Forget the haters who say proclaim these to be dark days for music lovers. If anything, we’re in an outright musical Golden Age, not only for the fact that modern artists like Andrew Bird, Joanna Newsom, Anaïs Mitchell, Sarah Jarosz, RAC, and St. Vincent are making some of the best popular music I’ve ever heard, but also for the fact that we, the listeners, have unprecedented access to what we want to hear, when we want to hear it, thanks to the miracle that is the internet.
The flip side to that, though, is that some music fans feel overwhelmed by too much choice, as evidenced by a post from a friend of mine on Facebook last week: “Can someone give me a brief summary of Pandora, Spotify, etc.? You pay for these, yes? Like music Netflix? Is one better than the other?”
Is one better than the other? As you might imagine, there was a flurry of opinions in that comment thread. And everyone agreed that, yes, one definitely is better than the other. But what they couldn’t agree on was which was the better one.
For my money, though, the correct question isn’t, “Which streaming music service is best?” but rather, “Which streaming music service is right for me?” With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the biggest contenders (in the North American market, at least) and see how they stack up. This isn’t a comprehensive list, mind you; merely a sort of Top 5 overview of the streaming audio services that lead the pack in terms of popularity and/or quality.
For the longest time, the name Pandora was pretty much synonymous with streaming music services—at least ones that could be accessed on anything other than a computer. You can think of Pandora as a collection of smart, tailored radio stations, where you search for a song or artist, and create a playlist that consists of similar tunes or artists. In other words, if I search for “Crazy” by Patsy Cline, chances are good I’m going to end up with a radio station packed with country classics like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, etc. The one peculiar quirk (it’s practically a law of the internet) is that no matter what you search for, you’re eventually going to end up listening to some Jack Johnson.
You do have some limited control over what’s played, though, in that you can skip tracks that are particularly disagreeable, and give thumbs up or thumbs down to each song to further refine the station to your particular tastes. What you can’t do, though, is plug in a track and listen to the entire album containing that tune.
How much does it cost? The truth is, most people I know never pay a dime for Pandora. The service is available for free on most mobile platforms, computers, and a ton of consumer electronic devices, from DVRs and Blu-ray players to AV receivers and Samsung refrigerators (no, seriously). The free service does have ads, though, and you can only skip six tracks per hour and 24 total tracks in the course of any given day.
For $4.99/month, though, you can step up to Pandora One, which removes the ads, gives you more skips per day (although you’re still limited to six skips per station per hour), and lets you access slightly higher 192kbps audio quality from the web.
Who is it for? People who love simplicity and variety. And people with Samsung refrigerators. Pandora’s interface is top-notch, it requires zero thought, and it’s great for filling the background with a different selection of tunes.
Who is it not for? Album junkies, audiophiles, and people who hate Jack Johnson.
If any streaming service could truly be called the Netflix of Music, it’s Spotify. The service provides on-demand access to a library of roughly 20 million songs (although, to be fair, a large chunk of that number consists of karaoke versions, bad covers, and songs you’d never want to listen to), with the ability to play complete albums, create your own playlists, and share what you’re listening to with friends on social media. There’s also a Radio function that operates much like Pandora.
The popularity of the service almost certainly has something to do with its ubiquity, given that it’s integrated into a huge number of home audio components (on par with Pandora), and can also be streamed via AirPlay and the like. Plus the recent introduction of Spotify Connect makes streaming and controlling music from the service easier than ever before.
What I love about Spotify is that it’s a wonderful way to find music and decide whether or not I want to buy it, since to me, whether or not a song is worth paying for has a lot to do with how it works within the context of the album as a whole. (I have a general rule that if I stream an album twice, I buy it).
But even though a good 25 percent of my music listening is done via Spotify, I still find the interface to be confusing and cluttered. Trying to find the version of Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride” that I actually want to listen to, for example, is very nearly an exercise in futility. On the other hand, the ability to instantly stream obscure music and old favorites like Grateful Dead’s Dick’s Picks Vol. 30 at the drop of a hat is pretty awesome.
Of course, being the biggest name in music streaming also makes Spotify an easy target, and if the service is in the news these days it’s probably due to the fact that yet another artists has yanked his or her albums from Spotify’s catalog. The fact remains, though, that few other services give you this much access to this much music on this many devices with this level of sound quality for this little money.
How much does it cost? Spotify does offer a free service, which apparently three-quarters of Spotify’s users opt for. And that number may be going up now that free users can use the mobile app (which used to be exclusive to those who paid $9.99 for the premium subscription). But despite the loosening of restrictions on the free service, there’s no denying that the subscription is the way to go if you want to get the most out of Spotify. That $9.99/month fee gets you access to unlimited on-demand playback, higher-quality streaming (320 kbps), Spotify Connect capabilities, no ads, unlimited skipping on radio tracks, and the ability to download tunes for offline play when you don’t have access to WiFi or cellular service.
Who is it for? Album junkies music lovers who want a lot more control over how they discover new music.
Who is it not for? Hardcore audiophiles, people who can’t abide kludgy user interfaces, and folks who love Taylor Swift but not enough to buy her albums.
If Spotify is the Netflix of music, then Rdio could probably be best described as the “Amazon Prime Instant Video” of music. Not that you get free shipping on Band-Aids or anything, but what I’m trying to say is that, in terms of streaming, they’re pretty much the same thing. Yet everyone has an opinion on which one is better.
The basics are the same: you search for music, you stream music, you can play entire albums, you can make playlists, you can store music for offline listening, and there’s a Pandora-like integrated streaming radio function. Their libraries are also roughly equivalent.
The differences? For one thing, hardware support. Only Sonos and Roku have built-in Rdio access. Even my beloved Autonomic Mirage Media Server lacks Rdio support, and it streams pretty much everything. Rdio is also rather lacking in the area of social media integration as compared with Spotify. Rdio does have a much, much better interface, though, which makes It much easier to find the things I want to stream. Its biggest shortcoming, though, is that it only supports streaming audio quality up to 192kbps, which simply isn’t good enough for me.
How much does it cost? The other big benefit of Rdio, though, is its pricing structure. While the company announced free-on-the-web access earlier this year, like Spotify, you’ll want to pay for it to get the most out of Rdio (ad-free listening, albums and playlists). And like Spotify, it costs $9.99 per month to unlock these features. But the cool thing about Rdio is that you can share your subscription with family members thanks to a pretty nice discount. Add a second listener to your account, and your subscription is only $17.99. And the price for each additional listener is only $5, up to five family members. There’s also a discount for web-only listeners.
Who is it for? Families with multiple music lovers and folks who simply cannot abide Spotify’s lackluster user interface.
Who is it not for? Audiophiles and social media junkies.
Attendees at this year’s CEDIA Expo would have sworn to you that Deezer was going to be the next big thing in streaming audio, if only for the fact that it promised to offer (select) North American customers something that no other streaming audio service did: losslessly compress (aka CD-quality) streaming audio. That in and of itself is pretty huge, no doubt, but two things are holding Deezer back, in my opinion: its confusing business plan, and the appearance of some serious new competition (which we’ll get to in a sec).
For now, Deezer is only available in the US to Sonos owners who acquired their systems through the local home tech specialists, and more recently owners of Bose streaming speakers. The really confusing thing is that Bose and Sonos owners are getting two completely different services. For Bose owners, it’s the company’s Premium+ subscription, which as far as I can tell is pretty much a Spotify equivalent; for Sonos owners, it’s Deezer Elite, which is the high-fidelity service that most people are talking about when they talk about Deezer. The service should be more widely available in the coming year, with availability on Autonomic systems coming “soon,” but details at this point are still a little thin on the ground.
How much does it cost? Bose customers can currently take advantage of a promotional subscription rate of $4.99 per month, which is half of what Premium+ is expected to cost in the long term. Sonos owners can opt for a $9.99/month subscription for the Elite service if they sign up for a year, or $14.99 per month on a month-to-month basis. The regular price for Elite is $19.99. And there’s no real indication yet as to how long these promotional prices will be available.
Who is it for? For now, in the US at least, only owners of Sonos and Bose systems.
Who is it not for? For now, everyone else.
As I said, in addition to its confusing availability and pricing structure, the one thing Deezer has going against it right now is a new kid on the block that has stolen the high-fidelity thunder. TIDAL sort of came out of nowhere at the end of October of this year, and as far as I know it made its hardware debut on Bluesound, but it has since expanded to Autonomic Mirage Media Servers, Sonos, LINN streaming systems, and more, as well as pretty much any mobile platform you’re likely to be a fan of. And yes, it supports AirPlay.
What makes TIDAL special is its reliance on the FLAC audio file format to deliver truly CD-quality (losslessly compressed) audio, combined with its sizable library of complete albums, its curated playlists, and its textual and video bonus goodies. Compared to Spotify, its app is a dream. And although there are still kinks to be worked out, and features to be added, TIDAL feels surprisingly mature for such a new service.
How much does it cost? Here’s the kicker, though: TIDAL costs $19.99 per month, which is twice as much as you’ll pay for Spotify, and it’s debatable whether most listeners will hear a difference between Spotify’s 320kbps lossy compressed streams and TIDAL’s losslessly compressed FLAC streams. TIDAL also doesn’t offer any sort of free service, although you can sign up for a 7- or 14-day free trial, depending on how well you perform on the company’s High Fidelity Test.
Who is it for? Audiophiles, album junkies, and general music fans who don’t mind paying more for the best quality audio streams, as well as some truly nifty bonus content. Also, Taylor Swift fans.
Who is it not for? Those skeptical of the benefits of FLAC over higher bit-rate lossy formats, and folks who think $20 is too much to pay for a streaming music service.
Content courtesy of: Dennis Burger, Editor in Chief, HDLiving.com