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Apple Music vs. Spotify

Apple Music vs. Spotify

published by Chand Bellur
November 11, 2015 at 1:03 p.m. PST

Streaming services are the future of music consumption. This article compares Apple Music and Spotify.

Being a music fan used to be very expensive. We were expected to spend $10 to $15 for an album. Unless you were wealthy, you had to choose wisely and listen to an album several times just to get some value out of it. We live in a brave new world for music fans. For a mere $10 per month, it’s possible to listen to just about any song or album.

I knew about these services a long time ago. A colleague started using Rhapsody and informed me about the service years ago. I never really followed through. I figured a music service would only offer mainstream options.

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When Apple Music entered the fray, the music service buzz finally piqued my interest. I tried the free version of Spotify and was impressed by the selection. I had high hopes for Apple music. After all, Apple is the largest corporation on the planet. Surely, they could deliver something better. I was wrong and disappointed. Apple Music proved to be a slavish copy of the Spotify user interface, with far too many bugs and quirks to justify subscribing. After using both services, I went back to Spotify, but this time with a premium membership.

This article compares Spotify and Apple Music, evaluating which has the better feature or implementation in a given area. In some respects, this is subjective, although there is evidence to support these contentions. Having used both services every day for several months, I feel this information is fair and accurate. I have no relationship with Apple or Spotify.

FeatureApple MusicSpotify
Voice Controlwinner-trophy
Family Planwinner-trophy
Student Discountwinner-trophywinner-trophy
Sound Qualitywinner-trophy
Device Compatibilitywinner-trophy
Gapless Playback/Crossfadewinner-trophy
Free Musicwinner-trophy
Searching for Musicwinner-trophy
Discovering Musicwinner-trophy
Sync and Cloud Storagewinner-trophy
Live Radiowinner-trophy
Offline Musicwinner-trophy
Transmit Audiowinner-trophy
Social Mediawinner-trophy
Ease of Usewinner-trophy

Voice Control: Apple Music Wins

Apple has a unique advantage when it comes to their apps. On iOS, only Apple can integrate Siri with apps, and this feature has been folded into Apple Music. Users can tell Siri to play songs, albums or artists. Siri can even handle requests like “play the top songs from 1991”. For a full list of Siri commands, check out “Apple Music Tips”.

Having used Siri with Apple Music, it’s not that great. For one thing, bands often have strange names that can confuse Siri. Even a band name as simple as “Gong” can be misinterpreted as “gone”. Furthermore, the underlying data in Apple Music is a bit dirty. There are duplicate albums, artists pages that are “dead ends” and other nasty surprises. Siri may be able to understand your request, but you might end up with something you don’t expect. We’ll take a look at the data problems with Apple Music later in this article.

I eventually stopped using Siri as an interface for Apple Music. It was easier to find music using search, but that still has its problems.

Spotify doesn’t offer a personal digital assistant or voice control. There are third-party apps, such as Vela, that offer this functionality. They’re not integrated into iOS like Siri. For example, you can’t launch Vela by holding down the home button. This also means you can’t launch Vela by holding down the center button on your iPhone headphones.

Family Plan: Spotify Wins

Both Apple Music and Spotify offer discounted family plans. These plans are essential if you have a family that loves music. Although streaming services are inexpensive, the costs can add up if every member of the family wants to use the service. While it is possible to share one account by using one device, this would create cluttered music libraries and conflicts.

Apple Music’s family sharing plan is much cheaper than Spotify’s. At $14.99 for up to six users, it seems like a huge advantage over Spotify. Unfortunately, Apple’s family sharing regime is not flexible. Family members must be part of iCloud Family Sharing, which goes beyond Apple Music. Apple’s family sharing ties all accounts to one credit card. If your son wants to purchase an app, this is billed to your credit card. This may be ideal for many families, but it also means that family sharing is really only for immediate families with young children. Cousins, parents of adult family members and more distant relatives don’t fit in well with this system, let alone friends. A couple could fare well with this system, but only get meager savings at the expense of flexibility. Having all Apple purchases tied to one credit card may create conflict in many households.

Apple Music Family Plan Pricing

Spotify is much more lenient with their family sharing plan. It only applies to Spotify, and has no impact on app and content purchasing for enrolled members. This makes it easier to use family sharing with distant relatives and even friends. They even encourage customers to use their family plan with friends. Spotify only offers a 50% discount for additional accounts. If you were to enroll in family sharing with 6 people, it would cost almost $35, which is more than twice the price of Apple Music’s family plan. Unfortunately, Spotify only allows 4 additional users (a total of 5 accounts) in their family plan. The accounts are tied to one credit card, but only for Spotify access. Unlike Apple Music, your family members can make independent purchases in the App Store, iTunes and other Apple services. It is important to note that the Spotify family plan cannot be purchased through iTunes or the App Store. Customers must purchase this plan directly from Spotify.

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Spotify Family Plan Pricing

The flexibility of Spotify’s family plan makes it worth the additional cost. Even within a nuclear family, having all Apple app and content purchases apply to one credit card is not always ideal. If you have older children, they may have their own credit cards. Apple Music’s plan is really limited to couples or nuclear families with young children, where one account pays for all purchases. It seems almost like a throwback to the days of Leave it to Beaver, where a family has one breadwinner. With Spotify, you can give friends a family discount. They’re not going to do genetic tests or look up your family tree. They actually encourage this practice. Keep in mind, Spotify’s family plan is billed to one credit card, so if you enroll your friends, you must collect their payments, unless you are very generous.

New Spotify Family Plan

UPDATE: Spotify just reduced the price of their Family Plan, which makes it an even better deal than Apple Music. At $14.99 for 6 users, the costs are the same as Apple’s plan. The main difference is that Spotify’s family plan gives users completely separate accounts. With Apple Music’s Family Plan, users must be part of iTunes Family Sharing. This ties all Apple purchases (apps, music, books, movies, TV shows) to one credit card. Apple Music’s Family Sharing is really only for a nuclear family. Spotify’s plan can be shared with friends and family. They even encourage subscribers to use family sharing with friends. Spotify will also automatically upgrade current Family Plan subscribers to the new price. Given that Spotify’s Family Plan is the same price as Apple’s, yet is more flexible, Spotify wins this category.

Student Discount: Tie

Spotify Discount for College Students

College students are often in debt after graduation. Subscribing to a music streaming service is an added burden, however, downloading music and purchasing CDs costs even more. Spotify offers qualified students a generous 50% discount for one year. Instead of $9.99 a month, students only pay $4.99.

Although the discount is generous, there’s a few hoops to jump through. First, this is only for college students attending a U.S. Title IV accredited institution located in the United States. Students must submit their name, educational institution and date of birth. From here, Spotify verifies that the subscriber is a student using SheerID. The discount is only good for one year. Students must remember to cancel or they will be automatically billed for a $9.99 premium membership at the end of the discount period. There’s a limited number of student discounts available. Despite all of the limitations, the discount is an excellent deal if you qualify.

Apple Music does not offer any student discount. At best, a student could try to participate in the family sharing plan, but it is even more restrictive. Spotify’s family plan is much easier to share with friends. They even encourage it. If you don’t qualify for the student discount, you can always sign up for Spotify’s family membership. Each additional member will only pay $4.99 a month. Unlike Apple Music, it’s not tied to every purchase in the Apple ecosystem. You can sign up friends and family without giving them the ability to buy apps or iTunes content with your Apple ID.

UPDATE: Apple Music has just introduced a student discount. It’s offered at the same price as Spotify — $4.99. One slight advantage is that the discount can be used for up to four years. Spotify’s discount is limited to 12 months. Apple Music also offers the discount to graduate students. Although Apple Music’s student discount is slightly more generous, Spotify’s liberal family plan makes it easy for anyone to get a discount. Both services are tied when it comes to student discounts.

Sound Quality: Spotify Wins

Digital music has always traded off quality for convenience. CDs are inferior to vinyl in overall sound quality. Although CDs don’t have the almost-inaudible popping artifacts of vinyl, they’re just a digital representation of audio. Vinyl sounds warmer and more natural, with better bass definition and less program compression. Some readers may object and prefer CDs. Listening to both on high-end systems, most audiophiles will prefer vinyl.

When mp3 players and iPods hit the scene, audio quality diminished even more, as a trade-off for convenience. You could put 20,000 songs in your pocket, but they didn’t sound very good. Over the years, this has improved. There are even digital music players that sound better than CDs, offering 24-bit/192 kHz audio, which some say sounds even better than vinyl. Most people can’t tell the difference, especially if they listen to modern pop music on an average audio system.

Both Spotify premium and Apple Music offer decent audio quality. Apple Music uses 256 kbps AAC and Spotify premium offers an adjustable rate, with “Extreme” quality at 320 kbps Ogg.

Spotify Audio Quality

Having tried both, Spotify sounds noticeably better — as good as a CD. It’s not just the bit rate. It seems that Apple’s encoder is doing some audio processing that makes the low-end sound hyped, yet dull. The bass is too loud, so I have to cut it on my stereo’s EQ. I also find that Apple Music seems to use more program compression than the original master. This makes the music sound louder than it should and reduces the overall dynamic range. When I play the same album on Spotify, I have to turn the volume up on my stereo about 10%. With Spotify, quiet parts are quiet and loud sections are loud. That’s the way it should be.

CNET conducted a listening study comparing Spotify and Apple Music audio quality. They also preferred Spotify’s sound quality. Listen to both, and you will probably come to the same conclusion.

EQ: Spotify Wins

Equalizers, or EQs, enable audio frequency adjustments. If the bass is too loud, you can turn it down. Muddy sounds can be cleared up with a cut in the right frequencies. Basically, an EQ gives you more control over the sound of your music.

Apple Music only offers EQ presets. These presets are labelled as “jazz”, “rock”, “dance”, etc. The problem is that there is no such thing as a “jazz” EQ. Jazz is extremely diverse music, covering everything from Kenny G to Sun Ra. While there are third-party apps offering better EQs, they do not work with Apple Music. They can only play music in your purchased music library, not the subscription-based streaming music in Apple Music. The EQ settings are buried in the Settings app, not in Apple Music. This is a problem with Apple Music’s design. Settings are scattered throughout iOS.

Apple Music EQ

Spotify features an excellent graphic EQ enabling precise control over frequencies. Users can make precise and custom EQ adjustments with an intuitive touch screen interface. The controls are available directly within the app. It also provides presets for users who aren’t comfortable with making these adjustments. This feature is available on multiple platforms. Windows users can even download plugins for Spotify, including some advanced EQs.

Spotify EQ

Device Compatibility: Spotify Wins

Apple has taken a big step with their music subscription service — it works on different operating systems, including Android. Unfortunately, many users are still left out. If you have an older iOS device that can’t run iOS 8.4, Apple Music won’t work.

Furthermore, Apple Music does not offer a web player. If you use Apple Music on your computer, you have to install iTunes. This is not convenient when you visit friends and family. If you want to play Apple Music at a friend’s house, you have to install iTunes on their computer. A lot of people don’t want guests to fiddle with their computer. Most people won’t object to pulling up a website on their computer.

Spotify Web Player

Spotify is compatible with many more devices. It even supports iOS 7. I actually play Spotify on my old iPhone 4, and it works just fine. It’s given my old iPhone a new purpose.

Spotify on iPhone 4 Running iOS 7
Spotify running on an iPhone 4 with iOS 7

Additionally, Spotify has native clients for Windows (including Windows Phone), Android and even Linux. If that’s not enough, the web-based player will work on just about any operating system.

Plugins: Spotify Wins

Apple Music doesn’t offer plugins or extensions. There are no third-party audio tools, such as EQs or lyric viewers. You can view lyrics by adding an app like Musixmatch Lyrics Finder, but this isn’t a plugin per se. It is an app with a widget. The lyrics aren’t integrated into Apple Music. Instead, you have to pull down Notification Center when playing Apple Music.

Spotify Plugins

Spotify for Mac OS X and Windows has full support for plugins. There is a community of developers creating wonderful and powerful third-party plugins. Spotify users can add enhanced search functionality, smartphone remote control capabilities, enhanced social media functionality and much more.

Discovering Music: Spotify Wins

The For You screen in Apple Music is a great way to discover new music. The layout, derivative of Windows Phone’s live tiles, presents a mosaic of music suggestions. Users can pull down on the screen to refresh the view and get more recommendations.

Apple Music For You Screen

I didn’t discover much new music on the For You screen. In fact, a lot of the recommendations were bands I already knew. I even bought several albums from these bands on iTunes. Why would Apple Music recommend a band, when I bought all of their albums on iTunes with the same Apple ID?

The playlists, assembled by so-called experts, were often embarrassingly bad. For example, there is one called “Prog Love” which is supposed to be a playlist of progressive rock music. I eat, breathe and live progressive rock. I travel to far off lands to attend progressive rock festivals. Most of it was classic rock. It also featured the worst selections from excellent progressive rock bands. It annoyed me that people would get their introduction to progressive rock with such a poorly chosen playlist. I found this same failing with iTunes Radio. It would play classic rock on a progressive rock radio station. I just tuned in to Aural Moon instead. They are expert curators of progressive rock.

Spotify also offers a Recommendations For You screen, but it is only one of the ways to discover music.

Spotify Recommendations for You

The Browse screen enables exploration of music in many different ways. Spotify assembles their own charts of popular music. Discover Weekly is a custom playlist based on your listening tastes and what others with similar interests are listening to. It’s also easy to browse new releases and discover new music based on preferences.

Spotify Browse Screen

Suggestions are insightful and have turned me on to music that I’ve never heard. That doesn’t happen often.

Spotify Discover Music Based on Listening Preferences

I wouldn’t have discovered Michal Urbaniak’s “Fusion III” if it wasn’t for Spotify. I could never really get into Steve Hillage, even though I am a huge Gong fan. Spotify recommended “Fish Rising” and I was simply blown away.

Spotify doesn’t copy Microsoft’s hip, incongruent tiles. Instead, their Recommendations For You screen is clean and organized in a grid. Spotify offers more suggestions and better suggestions.

Playlists in Spotify are grouped by genre, activities or moods. There are over 30 categories. If you want to bang your head, listen to one of many metal playlists. You can fall asleep to relaxing playlists designed to induce drowsiness. Spotify offers a “white noise” playlist that can block out disturbing background sounds. They even have playlists for dinner parties.

Spotify Playlist Categories

Each category features numerous playlists. There are hundreds of playlists to choose from.

Spotify Sleep Playlists

Running: Spotify Wins

I’m a runner, and I know it’s often hard to stay motivated. The first 20 minutes of a run are the most excruciating. Music can help motivate runners to perform better and keep their pace. Spotify recently added a feature to do just that.

Spotify’s Running feature is available on smartphones. Simply go to the main menu and tap on Running. Spotify uses the accelerometer in your smartphone to detect your pace and play music that matches the tempo. They even composed some of their own music for this feature. Of course, it includes music from popular artists and users can choose different playlists. Running music options are also based on your listening history.

Apple Music doesn’t offer a feature like this. At best, you can find a playlist designed for running, but it won’t match your tempo. Even the Apple Watch can’t play music based on your running tempo. It’s another missed opportunity from Cupertino.

Catalog: Tie

Both Spotify and Apple Music offer roughly 30 million songs. That’s a lot of music. For the most part, their selection overlaps, but there are a few mutually exclusive offerings. Spotify does not offer Taylor Swift’s new releases. For many music lovers, this is a deal breaker. One thing I miss from Apple Music is the “ECM Selected Recordings IX-XX” box set. It’s a huge collection of music from ECM artists like Pat Metheny, Jack DeJohnette, Egberto Gismonti and others. Neither Spotify nor Apple Music offer Pat Metheny’s groundbreaking album “Bright Size Life”.

Bruford One of a Kind on Spotify

Apple Music is missing some music I love that I can only find on Spotify. Bill Bruford’s “One of a Kind” is not available on Apple Music. Spotify has it. This is also true of Return to Forever’s “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy”. These are jazz fusion classics and some of my all time favorite albums. I own them on CD, but I can’t find them easily in my collection. These are the albums that weaned me away from indie rock and post punk and got me into fusion and progressive rock. I had no idea that jazz was such a broad genre until I heard these albums.

Sync and Cloud Storage: Apple Music Wins

Both Spotify and Apple Music allow users to sync imported (ripped) CDs into their platforms. Spotify offers a computer based app that can import music from files and sync it to your mobile device. If you buy an album on iTunes, you can sync it over to Spotify on your iPhone. Apple Music users can use iTunes to sync iTunes Store purchases and music imported from CDs onto mobile devices.

Spotify does not offer integrated cloud storage for music. There is a workaround that enables Dropbox to function as cloud storage for Spotify. It’s not as convenient as Apple Music’s iCloud Music Library, which is the functional equivalent of iTunes Match, with added DRM protection.

Live Radio: Apple Music Wins

Apple Music features Beats 1 radio. This is a real, live 24/7 broadcast done by some of the top DJs in the world. The broadcast is done in global shifts between LA, New York and London. The flagship music show is hosted by Zane Lowe, who is considered the foremost expert on emerging music. Having listened to Beats 1, it is mostly pop music, which is to be expected. If you love drum loops, auto-tuned vocals and “indie rock” that sounds like music from an Apple commercial, Beats 1 is a great radio station.

Beyond Beats 1, Apple offers a variety of curated radio stations, as part of the iTunes Radio legacy. As previously mentioned, they don’t seem to know the difference between progressive and classic rock. For popular tastes, these stations may hit the spot.

Spotify offers radio stations, but they aren’t anything like Beats 1. Their concept of radio is based on the Pandora model. Spotify radio stations are playlists which can be tuned by pressing “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons.

Spotify Radio

Offline Music: Spotify Wins

We still live in a world without perfect Internet service. Some places have no cellular coverage. For most people, playing music over a cellular data connection is costly. Even your home Internet service can go down. It’s always a good idea to have a cache of downloaded music. Both Spotify and Apple Music allow downloading music on to the device.

Spotify offers a simple way to download music. Simply tap the “save” button on an album or song and then slide a switch to make it available offline.

Download Music on Spotify

Spotify’s setting menu makes it easy to specify audio quality and whether to use a cellular data connection. You must have the Spotify app open and your device unlocked to download music. Saving Spotify music offline has been a quick and easy experience for me.

Apple Music is still quite buggy, and the My Music workflow is still problematic. I tried to add an album to My Music several times, and it was never saved. Downloads are very slow, even with lesser audio quality and smaller file sizes than Spotify. Users are also reporting that songs they have downloaded are disappearing from My Music. Spotify offers better quality downloads and it just works. The only “advantage” of Apple Music is that you can download tracks when the app is closed, which could slow down your device and waste cellular data.

Transmit Audio: Spotify Wins

As we move closer to a wireless reality, a plurality of schemes for beaming media is emerging. AirPlay was one of the first, but not the first. Intel’s WiDi technology enabled beaming a PC’s entire desktop to a television, prior to AirPlay. Unlike AirPlay, it never caught on. AirPlay is extremely popular, and supported by many manufacturers and software developers. Unfortunately, Apple Music only supports AirPlay and Bluetooth, whereas Spotify works with Bluetooth, Chromecast, Spotify Connect and AirPlay. Spotify will support just about any setup you can imagine. The Spotify Connect feature has been embraced by several audio manufacturers, including Bose, Denon, Harman Kardon, Sonos, Sony, B&O and many others. Spotify Connect also serves as a remote controller. Users can control Spotify on a computer or any other device with a smartphone or tablet.

Social Media: Spotify Wins

At the keynote, Apple Music’s Connect feature was said to set it apart from the pack. Instead of going outside of the app to share music or engage in social media, Connect provides these features within Apple Music. This is a bit misleading. Spotify actually has much better social media support.

Spotify integrates directly with Facebook and As with Apple Music, one can follow artists on Spotify. Spotify presents upcoming concert dates on the artist’s page. It has already informed me about concerts I would have missed otherwise. They just added a feature to the Browse screen, enabling users to find concerts based on listening habits. Spotify users can email songs, albums and playlists to friends, and they can access this music for free, without installing any apps. Even Barack Obama shares Spotify playlists, along with other prominent and famous figures. This is a huge advantage of having a web-based player. Websites can also embed Spotify playlists, accessible by anyone for free.

Web Page with Embedded Spotify Playlist

Apple Music can’t offer anything like this, as it lacks a web player and a free on-demand music streaming service. Apple Music allows people to share songs, albums and playlists, but not everyone can play them. It’s a way to entice others to subscribe to Apple Music, which seems to negate the sharing experience altogether.

Apple Music’s Connect feature hasn’t caught on. In addition to managing Facebook and other social media, Apple expects artists to engage with fans using Connect. It’s another burden for artists and music marketers. Artists already have Facebook pages. Why force them to manage yet another social media presence?

Ease of Use: Spotify Wins

Apple is considered by many to be the “user experience” company. Their products are typically easy to use and stable. Apple Music doesn’t live up to their reputation for an excellent user experience. The main problem is with how they handle streaming vs. downloaded music and the My Music collection. It’s both confusing and buggy.

Apple Music’s settings are scattered throughout iOS. If you want to change an EQ preset, you have to drill down into Settings. Controls for the iCloud Music Library and showing/hiding Apple Music are also in Settings. Even worse, they put cellular settings for Apple Music on two different Settings screens. They made the point that their social media offering, Connect, was embedded in the app. Unfortunately, Apple failed to contain Apple Music settings within the app. Apple Music is devoid of the typically excellent user experience people expect.

Spotify is simple and easy to use. If you like an album, you save it. You can download it by sliding on the Available Offline switch. You can access saved music with the global search, or browse for it on the Your Music screen.

Although Apple seems to have copied much of its workflow from Spotify, the Your Music screen is clear and concise. Users can easily identify music saved to the device. Most importantly — it just works. Unlike Apple Music, Spotify music won’t mysteriously disappear. If you save an album, it’s saved. All Spotify settings are contained within the app. You can even adjust cellular data usage within Spotify.

Overall: Spotify Wins

Most people who have used both music services tend to agree that Spotify is better than Apple Music. I have used both services extensively, every day. Spotify’s reliability and audio quality are the selling points for me. In fact, I prefer to listen to music that I own on iTunes using Spotify. Spotify sounds better than both iTunes and Apple Music, because the latter platforms both use 256 kbps AAC. Spotify’s Extreme quality is 320 kbps Ogg. I can actually notice the difference, but it isn’t just the resolution. Apple has always seemed to hype the bass too much. Even if I cut the bass on my stereo’s EQ, it is still often too loud. Spotify doesn’t seem to apply additional mastering or frequency adjustments. They also offer a much better EQ.

Spotify is rock solid. I have never experienced an audio dropout. It just works. Apple Music is still a beta-quality product. Hardcore Apple fans may want to subscribe and wait for it to get better. There’s no guarantee that will happen. I’ve found Apple’s apps to be mediocre. Apple Maps hasn’t really improved in three years. iTunes has been around for over a decade, but goes through phases of improvement and regression.

The main drawbacks of Spotify are the lack of a decent iPad app (their iPhone app is excellent) and no cloud-based storage for non-Spotify music. I listen to very diverse music from all over the world. There’s not a lot of music I can’t find on Spotify. The selection is remarkable. It sounds great. Spotify offers an excellent user experience and a rock solid app. These advantages more than make up for Spotify’s minor flaws.

Even though the Spotify iPad app is deficient in basic features, such as queue management, the iPhone app is excellent, and they offer players for the web, Windows (including Windows Phone), Android and even Linux. I can even use my old iPhone 4 with Spotify, which can’t be done with Apple Music. Unless you are an Apple fanatic or Taylor Swift fan, Spotify is a much better music streaming service. If you like Taylor Swift, you can buy her latest album on iTunes. Spotify has her previous albums and her latest one will likely end up on Spotify eventually.

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