For personalized stations, Mad Genius Radio is the scalpel to Pandora’s hatchet

Mad Genius Radio
With rumored new plans to roll its recently-acquired Beats Music service into iTunes, even Apple has seen the writing on the wall: Internet radio is the next wave. However, whether you’re creating playlists on Spotify or thumbing around on Pandora, cherry-picking your favorites from among millions of songs has a way of getting stale fast.

To remedy the issue, new kid on the block, Mad Genius Radio (available for iOS and Android), has devised a creative new way to give listeners unprecedented control over their playlists in an effort to shake up the streaming world and get you out of your music funk.

“We’ve taken a very different approach from the other folks,” founder Eric Neumann told us in a recent interview.

“Most everybody else in the radio space is either aggregating existing broadcasts, or they are doing something that we refer to as binary correlation radio…thumbs up or thumbs down, if you like this, you like that. It’s interesting at first, but it also tends to lead to tired, predictable playlists.”

“We’re really focused on how to make it easier for the listener to get to the place where they can hear an eclectic array of music.”

In an effort to ditch the tired predictability, Mad Genius has ditched the thumbs up, thumbs down hatchet you’ll find on services like Pandora. In its place is a 5 point sliding scale scalpel, allowing you to rate both songs and artists like you would a stereo system on Amazon, and letting the carefully curated interface know more about what you want to hear, and what you don’t. But that’s just the start of the fun with Mad Genius.

As Neumann told us, Mad Genius is all about mixing things up, with the ultimate goal of making Internet radio more like the way people used to listen to traditional radio — you know, in the before time. Neumann should know, as he worked for years under the old guard.

“In the radio space, we’re really focused on how to make it easier for the listener to get to the place where they can hear an eclectic array of music … we believe most people are eclectic, and we believe music is an emotional attachment, and not a mathematical formula. First and foremost, we want to make it easy for people to mix genres.”

To that end, the interior halls of the Mad Genius interface are littered with clever ways to mix it up. For starters, the system offers users 5 different preset stations, with up to 7 genres available for each station. Genres include offerings like Glam Rock, College Radio, Country, 60s-70s Classic Rock, or Rap.

But the really clever part comes from the control factor that’s baked into the presets. Each genre in your mix is set on a 10 point slider that puts you in the driver seat. Heard a little too much Bowie and T-Rex this week? Turn Glam Rock down a couple of notches. Missing your Zeppelin fix? Crank up 60s and 70’s rock, and make sure and 5 star the Zep when it comes up. Are you starting to see the possibilities here?

There are a few other cool ways to get your eclectic music fix from Mad Genius, as well. One of our favorites is called Time Machine, which allows you to roll a genre back in time to a specified moment, and listen to what might have been on the radio then. For instance, say (hypothetically) you graduated college in the summer of 2004. You can actually set your Alternative, or Hip-Hop genre to play whatever was popular on the radio that summer, including songs that came out that year, as well as songs reaching back a few years. While the feature only works with select genres, it allows for 20 years or more of aural teleportation.

The Requests genre allows you to dig into the marrow of just about any artist.

Other interesting features include the Requests genre, which allows you to dig into the marrow of just about any artist and rate tracks from throughout their catalog, as well as the History feature, which keeps a log of everything you’ve rated, and lets you change things up. Unlike most other radio stations, which make the user wait, you can get at your ratings anytime.

“Anything you do can be undone,” Neumann said. “There are no permanent changes in our system.”

Finally, the system has a feature called Guilty Pleasures. That allows you to rate something, however terrible and embarrassing it might be, like say, Nickelback’s song … well, any Nickelback song. If you must give a bad track a high rating, this allows you to do so without sullying the rest of your genres with your distasteful choices.

So how does Mad Genius work in practice? Pretty damned well in our evaluation so far. While we love the control and the fun features like Time Machine, most impressive was the pure, deep reach the system made based on our choices, straying away from the easy hits and poppy artists to find something much more enriching.

In our brief time with the app over the last few days, the system lived up to its eclectic doctrine in impressive fashion, digging up deeper selections rarely heard from other services, with appearances from more rare artists like Cheryl Wheeler, Mandolin Orange, Jobriath, and Blitzen Trapper, and deeper tracks from well known artists, like Willie Nelson’s version of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.”

In short, those looking for a diverse, more enriching selection of tracks will find it at Mad Genius. In fact, we only have two minor complaints to wage after our time with the service. One is the 64 kbps sound quality, which is pretty poor, especially in comparison to Spotify’s 320 kbps. Users won’t likely notice straight from the phone or smaller speakers, but on a nice system, the lower resolution is definitely apparent, though not prohibitive. Neumann told us it’s something they’ve thought about, and may be addressed as the service picks up steam.

We also couldn’t believe there was no genre option for Outlaw Country. Sure, it’s a tad to the left of mainstream, but that’s what Mad Genius is all about. We ended up having to countrify our Requests genre to remedy the situation, pulling up Waylon, Willie, Johnny, and others to get our fix. It may be more of a personal problem, but we still think it should be part of the package. It’s also surprisingly light on the Funk.

Still, aside from those few hitches, our short time with Mad Genius has been pretty revelatory. The system really does dig deep into the music, and so far, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

The best news is that Mad Genius is available right now, ad-free, and free to anyone while it continues to roll out. Neumann told us a paywall will be erected by the end of the year (once it’s got you hooked, presumably) at which point users will have 36 more days of free listening before they’re asked to cough up $5 per month, or $48 per year, similar to Pandora’s fee. And there are no ads on Mad Genius — it’s pay-up or go home.

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