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Which new music service will stream supreme?

No longer just for the tech-savvy, streaming music via the web has become, well, mainstream. Yet to sign up to a service? Andy Welch puts the main players through their paces

Spotify, market leader in streaming since its launch in 2006, on an Apple iPad mini

IN THE same way Netflix and Amazon Prime have changed how we watch TV and films, streaming companies have revolutionised the way we listen to music.

In 2014, almost 15 billion songs were streamed in the UK – that's 560 per household – with streaming (which basically means listening to music via the web, without even having to download it) accounting for 12.6 per cent of our overall music consumption. When you take into account the industry was worth just over £1 billion last year too, that's a sizeable financial chunk.

GOING MAINSTREAM

There's still a way to go before it takes over downloading completely, which accounts for almost 40 per cent of the UK music industry, but the number of people streaming is on the rise – dramatically. This year it's destined to become even more mainstream, as the companies grow in reputation, the technology becomes easier to access and broadband speeds get faster.

Market leader Spotify is available on various smart TVs and set-top boxes, while all streaming services will have apps for mobile use alongside their desktop versions, plus integration with speaker manufacturers like Sonos. Taxi-booking app Uber now even has the facility to play music from your Spotify account over the car stereo while you're travelling.

TIDAL PRAISE

The arrival of a new service like Tidal is something that will undoubtedly help streaming become even more of an everyday proposition. Initially founded in 2014, it was bought by Jay-Z earlier this year and swiftly relaunched with much fanfare, with a raft of the rapper's starry friends extolling Tidal's virtues.

Jack White has reportedly been calling random Tidal subscribers to tell them they're making a great choice (that from a man who previously talked as if he only listened to 78s on his gramophone).

Among other benefits, the likes of White, Coldplay, Calvin Harris and Madonna were trumpeting the fact Tidal streams higher quality audio than its competitors and, in not offering any free service (although you can get a free 30-day trial), they can afford to pay artists more per stream than their rivals, too.

Both laudable aims – digital music has previously sounded dreadful to a discerning ear – and the fees artists earn from millions of streams are laughable. Spotify pays between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream, and despite claims from founder Daniel Ek that his company has paid out more than $2 billion in fees, many are unhappy. Taylor Swift famously removed her music from the service around the release of her album 1989 last year – a decision that will have paid dividends when it became one of only 18 ever to sell a million copies in its first week on sale; she'd have earned relative peanuts for the same number of streams.

CASH FLOW

Whether a group of multi-millionaires telling the public they want to earn more money will get any traction remains to be seen, but they're right that artists – mainly the independent, jobbing musicians out there – need to earn more money from streaming, if it's to become the only way we consume music.

Aside from Tidal, most services offer free access at first, although it will be a reduced package featuring adverts, or limitations on how much music you can listen to. Blinkbox Music – formerly We7, before being bought by Tesco and rebranded, and then sold again earlier this year – and MixRadio, are about the cheapest out there at £4.33 a month (or £1 a week) and £3.99 a month respectively. The rest are £9.99 a month for unlimited, advert-free streaming, although Tidal's hi-res Tidal HiFi, which streams 'lossless' CD-quality, is £19.99 a month.

That's Tidal's unique selling point at the moment, although it is expensive and relies on the ethics and pocket depth of the user to spend the extra tenner a month.

QUALITY AND QUANTITY

If audio quality isn't your main concern, and saving a tenner a month is, you'll likely go for Tidal Premium, or even more likely, stick with Spotify, which has the most subscribers of any service – 60 million users, 15 million of them paying subscribers.

All the services have a similar number of tracks, Deezer coming out on top with 35 million to Spotify and Google Play's 30 million and Tidal's 25, and each have the same omissions – no Beatles, Eagles, Garth Brooks or AC/DC, with various holes in each service.

All bets might be off when Apple finally launch their streaming service iTunes Radio, rumoured to be later this year, but until then, if you're not a subscriber and are thinking about joining in, which should you choose?

STREAM TEST

We put the main players to the test. All music was streamed using either the streaming service's app on an Apple iPhone 6 with Etymotic ER-4PT Earphones (approx £200), or using Sonos audio equipment, which starts at £169 (www.sonos.com).

Here's the verdict...

:: Blinkbox music (www.blinkboxmusic.com)

Monthly price: £4.33 (£1 a week)

Tracks: 14 million

Quality: 192kbps

Verdict: Cheap and cheerful. Understandably, the song choice is more limited than other services and focused more towards chart hits than genre music and back catalogue, while the streaming bit rate of 192kbps won't sound that good on even mid-range audio equipment.

:: Deezer (www.deezer.com)

Monthly price: £9.99

Tracks: 35 million

Quality: 320kbps

Verdict: The biggest choice, and at £9.99 a month, competitive. Sonos users can also upgrade to Deezer Elite, their hi-res streaming service. FLOW and Radio functions make it easy to find new music with suggested artists and tracks. This is one of the best services out there.

:: Google Play Music (play.google.com)

Monthly price: £9.99

Tracks: 30 million

Quality: 320 kbps

Verdict: Another excellent option with decent bit rate and a competitive price. Also, as it has the spending power and brand name of Google behind it, there are often exclusive tracks and offers available for subscribers.

:: MixRadio (www.mixrad.io)

Monthly price: £3.99

Tracks: 26 million

Quality: 192kbps

Verdict: Brilliantly cheap, but with limitations – the mobile app was previously only available on Windows phones and has just launched for other devices. As a result, the app isn't great, and the service works by creating personalised radio stations for you to listen to, meaning it takes time to learn your preferences. Low audio quality too.

:: Rdio (www.rdio.com)

Monthly price: £9.99

Tracks: 30 million

Quality: 320kbps

Verdict: A great range of music, decent price and audio quality, plus discounts for family subscriptions. There's lots to commend Rdio for.

:: Spotify (www.spotify.com)

Monthly price: £9.99

Tracks: 30 million

Quality: 320kbps

Verdict: Still the best – perhaps because of the name – Spotify's been market leader since its launch in 2006. Playlists, suggestions and pages created by artists make it easy to find new music, integration makes it the most widely available service too, while the price, catalogue size and audio rate make it the best all-rounder.

:: Tidal (www.tidal.com)

Monthly price: Premium £9.99/Tidal HiFi £19.99

Tracks: 25 million

Quality: Premium 320kbps/1411kbps lossless

Verdict: The standard service is on a par with Spotify. Tidal HiFi, however, offers lossless audio. Even with low-budget audio equipment, the difference is marked and you'll think you're listening to a CD again. With a high-quality system, the sound is unprecedented (but it's not cheap).

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