Last week, Amazon announced a dramatically expanded music streaming service that opened up a catalog of "tens of millions" of songs to subscribers, putting itself on the same playing field as other music streaming services like iTunes, Google Play and Spotify. Although it's a little late to the game, its attractive price and Alexa integration certainly make it stand out. But how does it actually compare to industry leader Spotify? We put the services side by side to find out.
Amazon used to offer its Prime subscribers a relatively paltry music selection with just about two million tracks available. The new Music Unlimited service blows the doors off that model and dramatically expands the company's offerings. When it comes to major artists you'd be hard pressed to find a difference between Spotify and Amazon in terms of tunes. When it comes to more obscure artists however, our completely unscientific analysis shows that Spotify has the edge here.
Using an upcoming local festival with some relatively unknown artists as our resource, we found that Spotify had more artists than Amazon. Too Many Zooz, Dynamo, Jackie Green and Indigo de Souza were all represented on Spotify and absent on Amazon. Spotify also had the full album from The Roamin' Jasmine, while Amazon only had one track. Amazon did, however, have the complete catalog from female indie-folk band Shel, unlike Spotify which didn't have a single track from them.
Playlists and radio
Pandora may have lead the way with radio-station creation based on particular artists, but the other major music streaming services quickly jumped on board, including Amazon and Spotify.
In this particular arena, the two services are fairly comparable, but again we'd give the edge to Spotify as it tends to include more far-ranging and lesser-known artists in its stations. Ask Amazon to create a playlist based on electronic-music artist Bonobo for example and you'll wind up with a goodly amount of glittery club music, which isn't quite the right genre. Spotify keeps things in the right wheelhouse, staying with groovy electronic artists that would be more at home at a hip cafe than thumping club.
Both Spotify and Amazon have pre-made playlists arranged by genre and mood or activity. While Spotify seems to feature deeper cuts in its playlists, Amazon offers more of them. For example, under the "Focus" category on Spotify, a selection of 34 playlists comes up. Amazon's "Work, Study and Reading" category brings up a whopping 168 stations.
As for pre-made radio stations, Amazon edges out Spotify. Both offer practically endless stations built around artists in different genres, but Spotify only offers one station in each genre such as Blues or Folk. Click on the Blues stations in Amazon and you'll have the option for "Acoustic Blues," or "Blues Now," while the Folk category brings up "All Acoustic," "Modern Folk" and "Americana." Unfortunately, these stations are just dropped in amongst the artist-based stations in Amazon's interface, so they're a bit tricky to find.
Speaking of interfaces, both Spotify and Amazon Music Unlimited feature desktop, mobile and web-based players. Navigation across both platforms on all devices is smooth and logical. If any points were to be deducted here, it would have to be for Spotify's web-based player that tends to load slowly and often needs to be restarted if left unplayed for long.
You'd expect Amazon's Echo to be a major point of difference between the two platforms and in some ways, it is. But the fact is that Spotify comes with Echo integration so you can simply say "Alexa, play my Jam Band playlist on Spotify," and you'll have that service come streaming through the virtual assistant's speaker.
Amazon Music Unlimited promises to use the Echo's voice-recognition abilities more fully though. In fact, you can ask it to play things in a very natural way, such as, "Play Madonna's hits from the 1980s," or "Play the new song by Adele," and it will happily comply. While those tests worked, the system fell short in a few other areas. "Play classic jazz" caused Alexa to think I wanted to hear everything from Steely Dan to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and a schmaltzy version of "God Bless America" by Frank Sinatra. Not quite what I had in mind. "Play classic jazz from the 1940s" returned the same exact station. This again comes down to what seems like a weak music-matching algorithm that will hopefully improve in time.
Echo integration did work swimmingly in other ways though. Asking for "Adele's new song" brought up "Send My Love" and asking for the song of the day led to a nice surprise with Sturgil Simpson's "Brace for Impact." By far, the most impressive part of Alexa's marriage to music is in lyric-based requests. Asking the virtual assistant to "play that song that goes 'he rocks in the treetops all day long' and 'the screen door slams, Mary's dress waves,' brought up "Rockin Robin" and "Thunder Road" in seconds.
Amazon promises that the Echo integration will get even more adept as more requests come pouring in from users and the AI continues to learn what listeners really want to hear.
Spotify offers simple pricing at US$9.99 per month. Amazon's pricing structure is a bit more complicated. Users can pay $3.99 per month to listen on a single Echo device (or Echo Dot or Amazon Tap); $7.99 (Prime subscribers) or $9.99 per month (non-Prime subscribers) for access on unlimited devices; or $79 per year for Prime subscribers, which works out to $6.58 a month.
In terms of selection and navigation, both Spotify and Amazon Music Unlimited will satisfy. If you like more obscure artists, Spotify would be your choice. It would also be the way to go if you appreciate what seems like a more sophisticated music-matching algorithm that nails artist-based stations better than Amazon does.
Amazon, on the other hand, is perfect if you're a more mainstream music lover that enjoys a wide selection of pre-made playlists. Amazon is also perfect if you own an Echo or are thinking about getting one, because it's simply a lot of fun to play with your music using just your voice. Plus, the ability to have Alexa call up a song based on lyrics alone is very impressive. While the Echo search hits aren't always spot on, Amazon promises that things will improve the more Alexa learns.
Also, Amazon wins in terms of pricing if you're already a Prime subscriber; $79 per year is a significant savings over Spotify's $119.88. If you don't have a Prime membership, then the services are identical cost-wise if you want to be able to play them across all your devices.