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Who picks the best songs? We test Pandora, Spotify, Beats Music, Rdio, and iTunes Radio

When Internet radio burst on the scene in the mid-2000s, it changed the way people all over the globe consumed their music. The days of fumbling around with a giant book of CD sleeves and a Discman were over; this new era consisted of simply tuning into Internet radio and accessing vast libraries of music on the Web. Much to the chagrin of several famous musicians, physical album sales were going the way of the dodo, while piracy and digital album sales began to see a dramatic uptick in popularity. As one might expect, it wasn’t long before a handful of Internet radio options became available for use, each offering its own unique set of features and content.

Related: Our favorite, free services for streaming your tunes

Pandora kicked off the Internet radio craze in 2000 and offered users access to artist-specific stations, while touting an advanced algorithm which promised “to play only music you’ll love.” This single thought spawned a host of music streaming services who set out to bring its listeners the best radio playlists for any genre, mood, or event. However, the industry Pandora pioneered now finds itself saturated with a bevy of music streaming services, but which one deserves your audible attention?

For all intents and purposes, there is certainly a “Big Five” when it comes to the best music streaming services currently available. These five consist of Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio, Rdio, and Beats Music. The table below helps give an idea of each service’s technical specifications:

Songs Mobile Free Version Subscription Cost
Pandora 1 million Android, iOS, WP, BB Yes $4.99/month
Spotify over 20 million Android, iOS, WP, BB Yes $9.99/month
iTunes Radio 27 million iOS Yes $24.99/year
Rdio 25 million Android, iOS, WP, BB Yes $9.99/month
Beats Music 20 million Android, iOS, WP No $9.99/month

Right off the bat it’s easy to see Pandora features the thinnest library of songs, yet it’s widely considered the seasoned veteran of Internet radio and maintains massive popularity. It seems nonsensical to strictly compare a service’s music library, or perceived popularity, as reasons for being the best or worst in class. Rather, we’ve decided to stray from comparing the statistics and specifications, and go hands-on with each of the “Big Five” to pit them against one another in our ultimate music streaming showdown. By the end we’ll crown the best music streaming client available — and the one worthy of playing your daily soundtrack.

The showdown

Though each streaming service aims to do something the others don’t, they all have a great deal in common. We’ll take a look at each client’s fortes — as well as their lows — to give you an idea of which fits you best. The most noteworthy feature of each streaming service arguably comes down to how well it allows for music discovery, while continuing to give you the enjoyable music you crave. Each of the “Big Five” employ their own version of a radio — only radio in terms of Pandora — granting users a limited amount of control over their selection. Most services simply let you thumbs up, thumbs down, or skip a song to tweak each station to your specific liking. Nonetheless, you’re always at the whim of the radio’s algorithm (no matter what you do). To get the best idea of these algorithms, we’ll ride one band through each program and take note of the musical selection it offers.

The band: To make things easy on my ears over the next few days, I’ve decided to choose 30-year-old Gary Clark Jr. as the experimental artist. Aside from providing something I enjoy listening to, his bluesy style should present a wide selection of both classic and modern music, from the likes of Eric Clapton to the Black Keys.

The songs: I’ll amass 20 songs from each streaming service’s radio, doling out the proper thumbs up and thumbs down as usual. I’ll record each track, my likes and dislikes, as well as how much new music the station offers throughout the session.

Let’s get streaming.

Choose your contender:

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