There are countless reviews comparing Spotify, Apple Music, Google and other streaming services. While they compare the variety of songs and features, most do not look at real world use such as in-car streaming with patchy data coverage.
I have used Google Music and Spotify for some time and tried out Deezer and Tidal HiFi. This article looks at the benefits and issues I ran into with each service. It also covers my brief experience with Deezer and Tidal HiFi.
When Google ran its Music key beta in 2015, I got an invitation. In addition to offering ad-free music videos on YouTube, it provided Google Music access on my phone. With all the DJ chat on FM radio broadcasts, this eventually convinced me to get a Bluetooth FM transmitter. Since then, I rarely listen to FM radio stations, even on short journeys.
Towards the end of 2015, Google announced the end of its Music Key service. In turn, they offered me a reduced-price subscription of €8/month, which I went ahead with. I used Google Music for about two years between the music key beta, followed by paying a subscription.
What I like about Google Music
I used Google Music exclusively as a virtual radio station in the car. Each morning, I viewed the radio station suggestions and picked one. This gave several major advantages over FM broadcasts – No ads, sports, politics or other chitchat. No more facing a FM band riddled with nightclub music each evening. The ability to skip unwanted songs was like the cherry on top.
When streaming, the app buffers about 15 minutes of music ahead. For example, before leaving Meteor, I had 2G coverage for just over 10 minutes of my hour drive to work. The only time it got stuck for coverage was while stuck at lengthy traffic light queues in a construction zone. Similarly, if I accidentally left my phone in airplane mode and resumed playback, it would play for about 15 minutes.
At home, I mainly used Google Music like a Jukebox, listening to songs on demand. I looked up a range of artists and song titles to play and added them to the play queue. I could also listen to Google Music through its website without having to download any software.
Google Music problems and annoying quirks
Unfortunately, the Google Music app had ongoing issues that eventually led me to trying other streaming services. If I was leaving the house or had a weak Wi-Fi signal, the songs would randomly skip like a scratched record. Every few days, the playback would intermittently hang near the end of a song. Sometimes I could resume playback by pushing the play button twice on the Bluetooth adapter. Other times, I had to pull in to close and restart the Google Music app. I even had the odd day where it got stuck multiple times on a single journey.
The sound quality in its standard streaming mode is OK. The tell-tale MP3 artefacts were even audible through the car radio while driving. On headphones, I had to switch to a higher streaming bitrate before I could enjoy the music. While I could turn up the streaming rate over data, it would have struggled in areas of patchy coverage.
Besides skipping and random stopping issues, the app updates regularly introduced and fixed issues. For example, after one update, everything streamed in mono sound. With another update, it would hang so often that it was practically useless for in-car streaming. While each update in succession generally fixed the previous update issues, it was never 100% right. One annoying on-going quirk is it regularly repeats songs, sometimes the same song twice in a row.
Despite being a pay subscription, they do not offer any e-mail support. This probably explains the ongoing bugs as I could not contact them about my issues. Even their community forum seems to be neglected by official support staff. I only held on to the subscription this long due to the reduced subscription price.
I first tried Spotify in 2012, but at the time was disappointed with its app. Back then, it required a fast stable 3G connection to stream. 3G coverage was mainly limited to town limits, so I had to download everything before heading out. When I recently found out they offered a free streaming plan with their app, I tried them again.
Spotify free plan
With the on-going issue of Google Music playback randomly hanging, I often wondered whether my phone was at fault. After finding out about the Spotify free plan, I decided to give it a try. I figured I’ll put up with the ads for a week or two.
Apart from the ads, my first week with the free plan was better than I expected. In addition to not getting stuck, it never skipped, not even when I started playback in poor data or Wi-Fi coverage. With good coverage, the first song starts instantly, just like playing an MP3 file. It also never played the same song twice in a row, which Google Music often did.
The free plan does have several limitations. It cannot play songs on demand and can only play playlists and alums in shuffle play. As I mainly listen using the radio mode in the car, this didn’t bother me. It played a few ads roughly every 20 minutes of playback. Even still, it was a night vs day improvement over what I get on the FM band.
One odd quirk with the free plan is that it seems to insert an occasional rogue song. For example, while listening to let’s say “A Perfect Day” for about an hour, on comes an awful rant rap song that I had to skip. I suspect Spotify does this to verify someone is listening, i.e. not playing in an empty room. I have not run into this quirk since paying for the premium subscription, at least not so far.
Like Google Music, Spotify buffers several songs ahead and has no problem with coverage blackspots along my journey to work. Data usage is roughly 60MB per hour and the sound quality is pretty good despite the streaming quality limitation.
With my recent switch to Vodafone, I decided to take up their Irish Spotify offer. For €5/month, it is about half the price of Google Music. As with the free plan, I had no issue with songs skipping or getting stuck.
When browsing an artist, Spotify lists up to 10 of the most popular songs. This is then followed by album song listings the rest of the way down the results. Google Music on the other hand shows a long list of song results. Spotify makes it easier to browse artist’s music by album, whereas Google music makes it easier to find song titles. For example, Google Music’s search is better when I can’t think of a song title offhand and it’s not in Spotify’s short list of popular songs.
While I like about Spotify Premium
The main benefit I find over the free plan is being able to play songs on demand. With good Wi-Fi or data coverage, playback is instant like playing from a hard disk. For comparison, Google Music takes a second or two to start playback. Similarly, skipping songs starts the next song instantly.
I personally find the sound quality superior than Google Music, particularly when comparing both in regular quality mode. With Google Music, I had to use the highest quality mode to get good sound quality over headphones. Spotify’s standard sound quality already sounds pretty good. This is certainly noticeable in the car where I use standard mode to conserve data usage.
As a Kindle Fire owner, another big advantage is being able to play Spotify on the Kindle Fire. Besides being easier to browse, I also prefer its sound quality over my OnePlus 2 phone. In addition to better bass range, some songs sound more ‘live’ like, especially with my Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 headphones. Google Music does not support the Kindle Fire.
A few downsides of Spotify
All playback requires the Spotify app or desktop software. It has no web playback interface, which means that I cannot play music on demand on someone else’s PC. With Google Music, I could sign-in with a web browser (e.g. Incognito mode) and begin playback.
For some reason, the desktop software insists on installing in the user’s roaming profile folder instead of the usual “Program Files” folder. Generally, this is not an issue with home PCs, but can run into problems with workplace computers. Corporate computers such as business laptops often have policies in place to prevent software executing in such locations.
Like Google Music, Spotify does not appear to have e-mail support, at least not that I could quickly find. Their community forum on the other hand seems to be better maintained than that of Google Music.
I tried out Deezer around September 2016. Unfortunately, it had a major issue that quickly led to me abandoning the trial. The app requires a consistent data connection to stream music, ruling out in-car streaming. Each time I entered a signal blackspot or 2G area, the music would drop-out. While I could download music for offline playback, I much prefer being able to play playlists and radio stations on demand.
When I purchased my Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 headphones, I wanted to try them to their full potential. Tidal is one of the few streaming services that offers high fidelity streaming, its HiFi plan. Indeed, I could hear the difference comparing songs back and forth with Google Music.
The desktop software works very well and I like its music video feature. Most other streaming services don’t provide music videos. However, the Tidal HiFi mobile app gave me too many problems, especially with offline playback. The first problem was authorisation issues, which their technical support helped resolve.
A week later, anything I played offline blared out noise like a severely overloaded amp. Similarly, any music it cached from earlier playback also blared out an awful noise. I can just imagine this damaging expensive audio gear, considering the customers Tidal Hi-Fi aims for. After posting a YouTube video about the issue, someone commented that seems to be a OnePlus related issue with the app.
The next significant issue was in-car streaming – It only buffers a few minutes of audio. It regularly dropped out in weak signal areas, although nowhere near as sensitive as Deezer. Personally, I prefer having uninterrupted playback over better sound quality. Even then I began to question the high subscription cost. If I really want an album in CD quality, the subscription price difference would easily pay for the CD. Over a year, that difference could pay for a dozen CDs, maybe 30-40 used!