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:

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.
Music

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.
Computing

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.
Music

Amazon rumored to be launching free music-streaming service

Rumors are swirling that Amazon is planning to take on Spotify by launching its own free, ad-supported music streaming service. This seems to be a move aimed at Echo users in particular.
Home Theater

Keep those albums sounding great by converting your vinyl to a digital format

There are all sorts of reasons for ripping records and storing them digitally, but what's the best way to do it? We cover the different types of equipment and software available for ripping records at any price in this guide.
Emerging Tech

Even a true rock god can’t smash this unbreakable 3D-printed metal guitar

Rock stars love to smash guitars. Geeky engineers love to build things using the latest high-tech tools. What happens when both parties meet? This "unbreakable" 3D-printed metal guitar.
Home Theater

Surface Buds? Microsoft might make AirPods competitors, joining Amazon and others

Microsoft is reportedly hard at work developing its own true wireless headphone model to compete with top offerings from Apple, Samsung, and others. It's aiming to take on the AirPods and Galaxy buds with its own pair of portable in-ears.
Home Theater

Celebrate Record Store Day in style with the best vinyl setups

From simple and affordable to sleek and swanky, these are our recommendations for incredible vinyl setups that will allow you to listen to your favorite records with outstanding fidelity and take your collection to the next level.
Home Theater

Record Store Day is here! Here's how to build a killer vinyl collection

Feeling the vinyl vibe? You're not alone. If you're interested in starting your own record collection and listening to tunes the analog way, we're here to help. This guide will take you through everything you need to know.
Deals

You can get V-Moda’s excellent wireless over-ear headphones for just $100

In the market for a pair of Bluetooth headphones? You can get a pair of V-Moda's first-generation Crossfade Wireless for a third of their original $300 list price, a fantastic deal for a pair of great-sounding headphones.
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.
Music

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.
1 of 7