with this algorithm-based approach, we’ll give Spotify the win.

Winner: Spotify

Radio

Spotify has done away with the “radio” tab of the past, replacing it with an “assisted playlisting” feature instead, which can be found under the “search” tab (wherein, naturally, you can search for artists and new music suggestion). This features gives you contextual recommendations based on your music interests. Say, for example, you wanted to create a playlist to accompany you on your morning workouts. Using assisted playlisting, Spotify will pull from suggestions based on your past listening history, as well as recommendations based on songs others have added to their own, similar contextual playlists. You can continue to fill your playlists with tracks, or Spotify can autofill them once you’ve chosen a few to start with. Users are also able to search and preview songs before adding them to a playlist.

This feature complements the previously discussed free-tier playlists option, which gives free users over 40 hours of music across 15 playlists generated from their musical tastes that they can listen to for up to 24 hours.

The experience differs from radio-style listening. While it gives you more control over discovery and personalization, it’s no longer the simple channel-based approach.

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In an age that prioritizes automation, Apple Music’s preference for the human touch really helps with radio-style programming. This philosophy is embodied in Beats 1, Apple Music’s premier radio station that runs nonstop, playing music on live radio shows selected by DJs.

While in-house DJs like Zane Lowe do an admirable job, especially when it comes to premieres, the most intriguing shows on Beats 1 are those hosted by notable musicians such as Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest), and Ryan Adams. These shows provide listeners a unique look into the tastes of artists they admire. Some of them also have interesting formats, such as St. Vincent’s Mixtape Delivery Service, in which Clark solicits fans to tell her what is going on in their lives and assembles playlists to suit them.

Beyond Beats 1, Apple Music has a number of more generic radio stations for those who simply want to listen to say, classic rock, jazz, or Top 40 hits. There are also non-music stations such as BBC News and ESPN, creating a menagerie of options that’s hard to, well, beat.

Winner: Apple Music

Subscription fees

Apple Music costs the industry-standard $10 per month, as does Spotify Premium, Tidal Premium, Pandora’s on-demand service, and just about every other on-demand subscription service on the block (Amazon Music Unlimited costs $10 per month, or $8 with an Amazon Prime subscription). Apple originally hoped to undercut its competitors by offering its service for $8, or even $5 per month, but that plan was derailed by the major labels that own the rights to the vast majority of the company’s catalog. To make an Apple Music or Spotify subscription a bit more appealing, both companies offer special family packs that allow customers to add up to six individual accounts for a grand total of just $15 per month.

If you’re considering Apple Music, there’s another way to save some cash. Current users can get a year’s worth of service for $99, as long as you know where to look. You’ll first need to be subscribed to Apple Music (it doesn’t matter which subscription you have). Head to your Subscriptions in the App Store app (accessed through your Apple ID at the bottom of the ‘Featured’ tab) and select Apple Music. You should see an “Individual (1 year)” option for $99 — select it, and you can save nearly 20 percent over the course of a year. Credit goes to Techcrunch for discovering the tip.

Considering Apple grants every prospective subscriber three months of Apple Music for free, the service may be sweeping away more of Spotify’s user base than CEO Daniel Ek would like to acknowledge. However — and this is key — Apple does not have a free, ad-based tier like Spotify, which is a big reason the Swedish company was able to corral so many users in the first place. The majority of Spotify’s users listen for free, and that’s better than any three month trial or discounted yearlong subscription Apple could offer.
Winner: Spotify

User interface and mobile experience

Despite Apple’s penchant for minimalist design, Apple Music’s mobile interface was less than intuitive out of the gate. With the subsequent releases of iOS 10 and iOS 11, however, the cumbersome layout became a more streamlined experience that music lovers should appreciate. The library is now in the home page of the Music app — all the music you own can be accessed in this tab, and you can easily select from Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs, and Downloaded Music, just in case you don’t want to waste your precious mobile data.

Tapping on the For You tab now brings up several different personalized options. The My New Music Mix and the daily themed playlists provide even more ways to discover new tunes, while the Browse tab gives you an avenue to explore popular music, videos, and Apple exclusives. Those looking for something specific can use the Search tab, which allows you to quickly search through either your personal library or the Apple Music library.

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Apple has also integrated Siri with Apple Music, allowing subscribers to issue voice commands through their iPhone or Mac. If you were to ask Siri to play the No. 1 song from 2001, for instance, Lifehouse‘s Hanging by A Moment would quickly start playing. It’s a cool feature that Android users won’t get, as they don’t have access to Siri.

The Android Apple Music app is aesthetically different from the iOS version, in that it hides its menu to the left side of the screen like many Android apps do. If users need to navigate, they can pull the menu into view like a drawer. This keeps the layout clean and makes good use of your phone’s limited real estate. Though Apple Music is available for iOS and Android, Apple Music works best on iOS — especially with the added Siri functionality. Spotify, on the other hand, is more device agnostic.

Spotify has long been the industry leader in terms of sheer usability. The mobile and desktop applications provide users an easy way to browse music, access playlists, listen to internet radio, and discover new music. Running on the left side of both the desktop client and mobile app is the program’s navigation bar, which is broken into three separate sections: Main, Your Music, and Playlists. Each section features its own set of straightforward subcategories, which gives users easy access to the service’s many features. The search window actively populates the results field, much like Google’s search engine, often providing exactly what you’re looking for after simply typing just a few characters.

Speaking of outside integration, Spotify also supports Amazon’s Echo ecosystem, allowing subscribers to play songs on the company’s smart home systems with simple Alexa voice commands like, “Play songs by Ryan Adams.” Spotify even offers Google Cast integration, which is especially handy for those who like Google’s streaming devices like the Chromecast, allowing for a quick and easy way to stream music from your home theater system.

To its credit, Apple Music has its own speaker suppport via the iOS 11.2.5 platform and its recently released  HomePod speaker. In addition to being able to stream via its house-made device, leading companies like Bose, Bang & Olufsen, Denon, McIntosh and Polk all also make their speakers available on the Apple’s platform, and Apple TV users can also integrate Apple Music playback onto their bigger screens.

Winner: Spotify

Social features

Spotify’s social functions allow subscribers to follow friends, see what they listen to, and who they follow. It also gives users the ability to share or recommend playlists, along with the ability to publish their listening history to Facebook, which then gives their Facebook friends an opportunity to Like or Comment on the activity.

While these features do give Spotify some social clout, we’d like to see the service add an easy way to chat with who you follow. It has also now removed the Inbox/Messages feature, which allowed users to privately message each other inside the app — something the company said most users simply weren’t using, and therefore was too expensive to maintain.

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Apple Music’s main social feature comes from what it calls the Connect function, which brings artists and fans closer together and effectively serves as an all-access pass to your favorite bands. From candid backstage photos, to early cuts of an upcoming music video, artists have the ability to share with their fans a host of exclusive insight and information. Apple also allows users the ability to comment, like, or share any artist’s messages, with the artist having the opportunity to respond back. In addition, these posts can be shared over Facebook and Twitter, along with individual songs and albums.

Still, Apple Music doesn’t offer much in the way of social components. While Connect is a cool feature, other friend-to-friend social aspects are relatively bare in Apple Music. Even without messaging, Spotify’s solid social media integration, as well as the ability to see what friends and followers are listening to. gives the service the upper hand.

Winner: Spotify

Workout modes

Many people listen to music while running, and one of the most intriguing features of Spotify’s mobile app is its ability to provide a playlist tailored to the user’s running speed. Users can choose from a variety of playlists, categorized by environment (cold weather, evening), genre, or even popularity. There are also Running Originals, playlists of original music composed by artists such as Ellie Goulding and Tiësto. While it’s mostly generic techno at this point, it’s something we’d like to see expanded upon in the future.

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On smartphones with the appropriate sensors, Spotify will also automatically estimate how quickly a user is running and select a playlist at a matching tempo. For phones that lack the necessary sensors, users can manually enter the tempo they want (given in steps per minute). During use, Spotify seems to cut the intros and outros of songs, fading quickly into the next track. This keeps the tempo steady, though it can be a bit jarring for music purists.

Spotify Running is far from perfect, however. The music selection can be a bit puzzling — a smooth Spanish ballad, one of the songs that played during our testing, doesn’t seem particularly good for exercise — and the performance is not always great. Depending on where you run, you will likely not have access to Wi-Fi, and will be forced to rely on your mobile data to stream music. This exposes Running’s biggest weakness, as the streaming quality can vary dramatically depending on your connection. That said, it’s a unique feature for Spotify, and a welcome one for people who don’t want to plan out their music selection before they hit the track.

Apple Music, on the other hand, doesn’t have a feature dedicated to exercise, though there are numerous workout playlists. As such, though it’s not perfect, Spotify’s investment in workout modes gives it the win by default.

Winner: Spotify

Final verdict

Spotify for the win. While Apple Music has made some serious strides, for our money, Spotify still reigns supreme. Its user interface is accessible, uncluttered, and makes playlist management simple. Its new music discover playlists, especially Discover Weekly, keep it brilliantly fresh, and it’s also free for those who can’t yet make a commitment. Apple Music’s larger catalog (though how much larger isn’t clear), exclusive releases, and features like Beats 1 radio make it a serious contender. But for now, Spotify still has the edge in our book.

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