Thursday, October 22, 2020

Moving on from Google Play Music

I was a happy customer of Google Play Music. However, as you may have heard, Google has decided to shut it down. Googles reasoning is unknown, but if you have been a user of any of their platforms you would know that Google has a culture of killing and replacing their services instead of improving them. The notable exceptions being Gmail and Calendar. Googles replacement for GPM is YouTube music. This has several notable issues. Though the two services do not have feature parity, I don't actually consider that the biggest. The biggest is that if you are an actual user of YouTube, using it as a music service completely screws up your ability to effectively use YouTube for video. Once you migrate your GPM music and playlists to YouTube, you have now merged all your recommendations. If I'm browsing YouTube on my TV, I don't want recommendations for music.  Maybe Google will solve this with time, but for now it's a complete mess. Something that is preventing me from even trying it as I don't want it screwing up what I have. The above knowledge is from countless reviews that have listed this as a big negative.

So I'm forced to seriously look at other services. The ones I've chosen to compare are Spotify and Tidal. Spotify, because it has great integration into the platforms I'm already invested in. Tidal, because it's the only service that provides high quality audio, which I have the hardware to take advantage of. I also included Amazon Prime Music simply because I had it for free with my Amazon Prime account.

After having tried these other services, I've put together a list of features, how important they are to me and weather that service fulfills that feature.

  Google Play Music YouTube Music Spotify Tidal Amazon Music
Sound Quality 🟡 🟡 🟡 🟢 🟡
Catalog Depth 🟢 🟢 🟢 🟡 🔴
Digital locker 🟢 🟡 🔴 🔴 🔴
Music Discovery 🟢 🟡 🟢 🟡 🟡
Google Home Integration 🟢 🟢 🟢 🟡 🟡
Android Auto Implementation 🟢 🟡 🟢 🟡 N/A
Ease of use / UX 🟢 🟡 🟢 🟢 🟢
Price 🟡 🟡 🟢 🔴 🟢
Music Categorization & Sorting 🟡 🔴 🟢 🟡 🟡
Device Follow 🔴 🔴 🟡 🔴 🔴

Sound Quality

Before I talk about sound quality, I want to talk about my music listening use cases. There are three primary setups in order of importance: 

  1. At my desk using an External DAC and high end headphones.
  2. Walking around using my phone and either wired or Bluetooth headphones.
  3. In the car using Android Auto. 

Sound quality is really only an issue at the desk setup. You can't really tell outside or in the car unless you have an exceptional setup and quite environment.

That being said, when at my desk the sound quality of Tidal is noticeably better then the rest. The stereo separation is noticeably better. You don't get any of that compression warble (technical term :) from compression of complex tonal arrangements. You'll often times hear the term sound stage used to describe audio quality. This is noticeably better using Tidal, where you can place the musicians in a room/hall/studio as if they were live.

Catalog Depth

Google, Spotify and Amazon Music Premium have a good amount of music. Tidal has a more limited selection. I'm assuming this is due to them re-encoding everything themselves at a higher quality. And of course Amazon Prime music (non-premium) the smallest. I used Soundiiz to transfer my library to the different services from GPM. With Spotify I was missing a few hundred out of approx. 8000 tracks. With Tidal I was missing approximately 2000. With Amazon Prime (non-premium) I was missing about half. Keep in mind that my music catalog is a lot of self ripped MP3s uploaded to the Google digital locker. So there are a lot of obscure electronic and alternative rock albums from the 90s and early 2000s in there.

Digital locker

Not much to say about this. Only GPM and YouTube music have it. And the implementation of the one in YouTube Music is less than ideal. It keeps your personal catalog completely separate. Of note is that Spotify, if you're on Windows, will play your music from OneDrive. Sadly, this feature is not available on mobile which would be the killer app here.

Music Discovery

This is a draw between GPM and Spotify. GPM has the superior algorithm for it's radio stations and artist playlists. Spotify has the far greater social reach with curated user playlists. YouTube music lost a lot of the features of GPM. Most notably the auto playlists are garbage. Possibly the worst of the review group. Which is impressive as GPM was the best. However YouTube Music has gained the playlists of YouTube users. This can be hit or miss though as there is a lot of trash on YouTube. A service like Tidal is good if you like Hip Hop as that is their main focus.

One thing that all these service miss with the exception of Spotify, and is a big one for me the ability to search by label. This is something I sorely miss from being a customer of for many years. Searching by label for the type of musis I listen to was single handedly the best way to find new and interesting msuic for me. This was mostly because I listen to a lot of electronic music from small independent labels. The only service that has this in any capacity is Spotify. There is no UI for it, but spotify supports advanced search syntax, which includes searching by label. Not ideal to type that out, especially when on mobile, but generally I do music discovery on the desktop, so this works fine.

Google Home Integration

Googles own services of course have Google Home Integration. The only other service that has it is Spotify. The rest only work as Google cast devices. Meaning you can cast your music to your speakers from them, but they are not integrated players. This is frustrating and as someone who uses Google Home, a deal breaker for me. Being able to just say "Hey Google, play some Tragically Hip" and have it work well is great. In contrast to "Hey Google, play Tragically Hip on Tidal" and hope it gets it right (which it sometimes doesn't).

Android Auto Implementation

Now you'd think Google's own services would work spotlessly here too, but you'd be wrong. Only Google Play Music works spotlessly here, all the other services have issues. Annoying issues like forgetting what you were listening too. Normally, when you get into the car, Android Auto just starts playing whatever you were listening to on your phone. However, all the other apps "forget". That and the UI for GPM was fine tuned for the car and worked well. The other services I found clunky in the Android Auto interface. The worst app however had to be Tidal. It seemed exceptionally laggy and would constantly forget what I was listening to if I shut off the car for gas for instance. This was also a deal breaker for me as I use Android Auto for long trips.

Ease of use / UX

I'm not a UX expert, but do implementing UIs for a living. That being said, it's hard to separate myself from what I'm used to vs. what is subjectively better. I personally feel GPM and Tidal had the best UIs. Spotify is ok, but have some quirks, especially when it comes to playlist management. For instance, on Android it's not easy to remove the current track from the playlist you're listening to. In general, playlist management seems to be less than ideal on Spotify, which is surprising considering how playlists are such a key feature of the platform. The worst, hands down is YouTube music. The confusing UI, mashup of Video and Audio and the complete separation of your digital locker music make this an un-intuitive mess. But the most unforgivable YouTube Music issue is how slow and laggy the browsing of music is. In GPM, the scrolling through your playlists was fast and seamless. This was not an issue on any of the other services.

YouTube music has a lost of bugs and UI issues, missing features. So much so that I'm not going to duplicate the great effort made by a reddit user on the subject, just go check it out.

I also have to bring up the issue from above where the apps forget what you were listening to. There are two stages to this: on some apps, like Tidal, the app completely forgets what you were listening to. For Spotify and Tidal, only the widget forgets what you were listening to. So once you click through and open the App, Spotify would remember, but Tidal would not. This is incredibly frustrating and I really miss how this always worked in GPM. I did not test this functionality on YouTube Music.


Amazon Prime Music is "free" with a limited catalog if you have Amazon Prime. This is a tempting proposition for those who already have it. However, it's a lack luster experience otherwise. The app is fine, but lacks Google Home integration and it's music discovery is average at best. Otherwise, Amazon Prime Music Premium costs about as much as the others at $8 CAD. Tidal has quality tiers. So at it's normal quality, it costs as much as the rest at $10 CAD, but at it's premium quality tier, it's twice the price of the others at $20 CAD. Honestly, if you're not going to Tidal for their premium quality tier, don't bother.  Spotify has one advantage in that they have a "duo" plan which is like a family plan for only two people. This was great for us and is less expensive than family plans. Lastly, if you stick with YouTube Music, it only costs a few more dollars (or is outright included in some countries) to get YouTube Premium, which is a feature I can't live without. 

Music Categorization & Sorting

The only reason I added this category is because of how badly Google screwed up with YouTube Music. Especially when it comes to sorting and categorizing your own uploads. Now of course, this is not a problem with other services as they simply lack that feature entirely. As in the ease of use section, I defer to the long list of tracked features on this reddit post. There is just too many issues to go over.

Device Follow

Now this is a category I didn't initially have in the list, but added it because it's a feature that only exists in Spotify. All the other services don't track you over all your devices. So in GPM, whatever song I was playing last on my Phone, is what I'll return to when I pick up my phone, even after listening to something else on my desktop or Google Home speaker. Spotify remembers, and will track your track, playlist and position. So you're listening to Ahead by a Century on your Desktop and are half way through it. Stop, get into your car, plug in your phone and you continue right where you left off. Now, that's the theory anyways. It works about 50% of the time. Still, if Spotify works on improving the reliability of this feature, it's rather nice.


I can't tell you which service to go with. What you choose is dependant on how you weigh the features of these different services. If ultimate sound quality is the most important, or Android Auto support etc. you will choose the right service for those features.

For me, it was a mix of convenience, and platform support. I wanted a service that continued to work just as well on Android Auto and Google Home as GPM did. That service was Spotify. I miss some aspects of GPM, like the digital locker and the superior playlist algorythms, but overall I'm happy with Spotify. However, if Tidal gains Google Home integration and fixes a few of their minor app bugs, I will most likely switch to it. Having higher quality music is noticeable and something I appreciate. As it is Tidal is not there yet so Spotify will do. Thankfully, services like Soundiiz make switching easy now.

1 comment:

rumble said...

re: missing tracks from Google Play Music to Service X.

Did you try manually looking for some of the missing tracks?

I've tried writing synchronization code/scripts for these streaming services and sometimes tracks like ...

"Jacob Collier - Time Alone With You (Feat. Daniel Caesar)"

... will be listed as ...

"Jacob Collier & Daniel Caesar - Time Alone With You"

... on a different service. Possibly(?) there are fewer missing tracks than you initially suspected.