Best Music Streaming Services Roundup

Paul Lilly

We audition several streaming music services and give you the low down on each one

A candidate for the world's oldest known instrument is the Divje Babe Flute carved from the femur of a cave bear over 40,000 years ago. Replicas proved it was capable of two and a half octaves, or three if overblowing. Over time, musical instruments would become more sophisticated, as would the songs, but one thing that hasn't changed is the inherent love of music that nearly all human beings seem to possess.

Things are a little different today. Rather than rocking out in caves to the sounds put out by animal bones, most of us pull our songs from the Internet. Even listening to CDs is fast becoming a prehistoric practice. Music streaming services abound, and thanks to constant connections from smartphones, tablets, and dedicated media players, symphonies and songs are now nearly always within reach.

Not all music streaming services are created equal, however, and while a paid subscription to each one would offer the best of all worlds, most people would find such a solution both cost prohibitive and unwieldy. Your best bet is to figure out which streaming service is best for your particular needs, and then pony up a subscription to enjoy all the benefits it has to offer. The question is, which one should you choose?

We're here to help answer that. While we'd like to feign it was hard work test driving the various streaming services, the truth is, we loved every moment of it. We also learned a lot about each one and are eager to share that knowledge so you can make an informed decision. Are you ready? Let's get started!

Pandora

Pandora 's a bit of an old fogey in the streaming music game. The service planted its roots way back in 2000 -- a year before Windows XP launched, in case a bit of perspective is needed. That's when it began work on the Music Genome Project , a technology that analyzes hundreds of aspects of each song in an attempt to learn a listener's preferences and be able to predict what other songs the listener might like.

In 2005, Pandora Radio launched, and by April 2013, the service announced it had leapfrogged 200 million users and 70 million active monthly listeners. In terms of users, it's the most popular streaming music service around, which is partially a benefit of being the oldest among the group.

Unlike the other options in this roundup, Pandora is strictly a discovery service, meaning you can't look up specific songs like an on-demand service. You can, however, create radio stations based on specific songs, artists, or genre, and Pandora will do its best to serve up songs that fit your station. Over time, stations become better tailored to your preferences as you give songs thumbs up and thumbs down, the latter of which ensures you'll never hear a particular tune again.

Pandora is free to use (ad-supported) with up to 6 skips per hour and no more than 12 skips per day across all stations. A Pandora One account runs $3.99/month, or you can shell out $36 for an annual subscription. Doing so removes all external advertising, allows access to the Pandora One desktop app (functions independently of a browser window), increases the music quality to 192kbps, offers custom skins, and removes the daily skip limit, though you're still restricted to 6 skips per hour, per station.

Another benefit to Pandora's tenure is that its developers have had plenty of time to expand the service to different mobile platforms. Pandora is available on Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry, and also comes pre-installed in several vehicles as well as stereo and navigation units.

Unfortunately, Pandora's catalog is surprisingly thin for being the oldest streaming service around. It has less than 1 million songs and is especially limited if you're into indie music or otherwise obscure songs. In addition, Pandora recently set a restriction of 40 hours of music per month for free users, citing rising royalty rates as the reason why.

Final Word: Pandora's great for discovering new types of music and songs you may not have considered, but ultimately limited in depth and functionality.

Spotify

Whereas Pandora is all about discovering new music by using an advanced algorithm to analyze your listening preferences, Spotify is an on-demand service that allows you to look up specific songs from a robust catalog of around 20 million tracks, likely the most of any on-demand music service (not all streaming services are forthcoming with how many songs are available).

Spotify has only been available in the U.S. since 2011 (it launched in Sweden in 2008), but it took the market by storm when it debuted with an expansive catalog and various membership tiers. Today you have three options. The first is Spotify Free, an ad-supported version of Spotify in which you can listen to unlimited music in the U.S. on your desktop or laptop through a desktop app or Spotify's new web player (Spotify places a 10 hour monthly limit in some other countries).

The second option is Spotify Unlimited. It runs $4.99/month and offers the same service, but without ads of any kind. What you can't do is listen to music on your mobile devices via the Spotify app, nor can you can download music for offline listening. Those two features are only available on the third tier, Spotify Premium, which runs $9.99/month.

Spotify's music quality is higher than Pandora if you have the bandwidth to support higher bitrates. You can set playback to Low (96kb/s), High (160kb/s), and Extreme (320kb/s), just be careful to balance music quality with data fees if you're concerned about hitting your wireless carrier's data cap.

One of the few weak points is Spotify's interface. Navigating the web and desktop app can be a bit cumbersome, though the mobile app is much more intuitive. We also don't like that Spotify is so strict about multiple logins. If one of your kids or spouse tries to log into Spotify while you're already using it, one of you is likely to get the boot.

Final Word: Spotify offers the most music and features, and sounds great to boot. However, there's room for improvement by allowing multiple users and cleaning up the desktop interface.

Slacker Radio

If it's been a long time since you last looked at Slacker Radio , you owe it to yourself to give it another glance. Facing stiff competition from what has become a crowded market, Slacker Radio reinvented itself earlier this year with a new look and simplified interface that's similar in style to Microsoft's Metro UI. That's an apples to oranges comparison, but large fonts and tiles abound in Slacker Radio on the web, all of which appear underneath a persistent search bar at the top.

Like Spotify, the free version of Slacker Radio is ad-supported, and you can expect lots of them. However, freeloaders don't enjoy on-demand access. It's essentially an Internet radio service with certain restrictions, such as only being able to view partial song lyrics. You're also limited to six song skips per hour, per station.

Subscribing to Slacker Radio Plus runs $3.99/month and does away with all commercials. You're also allotted unlimited song skips, as well as the ability to customize and download your favorite stations for offline listening. Even better is the Slacker Premium plan for $9.99/month. It offers the same features, plus on-demand access to tunes. Simply search for a desired song and listen to it right away rather than wait for a custom radio station to get around to playing it.

Slacker Radio's curated radio stations are awesome with personalized picks from experts who live and breathe music. You'll find the usual suspects, like today's pop hits, but also a range of off-the-wall stations, such as "50 Most Embarrassing Facebook Songs," "55 Songs You Think Suck But Don't," "Twitter Top 50," and plenty of others. Slacker Radio also serves up sports via ESPN and various ABC News stations.

As an Internet radio service, Slacker Radio has the edge against all other competitors, and it has all the major mobile platforms covered. However, its music catalog sits at 13 million songs, which limits its appeal as an on-demand service when there are competitors wielding bigger libraries.

Final Word: Slacker Radio is a superior version of Pandora, but falls a little short of Spotify.

Google Play Music All Access

Google wins the award for the streaming music service with the longest, most ridiculous title. Calling it Gmusic (gMusic?) would have been easier on the tongue, but luckily for Google, this has no bearing on our evaluation.  We're more interested in what this online giant can bring to the party that others can't or don't, and one of those things is a sizable music locker. Whether you opt for a free or paid account, Google offers to store up to 20,000 of your own songs from your computer in your locker.

Songs are uploaded via Google's Music Manager desktop application. To save time (and bandwidth), the Music Manager software will scan your iTunes library and/or any music folder on your PC and match your local collection with what's already available on Google Play. Any matches are instantly added to your locker. Songs that don't have a match are uploaded.

There's no need to sync devices since music is stored in a virtual locker. If you buy a new track or album on your Android smartphone, you can listen to it instantly on your tablet or PC, so long as you're connected to the Internet. Again, this is all available on the free (Standard) tier, which doesn't have any ads.

That's where the free ride ends, however, as you can't listen to radio stations or look up songs for on-demand access. Those features are available as part of the sole All Access subscription, which is free to try for 30 days and $9.99/month thereafter (early adopters are grandfathered in at $7.99/month).

Google has licensing deals in place with all three major music labels (Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group) and advertises a catalog of over 18 million songs, a little shy of Spotify's 20 million catalog. Each song is available for on-demand listening, though you can also create personalized radio stations and listen to music with unlimited skips.

One of the nice things about Google's service is you can rearrange your music queue. Peeking at upcoming songs takes away the element of surprise, but adds a layer of customization unique to Google. You can also download songs for offline listening on mobile devices.

Overall, this is a good first effort from Google, but it's not fully baked. For instance, there's very little social integration - you can share an album on Google Plus but you can't see what your friends are jamming to. We're also disappointed that it's taking so long for Google to expand its mobile app outside of Android and into Windows Phone and iOS territories. Finally, it just feels a bit barebones compared to the other popular services. The interface is most minimalistic, which is perhaps a carryover from Google's design philosophy for Chrome, and the fun factor from having so many curated stations (including goofy ones) to choose from like Slacker Radio is missing here.

Final Word: Google Play Music All Access, despite tripping off the tongue like a razor blade, has the potential to be awesome, but not until Google fleshes it out.

Click the next page to see how iTunes Radio, Rdio, and other music streaming services stack up.

iTunes Radio

The success of other streaming services didn't go unnoticed by Apple, and with its iTunes being wildly popular, why not leverage that brand recognition and vast catalog into an offering of its own? That's exactly what Apple recently did with the unveiling of iTunes Radio .

Within a matter of days, iTunes Radio racked up 11 million listeners, and now a month later, that number has nearly doubled to 20 million users and 1 billion song plays. That's right on par with Spotify's user base, though still far less than Pandora's nearly 73 million active users.

Where iTunes Radio has an advantage over Pandora as an Internet radio service is a library of songs that's 27 million tracks deep, with thousands more added each week, including exclusives. It's not a match for on-demand services like Spotify or Google Play All Music Access, but if it's DJ-curated stations you're after, you'll find 250 of them on iTunes Radio, plus you can create your own stations.

Another advantage of iTunes Radio over Pandora is you might hear a song before it's officially released. Like Pandora, iTunes Radio is free with ads, or you can purchase an iTunes Match subscription for $25 per year for an ad-free experience. With iTunes Match, you can also store up to 25,000 of your songs in the iCloud -- Apple's version of a virtual storage locker -- or more if you purchase music from iTunes, as those tracks don't count against your limit.

So, what's not to like about iTunes Radio? Well, it's served up through iTunes. On mobile, it's only available on iOS devices, and there's been no indication that will ever change. Finally, Pandora's advanced algorithm seems to do a better job than iTunes Radio in predicting songs we're apt to like.

Final Word: iTunes Radio is easy to navigate and has a ton of songs, but doesn't offer on-demand access or support for anything other than iTunes (on PC) and iOS.

Rdio

Having trouble deciding which music service is best suited for you and whether or not you want to pay for a subscription? Rdio doesn't rush you into making a decision, and instead gives you unfettered on-demand access to over 20 million songs for six months at no cost. All you have to do is register an account, sign in, and select five accounts to "Follow," options of which include Billboard, Blues Rock Review, Rolling Stone, CeeLo Green, and many more. After you've selected a quintuplet, you're ready to start browsing songs, playing albums, or listening to radio stations.

After your six months are up, you no longer have on-demand access to songs, though you can still listen to stations for free. To keep the on-demand party going, however, you can subscribe to Web for $4.99/month and fire up specific tracks on any browser or desktop, or opt for the Unlimited plan at $9.99/month and extend listening capabilities to mobile, Roku, and Sonos. If you subscribed to the Unlimited plan, you can add family members at a 50-percent discount for additional account, which is a great option.

Rdio's interface is rather sparse and at the same time dead simple to navigate. Linked options appear in a column on the left and include things like Heavy Rotation (trending albums), Recent Activity, Top Charts, New Releases, and more. That's also where your custom playlists will appear.

Media controls appear at the bottom when a song is playing, and if you click the little album icon in the lower right corner, it expands in your browser to show a list of the album's songs. A "plus" icon appears next to each one (and on albums). Clicking it brings up several options, allowing you to add a song to your collection, sync to mobile, play later, add to playlist, download, or share on Facebook or Twitter.

Rdio has chosen not to share exact bitrates, a decision it justifies by saying "we experiment with different rates and encoding formats in an effort to provide the best possible listening and user-experience." Rather than experiment on our behalf, we'd prefer if Rdio let us choose a bitrate like some of the other services do.

Rumor has it, radio giant Cumulus Media is getting ready to back Rdio, and it's expected there will be a free, ad-supported tier available by the end of the year. If and when that happens, Rdio could become more popular than Spotify. As it stands, these two services are very close to one another in terms of overall appeal, with Spotify earning a narrow victory by offering on-demand access for free with ads.

Final Word: Rdio is an awesome alternative to Spotify, and if the Cumulus partnership comes to fruition, it could become our new favorite.

iHeartRadio

True to its name, iHeartRadio is for people who love listening to the radio. It offers access to 1,500 live radio stations across the country, so if you recently relocated and miss the radio stations you used to listen to, iHeartRadio will reunite you, making the transition that much easier.

You're not limited to live radio, however. You can create your own custom stations based on a catalog of over 15 million songs and 400,000 artists. That's not even the best part -- you get this functionality for free, and without commercials! That's right, iHeartRadio turns the streaming music game on its head by offering an uninterrupted music listening experience for free.

Like most other similar services, you can upvote or downvote a song so that a station adapts to your music listening preferences. You'll find the thumbs up and thumbs down icon in the upper right-hand corner, along with an icon to bring up a song's lyrics, and a shopping cart button to purchase a track from either iTunes or Amazon.

There are a handful of preset playlists for a range of different moods and activities. These include Studying, Family Time, Happy Hour, Recharging, Kids, and A Fall Day. Clicking any of these brings up a selection of stations, such as Country Drinking Songs being a branch of Happy Hour.

That's iHeartRadio in a nutshell. Everything is free -- there are no paid tiers to subscribe to -- and it's all accessible online, on mobile devices, in your car (via certain makes/models and dash units), and on connected devices such as Xbox and Google TV.

Some limitations exist in iHeartRadio. Skips max out at 15 total per day, and six per hour per station. You can't rewind or fast forward a song, and once you give a track a thumbs up or thumbs down, it's a permanent vote. That final bit is a lot of pressure to put on a person, and it really sucks if you accidentally click one or the other.

Final Word: The definitive service for radio listening diehards, though it's not without some annoying limitations.

Rhapsody

It's important to make a good first impression, and unfortunately for Rhapsody , the lack of a free tier left us feeling sour from the outset. To add insult to injury, you're forced to fork over credit card (or PayPal) details before you can test drive Rhapsody. In Rhapsody's favor, it does give you 30 days to examine the service before you're charged, but we still don't like having to give up financial information just to take a peek.

Regardless, we were willing to give Rhapsody a fair shake by signing up for its $9.99/plan (Rhapsody Premier), the less expensive of the two plans available. What you get in return is on-demand access to 18 million songs, ad-free music, and online and offline access. You're only allowed to download music to a single device on this plan. For $14.99/month (Rhapsody Premier Plus), Rhapsody ups the offline ante to three mobile devices. Otherwise, both plans are the same.

One feature parents may appreciate are basic parental controls, which allow you to restrict access to content marked as Explicit or Parental Advisory. To access them, you have to verify your personal details, including your credit card information.

High-quality streaming is limited to 192kbps. However, Rhapsody gives you an equalizer to play with on your mobile device. It's fairly sparse, but the limited controls do have a noticeable affect on playback, and we like that there's a bass boost option. Rhapsody also includes presets for Classical, Dance, Jazz, Pop, Rock, and Custom.

Rhapsody's mobile interface isn't great looking, though it's fairly easy to navigate. Downloading songs for offline access is especially easy.

We don't want to beat a dead horse, but the lack of a free tier is a disadvantage for Rhapsody. We're also bummed that the $9.99/tier limits syncing to only one device. If Rhapsody wants to compete with the likes of Spotify and Rdio, it has to up its game.

Final Word: Rhapsody has a deep catalog and makes downloading songs for offline access very easy, but there a few deal killers that prevent it from being a favorite.

And the Music Streaming Winner is...

It was a close race between Spotify and Rdio, but we give the slight edge to Spotify for offering a free, ad-supported option with on-demand access. Spotify's web interface could use a bit of tweaking, but overall, it's an awesome service with an extensive catalog of titles. To truly take advantage of the service, we recommend subscribing to Spotify Premium ($9.99/month) so that you can download songs to your mobile device for offline listening. This is great for those times when you're stuck without Internet access, such as camping trips or driving through dead-zones.

Switching gears, if you don't care about on-demand access and just want good radio for free, it's a toss up between iHeartRadio and iTunes Radio. Your best bet is to give them both a test drive and see which one you prefer.

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