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When Pandora started, you could listen to it for as long as you wanted without interruption. At a certain point they started running ads after every few songs. Of course, the RIAA and terrestrial radio stations flipped out about online streaming, and started targeting sites that were popular. The result is that Pandora now only allows 40 hours of free streaming per month. After that, you can pay $1 to listen for as long as you want for the rest of the month. Alternately, you can purchase a membership to Pandora’s premium service, which offers unlimited listening and higher sound quality, as well as more skips. Still, even with all this, Pandora feels woefully outdated in comparison to some of its competitors.
Last.fm is a successor to Pandora, with a similar radio-style stream. You choose the artist, they play songs by that artist and similar musicians as well. Last.fm goes further into making the experience social. It keeps track of and publishes the songs you’ve recently listened to show to the people on your friends list. They’ve got a program called the Scrobbler that will also publish the songs you listen to on your computer so you can keep everyone as up to date as possible. The more song selections you put into the Scrobbler, the more personalized the recommendations you get. You can also connect Last.fm to your Twitter account, or download the app for the iPhone or Android phones, and even connect to your Xbox 360. However, Last.fm has the same basic problem as Pandora: You can’t choose exactly which songs you’re listening to at any given time. Last.fm does offer 30 second clips of individual songs, which is more than Pandora.
MOG.com is a more recent startup. The site also has a social atmosphere, prompting users to create profiles filled with widgets to provide info to each other. The site pushes known musicians to participate, creating profiles, making recommendations, and even playlists. At first, MOG was just a music news/reviews site and community, but they have also added a streaming music service. Unlike the more established streaming players, MOG offers a whole lot more options, but for a price ($5 a month, same as Napster). With MOG, you can in fact choose the songs you want to hear. Not just songs, but whole albums. The music player does pop out from the parent site, so you can control the music while you surf other sites.
The player has a slider that allows you to choose if you want to listen solely to the artist you’ve chosen, only artists
similar to the one you’ve chosen, or varying degrees of a mix. You can search for more music directly from the player, and the sound quality is excellent. For $5, it’s a good value. The only roadblocks are that the site itself isn’t always intuitive. It wants to do a lot but doesn’t make it easy for the user to do it in every case. More importantly, while the site offers a lot of independent music, its mainstream selections can sometimes be limited. In order to get it all, one would have to hold a membership to both Napster and MOG and switch between the two sites. If your tastes run more to the mainstream, then Napster would be the site for you. If you like to go off the beaten track, give MOG a try.
Of all the sites listed above, none offers music at higher than 256 kb/s (and in the case of Pandora and Last.fm, significantly lower). A lot of people consider the sound quality on these sites to be too low. MP3 is the most common file type for music, but it’s not the only one. The convenience of the MP3 file format is that it compresses the sound file while still giving an accurate reproduction of the sound. However, when making an MP3, detail is lost. A wholly uncompressed sound file is a WAV file. It contains all the data from the original audio, but it is many times larger than an MP3. For those who wish to hear all the detail but don’t want to deal with files as large as WAV, there is another option: FLAC. FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec, and it compresses the file without removing any data.
The benefit is obvious: You get to hear your music in the highest possible quality without sacrificing all your space. However, there are also some downsides. While FLAC is smaller than WAV, it’s still larger than MP3. In addition, the format is far less supported than MP3, and thus isn’t nearly as user friendly. However, for those who have braved the wilderness of alternate audio codecs, there aren’t many sites available for purchasing DRM-free FLAC versions of songs and albums. HDTracks is one of them, and the site is representative of why FLAC isn’t widely used by the mainstream music downloading public.
HDTracks offers high quality and lossless downloads, but their selection is severely curtailed versus iTunes or Amazon. If you like classical music and modern jazz, then HDTracks will satisfy your needs. If, however, you like to listen to rock, pop, soul, R&B, hip-hop, rap, and other well known genres, you’re not going to find a ton to whet your appetite. And even if you do find something you’ll like, you’ll balk at the prices, which are routinely higher than iTunes or Amazon. And this isn’t even taking into account the fact that most people who use FLAC regularly aren’t squeamish about getting their music online for free.
There are plenty of online services for downloading or streaming music, with new ones popping up every day. Which one you like depends upon what your needs are. For standalone purposes, I use Amazon, both for their daily deals and the fact that they were DRM-free and high bitrate from the start. In terms of monthly services, I was surprised to discover that the most full-featured and cost-effective site was actually Napster. However, those who are constantly on the go may favor Pandora or Last.fm for their mobile capabilities. Whatever it is you want from your music, there are plenty of sites to choose from.