Group Test: Music streaming services

Anthony Caruana
27 March, 2015
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Music streaming services, review, macworld australiaMusic streaming has many advantages over the traditional sources of music. An internet connection is all that’s needed to get access to huge collections of music on your Mac or iOS device. But should you choose iTunes Radio, Pandora, Rdio or Spotify as your music streaming service?

We have put four of the best music streaming services on the market to the test. Which one is right for you?

Spotify

Spotify is multiplatform. There are iOS apps as well an OS X version for when you’re at your desk. You can create a user account with Spotify or use your Facebook login, so there’s no need to remember another username and password.

If you choose the Facebook login option, it’s worth noting that Spotify will ask to post on your timeline.

Music streaming services are judged by the variety of music they deliver. On that score Spotify delivers. We listened to a wide variety of different music from artists we know, as well as being exposed to musicians we hadn’t heard of before.

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The genre listing in Spotify is interesting. As well as the usual choices based on musical styles such as classical, rock and R&B, there are also activity-related genres. For example, if you like to listen to some peaceful tunes before sleeping, there’s a ‘Sleep’ genre that is further divided into sub-genres such as rainforest sounds, acoustic and lullabies for the kids.

One thing we did notice was that even though songs with explicit lyrics were clearly labelled, there was no way to have these excluded from what was available.

Spotify is free but ad-supported. That means you’ll hear the occasional ad while listening. You can pay for a subscription that removes commercial interruptions and gives you the ability to download tracks and playlists for offline use.

Bottom line.

Spotify is to streaming music what Xerox was to photocopiers and Hoover was to vacuum cleaners. Spotify’s service, delivering music wherever and whenever you want.

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iTunes Radio

Apple’s approach is different to that of the main players in streaming music. Rather than provide an easy-to-browse listing of different genres, artists and other ways of categorising music, iTunes Radio works with ‘Stations’. These can be based on specific artists, genres or keywords. For example, searching for AC/DC delivered us ‘Back in Black Radio’.

If you just want to start listening, Apple provides a number of featured stations covering songs that are charting now, as well as the current iTunes Top 50, lists of new artists and other interesting compilations.

Although this approach is very Apple-like, it lacks something we really like about the streaming services we looked at – being exposed to artists and music we wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

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However, while listening to a song, there is a star button that lets you tag a song. The button lets you choose to play more songs like the one you’re listening to, never play the song again or put it on your iTunes Wish List.

Unlike other services that only rely on advertising or subscriptions to raise revenue, Apple also sees the songs as ads themselves. While you’re listening, the price of the song is displayed, so you’re just a tap or two away from buying the song and adding it permanently to your library.

Bottom line.

iTunes Radio is accessible free of charge directly from the Music app on your iOS devices or from iTunes on your computer, but it lacks the ability to listen to whole albums.

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Pandora

Like Apple’s iTunes Radio, Pandora works by allowing you to search for music based on artists, genres or composers. It then creates a custom radio station based on that search, which you refine by giving the songs that play either a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

Unlike Spotify, which allows you to listen to complete albums, Pandora is all about creating a digital radio station customised to your specific tastes.

As with all legal streaming audio services, you’ll only be able to access music that has been licensed to Pandora. That said, Pandora delivered music from every artist we searched for and then created a station based on that artist’s style.

Pandora doesn’t clutter its browser or iOS app screens with lots of recommendations. However, once you’ve searched for a few different artists and given the app some guidance on which songs you’ve liked, it will suggest different stations based on your listening history.

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Listening to music is very much a social activity these days, so it’s no surprise that Pandora lets you share what you’re listening to with friends on Facebook. You can use your Facebook credentials to log in or create a separate login. The iOS app also allows you to use Pandora as an alarm clock, so it can play your preferred morning music when you’re meant to wake up.

Pandora is advertising supported unless you pay for a subscription. The ads play every few songs and are also displayed on-screen in the iOS app. If you’re listening through the web browser, you can buy complete CDs from Amazon using provided links. We found that there were no ads when we connected Pandora to our Sonos set-up.

Bottom line.

Pandora provided all the music we searched for and can be used as an alarm clock, but the ads in the free version can be annoying.

Pandora-results-music-streaming

Rdio

Rdio pulls together many of the features we most like about streaming music. It has a broad range of music available, catering to most musical tastes. The browser and app interfaces are uncluttered and easy to use, and we weren’t bombarded with lots of ads that interrupted the music. If you have a Sonos streaming system in your home, you can use Rdio with it, although you need to upgrade to an Rdio Unlimited account.

The iOS app works well and integrates with the browser- based system. If you’re playing a song while working at your computer and want to continue listening on your iPhone or iPad when you leave the office, you can continue playing your album or playlist with a tap of the screen. When we started a song on the app, it was also controllable from the browser.

One thing we found frustrating was Rdio’s search function. If we entered a word like ‘classical’, it returned a list of songs, albums and artists with the word classical in their name.

We did like the slider when we listened to a station based on a genre. While listening to the Punk station, we could choose whether to focus on popular songs or be more adventurous. Shifting the slider on the iOS app, while we were listening on our Mac automatically updated the station’s playlist.

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Like most other streaming music services, Rdio integrates with Facebook. You can use your Facebook account to log in to Rdio. But you can choose to not have Rdio update your Facebook status, so your friends don’t tease you over your musical tastes.

The free version of Rdio is ad-supported with Rdio Unlimited being ad-free.

Bottom line.

Rdio is easy to use and you can pick up where you left off when switching devices, but the search can be frustrating.

Rdio-results-music-streaming

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