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

pandora spotify beats rdio itunes radio algorithm comparison music header
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.

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:

Contender #1: Spotify

Jump to another contender:

Spotify Screenshot
The Playlist
Gary Clark Jr. – Blak and Blu (Live) Stevie Ray Vaughan – Cold Shot
The Derek Trucks Band – I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled And Crazy The Black Keys – Meet Me In the City
Eric Clapton – Old Love (Live) Gary Clark Jr. – Glitter Ain’t Gold (Jumpin’ for Nothin’)
Alabama Shakes – Goin’ to the Party The Black Keys – I Got Mine
The Heavy – Sixteen Gary Clark Jr. – When My Train Pulls In (Live)
Gary Clark Jr. – Blue Light Boogie Gary Clark Jr. – When The Sun Goes Down
Gary Clark Jr. – Good Rockin’ Tonight Alabama Shakes – Hang Loose
Gary Clark Jr. – Things are Changing Eric Clapton – Layla (Live)
Gary Clark Jr. – Breakdown Stevie Ray Vaughan – Little Wing
Eric Clapton – Tears In Heaven The Black Keys – Lonely Boy

Thumbs up: 8

Thumbs down: 0

Skipped: 1

Nothing: 11

Songs I’ve never heard: 6

Gary Clark Jr. songs: 8

The pros

Spotify played it incredibly safe over the course of its 20 songs, and rarely strayed too far from Gary Clark and his recognizable style. Because of this, not a single song received a thumbs down — though I did skip one — during my hour-and-a-half listening session. It mostly impressed, offering a good combination of artists and songs I enjoy (i.e. Gary Clark Jr., The Black Keys, Stevie Ray Vaughan), while still allowing some room for music discovery (i.e. The Heavy, The Derek Trucks Band). Not once did I feel the radio ventured into territory I’m not fond of, thus producing a favorable listening experience.

The cons

Even though Spotify’s radio exposed me to new music, it only played a total of seven different artists over the course of the playlist. The selection process surely won’t be the same for everyone, but it’s safe to say most people welcome a bit more variety when they listen to music. Spotify also seemed to get carried away with Gary Clark Jr. at times, playing four of his songs in a row, most of which are from the same album. I chose Gary Clark to make the hours of this research enjoyable, but a proper radio should switch up the artists and albums often. Still, the lack of variety is a minor complaint when dealing with an otherwise solid program.

The verdict

What makes Spotify so great is its deep library of artists and albums, many of which get updated each week with new releases. If there’s a new album you look forward to hearing, Spotify typically has it ready for streaming the day it’s released. It brings a record store right to any smartphone or computer, and features none of the frustrating plastic wrap. For radio junkies, Spotify plays it fairly close to the vest, and while it ventures from the norm periodically, it generally stays close to home with the initial artist you select. It’s almost easier to go on your own musical journey by exploring the “Related Artists” tab when viewing some of your favorite bands. With Spotify’s endless library of songs, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of music they offer. Moreover, for just $10 a month, premium subscribers get access to uninterrupted song playback, high-quality audio recordings, mobile access, and the ability to download and listen to their playlists offline.

Next page: Pandora steps up to the plate…

Jump to your contender:

Contender #2: Pandora

Pandora Screenshot
The Playlist
Gary Clark Jr. – Things are Changin’ (Live) The Black Keys – I’m Not The One
The Black Keys – She’s Long Gone Albert King – Call It Stormy Monday (Live)
Gary Clark Jr. – Ain’t Messin’ Around The Heavy – Short Change Hero
Cold War Kids – Hang Me Up To Dry Gary Clark Jr. – Next Door Neighbor Blues
Gary Clark Jr. – Numb Stevie Ray Vaughan – Dirty Pool
Six60 – Green Bottles Run With Bulls – Jealousy
Nightmares on Wax – You Wish The Black Keys – Tighten Up
Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood – Double Trouble (Live) Patrick Sweany – Them Shoes
Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan – Blues At Sunrise The Quaker City Night Hawks – Cold Blues
Gary Clark Jr. – Bright Lights R.L. Burnside – Rollin’ & Tumblin’

Thumbs up: 6

Thumbs down: 2

Skipped: 2

Nothing: 10

Songs I’ve never heard: 11

Gary Clark Jr. songs: 5

The pros

If music discovery is what you desire, then look no further than Pandora radio. Though I chose to give a thumbs up to the first couple Gary Clark songs, Pandora ventured off on several musical tangents, presenting me with many songs I’d never heard before. Bands like Six60 and Nightmares on Wax provided an alternative style to Gary Clark, both of which I’ve never heard before and proved to be a worthwhile listen. Like Spotify, Pandora also played a healthy mix of Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Black Keys, and Eric Clapton, which are always a pleasure to hear when I’m listening to Gary Clark. Pandora has always boasted its Music Genome Project brings users a “much more personalized radio experience,” and with a bit of fine tuning to your favorite stations, it’s easy to achieve just that.

The cons

Sadly, Pandora’s greatest feature can also double as its greatest flaw. The fact it’s only a radio application limits the amount of control you have over the stations, leaving you completely at the whim of Pandora and it’s advanced algorithm. Even with a paid subscription, Pandora still only affords users a certain number of skips — to avoid paying unnecessary royalties — which has the ability to back impatient listeners into a corner at times. Pandora’s advertisements often disrupt listening sessions as well, though users do have the option to opt for a premium Pandora One account if they’re rather not deal with such issues.

The verdict

Pandora and its Music Genome Project continue to see wild success, and it’s easy to see why it’s become so popular. Even though it touts a much smaller music library compared to the other streaming services, Pandora does a fantastic job of playing hits you’d like, while giving you a slew of new music to explore. Though strictly a radio service, the option of having little sway over what plays next may steer away listeners who prefer more control over their music. Where Pandora shines is in the music discovery department; no other service delivers as good a variety as Pandora. Whether you want to take a break from your tried-and-true favorites, or desire to find your next musical obsession, Pandora radio delivers.

Next page: iTunes Radio enters the ring…

Jump to your contender:

Contender #3: iTunes Radio

iTunes Radio
The Playlist
Gary Clark Jr. – Ain’t Messin’ Around T-Bone Walker – Call It Stormy Monday
Gary Clark Jr. – Travis County Kenny Wayne Shepard Band – Born Under a Bad Sign
Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go North Mississippi Allstars – Shake ‘Em On Down
Ben Harper – She’s Only Happy In the Sun Junior Kimbrough – Release Me
Doyle Bramhall II – They Get Together Jimi Hendrix – Dolly Dagger
Gary Clark Jr. – Don’t Owe You a Thang Gary Clark Jr. – When My Train Pulls In
Sonny Landreth – Blues Attack Kenny Wayne Shepard Band – Backwater Blues
Ben Harper – Waiting On an Angel The Fabulous Thunderbirds – Tuff Enuff
Doyle Bramhall II – Bleeding From a Scratch North Mississippi Allstars – Going Down South
Jack White – Missing Pieces Charlie Musselwhite – Tuff

Thumbs up: 6

Thumbs down: 3

Skipped: 2

Nothing: 9

Songs I’ve never heard: 12

Gary Clark Jr. songs: 4

The pros

Instead of making its listeners rely solely on its ability to choose music, iTunes Radio allows for specific customization of any station you create. Accessible via the iTunes application, iTunes Radio gives you the ability to adjust a slider to three different categories: Hits, Variety, or Discover. The position of the slider determines the behavior of the entire radio station. Beyond this feature, it also allows you to designate each song as “Play More Like This,” or “Never Play This Song.” Furthermore, no selection is final as the program allows you to delete any song or artist you select for either category. While it’s hard to figure out if these decisions give you more or less control than Pandora or Spotify, it feels as though you have more capabilities in terms of customization for each station. Based on my selection of “Variety,” I experienced a substantial amount of music discovery with iTunes Radio, for better or worse. Seeing the likes of Ben Harper, Jack White, and Jimi Hendrix were welcome additions to the Gary Clark playlist. They were also artists I had yet to see with the other streaming services.

The cons

Possibly due to my decision to select “Variety” on the slider, iTunes Radio went way off the rails in terms of its song selections. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Doyle Bramhall II, and Sonny Landreth were all vastly different than Gary Clark — and received quick skips. Moreover, even after assigning a “Never Play This Song” designation to the first Doyle Bramhall II tune, iTunes Radio decided to play another of his hits a mere five songs later. I’m all for exploring artists I’ve never heard before, but if I say I’d like to never hear a certain song again, then I expect the program to follow with the request by subduing the artist to a degree as well. While it played many genres akin to Gary Clark’s style, it also played quite a few nowhere near Clark’s wheelhouse. Though this provided ample opportunity to explore new bands, it ventured into territory I had no intention of visiting.

The verdict

While iTunes Radio made a valiant effort of helping me discover new music, it did so rather sloppily. Playing an artist who I previously gave a thumbs down to and offering genres unrelated to my original band left me desiring more. Apple does offer most of the radio features for free, though, playlists remain punctuated with the occasional ad. Opting for a premium iTunes Match account will cost you just $25 annually and allow you to store all your music in iCloud, as well as listen in an ad-free environment. Though the ads didn’t interrupt the music often, users who want to take their extensive iTunes library wherever they go should opt for the premium subscription. Based on my short time with iTunes Radio, I wouldn’t recommend it over either Pandora or Spotify.

Next page: Beats Music joins the party, kind of…

Jump to your contender:

Contender #4: Beats Music

Beats Music

The pros

Unlike the other offerings on this list, Beats Music’s desktop version doesn’t allow for an algorithm-based radio play. The mobile version does have what’s called “The Sentence,” which allows users to input various feelings and themes based on their current mood. For instance, a sentence might read “I’m at a party & feel like chilling out with my friends to old school hip-hop.” Users of the app have the ability to replace the underlined sections in the previous sentence with various commands. Basically it asks you where you’re at, what you’re doing, who you’re with, and what genre of music you want to listen to. Beats then allows you to assign a heart if you like the song, a heart with crosses through it if you hate it, or the option to add the song to a playlist or your music library. Each time you assign a positive or negative heart to the song, Beats alters its playback algorithm to continue to play songs to your liking.

The cons

Unfortunately, Beats Music doesn’t offer an artist radio function, leaving listeners at the whim of its “The Sentence” algorithm or playlist selections. Additionally, only mobile users have access to its “The Sentence” feature, as the desktop version only provides artists, albums, and playlists. A rather small nitpick, but Beats Music supposedly intended to revolutionize Internet radio with “The Sentence,” so it’s disappointing to see it absent from the desktop incarnation of the software. It’s also the only player of the bunch that doesn’t offer a freemiun subscription outside the 14-day trial, thus relying almost solely on a premium model. For $10 a month or $100 a year, though, subscribers get unfettered access to all of Beats’ features on both their desktop and smartphone.

The verdict

At this point, it’s still unclear what Apple plans to do with Beats Music having acquired the company in May, 2014. The Cupertino-based tech giant will likely keep it around for now, but the problem is, there isn’t much Beats Music does which allows it to stand apart from Spotify and similar competitors. Beats’ “The Sentence” feature provides an entertaining and varied listening experience, and provides listeners with a decent chance of discovering new music. The service also recommends playlists and music based on your preferred genres and favorite artists, and populates the same picks on the homepage of the mobile app and desktop site. However, Beats Music didn’t do anything serious enough to pull me away from the other music streaming services available.

Next page: Last but not least, Rdio gets a turn…

Jump to your contender:

Contender #5: Rdio

Rdio
The Playlist
Gary Clark Jr. – Things Are Changing Dan Auerbach – Heartbroken, In Disrepair
Dr. John – Revolution Robert Randolph & The Family Band – Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That
Booker T. Jones feat. Lou Reed – The Bronx North Mississippi Allstars – Po Black Maddie
Robben Ford – Talk To Your Daughter Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – Same Old Blues
Robert Cray – Deep In My Soul Black Joe Lewis & The Soul Distributors – Boogaloo On Clark Street
Alabama Shakes – Hang Loose Johnny Copeland – Honky Tonkin’
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Calling Out To You Robert Cray – You Move Me
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals – Paris (Ooh La La) Danielia Cotton – Hope She’ll Be Happier
Gary Clark Jr. – Bright Lights Jimmie Vaughan – Don’t Cha Know
Heartless Bastards – Only For You Eric Clapton – My Father’s Eyes

Thumbs up: 6

Thumbs down: 3

Skipped: 4

Nothing: 7

Songs I’ve never heard: 11

Gary Clark Jr. songs: 2

The pros

As the last streaming services on our list, it’s safe to say Rdio played the most variety while staying within the confines of Gary Clark’s genre. Other sites ventured a bit too far off track, but Rdio allowed for music discovery without any random tangents. For listeners who prefer greater control over their music selection, I did find it easy to influence the station’s direction with a simple simple thumbs up or thumbs down. Rdio also offers a slider on each station, giving users the ability to slide between “Artist Only” and “Adventurous,” or somewhere between the two. I set the slider in between the two variables and still experienced a fair amount of discovery over the course of the 20 songs. Furthermore, the service also features one of the largest musical libraries, offering a reported 25 million different songs.

The cons

Rdio’s biggest weakness, for me at least, was how slow it was between songs and how long it needed to buffer each track. Periodically a song would just skip, or stop playing altogether, making listening feel more like work than pleasure. At first I explored my network connectivity to see if it was causing streaming issues, though after I reset my Internet I still encountered issues. It’s reasonable to expect short pauses between songs, but the frequency at which Rdio’s interruptions occurred limited the listening experience as a whole. Rdio also played just two Gary Clark Jr. songs, both of which appeared over the course of the station’s first nine songs. I appreciate the variety, but would’ve liked to have heard at least one or two more songs from the station’s namesake.

The verdict

Unfortunately, the buffering and pausing issues brings Rdio down as a whole. Though I enjoyed the variety of songs and the journey they took me on, it became frustrating to repeatedly check to make sure a song didn’t pause or unexpectedly skip. Rdio’s radio algorithm did help produce an enjoyable listening experience despite this, and allowed me to easily control which direction I wanted the station to go. Even though the station didn’t play as many of the chosen artist as I had preferred, it does offer a slider option of playing only the selected artist. Rdio also provides its users with a fair amount of variety within both its free and premium subscriptions. Listeners who decide to listen for free get access to Rdio’s radio stations, albeit with the occasional ad. For just $10 a month, paid subscribers get access to ad-free radio stations, as well as Rdio’s deep library of albums and playlists.

Next page: We pick our ultimate music streaming service champion…

Jump to your contender:

The winner: Spotify!

SpotifyChamp

Was it ever really a contest?

While Pandora came close when it comes discovering new and enjoyable music, ultimately Spotify’s giant music library pushed it to victory. With millions more songs than any of its streaming counterparts, Spotify makes up for its less-than-ambitious radio by making it simple for listeners to discover new music on their own. Each artist features their own “Related Artists” tab populated with around 20 or so bands and musicians. Being the case, it’s easy to spend hours going on your own discovery tangents, all of which are completely controlled by you.

Spotify’s dedication to offer new albums, singles, and its own sponsored live sessions each week also gives the service a leg up on the competition. You no longer have to shell out $15 for a new album every Tuesday. Rather, for just $10 a month, paid subscribers get access to its entire music library online or off, new music releases every Tuesday, and high-quality audio playback on both desktop and mobile devices. While other streaming services offer features similar to these, only Spotify offers all of them at the same, affordable price. No matter the kind of music fan you consider yourself, Spotify’s music streaming service has it all.

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