Which music subscription service should you use?
You’re well aware that you can purchase music directly over the Internet—from Apple’s iTunes Store, Amazon MP3, Google Music, and a host of other sites. And these are perfectly fine options if you want to own your music. But, for those who like to listen to—but not necessary collect—a vast library of music there’s an alternative: Music subscription services.
Cough up $5 or $10 a month and you can listen to any of millions of tracks in a wide variety of genres, whenever and (within reason) wherever you want. I took a look at the major subscription services—Mog, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker, and Spotify—to see how they shake out and which might be the best fit for you.
First, let’s be clear about what a music subscription service is. Unlike Pandora or Last.fm, these services let you choose specific tracks to listen to, rather than a station based on an artist or track. And, unlike Amazon MP3 or the iTunes Store, you can listen to entire tracks rather than just previews. So, if you want to hear the first track of Jason Mraz’s new album, you can call it up and stream it in its entirety.
To save bandwidth and server costs, these tracks are compressed—some more than others depending on the service you choose and the plan you’ve selected. Each allows you to listen to music on your computer via either a Web browser or dedicated application (or in some cases both) and, with higher-priced plans, you can additionally stream music to your iOS and Android devices, as well as some home entertainment devices and car audio systems. With these same premium plans, you can additionally download tracks for offline listening.
Lots of music
I surveyed the five players in this space and found that every one of them offers millions of tracks. Slacker—a new entrant in the subscription business—streams the least number of on-demand tracks, at a little more than 10 million tracks. Mog and Rdio claim more 15 million tracks, while both Rhapsody and Spotify have more 16 million tracks in their respective catalogs.
These tracks numbers are impressive, but they reflect the services’ global catalog. You won’t find all of these tracks available in every country in which the service is offered. For example, Spotify may offer a particular album or track in the U.K. but, because of licensing issues, not in the United States. And even if a service boasts millions upon millions of tracks, those tracks do you no good if they’re not the ones you want to listen to.
For example, I searched for Alison Krauss & Union Station: Live (iTunes link) among the services and only Slacker had it. Similarly, I searched for recordings by Paul McCartney. Spotify had no McCartney albums, Rdio listed a load of albums and tracks, but you can’t stream any of them. Rhapsody had some of McCartney’s latest albums but none of his classic recordings. Mog had a few scattered tracks. And while Slacker had the best selection, like Rdio, it listed lots of tracks that you can’t stream.
How the music is distributed among genres also varies. When it comes to the top hits of the day and last couple of decades, the music services are generally on equal footing, but some catalogs are deeper in regard to specific genres. For example, Rhapsody has a more extensive classical music catalog than any of the other services. I searched for Bach’s popular Goldberg Variations on each service and Rhapsody had 145 recordings, Rdio 127, Spotify 50, Mog 40, and Slacker fewer than 10. On the other hand, one of my favorite jazz labels, ECM, is far better represented on Mog than the other services.
Also there’s a certain amount of gamesmanship when it comes to signing exclusive deals. For example, Spotify has recently signed an agreement with the Red Hot Chili Peppers allowing it exclusive streaming rights to the band’s catalog.
Given just how extensive these catalogs are, it’s difficult to say that one is clearly more complete than another. They all have holes. It’s simply a matter of whether those holes represent music that you desperately care about.
Four of the services provide a way to listen to free music beyond a trial period.
Rdio has an ad-free listening plan but the amount of music you can listen to isn’t defined. Listen to enough music and, at some point, Rdio will prompt you to upgrade to a paid plan.
Mog and Spotify offer free, ad-supported, on-demand plans. Each is limited to playback on a computer and they each have a way of limiting the amount of music you can stream. Spotify limits free accounts to 10 hours a month. Mog’s plan is more complicated. You’re provided with a “gas tank” of free music access. You fill the tank by exploring the service’s features (creating playlists, for example) and sharing playlists with friends on social networking services. So, in essence, you get paid in music by advertising the service to your friends and followers.
Slacker also offers free listening, but its free plan is much more like Pandora than an on-demand service. As with Pandora, you can create stations based on artists and tracks, but you can’t pick specific tracks to listen to with the free plan.
Rhapsody offers a 30-day unlimited free trial, but you have to pay to keep listening when the trial period ends.
If you don’t care to put up with ads or pimp a service to a friend, you can put an end to both by pungling up a monthly fee to keep the music flowing. $5 a month provides you with ad-free on-demand computer access for Mog, Rdio, and Spotify. For $4 a month you can switch off Slacker’s ads.
Pay $10 a month for any of these services and you get more flexibility. For that 10 bucks you get mobile and home player access from Mog, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker ($10 also gives you on-demand play from Slacker), and Spotify. Additionally, with these plans each service lets you download tracks for offline listening. Spotify also offers higher bit rate streams when you sign up for the $10 plan.
The quality of downloads varies among the services. Spotify and Mog provide up to 320-kbps downloads (if such files are available—see “Formats and bit rates” below). Rdio offers 256-kbps MP3 files. Rhapsody lets you cache 160-kbps MP3 files. And Slacker has 64-kbps AAC Pro V2 files. In some cases, you may need to enable a high-quality switch within the mobile app to access these higher-quality files.
Speaking of mobile devices, if your family shares an account and that family has multiple mobile devices, there could be some argument about who gets to stream what when. At the $10 level, all these services will stream to just a single mobile device. Attempt to stream to a second one simultaneously and you’ll either cut off the first, be asked which you’d like to use, or, in the case of Slacker, be informed that you must contact customer support (!). Rhapsody and Rdio allow you to overcome these limits by paying more. Rhapsody’s $15-per-month plan lets you use up to three mobile devices simultaneously. Pay Rdio $18 a month for support of up to two devices; $23 a month buys you three-device support.
This is another category in which it’s difficult to recommend one service over another. It’s hard to argue with free, and Spotify, Mog, and Rdio’s free plans are attractive, and their paid plans offer higher-quality streams and downloads. On the other hand, Rhapsody’s $15 plan with three-device support is the better way to go if you have multiple mobile devices.
Formats and bit rates
All of these services offer compressed music, they just differ on the formats and bit rates they offer. Of the five services, Mog, Rdio, and Spotify (Premium plan) stream at the highest bit rate via a Web browser or application—up to 320 bps. “Up to” is important in that not all content providers allow their music to be streamed at this bit rate. In such cases the music is likely to be streamed at 160 kbps or 256 kbps. Mog streams MP3 files and Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis. Rdio won’t reveal which format it uses. Rhapsody and Slacker also stream MP3 files to computers, but only at 128 kbps.
Things get a little more convoluted when you get to mobile and home devices. If your device is connected to a Wi-Fi network, you generally can get a higher bit rate. Mog, Rdio, and Spotify (Premium plan) offer those up-to-320-kbps streams over Wi-Fi. When you’re on a 3G network, however, speeds can dial down to 64-, 96-, or 160 kbps, depending on the service. Rhapsody’s slowest mobile stream is 64-kbps AAC+, but also provides high-quality mobile streams over 3G and 4G at 192-kbps AAC if your connection can handle it. Slacker’s mobile apps include a high-quality setting that lets you stream 128-kbps MP3 files. Otherwise its mobile offering is 64-kbps AAC Pro V2.
Accessing the stream
The free and least-expensive plans offer streaming to your computer. With Slacker (and Rhapsody on the Mac) this means playing music via a webpage. Mog and Rdio can also play through a Web browser, but additionally can be used with free applications. Rhapsody has a desktop application as well, but it's for Windows only. While Spotify has a Web presence, you must play its music from the Spotify application on your Mac or Windows PC. As mentioned earlier, if you want to listen to the services on devices other than your computer, you must pay for the privilege.
All the services are available on a computer as well as mobile devices. The services’ computer interfaces vary in quality. Slacker has a very ungainly interface—unattractive and crowded. Mog, Rdio, and Rhapsody’s Web interfaces are a bit sparse, though it’s not difficult to navigate to new releases and top popular tracks.
While Rhapsody’s Web interface isn’t extensive, the service does make an effort (far more than the others) to let you easily browse many music genres. Click the Browse menu on the website, choose Genres, select a genre, and you can view key artists, top artists, top albums, top tracks, and radio for that genre. This is also possible with Rhapsody’s mobile app. The other services may offer a wealth of classical, jazz, and world recordings, but you wouldn’t know it from their home screens. If you’re interested in other genres on these services, you have to work to find the music you’re after.
The desktop applications tend to be a bit more interesting. Mog’s desktop application is very similar to its webpage. You can easily check out your queue; browse new releases, editors’ picks, top artists, and top tracks; look at artists, albums, and tracks you’ve marked as favorites; and browse playlists you’ve created.
Rdio and Spotify’s interfaces resemble the look of iTunes. Rdio’s interface is the better one for finding new releases and music that’s currently on the top of the charts. Spotify’s What’s New screen is fairly limited. Both Rdio and Spotify can interact with your local music collection, but Spotify’s interaction is more helpful in that it can also serve as a music browser/player for the music on your computer. When you launch the Rdio application, you’ll be asked to match your local music collection with Rdio’s collection. This doesn’t let you actually play those local tracks from within the application. Rather, it directs you to those same tracks available on Rdio, which is lightly convenient. Each application allows you to create, play, and share playlists.
Spotify’s ability to add plug-ins (which it calls apps) to its desktop application gives it an important leg up. Click App Finder and you’re presented with a list of tap apps. For the most part, these apps are a way to feed playlists to the application, which is important for discovering new music. For example, add Rolling Stone Recommends and you see playlists, albums, and tracks recommended by the venerable music magazine.
Once you break away from the computer and move to mobile the interfaces change—sometimes for the better. For instance, Slacker’s Web interface is terrible but its iPad app is quite good—providing easy navigation plus nicely wrought artist information, album reviews, and (where supported) lyrics. Spotify just released its iPad app on Wednesday. The Rhapsody app doesn’t yet ship in an iPad form, leaving you with a cramped iPhone interface that lack some of the features offered on the website. Mog and Rdio do offer an iPad-native app and they are quite good—easy to navigate and attractive.
Out of all the Android streaming music apps, Rdio has the most attractive interface. The app was designed to take advantage of some of the features built into Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). For example, the app takes advantage of Android's remote control client API. That means the album art and music controls are available on the lock screen of an Android 4.0 phone. For Android tablets, Rhapsody's "magazine style" app is your best bet for streaming music. The app has music discovery tools like playlists and guides, editorial content, and exclusive recordings. If you own a 7-inch Android 2.3 Gingerbread tablet, however, you're out of luck. Your tablet must have Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich running on it as well as a minimum nine-inch display to run the Rhapsody app.
Many people are reluctant to use a streaming service, so part of the job of these services is to spread the word. This is done, in large part, via Facebook. Each of these services is compatible with Facebook Music, a service that allows your friends to see in your timeline what you’ve played and, with a click, play the same music through the compatible music service of their choice.
In the case of Mog and Spotify, this comes at a price. In order to join these services new members must have a Facebook account. Rdio, Rhapsody, and Slacker don’t have that requirement.
While Facebook is certainly the Big Kahuna of social networking services, it’s not the only game in town. From the beginning, Rdio was built with the idea of social networking in mind. Users of the service are encouraged to share playlists with others as well as follow other members to see what they’re listening to. Check the Heavy Rotation area and you can see what those members you follow have been listening to recently.
And although Rhapsody allows you to interact with Facebook and Twitter, it also has an internal social-networking component. Go to an artist or genre page and you’ll see a People tab. Click it and you’ll find Rhapsody members who like that artist or genre. You can choose to follow them, which then allows you to see what they’ve been listening to as well as tune into that member’s personal radio station, which reflects their taste.
When it comes to spreading the word outside of the service, Spotify is king. The company has taken pains to make it easy for members to spread playlists across the Internet through links on a variety of websites, thus aiding in music discovery as well as bringing more bodies to Spotify. This is helped by Spotify’s free plan, which lets outsiders listen to a playlist or track without having to pay Spotify a nickel.
Stations and channels
Each service allows you to create stations or channels much as you can on Pandora. Some are more flexible than others. For example, with Mog you can use a slider to determine how many tracks are played by the root artist—Esperanza Spalding, for instance—and how many are from similar artists. Additionally, click the Play Queue entry and you can see a list of upcoming tracks.
Rhapsody’s stations play the selected artist and similar artists but don’t let you preview upcoming tracks. You can, however, go to an artist page, click the Tracks tab, and click Play All Top Tracks (called Artist Sampler in the mobile app) to hear a collection of the artist’s recordings—and in this case, you do see a track list. Within the list on the website, you can reorder as well as delete tracks. You can’t do that with the iPhone app.
Spotify’s stations play a variety of related artists just as does Pandora. If you want to hear tracks just by that artist, you can search for the artist and view not only playlists, artists, and albums for that artist, but also a collection of tracks.
By default, Rdio lets you listen to tracks by just a chosen artist, but you can then enable a Mix in Related Artists options to do just that. Within these lists you can also create a station for other artists.
Slacker was born as a service similar to Pandora, so its ability to create playlists of related tracks was baked in from the beginning. With a paid plan you have more flexibility. You can, for example, limit tracks to the artist’s greatest hits or choose to mix in more obscure tracks. You can also choose how much your station will be populated with related artists—none, some, more, or max. Additionally, you can choose a time frame for the artist’s catalog—classic, older, recent, current, or auto (where Slacker chooses for you).
Selecting a service
If the idea of “renting” rather than owning your music abhors you, no subscription service that demands payment will be satisfactory. If you draw the line at paying for an on-demand plan, Spotify, Mog, and Rdio’s free plans may be for you. After a while, you may see the value in the service and start paying. If you’ve been using Pandora for free, Slacker’s free service is worth a try if you’ve grown tired of Pandora’s catalog.
If you’re game to pay for a subscription service, some have advantages over others, as I’ve spelled out. Mog, Rdio, and Spotify stream, in some cases, higher bit rate recordings than do Rhapsody and Slacker. When you look outside today’s hits (where all the services do a good job), Rhapsody’s catalog can be deeper and its many genres are certainly easier to browse. While Slacker’s catalog isn’t as deep as the others, it may have tracks you can’t find elsewhere.
In regard to music discovery, Spotify has an advantage with its app plug-ins and increasing use across the Internet. If Spotify has its way, you’ll routinely see links to the service on many of your favorite websites.
But for many people, what it really boils down to is whether a service has the music they like and a way to discover other music they’ll enjoy just as much. Fortunately there’s a relatively easy way to find out. Rdio, Mog, and Spotify have their free plans. Rhapsody offers a 30-day free trial. And you can tune into free Slacker stations and see what comes out of its catalog.
[Note: An earlier version of the services chart mistakingly switched the Monthly Price boxes for Rhapsody and Slacker. The chart has been replaced with the corrected version. ]
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