Comparing Streaming Services: a Guide to Spoitfy, Rdio, Turntable.fm, and Pandora 
Home Theater Feature Articles Audio Related Articles
Written by Michael Palmer   
Friday, 29 July 2011

It's been over a decade since Napster changed the music industry forever.  Or rather, since broadband Internet, faster computers, ever growing hard drive sizes, and new compression algorithms (like the mp3) allowed every day folks to share music around the world almost instantly.  In the years that followed, a little computer company called Apple -- maybe you've heard of it? -- became the world's largest music distributor, and there's an entire generation of new music lovers who have never purchased a physical copy of an album.  And with newer streaming services, some people may elect never to purchase music again; instead choosing to rent access to a library for a monthly fee.

Since Swedish streaming service, Spotify, recently debut here in the United States (after signing up over 10 million users in Europe), I thought it would be fun to do a quick refresher course about the how newest streaming services compare to the Pandora -- how much they cost, what they provide, and how well they do it?  Consider this a survey course rather than a look into everything that's available now.

PRICING AND SIGNING UP


Let's start with Spotify, a music streaming service offering both paid and unpaid versions.  All users have access to over 15 million music tracks via a desktop application resembling iTunes.  Search for any artist, album, or track you like and, save for the holdouts such as The Beatles or rare recordings, it will be ready to play.  You can build and arrange custom playlists and the Spotify software will even access your computer's digital music library (Windows Media Player OR iTunes) to allow you to run your collection alongside streaming Cloud Music.  The one thing to note is that not all tracks from every album are playable.  Some, for various legal and financial reasons, have been left out.

So, how do you get Spotify?  Two ways.  Either sign up for waiting list https://www.spotify.com/us/invitation/  (it took about a week for me) or be invited by someone you know. Spotify Free covers 20 hours of listening per month with advertisements sprinkled in for good measure.  Spotify Unlimited will run you $4.99/month for unlimited access to the available music without any commercials.  At $9.99/month, Spotify Premium jumps up to 320kbsp (versus 160kbps) and adds mobile connectivity, home streaming capabilities, and "Offline Mode", which allows you to cache a certain number of songs locally (or on the go) so you no longer need to have your Internet connect.

Spotify Desktop App

Next, we have Rdio, which I have not used personally, but looks quite similar to Spotify in terms of being able to search for specific tracks and play them in any order you wish.  Rdio offers a free 7 day trial, and has two price points.  $4.99/month buys you unlimited web access to all available tracks.  For $9.99, you add Unlimited Mobile Access as well as Sync to your Mobile Phone.  Rdio for iPhone works on all iPhone models OS 3 or newer.  Rdio for Android works for all Android devices running OS v.16.

Another newcomer hot-rodding its way around the social networks is Turntable.fm, which is currently only in Beta testing.  Meaning you'll again need another coveted invite from someone really cool, or as was my case, be friends with someone on Facebook who is already a member.  Then it's as easy as signing via your Facebook account.  Turntable.fm is an online social music listening environment.  Users go into various "rooms" which are divided up by genres, to hear "DJs" (aka, other users) play their favorite tunes.  You can also create your own room and spin tracks with up to four other DJs.  DJs are able to build up points by how many people like his or her musical choices (as judged by the Like or Dislike buttons which listeners can hit every time a new song plays).




In terms of musical selection, the general search functionality of turntable.fm seemed a bit limited (searching for an artist, say Nirvana, turned up only a handful of the band's biggest hits) when compared to the in-depth catalogs of Spotify or Rdio.  I may be mistaken about this, but I believe a many Turntable.fm users upload their own tracks (or at least it seemed that way, as I checked out a number of rooms focusing on musical mashups).  In terms of plans or pricing, at the time of this writing, there is no paid plan option or an app for smart phones or tablet devices.

Turntable.fm screen shot


Lastly, though there are clearly other options as well, we have Pandora.  What started in 2000 as the Music Genome Project has become ubiquitous with internet music streaming.  The idea, for those who may not know, is that users search for artists, songs, or albums to create a unique, personal music "station."  Using the musical details of each track (melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, genre, etc.), Pandora then selects similar artists and songs to your original choice.  Users can created up to 100 stations, mixing and matching them as necessary to create a random playlist of all your favorite types of music.  To help identify what you actually want to here, users are also able to Like or Dislike any song (Dislikes will be dropped from that station's playlist).  The only catch is that you can't actually choose a specific song to play (or repeat them).  The order is totally up to the computer, and much more like a radio experience than iTunes.

Pandora logoPandora is available in two versions.  Pandora is free for up to 40 hours of ad supported music per month.  Pandora One, at a cost of $36/year (which amortizes to $3/month), includes a desktop application, unlimited commercial free music streaming  at a higher bit rate, and the ability to "skip" more tracks.  Pandora One is currently available with a 24 hour free trial.  The best part about both versions of Pandora is the free app which allows AirPlay streaming to a dedicated listening environment (for those, like me, who do not have a computer hooked up to my best sound system).  Also, because Pandora was at the forefront of streaming music, it's already built-in to many modern network-capable electronics such as Blu-ray Disc players, smart phones and AV Receivers.

USER EXPERIENCE


Spotify and Rdio offer simple, familiar user experiences for anyone who has used Windows Media Player or iTunes.  The one thing that seems to be missing from Spotify is a musical genre browsing.  For each artist, you can browse "related artists", but I didn't see a way to check out "film scores" or "country" or "heavy metal" or "pop" (unless they happen to be part of an album titled after a genre, like a Divas of Jazz, etc.).  That's not to say it's difficult; one just has to have an idea what he or she is already wants.

Turntable.fm is a completely different experience.  Going to Turntable.fm to listen to others works quite easily -- look around for a particular genre and listen away with no ads or delays -- but you don't have a choice in what plays.  For that, you have to find an empty DJ spot and then wait your turn.  Definitely not a deal breaker, but not quite a simple as the other three services we're talking about here.  

Pandora is super easy to use as well, and does a lot of great legwork in terms of figuring out what you like or don't; again, the drawback here is that if you're in the mood to listen to that one favorite song, you'll have to wait and hope it eventually plays.

 

QUALITY

I was only able to stream Spotify and Turntable.fm to a couple different PCs, connected to some very simple 2.1 Boston Acoustic desktop speakers system as well as Apple's Earbuds.  In general, the free versions of these streaming services might not be good enough for purists and audiophiles -- you'll have to be your own judges on that -- but for my layman ears, even at louder volumes, Spotify and Turntable.fm sounded quite good.  I would estimate they were akin to a very clear connection to FM radio.

Turntable.fm Logo 

Pandora, via its free app, I've had the pleasure to stream to my living room system, a 7.1 Denon AVR running KEF iQ speakers.  Since I don't have Pandora One, I was at the lower bit rate for streaming, and again the music sounded quite good.  Nearly CD quality with very little signs of compression. Personally, I have not heard the higher resolution paid version.

CONCLUSION

The question, of course, is what are you looking for?  What do you need?  Each of these services provides something different.  Audiophiles and collectors might not need any of them, instead electing to create perfect playlists out of his or her personal collection.  But, if you're anything like me, you don't have every album for ever artist ever (even your favorites), and it's always fun to hear something new.  The question then, is do you already know what to look for, or do you need a little help?

The group experience -- the radio experience -- of Pandora and Turntable.fm, in very little time, have expanded my listening horizons to things I may not have previously considered.  Pandora is also fantastic for parties and, as I've noticed, restaurant and retail situations.  Pick a band or any custom channel, and away it goes with a near perfect playlist for hours on end.  I'm not sure exactly if Turntable.fm could be as useful; we'll have to see after its done Beta testing and when there's an app for that. 

Rdio logo


Spotify and Rdio were seemingly limitless in their respective music choices (to me; a more learned music lover is sure to find tons of missing tracks), which can be overwhelming.  Especially in the case of Spotify, which was missing genre browsing.  Then again, the like-artists threads can send you off in some surprising directions.  With Spotify, my favorite part was getting to hear live recordings or the one rare album I had never heard before, but it wasn't a place where I was able to learn more about music (without asking friends).

 
The real question for these services, should they remain legally and financially viable, is will they prevent people from owning music at all?  I personally like to buy certain albums so I can digitally encode them at a high bit rate, but for most stuff, FM radio esc is good enough for my ears.  Plus, I'm old and have old man Buying Things habits.  If I was a teenager today during the summer of 2011, and for the price of one iTunes album every month, I could have access to 15 Million songs any time I wanted…why would I ever buy music again?






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