Wednesday, August 26, 2015

10 Ways to Stream or Download Music

Whether you seek quality, convenience, or a large selection, Internet-based music services offer a world of sound at your fingertips.

Digital denizens who live in the cloud already partake in the cornucopia of musical content that is available for virtual consumption. And even fans of physical media may appreciate the potential for discovering new music offered by cloud-based streaming and download services. Audiophiles can avail themselves of a sizeable selection of hi-res tracks found on the web, and music addicts can stream from catalogs containing millions of tracks for pennies a day or even free. It's a brave new world.

No matter your taste in tunes, here are 10 popular options for streaming or downloading music.

1. iTunes—the service most responsible for changing the way people consume music. You can purchase individual tracks, whole albums, or subscribe to Apple Music for $10/month ($15/month for a family plan). Apple uses 256 kbps AAC compression, a quality level most people cannot discern from lossless 16-bit/44.1 kHz sound. Tracks purchased from iTunes are DRM-free, while files downloaded through an Apple Music subscription are not—you need an active subscription to play them. Apple Music for Android devices is on its way this fall.

2. Tidal—owned by Jay-Z, with a focus on quality. Tidal offers 320 kbps AAC streaming (and downloads to phones and tablets) for $10/month. A $20/month plan ups the maximum available bit rate to 16-bit/44.1 kHz lossless streaming—as well as mobile-device downloads—in FLAC format. Soon, Tidal says it will support Meridian's MQA format, which promises better-than-CD quality. Tidal's app is widely available, including versions for iOS, Android, and PCs. Additionally, the service works with the Sonos and Denon HEOS whole-home audio systems.

3. Spotify—popular and ubiquitous thanks to its ad-supported free membership that offers 160 kbps streaming and an app found on dozens of connected devices; I would not be surprised if there are refrigerators with Spotify. For $10/month ($5/month for students), the service offers ad-free 320 kbps MP3 (Ogg-Vorbis format) streaming as well as the option to download tracks to mobile devices. Spotify's app is found on smart TVs, streaming sticks, mobile devices, Denon HEOS, Yamaha MusicCast, and Sonos.

4. Amazon Prime Music—free streaming and downloads for Prime members plus MP3 purchases for everybody. Gain access to over a million streaming tracks available at no added cost as a benefit of Amazon's $99/year Prime subscription. Mobile devices offer the option to download Prime Music tracks for offline playback. While the collection of free tracks is comparatively small—"only" one million—the company offers many more DRM-free MP3 tracks and albums for purchase. Amazon's player app is available on many devices and works with Sonos.

5. Google Play Music—touchscreen-friendly, browser-based music streaming. The search giant does a good job making its music offerings easy to use on a PC or a Mac. The $10/month service provides MP3 files at up to 320 kbps, and it allows downloads to mobile devices. Subscriptions also include a 50,000-song locker where users can upload their tracks to stream from the service. Google Play offers an Android app, and it works with Sonos. And the browser interface works perfectly with touchscreen devices, unlike some other services' GUIs.

6. Pono—downloads focused on quality. Pono is Neil Young's foray into digital music and is perhaps best known for its Kickstarter-launched, Toblerone-shaped player. The service deals in downloadable tracks that are CD quality or better, including hi-res files in DSD format as well as PCM up to 24-bit/192 kHz. The DRM-free files play on any player that supports the formats sold by the service, namely FLAC, WAV, and DSD. The main issue some people have with Pono is that a lot of the content is only CD quality, not true high-resolution audio. The typical cost of buying an album from the Pono store is between $10 and $25.

7. HD Tracks—a venerable source of hi-res music downloads. Founded in 2008 by David and Norman Chesky, the service grew from humble origins into a worldwide provider of "better than CD" files in FLAC, ALAC, WAV, and AIFF formats. Purchases are DRM-free, so they play on any device that supports those formats. Typically, albums cost between $17 and $30 to buy.

8. Rhapsody—one of the oldest streaming services, and the first to offer unlimited downloads for a flat monthly fee, is still going strong. It charges $10/month ($15/month for a family plan) for access to unlimited downloads from a selection of over 30 million tracks. Maximum quality is 320 kbps AAC format, and the Rhapsody app is found in many devices, including smart TVs, SonosYamaha MusicCast, and Denon HEOS.

9. Soundcloud—taps into the world of independent music publishing. A near-infinite selection of streaming sound is available from the site, and sound quality varies depending on the original file's bitrate. Much the music on Soundcloud is free to download as well as stream. Some downloads are uncompressed and a portion are hi-res. The service's unique waveform view allows listeners to leave comments at specific points in songs. The Soundcloud app works on Android and iOS platforms as well as Sonos and Denon HEOS.

10. Pandora—intelligent Internet radio that's great for music discovery. Pandora's popularity mandated a spot on this list, despite the limitations of the streaming-only service. Unlike the other services listed here, Pandora is entirely about creating a customized radio-like listening experience, guided by each listener's personal taste and interaction with the player. The service is free if you can tolerate a few ads per hour and overly compressed 64 kbps AAC audio; if you want to go ad-free and enjoy up to 192 kbps AAC audio, it'll cost you $5/month . You can find Pandora's app just about everywhere, including smart TVs, smartphones, SonosYamaha MusicCast, and Denon HEOS.