Pandora and Spotify are both incredibly popular streaming services, built to help users find their favorite jams and to discover tons of new music without having to put in the work. Pandora’s Music Genome Project helped revolutionize the music industry — for better or worse — when it debuted way back in 2000, creating a new standard for online streaming music. Since then, numerous competitors have sprung up, with iHeartRadio, Last.fm, TuneIn, and more aping Pandora’s “radio station” model with varied degrees of success.
Spotify, meanwhile, was conceived by two Swedish businessmen who simply wanted a way to listen to all their favorite music in the same place. The London-based service debuted in 2008 and has since gone gangbusters, growing into one of the most successful on-demand music platforms in the world, with more than 140 million active daily users and more than 50 million paying monthly subscribers. And while Apple Music is the only on-demand service that comes close to matching Spotify’s might, Pandora’s relatively new on-demand service offers even more reasons to give it a shot.
If you’re a music lover, both services are certainly worth using, but if you’re considering upgrading to paid tiers like Spotify Unlimited or Pandora Premium, you’ll want to know what you’re getting for your hard-earned cash. We pit Spotify and Pandora against each other to help you decide which is right for you.
For years, Spotify enjoyed a massive lead in this category, touting tens of millions of songs in an ever-growing library. For most of its tenure, Pandora’s catalog included roughly 1-2 million songs — nothing to scoff at, but hardly a number capable of competing with Spotify or Apple Music. Following the acquisition of Rdio, Pandora inked deals with several major record labels and eventually launched Pandora Premium, its “Spotify Killer” (yeah, right) on-demand service. Spotify still has more music — owed mostly to remixes and covers you won’t find on Pandora — but the libraries are very comparable, and there aren’t any notable artists who appear on one service and not the other. Some artists have exclusive deals in place with other platforms, while others prefer to keep their work away from streaming services entirely. All told, Spotify holds a slim lead in sheer numbers, but there’s essentially no difference between the two here.
There’s no denying music’s incredible power to connect people. Realizing this is a valuable tool, Pandora and Spotify afford their users the ability to connect with friends, share their favorite songs, or simply recommend artists and playlists. However, these streaming clients differ vastly when it comes to comparing the social components akin to each service. Pandora’s rather lackluster attempt at social features essentially offers little to satisfy social media junkies. Users do have the ability to share their favorite stations across Facebook and Twitter, but because on-demand playback is locked behind a paywall, it feels fairly empty.
Spotify easily gets the nod in this category, providing users with a slew of options for sharing music and connecting with friends. Spotify users all have the ability to share individual songs, entire playlists, and even specific artists with any of their friends/followers on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Skype, or Tumblr by simply clicking the three dots on the right. Spotify also added bar codes to songs, which you can scan with your phone for song data. The service also allows users to collaborate on playlists, and even make them public for anybody to follow. Simply put, Spotify wins this one easily.
Everybody wants to find musical diamonds in the rough, and a big part of a streaming platform’s value comes from its ability to help users find new tunes. Music discovery is the backbone of Pandora. The Music Genome Project we mentioned above is the engine that drives Pandora, offering the uncanny ability to provide listeners with songs they’ll like based on a vast amount of variables. In addition to creating radio stations, the Music Genome Project helps to curate playlists (if you’ve got Pandora Premium) by automatically adding music once you’ve selected a few songs.
Spotify is no slouch in this category, either, and the company has made acquisitions to get better at it over time. The extremely popular “Discover Weekly” playlist, a 30-song list that magically shows up each Monday, blends music you love with music you’re likely to love. Spotify is constantly adding similar features so you can keep discovering. Spotify’s home interface is also brimming with themed playlists, and you’re just one click away from the “Discover” tab, which features personalized recommendations based on your listening history. We’re still inclined to give Pandora the nod here, however. After all, music discovery is its primary function and its radio stations far outshine Spotify’s at present, but Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature is hard to beat.
Free vs paid versions
Both services offer free — albeit limited — access to streaming music supported by occasional ad breaks. The ads aren’t overwhelming, and the free offerings provide a great way to test drive these services before splurging on a premium account, but these services differ greatly.
With a free Pandora account, subscribers are limited to radio functionality — pick a song (or an artist, or an album, or any combination), and it builds you a station. Hit the “thumbs up” button to tell Pandora to play similar music in the future, and hit the “thumbs down” button to make sure you never hear that song (or songs like it) again. Moreover, users of free options only have access to a lower-quality audio stream (limited to 64k AAC+ at best), and aren’t afforded the luxury of downloading a desktop client like users of Pandora Plus or Pandora Premium. Both mobile and web users have access to similar features — the same amount of skipped songs, the same available stations, and the same occasional advertisement.
For Spotify users, the free experience is far more robust. The ads are here, too — as is the loss in audio quality — but with a free Spotify account, you can listen to music on-demand via the desktop and web apps (mobile users are limited to “shuffle play”). You can create radio stations based on selected music, too.
You can also try the ad-free versions of each service for free. Pandora offers a 60-day free trial of its $10/month Pandora Premium service (which includes ad-free radio and on-demand streaming), 30 free days of its $5/month Pandora Plus service (ad-free radio stations, but no on-demand streaming), while Spotify offers a free 30-day trial of its $10/month Spotify Premium service (on-demand listening and radio stations). Both services also offer a discount for yearly membership.
With free access to on-demand music, Spotify takes this category every time.
While Spotify may offer better choices for free-loaders, Pandora’s $5/month tier is a killer option for those who want to rock out to quality tunes, but don’t have the scratch to shell out the full $10 per month (though we find it hard to believe that’s a burden for most folks). If you want to go ad-free with Spotify, you’ll have to go all in, which gives Pandora the win.
User interface & experience
Though not necessarily a deal-breaker — both platforms look and feel great — it’s worth pointing out how the user experience differs between services. Pandora offers three different methods for playing music; a mobile application for Android or iOS, an in-browser player, or a downloadable desktop program (Pandora Plus or Premium only). With an easy-to-use interface and intuitive controls, each version provides largely the same experience. Users also have the ability to sort radio stations either alphabetically or by date for quick access. No matter which way you listen, you’ll have access to background information on the artist currently playing, listings of similar artists, and links for users to quickly buy any song that strikes their fancy. “Browse” and “My stations” sections allow you to quickly switch between listening and discovering.
Spotify also offers three apps — web, desktop, and mobile for Android or iOS — and they all feature an incredibly polished user interface. The desktop version functions like iTunes (but less cluttered), meaning most people should find navigating it straightforward and intuitive. Searching for music via the program’s search bar produces Google-like results, auto-generating artists, songs, or albums as you type. On both the mobile and desktop versions, the left item bar offers easy-to-access links to saved playlists, local files, downloaded songs, and Spotify Radio stations. When using the Browse feature, users have access to newly released music, daily curated music news, and a discovery tab that recommends new artists and songs based on a user’s listening history. There’s no denying that Spotify offers users a more well-rounded user experience, and its solid platform and slick interface make it an even more attractive option. Pandora’s no slouch, but Spotify reigns supreme here.
Location: If you’re not located in the United States, go ahead and ignore Pandora altogether — it’s only available stateside following the removal of support in Oceania territories. Spotify, on the other hand, is available in a vast number of countries.
Compatibility: With Wi-Fi-enabled smart speakers reaching an all-time peak in popularity, you might want to consider whether your favorite speaker is natively compatible with Spotify or Pandora. Popular smart speakers like the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo line support both Spotify Connect and Pandora Everywhere via Wi-Fi; here’s a full list of Spotify devices and a full list of Pandora devices.
Despite having existed for nearly twice as long, Pandora simply can’t keep up with Spotify’s impressive versatility and usability. The recent introduction of Pandora Premium means users can finally listen to a massive collection of specific songs and albums at their pleasure, but Pandora is playing catchup at this point, and it’s pretty far behind. Spotify has better social features, better apps, and more value for your dollar. If you’re constantly looking to expand your musical horizons, Pandora is absolutely a reasonable investment, but in general, we recommend choosing Spotify.
Overall winner: Spotify
Update: Added new information, including Pandora’s on-demand tier, pricing, and free-trial availability.