Which is the best online music service?

With Sky's announcement of the company's upcoming service, Sky Songs, we finally have proof that every man and his dog is getting in on the music scene. As a consumer, though, the picture just gets that little bit more complicated.

If you want all the music in the world for free, then that's still possible - just not necessarily legal. So, if you've a conscience and you're looking to listen to whatever you want and even keep it, then here's a run down of a few of the options open to you.

Sky Songs

Year launched
2009

Catalogue
4 million

Streaming
£6.49/month for ad-free, unlimited service

Downloads
Same £6.49/£7.49 buys 10/15 tracks/month

DRM
No

Music Quality
Unknown

File available
MP3

Announced just today, the Sky service seems to have simplicity at its heart for a subscription model. There are just two options both of which provide an advert free unlimited stream of whatever music you choose plus the bonus of either 10 or 15 tracks to download and keep as MP3s each month. No mention of the level of quality but expect it to be around 256kbps with no choice on the matter.

Verdict - With all four majors on board and a low monthly payment, it's a very good option. If the catalogue can back it up, the "free" downloads act as a very nice bonus.

Spotify

Year launched
2008

Catalogue
8 million

Streaming
Free, ad-funded streaming or £9.99/month for non-ad premium service

Downloads
courtesy of 7digital

DRM
n/a

Music Quality
160kbps (free service) 320 kbps (premium)

File available
n/a


The current people's champion, Spotify is both social and free which massive pluses to the public. Yes, the ads can be annoying, yes the catalogue does have a few gaping holes and yes, the audio quality of the basic stream is relatively low, but then you can always sign up for the £10 per month and get it on your smartphone too.

Verdict - Still the best offering for the majority of people. Perhaps not for those looking to build a library of tracks.

eMusic

Year launched
1998

Catalogue
6 million

Streaming
No

Downloads
24/35/50 tracks for £9.99/£13.99/£17.99 per month

DRM
No

Music Quality
192kbps on average

File available
MP3


At the other end of the spectrum eMusic provides a series of subscription packages and no music for free whatsoever. The structure is fairly rigid and unlike all good mobile phone plans of days gone by, the unused credits do not roll over to the next month. That said, it's one of the oldest, most successful services out there, has built up an excellent catalogue of independent labels and more obscure, hard to find tracks.

Verdict - Great option for collectors but the audio quality can vary quite a lot.

We7

Year launched
2007

Catalogue
3.5 million

Streaming
free, ad-funded streaming

Downloads
pay-per-track & free ad funded versions

DRM
No

Music Quality
256 & 320kbps paid; 192kbps free

File available
MP3


The most interesting thing about We7 as opposed to the others is that they do offer tracks to download and keep for free. The downside to this is that each contains a small piece of advertising, known as ablipvert, which plays every time with the track. You can pay to remove it and also for a higher bit-rate version too. A free streaming service is also available, so overall users get a lot of choice here.

Verdict - Good universal platform. Not such a large catalogue and slightly on the ad-heavy side.

7digital

Year launched
2004

Catalogue
8 million

Streaming
No

Downloads
pay-per-track

DRM
No

Music Quality
192, 256, 320kbps

File available
MP3/AAC/WMA/FLAC


7digital is a simple one on the outside - no streaming, no subscriptions, all downloads and all paid for. However, there's an excellent degree of flexibility once you start shopping. As with all the pay-per-track services, the songs are reasonably priced but what you get with 7digital is the option of how you'd like them downloaded. It's the only service which allows users to select both the audio quality and the file-type they'd like as well with the lossless FLAC, a noticeable intrigue.

Verdict - Good flexibility, good choice but could do with a few more tracks and some kind of free option too.

Amazon MP3

Year launched
2008

Catalogue
9 million

Streaming
No

Downloads
pay-per-track from 29p

DRM
No

Music Quality
256kbps

File available
MP3


With downloads starting at just 29p, a catalogue of over 9 million songs and each of them at an excellent level of audio quality, it's hard to ignore Amazon's recent step into the music world - especially as it's somewhere many of us do our online shopping in the first place.

Verdict - Very good value pick and chose option.

iTunes Store

Year launched
2003

Catalogue
10 million

Streaming
No

Downloads
pay-per-track: $0.69, $0.99, or $1.29

DRM
No

Music Quality
256kbps

File available
AAC


If AAC files are your thing, then the iTunes Store is the place to be. Over the air access via iPhones and iPod touches play a large part in its success as well as iTunes being the default music player for anyone with any kind of Apple PMP. Certainly not the cheapest but it's a tidy piece of software with a great catalogue and so much more palatable ever since they ditched the DRM.

Verdict - Expensive but very convenient.

Napster

Year launched
2003

Catalogue
8 million

Streaming
Unlimited, ad-free for £5/month to PC or £14.95 to portables too

Downloads
pay-per-track

DRM
No

Music Quality
128kbps streamed, 256kbps downloads

File available
MP3/WMA


So many years and so many changes, Napster will always be associated with the hay day of the Web and the way this place has changed over all these years. The new version of the service is slightly over-complicated compared to all the others, but once people get over the bitter taste that still surrounds the original site's shutdown, they might discover that the streaming service is wonderfully cheap - just not free.

Verdict - Great value streaming from a broad catalogue. Portable version much pricier.

 



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