Echo Nest: The secret weapon behind the new Spotify Radio

Spotify Radio

Last week, Spotify rolled out the beta version of its newly revamped Spotify Radio app, which takes direct aim at Pandora Radio. And today, the new Spotify Radio officially rolls out to all users. While many — including yours truly — focused on Spotify’s unlimited skips and unlimited stations features as the primary trump cards over Pandora, which limits free users to 12 skips per day, and 100 stations, we’ve now learned that Spotify Radio has a secret weapon.

It’s called Echo Nest, an algorithm-based music recommendation engine used to deliver each new track on your Spotify Radio playlist. And it could very well be Pandora’s worst nightmare.

Man vs. Machine

Like the much-talked-about Music Genome Project that powers Pandora, Echo Nest uses deep song analysis to pick which song to play next. Here’s where the two engines differ: Pandora has skilled musicians — actual people, not computers — who go through each and every song to catalog more than 400 specific musical traits. Those details, along with user input (i.e. thumbs up or thumbs down) are then used to determine which song plays next for each individual user. Echo Nest, on the other hand, relies heavily on computer analysis — things like “signal processing” and “machine listening” — to extract and record the determinant musical attributes.

“It’s literally based on the science of the song,” says Elissa Barrett, Echo Nest’s Director of Communications and Operations. “If you pick a track, [Echo Nest] will then pick similar tracks based on the beat, the tempo, the pitch, the era, the genre.” She adds: “Basically, we’ve mapped the Spotify universe of song IDs to the Echo Nest’s ID structure, through our API, therefore any song in the Spotify catalog generates a radio stream of relevant songs.”

Why computers are ‘better’

“If you have ever been at a cocktail party where people will stand in a room and argue what is a country song, and whether or not Johnny Cash falls into country, or if he’s rock, or if he’s 70s pop, or whatever, then you realize that you can’t have that human element, because everyone’s opinion will differ,” adds Barrett. “So when you throw scientific algorithms behind it, and true analysis of audio, mashed up with data points we have based on crawling the Web, by reading and listening to everything about artists, you’re going to come back with a much stronger result.”

By sifting through mountains of data on each artist, Echo Nest also adds factors like “hottness” of a song (it’s mainstream popularity), and geographic location (whether an artist is from a place near a certain user), to help craft Radio playlists for each user.

Slow roll-out

Echo Nest is slowly putting each of Spotify’s more than 15 million songs through its API, so you won’t necessarily see the benefits of its deep analysis for every track just yet. And the only way to know whether a song has been Echo Nest-ified is that a small Echo Nest logo appears next to the album artwork when a new song starts in Spotify Radio, but only for four seconds.

When we compared Spotify Radio and Pandora last week, our biggest complaint was that the tracks Spotify chose to play were not quite as perfectly selected as Pandora’s selection. If Echo Nest is all it claims to be, it seems Pandora’s edge in curation may quickly dull.

So, which is better, man or machine?

Home Theater

No car? SiriusXM’s $8 a month streaming plan has everything but Howard Stern

SiriusXM is stepping into the streaming music ring with an $8 per month plan designed specifically for people who get their music via smartphones and smart speakers. It doesn't work on SiriusXM radios, and Howard Stern is extra.
Home Theater

Google brings ad-supported YouTube Music to its Google Home speakers

Hot on the heels of Amazon's announcement that it's adding a free version of its Amazon Music service to Alexa-powered speakers, Google is adding a free, ad-supported version of YouTube Music to Google Home smart speakers.
Home Theater

Amazon’s free Spotify competitor is here. Just ask Alexa

Just ask Alexa to play your favorite song. Amazon has launched a free, ad-based music streaming service to compete with Spotify's free tier on its popular Echo devices, aiming to bolster subscriptions to Amazon Music Unlimited.

Here's how you can download the best free music players for your Mac

Tired of your Mac's default music player? Take a look at our picks for the best free music players available for your Apple rig. Whether you're a casual listener or an audiophile, you're sure to find something that fits your needs here.
Home Theater

Sony releases wireless turntable, new soundbar amid slew of 2019 audio devices

Sony has announced pricing and availability for its 2019 home audio lineup, including a brand-new wireless turntable, a new soundbar, and a slew of Bluetooth speakers that range from small and portable to huge and cupholder-laden.
Movies & TV

From comedies to biopics, these are the best movies about music and musicians

The best movies about music range from hilarious comedies to powerful and informative biopics that illuminate the world of sonic expression from all possible angles. Here are our current favorites.
Home Theater

Puro’s kids headphones don’t just sound great, they help prevent hearing damage

Puro Sound Labs' PuroQuiet headphones are a pair of noise-canceling over-ears that are designed for young listeners, allowing them to jam out to their favorite tunes, but limiting volume to avoid long-term hearing damage.

YouTube Red is now YouTube Premium. What's changed, and should you subscribe?

Thanks to Google, YouTube Red is now YouTube Premium. We explain what exactly a YouTube Premium subscription gets you, how much it costs, and break down if it's a good choice for you.

Get some bud-green Master and Dynamic wireless headphones for $50 off this 420

Looking for the best possible audio experience to pair with your favorite herb? Master and Dynamic has announced a special 420 edition of its gorgeous on-ear and over-ear headphones, which will be available for $50 off this 4/20.

The best new music this week: Tallest Man On Earth, Cage the Elephant, and more

Looking for the best new music? Each week, we find the most compelling new releases just for you. This week: The Tallest Man On Earth, Cage The Elephant, Lizzo, Pivot Gang, and Sad Planets.
Home Theater

Wireless headphones are finally awesome, and these are our favorites

With sleek forms, prime audio quality, and the freedom of untethered listening, there has never been a better time to pick up a pair of wireless headphones. These are the best ones currently available.
Home Theater

The best MP3 players of 2019 cram tons of music into a small package

Want to go for a run, but your phone is weighing you down? Don't sweat it. Can't fit your whole music library on your smartphone? No worries. Check out our list of the best MP3 players, and find one that works for you.
Home Theater

Get the most boom for your buck with the best headphones under $100

Everybody wants a bargain, and this list has a bunch. For those looking for a solid set of headphones without spending a big stack of cash, this list is is your starting point. Check out our picks for the best headphones under $100.
Home Theater

Amazon drops prices on Bose speakers and sound systems by up to 50%

Amazon knocked $220 off the price of two Bose 301-V Direct/Reflecting bookshelf loudspeakers, a 50% discount. The 301-Vs are suited for music or for home theater systems. Amazon's sale also includes the Bose Solo 5 TV Sound System.