Hands On: Rdio’s free app offers more control than Pandora or Spotify and is ad-free to boot

When Rdio launched its new streaming service for iOS and Android last week, we decided to go straight at it, Molly McHugh-style. For those who don’t hang on our crack editor of all things social media’s every article, that means we decided to put Rdio’s recommendation algorithm through its paces in the same way McHugh recently did with Spotify, Pandora, and Google Music. After all, the functionality and track libraries of any streaming radio app, be it one of those three services or Slacker, Last.fm, or any of the other gazillion versions currently available, are basically the same. The only salient questions are: How much does it cost, and how well can it identify music we want to hear?

Most of the selections were in line with what type of sound we were looking for…

The answer to the first question is simple. At free for an ad-free streaming radio service, you can’t beat Rdio on price (for the full-playlist monty, you still need to shell out $4.99 for the web app and $9.99 for the mobile one). As for the service’s ability to make us happy listeners, we’re not going to lie. After building two stations, each based on dramatically different kinds of music, we got so annoyed by Rdio’s seeming refusal to ever play the band each station was based on that we were ready to delete the thing and return to the warm embrace of our Spotify app. Then, in a furious flurry of punching the “skip” button in search of just one Pantera song on the Pantera station we discovered … the coolest function we’ve ever seen on a streaming radio app. 

Turns out, Rdio’s app has a killer app, and that’s a filter, which determines how frequently a radio station plays the initiating band or artist. Just tap a song that’s playing, or scroll down while on the song’s screen, and you’re given a five-point scale that starts at “artist only” and ends at “adventurous.” Each point will dramatically alter how that station serves up your music, and it kinda sorta does away with the apparent biases and blind spots we often encounter with other services.

So now we’re wondering why everyone else doesn’t have the same function. But in case that’s not enough to get you interested in Rdio, check out the rest of our hands on … 

Look and feel

If you’ve never used Rdio before, don’t worry – the interface is pretty standard and similar to other streaming music apps you may use. Tiled lists of albums, collapsible sidebar menus, and a minimalist playback control system – there’s nothing new or revolutionary here, just the controls you need. We dig it. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, and this sort of standardized layout makes it easy for new users to jump right in and start streaming. Presumably, this will make the transition easier for Spotify and Pandora converts. 

The tunes

Prior to discovering the aforementioned filter, each station we built was playing right in the middle of the scale, between “artist only” and “adventurous.” The playlists that were generated at this setting are still instructive to how Rdio’s algorithm thinks, so here’s a brief glimpse at how it handled our schizophrenic music listening habits. 

While writing this article, the weather outside our window was exactly what you’d expect from a Portland autumn, so we decided to throw on something that would combat the gloomy mood: the happy acoustic cali-reggae sounds of Slightly Stoopid. We tapped the name into Rdio’s search bar, clicked the autocomplete suggestion that popped up below, and the station instantly started up. Here’s what it played:

One Drop – One Night  Clear Conscience – She was from Cali
The Expendables – Bowl for Two Mike Pinto – When I Die
Rebelution – Feelin Alright The b Foundation – The Funeral Song
Easy Star All-Stars  Sublime – Superstar Punani
Bargain Music – Lifeless Wandering Keeping in Touch – Passafire
Matisyahu – Searchin’ Ballyhoo! – Outta My Mind
Pacific Dub – Lost in you Jah Roots – Don’t You See The Problem
Bedouin Soundclash – Gyasi The b Foundation – Looking High
Bargain Music – Dub Fucking Mad Mike Pinto – Get Me Down

Most of the selections were in line with what type of sound we were looking for – save for a few that veered too far in the direction of island reggae, and that one Matisyahu song that was all punchy and electronic. Sure, Matisyahu would normally be a welcome addition to this type of playlist, but stylistically speaking, “Searchin'” is nothing like what I was looking for, which makes us feel like the algorithm was giving us suggestions based solely on similar bands rather than instruments used, tempo, or mood. In all fairness though, that was only five songs in, and we’d only given a couple thumbs up by that point, so the app didn’t have very much feedback to run on.

Regardless, we got irritated with the Slightly Stoopid station, so we decided to switch things up and throw on some heavy metal. After discovering that Rdio doesn’t have any Tool songs, we were enraged. We needed even angrier music to match our mood, so we went with Pantera radio. Here’s what Rdio played:

Soil – Wide Open Slayer – Behind the Crooked Cross

Black Label Society – Jungle

Soil – Everything
Type O Negative – Summer Breeze Megadeath – Wake Up Dead
Zakk Wylde – Peddlers of Death Lamb of God – As the Palaces Burn
Roadrunner United – The Rich Man DevilDriver – Knee Deep 
Soulfly – Rise of the Fallen Prong – Intermenstrual, D.S.B.
Chimaira – Cleansation  Avenged Sevenfold – Turn the Other Way

Life of Agony – Method of Groove

Body Count – Down the Bayou
Sepultura – Stronger Than Hate Hellyeah- WM Free
36 Crazyfists – When Distance is the Closest Great Depression – Soulfly

Getting 20 songs into the Pantera station without a single Pantera song is what got us so annoyed we were skipping songs so quickly that we discovered the filter, so that’s good. We’re still confused as to why, with the filter set to its default halfway between “artist only” and “adventurous,” we didn’t get any Pantera songs, and we suppose this is a knock against Rdio. But at this point we were just excited to tinker with the filter. 

We fired up a new station – Foo Fighters radio on the “artist only” setting – and sure enough it played nothing but Foo Fighters. It was pretty awesome to know that if we could listen to exclusively one artist if we wanted to; it means that with Rdio’s free service you can basically have “playlists” of your favorite artists set to random. But we were in a slightly more adventurous mood, so after a few tracks we switched it one notch closer to the “adventurous” side and got this:

Eve 6 – Inside Out Bush – Headful of Ghosts
Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name  Janes Addiction – Idiot’s Rule 
Foo Fighters – Best of You Foo Fighers – Friend of a Friend 
Smashing Pumpkins – 1979  Bush – Prizefighter 
Presidents of the United States of America – Peaches Soundgarden – My Wave 
Everclear – Santa Monica  Temple of The Dog – Hunger Strike 
Chris Cornell – You Know My Name  Foo Fighters – Halo 
SoundGarden – Black Hole Sun  Stone Temple Pilots – Tumble in the Rough 
Nirvana – Pennyroyal Tea  Exploder – Audioslave 
Smashing Pumpkins – Luna  Foo Fighters – The Pretender 

For the most part, we were pleased with Rdio’s choices on this round. There were a few songs we thumbed down, but the majority of them were exactly what we were looking for, and this time it actually played Foo Fighters relatively often. 

Final thoughts

Compared to the track-picking algorithms of personal radio titans like Spotify and Pandora, Rdio’s default settings definitely tend to lean toward the adventurous side. If you don’t tweak it, it’ll play a broad selection of music from similar artists and only a few tracks from your station’s namesake musician. This might be a major drawback in the eyes (or is it ears?) of some listeners, and definitely had us frustrated for a moment, but once we discovered the adjustable restrictiveness settings, we started to see it as more of an advantage. With this feature, Rdio can either be an eclectic music discovery engine or a single-artist playlist, and can be tweaked on the fly according to your preferences. This alone makes the app worthwhile, and the non-existent price tag and lack of ads only sweeten the deal. If you feel like switching things up and dipping your toes in a new Internet radio app, we highly recommend you give Rdio a try.

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