Its almost the end of 2022 and we have a lot of options when it comes to streaming music services. We have niche services that focus on specific features like Qobuz and Tidal, and mass market ones like Apple Music, Amazon Music and Spotify. While having more choices is generally good for us users, it can make it difficult to pick an option and leave us with decision fatigue. Let’s explore how both of these services have evolved to be what they are in 2022 so your decision is easier.
I have been using Apple Music for 4-5 years at this point, and 4 months ago I decided to subscribe to Spotify again after I kept hearing how much better the recommendation system was. I listen to all genres of music ranging from folk Nepali songs to EDM and have always been a big fan of music. While I am not an audio engineer or an audiophile, I love music, technology and I am always trying to find ways to improve my music listening experience. My typical listening happens on AirPods Max that I use while working at my desk, Meridian Sound System while I am in my car, stereo HomePod (original) pair with AppleTV on my TV and some miscellaneous headphones like AirPod Pro, SoundCore Liberty Air 2 etc while working out and doing outdoor activities.
I am going to try to be as little biased as I can for this review, but please be mindful that as a human it is going to be hard to be completely unbiased and music is already very subjective. What might sound good to me might not sound good to you as variables like the shape of your ears, device you use to drive the music, hearing differences (partial hearing loss) etc. will decide how you perceive the sound coming in to your ears.
Let’s get the fluff out of the way, both services come at a price of $9.99 a month for the full unlocked version, but only Spotify offers a limited free version of their service. For my testing, I had the full unlocked version of both the services. Both services are available in almost all major listening platforms, but Spotify might have a slight edge in some cases like integration with car manufacturer’s built in infotainment etc.
I have a huge library of songs that I have curated over the years, which I was able to transfer to Apple Music using a service called Soundiiz. The service did a great job at transferring my library for the most part, other than some songs that got migrated to a different version of the song or at worst a completely different song.
This is one of the most important parts of a music platform for me. While both services have good enough sound quality for every scenario, there were some clearly noticeable differences between the two.
Apple uses the AAC – Advanced Audio Codec whereas Spotify uses OGG codec for their lossy streaming modes. Only Apple allows you to stream music with a lossless codec called ALAC. Spotify was supposed to get lossless streaming by the end of last year but there has been no news since then. While AAC and OGG codecs are very similar on paper, the way they compress music is very different as AAC uses psychoacoustics to encode music which retains more audible parts of the track. This means that AAC technically does not need as much bitrate as OGG or other codecs to deliver the same amount of information.
While testing lossy version of both services on my AirPod Max, I noticed that Spotify raises the overall volume, where different instruments in the song are reproduced in similar volume (flat) and listening to the same song at same volume level results in Spotify being louder overall. But it is not that simple because when you raise Apple’s listening volume to about 5% above Spotify’s, things get more leveled and Apple reproduces music more naturally where some instruments sound loud and some don’t like they were intended to. Spotify however feels like it produces “fuller” sounding audio till you start listening to songs with a lot happening at the same time, at which point it starts sounding muddy (most rock songs, songs with a lot of instruments going on at the same time).
Apple definitely reproduces a wider sound stage, although I do not know how much of this is dependent on you using Apple Music on their devices that the service has been calibrated for. That being said, if you are reading this comparison review, you are most likely going to be listening on Apple’s platform anyways. The instrument seperation seems to be a tiny bit better on Apple’s service for most songs, except while listening to really old songs where Spotify sounds better.
Things do get interesting when you switch Apple Music to lossless quality. While there is not much perceivable difference while listening on AirPods and HomePods, the difference is night and day while listening on my car using wired CarPlay as expected. There is a lot more detail and instrument seperation is really really good, to a point where you start noticing a lot of parts of songs sounding different compared to Spotify. If you own a high end sound system that can play lossless quality, Apple Music is an easy choice.
Overall, both services deliver sound quality that is going to please the listeners for most use cases. If you are particularly picky about sound quality and have sound system that can play back high quality audio, I would recommend Apple Music, but for every other scenario you would have to be splitting hairs to find a huge difference.
One of the reason most people get a streaming service subscription over buying individual songs is so they can discover more music and grow their library. Both of these services have music discovery features that will enable you to find new songs and artists, but their approach is very different.
Let’s start with Spotify, which uses the concept of “Liking” a song to add it to your Liked Songs playlist. As you like new songs and use the platform more, Spotify’s algorithm learns your listening habits and starts suggesting similar songs through different parts of the service. There is a “Made For <Insert Name Here>” section on the homepage of the application that gives you “Daily Mix” playlists that are curated towards your listening taste. These playlists contain songs that you have already liked and others that it thinks match your listening preferences. The Daily Mix playlists are numbered but each playlist contains a certain category of music.
Then there is the Discovery Weekly playlist, a playlist that is updated weekly as the name suggests that bring you a wave of new music every time it is updated. I found Discovery Weekly to be very good at finding songs that sound similar to songs that I already like. It has helped me find some gems that I would have never found any other way. I think this is the most powerful tool in Spotify’s tool-belt to help users discover new music. You can also create a personalized radio station out of any song, which will then play songs similar to that song. I found that this feature is really really good with Spotify and the suggestions that come up are pretty spot on, even while listening to international music which is rare for a streaming service.
Switching over to Apple Music, the discovery situation used to be pretty bad not too long ago. One thing I was never a big fan of was how bad Apple Music was for discovering international music. The suggestions used to be completely random and I had to spend my time skipping their suggestions to find something I liked. I am happy to report that things have taken a turn for the better recently and the suggestions have started to get better for international songs. That being said the discovery was always pretty good for English songs.
Apple Music has a dedicated library where you can add songs to the library instead of liking them like Spotify. As you listen to new music and add songs to your library, Apple Music’s algorithm learns your music preferences in a similar fashion. Apple Music has a bunch of different ways to access music discovery, starting with the Listen Now tab at the bottom. This tab has a “Top Picks” section at the top that shows you a mix of playlists specifically made for you. This could include playlists containing your favorite songs, new releases, radio stations of artists you like etc and is dynamically updated constantly. There is also a dynamic radio station called <Name>’s Station that will have curated music just for your taste. This has improved a lot since I started using the service, and I have been able to find a lot of songs that I really like from here.
There is also a “Browse” tab at the bottom that lets you browse for playlists and songs curated by Apple. This lets you find songs by genre, top charts, mood and more. There is another tab called “Radio” that lets you find radio stations to match your taste. Apple also lets you listen to their world famous radio stations like “Apple Music 1” and “Apple Music Hits”.
Both services let you share your playlists with others and listen to others playlists. You can also search for public playlists created and curated by other for almost every search term you can think of (example: movie soundtracks etc).
Overall, I would recommend using Spotify if you listen to a lot of international music and Apple Music if you mostly listen to English songs. The gap has recently been closed so much that you cannot go wrong with either platform, but my personal vote still goes to Spotify for music discovery as their suggestions generally tend to help me discover more songs that I really like.
Applications & User Experience
Both services provide applications for all major platforms, including web applications [Spotify, Apple Music]. Both of them have evolved quite a bit over the years and have gone through their good and bad phases. At the current stage, both applications perform really well in all platforms and have pretty good integrations with all major operating systems. Both of them support widgets, lock screen controls, watch integrations and other basic features you would expect from a music application.
While I have heard about issues with Apple Music’s app on Android platform, my brief experience was okay. The desktop app for Apple Music has been updated with the newer versions of Mac OS and performs well. Spotify’s desktop app does a great job of letting you manage your library as well.
I am going to keep this section short as there is no point in going in depth when both app experiences are top notch. One thing Spotify does have that Apple Music does not is having podcasts on its app, but Apple does have a dedicated Podcasts app to fill that void. Apple Music’s app was full of random bugs even just a couple years ago, but with server side updates and OS updates most of the notorious bugs are fixed at this point. That being said, Apple Music still has occasional bugs like skipping to the next song before the current ends randomly and not being able to play some songs once in a while.
I personally prefer the clean and well organized looks of Apple Music app, but Spotify is not far behind. Unless you own a Tesla or some other platform that does not have the Apple Music app, you should be fine with either app on most platforms.
At this point, both Spotify and Apple Music are very mature platforms offering some of the best music streaming features available out there. Which one you pick really depends on your preferences and priorities when it comes to features. If you care about the audio quality and have sound equipment that can handle proper lossless audio, Apple Music is a no brainer as of right now since Spotify HiFi which is their lossless audio service does not seem to be coming anytime soon. But if you do most of your listening on wireless headsets and do not mind minor differences in audio quality, either service should be fine. If you are already on Apple’s ecosystem and own a lot of Apple devices, Apple Music is going to have more seamless integration with rest of your devices. On the other hand, if you listen to a lot of international music and like to discover new music, Spotify is going to be your best bet.
Please drop a comment to let me know your thoughts on the comparison and if I missed anything. If you are reading this review in the future, be mindful that things might have changed by then.