Spotify Free vs. Premium: Should you pay to play?

Smartphone running Spotify
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Editor's note: Spotify debuted a new look at its "Stream On" event yesterday (March 8) hosted by Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. The redesigned Spotify began rolling out on accounts shortly before the event started, and swaps its long running rows and rows of suggestions based on topics and themes, for a card-based layout. While this is a very stark difference from rows of square icons, it doesn't actually change what you're getting. Instead, Spotify is trying to make better use of the small looping videos you see while listening to songs. 

The new Spotify home screen seen above includes card for suggested music for you, a good morning DJ feature, a promoted podcast and full-vertical video.

(Image credit: Spotify)

There will also be new discovery-focused feeds in search, as Spotify says you can "Scroll up or down to explore short Canvas clips from tracks from some of your favorite genres. Then easily save the song to a playlist, follow the artist, or share it with friends — all from one place."

More new Spotify features

In an announcement post, Spotify also focused on three new (or new-ish) features. First, the new Spotify will continue to roll out the AI-based DJ feature, which it says is increasing listening time by 25%.

Then, Smart Shuffle helps increase the lengths of your playlists while it will also "perfectly match the vibe of an original playlist." To try it out, Spotify says "Use the Shuffle button to activate the feature. As soon as you turn it on, you’ll be able to start listening to your playlist mixed with new recommendations that match the vibe."

Thirdly, Spotify rolled out Autoplay for Podcasts — which places relevant episodes right after the ones you're listening to.

Spotify Free vs. Premium

Choosing between Spotify Free and Premium is a little more complicated given some of the recent upgrades rival music steaming services have received. Spotify's closest rival Apple Music already offers lossless and spatial audio, and the popular music streaming service is beginning to looking like it's falling behind in terms of high-quality music streaming. 

In early 2022 it became apparent that Spotify's lossless streaming tier was hit by delays, although it now looks as though Spotify HiFi could be back on the agenda after all. Spotify's second Stream On event has been set for March 8, 2023, where we'll hopefully be able to find out more about whether a Spotify hi-fi tier is ever likely to be rolled out.

If you don’t already have a Spotify Premium subscription, you might be wondering if it’s worth paying the monthly $10.99. Or, if it's better to keep a Spotify Free account but spend music streaming money towards a different service. We've put the streaming service head-to-head with its biggest rivals, so don't forget to check out these face-offs: Apple Music vs. Spotify, and Spotify vs. Tidal.

This Spotify Free vs. Premium comparison will help you choose by running through what features you get on each tier. 

Spotify logo on white background

(Image credit: Spotify)

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: What do you get?

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Spotify FreeSpotify Premium
Monthly PriceFree$10.99 ($5.99 Student plan, $14.99 for Duo plan, and $16.99 for a 6-account Family plan)
Annual PriceFree$99 (with gift card)
LibraryOver 80 million songs, plus 2.6 million podcastsOver 80 million songs, plus 2.6 million podcasts
AvailabilityPCs, smartphones, connected devices, Smart TVs, PS3 & PS4, Android Auto, Spotify Car Thing, Apple CarplayPCs, smartphones, connected devices, Smart TVs, PS3 & PS4, Android Auto, Spotify Car Thing, Apple Carplay
Special FeaturesMobile streamingAd-free listening; Offline listening; Unlimited Skips; Mobile Streaming

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Music library

For the most part, both free and paying users have the same access to Spotify’s library of “over 80 million” songs and podcast titles. That’s a lot of content that you don’t necessarily need to pay a penny for.

However, for the last few years, Spotify has also allowed artists to make their new releases exclusive to Premium subscribers for a 2-week period. Because this is optional, it will vary by artist. But if you’re always wanting to hear the very latest tracks as soon as they drop, Spotify Premium is a far safer bet.

Spotify Premium branding in black

(Image credit: Spotify)

As of July 24 2023, a standard Premium subscription costs $10.99 per month. If you can prove you’re a student, you can also get Spotify Premium for just $5.99 per month.

You can also save by signing up for group deals, which work well for families or couple. The newest Spotify Premium Duo offer includes 2 separate accounts for $14.99 per month, while $16.99 gets you a family-sized 6 accounts.

Thinking back to music libraries, it’s great that you can access almost the entire Spotify library for free, but the lack of some brand-new releases (if the artist decides to make them exclusive to Premium subscribers for a limited period) will be a big downer for serious music fans.

Also, while we don't know how much Spotify HiFi will cost, nor exactly how many lossless songs it will make available, it's possible that Spotify will follow Apple Music and Amazon Music HD in folding lossless playback into the standard Premium tier. In which case, Spotify Premium would get even more content compared to the free version.

Winner: Spotify Premium

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Ads

Arguably the biggest difference between Spotify's Free and Premium tiers is the latter's complete lack of ads. That goes for both the visual ads you'll see when scrolling through the app, and the ads that play radio-style between songs on Spotify Free.

This might all boil down to your personal tolerance for being advertised at, and it might not be a big deal if you're the only one listening. However, if you're planning to play 'party' tunes using a Spotify Free account, you might find yourself explaining to guests why they're hearing a car insurance ad between jams.

Winner: Spotify Premium

Spotify Premium app indicating dedicated play and shuffle buttons

(Image credit: Spotify)

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Playback controls

One downside of streaming without Premium is that you've got less control of your tunes. First of all, you're limited to shuffle play for whole albums using the app on a mobile phone. Shuffle mode is the default. Rewind and repeat playback controls are available with the Spotify web player, or if you're using the app on a tablet.

Last year, Spotify updated its Shuffle and Play buttons for Premium subscribers to make it clearer for users to select the playback mode they prefer at the top of playlists and albums.

Spotify's Shuffle playback control caused controversy in 2021 when several artists (including Adele) railed against the streaming service's use of a default auto-shuffle play button. The outcry asked that it be removed from albums to enable listeners to experience content on the streaming service in the track listing order that the artists and music producers originally intended. 

Spotify Free vs. Premium: Free has limited skips

(Image credit: George Dolgikh/Shutterstock)

If you don't like the songs it plays on shuffle mode, you may find yourself wishing you had a Premium account. Only premium users get unlimited skips so they can breeze by songs they don't like

By contrast, Free users can only skip 6 tracks per hour. The only exceptions are certain Spotify-curated playlists accessible from the homepage: if there's no shuffle symbol next to the name of the playlist, you can skip tracks within it without it counting towards the hourly 6-skip limit.

Winner: Spotify Premium

Spotify car thing

(Image credit: Spotify)

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Supported devices

You can listen to Spotify pretty much everywhere. That includes your PC, smartphone, tablet, smart TV or even games consoles like the PS5 and Xbox Series X.

It's even possible to play Spotify content in any car equipped with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay or Spotify's own Car Thing device. In this regard, it doesn't matter if you pay for Premium, as Free users connect to all of the same devices.

Winner: Draw

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Social features

One advantage Spotify has over rival services like Apple Music is the ease with which you can share songs and playlists, both directly with friends and across your social media profiles.

To Spotify's credit, these social features are largely identical regardless of whether or not you pay for Premium. That means Free users are just as capable of creating shareable links, posting songs to Twitter or Instagram and co-creating collaborative playlists with other users.

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Social and discovery features are shared

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The only bonus extra that Spotify Premium has is Family Mix and Duo Mix playlists, which algorithmically recommend songs based on what different individual accounts on a Family or Duo plan are listening to. It's a small feature, though, and doesn't help those on individual Premium accounts, so we'll call this one a tie.

Winner: Draw

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Curated content

Besides those Family/Duo mixes, curated content — those personalized playlists you see on the front of Spotify every time you log in — works the same for both Free and Premium subscribers.

Even if you pay nothing, you can still get these playlists based on your listening habits. It could be one of several Daily Mix collections, which combine both songs you've enjoyed recently and thus-unlistened-to music you may like, or the Discover Weekly mix that focuses on broadening your listening with new tracks and artists.

In any case, these discovery and curation features work identically regardless of subscription type.

Winner: Draw

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Premium uses higher-res streaming

(Image credit: Spotify)

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Sound quality

If you've got a pair of the best headphones and/or a discerning ear, you might prefer Spotify Premium for its higher-quality audio option. It streams music at 320kbps bit rate, a significant upgrade on the 160kbps that Spotify Free streams at on the mobile app. And if you listen via Spotify's desktop app, that drops to 128kbps.

It very much depends on factors like the type of headphones you're listening on and the type of connectivity, but there's plenty of debate as to whether you can hear the differences between Hi-Res Audio and lower-resolution audio quality. The debate will likely pop up again when Spotify HiFi launches a lossless service, but at the current Spotify Free low-resolution level, you should easily be able to hear the difference between 320kbps Spotify Premium streams and 160 or 128kbps Spotify Free streams.

Winner: Spotify Premium

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Offline listening

A major perk of Spotify Premium is the ability to download songs to your device and listen to them anywhere, even when you don't have a Wi-Fi or data signal. You can find out how to download songs in Spotify with our guide.

Sadly, Spotify's non-paying users can't save songs to their devices for when they're offline. That's a big mark against Spotify Free for those who don't want to run up their mobile data bill or find themselves in regions without cellular service.

Winner: Spotify Premium

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Verdict

If you're the kind of music lover who doesn't mind turning on your speakers and letting Spotify take control, Free might still be right for you. 80 million-plus songs and 2.6 million podcasts for nothing? That's not to be sniffed at, and you won't miss out on Spotify's curation, discovery and social smarts either.

However, if you need to hear the latest songs, want full control over playback, save offline and avoid ads, Spotify Premium is more than worth the cash. Even if Spotify HiFi ends up as a separate, even more expensive tier, Premium would still likely be an attractive middle ground.

Spotify Free vs. Spotify Premium: Scorecard

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Spotify FreeSpotify Premium
Music libraryRow 1 - Cell 1
Ads removedRow 2 - Cell 1
Playback controlsRow 3 - Cell 1
Supported devices
Social features
Curated content
Sound qualityRow 7 - Cell 1
Offline listeningRow 8 - Cell 1

Contributions from: Henry T. Casey, James Archer

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Lee Dunkley
Audio Editor

As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.