Rocky Marciano never lost a bout during his professional career, and so far in our own sanctioned cage fights, neither has Spotify. The spunky streaming music service handily dispatched Rdio when we tossed the two in a ring two years ago, and more recently, Xbox Music took a beating, losing four out of five rounds. Google, however, has come out swinging with a promising music service of its own: Google Play Music All Access. Will there finally be a new champ?
For an in-depth comparison of all the different music streaming services, click here to read our best music streaming services roundup.
Round 1: Music Library
Let’s cut right to the chase—the real reason to consider subscribing to a streaming music service is for the music catalog. Size matters, and the bigger and more robust the selection of tunes, the better. At last count, Spotify was sitting pretty with around 20 million tracks and deals with all three major music labels (Universal, Sony, and Warner). Google also brought the big three on board and boasts 18 million–plus songs.
With both services having lured the big fish to their respective ponds and both offering a similar number of tunes, we directed our attention to indie artists and obscure bands to see if either had an advantage over the other. It turns out they don’t. Artists and bands like Ted Hawkins, Psychostick, and Apples in Stereo lie in wait, as do indie favorites like The National and Passion Pit. For all intents and purposes, this category’s a draw.
Round 2: Pricing
Google Play Music All Access (an unnecessarily long and clumsy name for a subscription service, by the way) burst into the streaming scene with an introductory price of $8 per month for anyone who signed up for a free trial by June 30, 2013. That deal will be long gone by the time you read this, so if you didn’t hop on board, the price is now $10 per month. What that gets you is unlimited ad-free listening to Google’s entire music catalog along with a Pandora-like radio service with unlimited skips.
Spotify’s Premium tier also runs $10 per month, but it’s not the only option available. If you just want to access music on your PC without the ability to download tunes for offline listening, the price is cut in half. Alternately, you can get on-demand access to songs for free on your PC if you’re willing to tolerate ads.
Spotify’s desktop client still has a tendency to feel cluttered, though it’s relatively easy to navigate.
Round 3: Platform and Device Support
Spotify launched over four years ago (over two years ago in the United States) and is now available on just about every platform you can think of. Surprisingly, in-browser listening is a feature that was only recently added, but it’s there, along with support for Android (including Kindle devices), iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry (select devices), Symbian (also on select Nokia phones), PC, and Mac. In stark contrast, Google’s relatively new minted streaming music service is only available on Android, though an iOS app is in the works and may be available to download by the time you read this. While casting a net over Android and iOS catches the majority of mobile users, it won’t come as any consolation to Windows Phone 7/8 or BlackBerry users. We suspect it’s only a matter of time before Google invites more mobile users to the party, but for now, this is another round that belongs to Spotify.
Round 4: Audio Quality
Today’s mobile devices aren’t equipped with speakers that would delight an audiophile, but they’re not total garbage, either. Audio quality matters, especially if you’re plugging a high-end headset or earphones into your phone’s audio jack, so it’s up to Google and Spotify to serve up streams that don’t sound like they’re traveling across string from one tin can to another.
Fortunately, both belt out tunes at up to 320Kb/s. By default, Spotify assumes you’re more concerned with your data cap than with the highest quality stream available, so you’ll have to go into Settings to change things. The Low setting equates to 96Kb/s, High translates to 160Kb/s, and Extreme quality is 320Kb/s. Google doesn’t offer as much fine-grain control and instead chooses a bitrate based on your Internet connection, though you can insist on only receiving 320Kb/s streams regardless of available bandwidth.
Round 5: Interface
Though it’s the new kid on the block, Google has amassed an army of tunes ranging from mainstream artists to obscure bands.
Spotify’s desktop application is a far cry from a fine piece of art, and as we’ve lamented in the past, it can feel cluttered at times. The latest version is a slight improvement from the last time we examined it, but it still lacks the modern UI feel with larger tiles that’s becoming so prominent. The mobile app, however, is less busy and generally much easier to navigate. Even so, Google’s implementation is a bit slicker overall. Swiping from the left brings up a menu giving quick access to things like your library, playlists, and the radio feature. Google also takes advantage of tiles at every turn and it just feels like a more modern platform than Spotify. We also like that you can add artists to your library, which Google then uses to make recommendations based on who and what you like to listen to.
Winner: Google Play Music All Access
And the Winner Is…
Google Play Music All Access is a slick-looking service with a lot of promise and eventually it’s going to give the competition a serious run for its money, but today is not that day. For now, Spotify remains the undefeated champ, a sure sign of a mature contender that knows the ropes. Most notably, Spotify recognizes the importance of supporting multiple mobile platforms, and it doesn’t hurt to offer multiple pricing tiers, either.
Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of the magazine.