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What is Pandora? Music, features and pricing explained

When it comes to music-streaming services, would it surprise you to learn that there was a time when platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal didn’t even exist? Back in these prehistoric days, our melodically inclined ancestors were stuck with things called “radio,” “CDs,” and “vinyl,” the latter of which is actually doing really well at the moment. That is until services like iTunes and a mighty savior called Pandora arrived to transition mankind from its pit of musical starvation to a haven of harmonies.

Believe it or not, Pandora is still around today, and it’s still a pretty good way to enjoy your favorite tunes, albums, and podcasts. Whether this is the first time you’re hearing about the service, or you want a refresher on everything Pandora has to offer, we’ve put together this guide to address the platform’s most salient features.

The Discovery screen on the Pandora desktop app.
The Discovery screen on the Pandora desktop app. Michael Bizzaco / Digital Trends

What is Pandora?

Pandora is a music-streaming platform that gives you access to an immense library of albums, artists, playlists, and podcasts. With an emphasis on curation and recommendations, Pandora allows you to build “stations” that are algorithmically linked to the types of music you enjoy listening to. The more you listen, the more attuned to your preferences the stations get. 

You’ll also be able to use Pandora to create and share your own playlists and to download music for offline listening (mobile only).

How much is Pandora?

Pandora offers one free listening tier and two paid subscriptions. Under the free plan, you’ll be able to enjoy a number of Pandora’s features but with the occasional interruption of ads for both desktop and mobile streaming apps. You also won’t be able to make or share any playlists or download any tracks for offline listening. 

Upgrading to Pandora Plus for $5 per month (or $55 annually) shoves advertisements completely out of the picture. You’ll also be able to skip as many tracks as you want, and you’ll also gain access to offline downloads. 

Unfortunately, if you’re all about those playlists, you’ll probably want to sign up for Pandora’s highest-priced plan, Pandora Premium for $10 per month (or $110 annually). On the highest shelf, you’ll get all the same benefits as the Plus tier, along with the ability to make and share playlists. Premium is also offered at a discounted rate for families, students, and those in the military. For $15 per month, the Family plan grants Premium benefits to up to six members of your family, along with a unique playlist feature called Our Soundtrack that builds a mini-song library based on your own musical tastes, plus that of your kin. 

The Student plan adds a 50% discount to a Premium subscription, and the Military plan brings the price down to $8 per month from $10. Oh, and when you sign up for Pandora Plus or Premium, both plans are free for the first 30 days. 

How do you use Pandora?

We took the Pandora streaming service for a test drive using the macOS desktop app on a MacBook Pro, and with the iOS app on an iPhone 12. We signed up for a Pandora Premium account on Pandora’s site. 

When you first launch the desktop app, you’ll be on a page called My Collection. Use the search bar in the middle to search for a song, artist, album, or podcast. While you’ll be able to listen to any song or album that you’d like (under Plus and Premium plans), Pandora’s algorithmic recommendations for your personalized station get better the more you use the platform. So if you want to find new music that sounds similar to the polka artists you love, make sure to give a thumbs up to the new and classic tracks you hear that you think sound good.

That being said, let’s break down the many parts of Pandora’s desktop and mobile apps, as well as its browser-based player.

The Now Playing screen on the Pandora desktop app.
The Now Playing screen on the Pandora desktop app. Michael Bizzaco / Digital Trends

At the top of the desktop app, you’ll see three main tabs: Now Playing, My Collection, and Browse. Under the Now Playing tab (pictured above), Pandora will play music tailored to your tastes and based on tracks and artists you’ve already listened to on the platform. You should see a list of “stations” in a section called Tune Your Station. These act like filters for the types of music Pandora will curate for you, with options like Discover being particularly good for finding new tunes. The Crowd Faves station is basically a top-hits playlist for the different genres you’re listening to. On any station, you’ll also be able to scroll down to find lyrics for whatever track is currently playing, as well as Pandora’s recommendations for similar-sounding artists.

The My Collection screen on the Pandora desktop app.
The My Collection screen on the Pandora desktop app. Michael Bizzaco / Digital Trends

The My Collection tab (pictured above) is home to all of the music you’ve “collected” through Pandora, which is broken down into artists, albums, songs, stations, playlists, podcasts, and podcast episodes. There’s also a Recently Played section at the top and a Recommended Stations for You section at the bottom of the page. When you select the Playlist option, you’ll be able to see what playlists you’ve collected, as well as create your own.

Under the Browse tab, Pandora breaks down its entire library into multiple sub-sections, with New Music featured at the very top. Scroll down to find the other categories, which are Trendsetters: Artists on the Rise, Top Artists, Moods and Activities (which are broken up into smaller groupings like Happy and Back to School), and Top Stations. If you find an artist, album, or playlist you like, you can hover over its thumbnail and click Play. You can also click the More icon (three dots) to add or remove the music from your Collection, and to share the station with others. 

When you select an artist, you’ll be taken to the artist’s Pandora page. From here, you’ll be able to play the Pandora station linked to that artist, play the artist’s top songs, and share the page with others. The rest of the dashboard is taken up by categories like Latest Release, Top Songs, Top Albums, an About section, and a Fans Also Like tier for finding similar artists (we found it amusing that The Beatles’ Fans Also Like featured every band member’s solo works, except Ringo). 

An artist page on the Pandora desktop app.
The Beatles’ artist page on the Pandora desktop app. Michael Bizzaco / Digital Trends

The Pandora desktop app’s UI isn’t great when compared to the super-clean layout and organization of Apple Music and Spotify, and feels a bit clunky and outdated. Also, when we wrote this guide, the search bar function wasn’t working on either the desktop or mobile apps, nor on Pandora’s browser-based player.

As for the iOS layout, it could also be more intuitive. Four main tabs are listed at the bottom of the home screen: For You, My Collection, Search, and Profile. The For You page isn’t really curated to your tastes; it’s just a big list of Pandora’s top artists, stations, and playlists, with a few artist and playlist recommendations thrown in for good measure. My Collection carries over most of the desktop app’s My Collection features but optimizes the controls for display on a phone or tablet. 

Different screens for the iOS Pandora app.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Search function is self-explanatory (when it works) and Profile lets you track how many thumbs-ups you’ve given, how many playlists you have, how many followers you have, and who you’re following. You can also tap the gear icon in the top-right corner to access the settings menu, where you’ll be able to link the app to Alexa or an Apple HomePod, adjust notifications, adjust audio quality (more on this below), and more. 

We used Pandora’s browser-based player on Safari. It’s essentially the same exact layout as the desktop app, but slower (the Browser tab didn’t even load for us). 

What is Pandora’s audio quality like?

Decent, friends. Let’s get one thing squared away though: Thou shall not use Pandora for Hi-Res Audio playback, for said platform doesn’t host anything lossless. If you’re the kind of listener who cares about peak audio performance, services like Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music, and Qobuz may be a better fit.

This isn’t to say that Pandora’s sound quality is terrible. For the average speaker streamer or headphone wearer, Pandora’s AAC+ and MP3-powered performance will be just fine; although you’ll be capped at certain bit rates depending on what plan you’re subscribed to. 

For free listeners, the quality is 64Kbps AAC+ with no adjustments. Pandora Plus and Premium subscribers can choose between Low (32Kbps AAC+), Standard (64Kbps AAC+), and High (192Kbps MP3) settings for streams. 

How do you download music from Pandora?

Offline listening is available for all paid Pandora subscriptions, but can only be accessed through the iOS and Android app. This isn’t great, because competitors like Qobuz allow you to download the tracks directly to your PC, which you can then upload to any device you want (as long as that device is compatible).

To download a track on Pandora, all you have to do is tap the name of the song or album you want to grab, then tap the More icon on the next screen. Tap Download and the process is complete (a green arrow emblem will appear next to the downloaded content). Now when all the world’s cellular data is devoured by an apocalyptic black hole, you’ll still be able to listen to Mambo No. 5, just as long as your phone is charged. 

How can you listen to Pandora?

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max remote on a couch arm.

Pandora is available as a desktop app for Windows and macOS, and as a mobile app for iOS and Android devices. You’ll also be able to download the Pandora app for Fire OS devices (like the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max) and for the Google TV OS, which can be found on a number of Sony, Hisense, and TCL TVs, as well as the Chromecast with Google TV (4K) and Chrome with Google TV (HD) streaming devices.

What is Pandora missing?

As mentioned, if you’re looking for a music-streaming platform that puts a big emphasis on Hi-Res Audio, Pandora isn’t the way to go. With streams topping out at 192Kbps in MP3 format, pretty much any other platform is going to give you better audio quality. And if you’re looking to get into Hi-Res FLAC territory, you should definitely opt for something like Qobuz or Tidal.

Video content is becoming a bit more prevalent on music streamers today, but Pandora is one of a few platforms that has yet to offer any such media. You will have access to song lyrics and Pandora-authored write-ups on certain albums and artists. And if you want to upload your offline downloads to any compatible device, unfortunately, Pandora only allows downloads directly to your mobile device. 

Above all though, Pandora’s most major miss is its user interface for every version of the app and for the browser-based player. A little fine-tuning would go a long way, and while the platform isn’t impossible to navigate, the overall layout could do with some cleanup and organization. They should also fix that search bar.

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Michael Bizzaco
Michael Bizzaco has been writing about and working with consumer tech for well over a decade, writing about everything from…
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