UPDATE 8/13/2018: This article is now somewhat out of date, and with Google’s launch of the new YouTube Music frontend, I plan to revisit it soon.
I subscribe to both Google Play Music and Apple Music, and I use them on a daily basis. I like to do my writing to music, with headphones on, and having a music streaming service is tremendously helpful.
I never thought I’d end up subscribed to two of them. But here we are.
Which one’s the best?
I got Google Play Music for free because it’s bundled with the YouTube Red subscription, for $10 a month. This is an absurd value. If you are a regular user of Youtube, I think 10 bucks is more than fair for the Red benefits, and getting Google Play Music as well means it’s probably the best deal in media streaming right now.
Apple Music is also $10 a month. I subscribed to it because I liked the trial enough to keep using it, was curious about Apple’s “Mastered for iTunes” program, and I’m deep enough in the Apple ecosystem that I enjoy its tight integration with Apple’s various operating systems. I use an iPhone and a 12-inch MacBook every day, along with a PC.
It’s pretty hard to tell any huge differences in sound quality between GP Music and Apple Music if you’re using the highest streaming quality. In general though, Apple is more committed as a company to good quality encodes. Which brings us to the main point:
Apple launched an initiative a few years back to try and improve the quality of their digital music. They set up mixing guidelines that would help producers get the best possible sound out of Apple’s platform and compression systems. Apple requires all Mastered for iTunes tracks to meet these guidelines, and this sometimes results in vastly different/improved audio quality.
On some songs the difference is minimal and on others it’s instantly noticeable. Is there anything that prevents these masters from also showing up on other services? To my knowledge, no. But due to the new nature of the program, you’re often hearing the latest master only on iTunes/Apple Music.
Having tested this across numerous tracks, it’s not always obvious. Some albums clearly had more work done than others. Also, not every album will be remastered for the Mastered for iTunes program. It’s also hard to see in Apple Music which tracks actually conform to these standards: you’ll have to go to the iTunes store page to find out. Cumbersome!
Lots of folks have speculated that Apple wants to eventually use these higher quality masters to provide lossless audio, but so far nothing has come of that. They both have really good base compression quality, but sometimes Apple has better masters and better care for the final product.
UPDATE 4/27/17: If you’re looking for a track on which an audio difference/compression difference is obvious, check out Hayley Westenra’s Danny Boy, off her Celtic Treasure album. When she hits the highest notes of the song, on Google Play Music, there’s some slight artifacting in the audio that sounds like a warble. Also, the dynamic range of the Google Play version is more compressed.
I checked the whole album out after noticing this and confirmed that compression issues exist across the whole thing on Google Play.
Checking the store page on iTunes, it’s not even part of the mastered for iTunes program, so perhaps Apple’s compression is indeed just better on certain tracks. Or maybe it’s just a screw-up on Google’s part.
UPDATE 8/13/2018: A year and a half later, the above audio issue no longer exists. Thanks to Wayne for pointing this out! I’m not sure if a new master was uploaded or if Google’s compression has improved in their efforts to further develop their backend to support the new YouTube Music system. But it’s good that this particular album is now fixed.
Either way, Apple gets the nod in audio quality!
Winner: Apple Music
Digital music can come and go, just like titles on Netflix. That’s a little frustrating, and happens on any service. Apple Music has a better library for my personal tastes than Google Play music, but it’s pretty close. Both are missing tracks that I listen to regularly and have ended up buying outright.
Winner: Apple Music
Google Play Music nails their interface. It’s incredibly easy to organize a library in a number of different ways, and set up shareable playlists. It’s entirely web-based on PC and Mac, and quite fast and flexible.
I particularly like the thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating system for selecting tracks I like. When I thumbs-down a track, Google Play Music instantly skips it and won’t show it to me again unless I go looking for it.
The search function is incredible, not surprising coming from Google. It’s a breeze to find an artist and then listen to all their top tracks.
Apple Music’s interface is burdened by its connection to iTunes, a piece of software that’s needed updating for years now in my opinion. It’s not quite broken or awful, and it has a modern feature set, but I always feel like it takes me too many clicks to get to something I want. The rating system is not as intuitive or easy to access. It’s stupidly cumbersome to have to manually select whether I want to search Apple Music or my library. Why can’t I be searching both all the time?
On phones, the interfaces are much closer, but Google Play Music still gets the nod for its superior search and organization systems.
Winner: Google Play Music
Google Play Music is freakishly good at figuring out my musical tastes, thanks to the rating system mentioned above. It has learned my musical preferences really well. It’s a breeze to click a track and get a station based on it, and find new music I might like. The playlist interface is quick and snappy, and at a glance I can see all the music Google thinks I might like.
It’s great. If a little creepy!
I’ve never really felt like Apple Music cared much about my musical tastes. It has discovery functionality, but it’s a little buried, and it seems a bit more random than Google’s. It more regularly picks music that I don’t really like.
Now, this could in part be because I use Google’s discovery tools much more than I use Apple’s, so Apple hasn’t had the chance to learn. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t use Apple’s discovery system as much because I don’t like it.
Winner: Google Play Music
Google easily lets you upload a bunch of your music to the cloud and seamlessly blend it into your library. Apple has this function too…but you’ll need a separate cloud storage account.
Apple has Beats Radio, this live radio show thing. I…I never use it.
Google Play Music has quick access to music videos for the songs you’re listening to on Youtube through a button right on the interface. That’s cool!
Apple Music recently added lyrics, but they don’t have them for all songs.
If you’re on an Apple device, Apple Music is a slightly smoother experience. I’ve had some issues with the Google Play Music app on my iPhone crashing from time to time.
Google Play Music pays their artists five times more per play than Apple does. That’s a pretty big deal. Musicians need to make money in order to keep making music.
Winner: Google Play Music
Google Play Music is a better overall user experience, even though its audio quality isn’t always as pristine as Apple’s.
It’s a better deal since it’s bundled with Youtube Red. It has a smoother interface and much better discovery tools. It pays more money out to artists.
Apple’s advantages are the Mastered for iTunes program, its slightly bigger library, and its tight integration with Apple devices. You can still use Google Play Music on Apple devices, and on everything else too. Apple Music is not as pleasant of an experience outside the Apple ecosystem.
And yet, I’ll probably end up keeping both subscriptions, because I’m ridiculous. And because I’m never going to cancel Youtube Red. There are times where I’ll need to hear the quality differences of a Mastered for iTunes release, or where I’ll want the simpler OS integration, or where I’ll want to hear something more obscure that GP music doesn’t have. But there’s no doubt in my mind, Google Play Music is the better of the two for the average user, and the best deal in streaming audio today. With its high royalty pay-out rate and integration with Youtube, it’s also probably the most sustainable one right now as far the health of the market.
If Google Play Music got their audio quality up to the high standards that Apple has set, they’d be unstoppable.