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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.