If I were down to my last tenner, I’d still think long and hard before cancelling my Spotify subscription. It’s my dog-walk companion, audio wallpaper in the office and it genuinely knows my music tastes better than my other half. Only one thing could tempt me to pull the plug: YouTube Premium.
I’ve been monitoring YouTube Premium since it launched as YouTube Red in the States in 2015. It not only offers unlimited music streaming, but cuts the ads out of YouTube and – crucially – lets you play YouTube videos in the background on mobile devices. No more having to leave videos running in your pocket to listen to a concert.
Now YouTube Premium is finally over here in the UK. Is it time to cancel your Spotify subscription?
YouTube Premium review: music streaming
Let’s start with the music streaming. On mobiles, YouTube has launched an app specifically for music streaming, called YouTube Music. This not only gives you access to a vast library of streaming music – pretty much the same catalogue you get with Spotify and all the other streaming services – it can also access all the music videos, performances and concerts uploaded to YouTube.
Cleverly, you have the option to watch these YouTube videos with or without the video playing. So, if I’m walking the dog with the phone in my pocket, I can still listen to this enormous library of YouTube music without leaving my screen running. This is the killer feature of the entire service. There’s a rich seam of live performances uploaded to YouTube – some legit, some not – and having the option to stream the audio from these gives it a huge advantage over Spotify. Huge.
It’s not perfect, mind. The sound quality and volume levels of these live performances is as erratic as Liam Gallagher. One minute you’re listening to The Beatles at a regular volume, the next Morrissey is making your ears bleed. The lack of volume equalisation is a daft oversight that I hope YouTube corrects quickly.
As with Spotify, individual tracks, albums and playlists can be downloaded for offline listening. YouTube Music also throws in a quirky feature called Offline Mixtape, where it downloads an 80-minute playlist of songs it thinks you’ll like in case you suddenly find yourself in a 4G dead spot.
On that note, however, YouTube Music seems less smart about dealing with dead spots than its chief rival. Spotify caches ahead, pre-loading the next song or two on your album/playlist in case the connection drops out. YouTube’s not so forward-thinking. Here in the wibbly 4G backwater of Sussex, YouTube Music cuts out more frequently than Spotify, sometimes mid-track.
The bit-rate of music being streamed by YouTube Music is hard to determine, but it’s noticeably worse than Spotify when you’re on mobile data, suggesting a variable bit-rate. There are no options to specify the streaming quality in the mobile app, as there is with Spotify, which indicates YouTube is plumping for the lowest common denominator. The best clue we’ve got to the quality on offer is that my 80-minute Offline Mixtape was an 80MB download. That suggests hugely compressed files.
However, your YouTube Premium subscription also gives you a premium subscription to Google Play Music – Google’s long-running streaming service. This DOES give you fine control over streaming and download quality, begging the question: why on Earth is it not in the YouTube Music app?
One more black mark for YouTube music: there’s no desktop app. If you want to access the service on your PC or laptop you must do so via a web browser. Meh.
YouTube Premium review: music choice and curation
After five years as a Spotify subscriber, it knows me frighteningly well. My automated Daily Mix playlists are a treat, serving me up a varied diet of tracks from artists I like across a range of different genres. New releases from bands I like are well flagged (not least in my Release Radar playlist) and when I reach the end of an album, Spotify continues to play a selection of related songs that are almost always on the mark.
After only a week with YouTube Music, it would be unfair in the extreme to expect it to know me so well, although it does have a long history of music played through YouTube to fall back on, which the app cleverly exploits. Most of the suggested playlists are of the genres I would happily listen to, and the “similar to” suggestions seem largely accurate.
YouTube Music offers an ever-changing playlist called Your Mixtape – “an endless stream of personalised music” – which is the equivalent of Spotify’s Daily Mix, although you don’t get several mixtapes to cover different genres like you do with Daily Mix.
After a week with YouTube Music, am I longing for the familiarity of Spotify? No, not yet, although my gut instinct is that Spotify does a better job of both curating playlists by human hand and automation.
When it comes to the breadth of streaming music available, it’s a pretty close run thing. YouTube Music seems to have a small blind spot for compilation albums. Oasis’s Time Flies and David Gray’s iTunes Festival album are among a few compilations that I noticed had gone astray. Indeed, YouTube Music doesn’t even list compilation albums separately.
Spotify also has a decent library of live performances recorded especially for the service, which is something YouTube Music currently lacks. But the vast YouTube video library more than compensates.
YouTube Premium review: compatibility with smart speakers
One area where YouTube Premium is definitely found wanting is compatibility with smart speakers. Of course, it’s available on Google’s own range of smart speakers, but you can forget about Amazon Echo devices. Amazon and Google are squabbling like toddlers, withholding various bits and pieces from one another. There’s more chance of the original Beatles reforming than hearing YouTube Music playing through your Echo anytime soon. Spotify is, of course, available on both.
Apple’s HomePod doesn’t offer native support for either Spotify or YouTube, meaning you’ll have to select songs etc from your smartphone rather than by voice.
YouTube Premium review: YouTube without the ads
The other strong card in YouTube Premium’s deck is an enhanced set of features for YouTube itself. Firstly, all ads are gone. No more pre-rolls or interruptions five minutes into a clip to bring you a message from our sponsors. Viewing is blissfully ad-free.
As with the YouTube Music app, you can listen to videos in the background, without having to have the screen switched on. You can even download videos to your mobile – great if you’re about to shuffle down a Tube tunnel for the next half an hour or board a flight.
You also get access to YouTube Originals, the YouTube equivalent of Netflix. Much of the content seems targeted at teenagers and I’m yet to find anything to make me think Netflix is in the least bit of danger, but your mileage may vary.
YouTube Premium review: the verdict
So will it be sayonara Spotify when my three-month trial of YouTube Premium comes to an end? (I did mention you get a three-month free trial didn’t I? Oh, no I didn’t, because I was worried you would sod off and try it before finishing the review. Sorry.)
There’s a hell of a lot I like about YouTube Premium: the background access to YouTube videos, the smartly designed apps, the complete absence of ads on YouTube itself.
That said, there are problems. I need control over the streaming quality in the YouTube Music app, the lack of support for my Echo devices isn’t a problem that’s likely to be resolved before Palestine/Israel is sorted, and it just doesn’t know me as well as Spotify does. It’s also £2 per month more expensive, although if you can live without the main YouTube features, YouTube Music is the same tenner a month as Spotify.
I’m tempted. Hugely tempted. But as things stand, it’s one star shy of a Spotify killer.
Now read this: why is Alexa cutting off Spotify streams?
YouTube Premium scores
Streaming audio quality
Magnificent for listening to music and YouTube’s vast library on the go, but a few critical flaws short of greatness