In an era where one phone can bring you “the world at your fingertips”, many aspects of daily life rely on smart devices, and listening to music is of no exception, with music streaming becoming the norm. The Consumer Council compared the services of 7 music streaming platforms for the first time and found significant differences in the quality and quantity of songs offered, the fees charged, and the level of customer service among the platforms. The songs collection among platforms could be differed by more than onefold; furthermore, even if consumers were willing to pay up to one time more than the basic monthly plan for a “lossless” or “high-resolution” (hi-res) service plan, they might not be able to enjoy the desired sound quality without the proper playback device and equipment. Consumers are advised to make good use of the “free trial” offered by all platforms to assess the suitability of streaming services before subscribing, but be mindful of the fact that more than half of the platforms would automatically renew their subscriptions and charge accordingly after the trial period; so it is important to read the terms and conditions carefully before subscribing to avoid disputes. In the trial, the Council found that the level of customer service varied considerably between platforms, with some platforms not providing any customer service contact information at all, while some platforms did not reply to any email enquiries even after a week. The Council urges the music streaming platforms concerned to strengthen their customer services to safeguard the interest of consumers.
From August to September this year, Council staff, posing as regular consumers, subscribed to the plans offered by 7 locally operating music streaming platforms, reviewed and compared the service details and pricing of each platform. The information thus collected was successfully confirmed and verified with 4 of them.
More than Onefold Difference in Songs Collection
24-time Difference in Songs Download Limit
One of the factors that consumers consider when deciding which music streaming platform to use was its wealth of songs to be enjoyed anytime, anywhere. The song libraries of 7 platforms all included local, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, European and American music. 6 of the platforms claimed to possess songs from 40 million to 90 million, a difference of more than onefold while the remaining platform made no disclosure. 6 platforms allowed users to browse the library and search for songs before subscribing, enabling consumers to determine the suitability before subscribing. However, when the Council staff tested the song search function, it was found that English or Pinyin Romanisation had to be entered in order to successfully search for certain Japanese and Korean artists or song titles, which might affect the user experience. In addition, all mobile apps of the platform featured offline playback, allowing users to listen to music without having to connect to the Internet or consume mobile data. 4 of the platforms permitted users to download and save their music ranging from 4,000 to 100,000 songs, a difference of 24 times. Another 2 platforms claimed that there was no download limit, while the remaining one did not disclose the limit.
Besides “quantity”, some platforms also used “quality” as their selling point, advertising “lossless” or even “hi-res” sound quality. 5 platforms offer the features, with 4 platforms providing hi-res music at bitrates up to 9,216 kbps. The remaining platform, which supported lossless playback, had fewer lossless songs in its library than the other platforms, and would occasionally display incorrect file sizes for such songs. The platform's app and website also did not specify the details of the sound quality, proving a lack of information transparency.
While some platforms claimed that their hi-res sound quality was comparable to that of recording studios, consumers should note that lossless or hi-res sound quality might not be applicable to all interfaces of the platform. The mobile apps of 5 relevant platforms supported lossless or hi-res playback; whereas the web version of 1 platform supported playing lossless music on Chrome or Firefox only, while hi-res music could only be listened to via its PC app. The web versions of 3 platforms did not support lossless or hi-res playback. In fact, there was still an ongoing academic debate on whether hi-res music is distinguishable for human hearing. Some platforms also mentioned that hearing was subjective and might be related to innate conditions; so even if a hi-res service plan was chosen, a better listening experience might not be guaranteed. Consumers should be aware that listening to hi-res music on a smart device may require an external digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and suitable headphones to enable hi-res sound quality.
Remember to Notify in Advance for Termination After Free Trial Period
Apart from appealing to consumers with the quality of their songs, music streaming platforms would also make their pricing competitive. The standard rates for basic individual plans on the 7 platforms ranged from $48 to $58 per month. 4 of the platforms had a basic plan that included lossless and/or hi-res sound quality. Some platforms also offered lossless and hi-res sound plans at a minimum of $68 to a maximum of $116 per month, which could be one time higher than their basic plans. 3 platforms offered not only monthly plans but also quarterly, half-yearly and yearly pricing models. However, 2 of these platforms only listed most of the pricing models and other discount offers on their websites for users to choose from, while the payment page of their mobile app only displayed monthly plan options, which might not allow consumers to choose the plan that best suited their needs due to the difference in information on different interfaces.
For consumers who wish to subscribe to music streaming services with their family, all 7 platforms provided the family service plan option with a monthly subscription fee ranging from $66 to $144, available to be shared among 2 to 6 members, with an average fee of $12 per person (the lowest) to $26.3 per person (the highest), a difference of more than onefold. However, it is important to note that the platform with the lowest average fee per person primarily featured European and American songs and did not include the works of individual local record labels.
Consumers would have a better idea of whether the platform’s services were to their liking if they could try it out before subscribing. All 7 platforms offered free trials, with 3 offering a 14-day free trial and the remaining 4 offering a standard trial period of 30 days or 1 month. However, consumers should note that the terms and conditions of 4 platforms stipulated that the service would be automatically renewed and charged after the trial period. Users who did not wish to pay must serve a termination notice before the end of the subscription period, while the remaining 3 platforms did not have auto-renewal arrangements. The Council reminds consumers to read the relevant terms and conditions of service before signing up for a free trial and to mark the expiry date of the trial on their devices as a reminder for unsubscribing in future. Consumers could also listen to music on the “free version” offered by 3 of the platforms, but take note that the “free version” is different from the “free trial” as some features of the former are limited. In the trial conducted by the Council, 3 “free versions” showed intermittent advertisements, did not provide offline playback and offered fewer choices for sound quality.
Some Platforms Did Not Respond to Any Email Enquiries for a Week
When consumers encounter technical or charging problems while using music platform services, it is important that they have timely access to customer support. The Council’s staff made enquiries to the customer service of each platform as a regular user at the same time on different days. 1 of the platforms had not responded to any email enquiries after 1 week, showing much room for improvement in its customer service. As for the hotline of another platform, it was difficult to reach out to a CS officer and the enquiry line kept going back and forth between the service hotline and the sales hotline. After undergoing unexpected turns, the Council’s staff eventually succeeded in cancelling the subscription by sending an email. The Council urges the music streaming platforms concerned to improve their customer service promptly in order to safeguard the interest of consumers.
Playing songs via music streaming services has become the mainstream, with some platforms containing more European and American songs in their libraries and others focusing more on local music. Consumers may refer to the following tips when using music streaming platforms:
- Although the same account can be logged in on different devices, each platform clearly states in its terms and conditions or website that each individual account can only stream on 1 device at a time. Consumers may consider subscribing to a family service plan if they need to use it simultaneously with other family members;
- If users cancel a subscription during the subscription period, the platforms would not issue a refund on a pro-rata basis under normal circumstances. Consumers are advised to sign up for a free trial before subscribing to a longer-term (e.g. quarterly or annual) plan;
- Many platforms will automatically renew subscriptions for users after the free trial period. If consumers do not wish to use the auto-renewal service, there are platforms that offer single-purchase service plans for which the contract would be automatically terminated after the subscription period, incurring no renewal fees. In addition, consumers should note that uninstalling the platforms’ applications on their device(s) does not constitute a request for termination of service;
- Lossless or hi-res music plans have better sound quality. Besides having a higher subscription fee, listening to hi-res music may require a DAC and suitable headphones. Consumers should also pay attention to the performance, quality, and price of these devices since they might vary considerably. If consumers have any questions regarding the above, they may consult audio-visual equipment stores for details.
Download the article (Chinese only): https://ccchoice.org/552musicstreaming
Consumer Council reserves all its right (including copyright) in respect of CHOICE magazine and Online CHOICE.