I have been experimenting with the various streaming music offerings, since it is the future of music consumption.1 Due diligence seems to be the only way to differentiate these rapidly-changing and -improving services, so here we go. Time for another table post.

Service Google All-Access Rdio Spotify Pandora
Price/month $10 $10 (decreases for multiple accounts) $10 $3
Import ability Upload (available for free) Matches2 Matches N/A
Radio recommendations Seemingly random Ok & adjustable Sparing Repetitive
Last.fm integration Third party3 Yes Yes Third party
Ads on free version No Yes Yes Yes, lots
Desktop No Basically a browser window Yes No

Current champ

Google’s music app is pretty great, and when the All-Access part was released it seemed like the perfect complement to complete the service. In my opinion it is no longer doing what the All-Access part is meant to do – helping me discover new music. I guess in the most basic sense, I have heard some songs on there that I had not heard before (not memorable enough for me to bookmark them or add them to a playlist though).

The major feature of Google Music is that you can upload your own library of songs, but people forget that this is not part of the paid service; you can do this for free. Paying just adds the ability to play songs that you did not upload, and roll them into its sub par4 radio stations. Regardless of whether I keep the All-Access service, the music locker facet is invaluable and the best implementation I have seen.

Dark horse

Spotify is probably the biggest player in this space right now (I admit I did not give it a lot of credit on the first draft of this post), but it seems like a mess. I still cannot figure out how to add songs to my library without putting them in a playlist. This must come from years of managing a large library, but I do not want to organize my collection this way. Their radio offering seemed just OK – I tried it again for this first time in months (my starred playlist station) and hit the same 2 albums 5 out of the first 6 plays (The Suburbs and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but still).5

Also-ran

Pandora is kind of in a different boat, but I have used it several times over the past year. The algorithmic muscle of Pandora is great but the idea has yet to be fully realized. The fact that it can only pull from a library of 900k tracks6 limits its usefulness as a recommendation engine. The ads are a bit frequent, but not quite enough to warrant paying.

And the winner is…

Rdio seems like the front runner to me. It has many of the same top-flight features as the other two services, but with a little more attention to detail. The design is fantastic, and the organization is much more straight forward than Spotify. It feels much more social within the service than GMusic, but hitching to a Facebook account is optional rather than mandatory7. The radio recommendations can be adjusted between “familiar” and “adventurous,” depending on what you feel like listening to.

There is one feature Rdio has that GMusic and Spotify definitely do not: the queue syncs between devices. This means when you start listening on another device, you are on the same song in your playlist or station. This detail by itself is nearly enough reason to switch.8 You can also mark items for download to your mobile device from the web player, which I know Google can’t do.

The only gripe I have seen about Rdio is that it does not advertise its bitrate. Spotify and Google stream at 320 kbps on wi-fi, and Pandora is something like 160 kbps unless you buy a subscription. My argument is that if I hear something that I like but is low quality (on terrestrial radio or over a cellular connection), I am going to purchase it in a high quality format (CD, FLAC, vinyl – audio quality is a rabbit hole in itself). Things that are in a low bit-rate that I don’t need to hear again are not a problem. Moot point.

So there are my thousand-plus-word thoughts on the state of streaming music (Beats Music not included, because it is too new). TL;DR: Google Play’s best feature does not require the paid version, and Rdio is the intuitive, good-looking underdog with a can’t-lose attitude that wins my pick for best streaming music service available.


  1. The second footnote of this link mentions Plex, and while they have a media server, it doesn’t support some basic music player functions, like playlists. I am sure this will be remedied in the future, but until then it is behind all the rest of the services listed here. 
  2. Matching with Rdio requires WMP or iTunes, which sucks because I actively avoid both. I don’t think Spotify is as strict on sources. 
  3. This basically means no for Android. The only last.fm scrobblers I have tried read from the system audio player, which then catches all the podcasts I listen to as well. It would get the job done, but it is also really annoying. 
  4. The quality of the radio is a function of the feedback you give it, and only gets better over time. It did get better, but the quality definitely plateaued much sooner than I would have liked. This could be a function of what I listened to on the service, but Rdio and Pandora are both still improving their suggestions in my opinion, with roughly the same amount of feedback. 
  5. It does not help that their web player seems to be blocked at my place of employment. Desktop player is (or was) fine, but I have never successfully started their web player.  
  6. The largest library for comparison belongs to Spotify, which has over 20 million tracks. Google and Rdio are not far behind. 
  7. The best social analogy I have heard is Spotify : Facebook :: Rdio : Twitter. Yes, I have lots of friends on Facebook, but there are few that share my music taste. 
  8. Last.fm integration is more that enough reason to switch, with this kind of history

Music is a staple of human civilization. Musicians are staples of music. Being exploited and undervalued is a staple of being a musician, especially if you listen to them long enough that they start talking instead of music-ing. Even in the early twentieth century when prerecorded music became a staple of movies, musicians were not happy with their lot. It is not a new concept, and the latest iteration of this argument has musicians battling music streaming services over royalties. If these problems have been around for so long, why can’t anyone figure this out?

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