If you’re wondering which music streaming service is best for you, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve evaluated of some of the top contenders and compiled a list of the three services that provide the best options and features. As you might expect, the one that is ultimately best for you depends on what kind of services you’re interested in, whether you’re willing to lay out money to get them and how you’ll be using the products.
First of all, these are wonderful times for audiophiles. The original iPod made it exceptionally easy to have a mobile library of music that could serve as the soundtrack to your life. And since then it’s just gotten better and better. These days streaming audio services offer more variety than you’re likely to have in your mp3 or smartphone library and provide, if nothing else, a good supplement to your current music stockpile. But choosing the right one for you out of the available options can be a little daunting, so let’s begin.
One of our favorite streaming music services is Spotify, and there’s certainly a lot of buzz around them these days, after their Facebook acquisition, so let’s start there. As Spotify made its westward migration last year, we tested the free version for a couple of weeks and were initially very unimpressed. It seemed buggy and very limited when compared with other free software. The one thing it had going for it, of course, was the ability to select any song in their library and play it ad nauseum.
At the time the library was spotty enough and the kinks in the system large enough that it wasn’t really worth the effort. But given the buzz, we gave the premium service a try. Again we were still rather unimpressed. It was good, but not really worth the cost ($9.99). We decided to give it till the end of the month and cancel after that.
Several months later we’re still using Spotify at home and at work and we wouldn’t think of canceling it. What happened in that time? Well, for one, their library has grown. I used to be frustrated at not being able to find major releases for major bands, now I’m continually surprised by the deeper cuts that show up in searches. There are still notable exceptions (e.g., Led Zeppelin and Tool), but on the whole the selection is definitely good and growing. Second, I discovered a lot of kid’s music, which keeps my toddler happy at home and in the car, ergo, my quality of life is much better. Third, and probably as important as any other factor, I realized that one account can run on multiple devices. Although the devices can’t both stream at the same time, that’s not often an issue. It still gives you more mileage out of one account, making the $9.99/month much more palatable.
When Pandora was just hitting the scene several years ago, we posted a couple of competing reviews (the good,the bad). In a testament to how groundbreaking it was and how successful they have been with hardware partnerships, Pandora is still around despite the plethora of competition they spawned. Pandora still offers a great service if you’re interested in a passive, radio-style experience. In fact, now that the free version of Pandora includes ads, it’s very similar to listening to FM, with the exception that (generally) you select your station by band rather than genre and you’ll get deeper cuts than you would on FM (although, not necessarily less rotation). If you are currently using a Pandora account with hardware devices such as your entertainment system or television and you don’t want to complicate your life with lots of streaming audio services, you can rest comfortably that you’re not missing much from other services. At $3.00/month to lose the ads, the premium version is cheaper than Spotify, but whether it’s worth it or not depends on how much you hate the ads.
Probably the most successful Pandora spawn and the closest competitor for either of these services is Slacker Radio – and they are a very strong competitor, indeed. Slacker seems to have a better library than Pandora in terms of diversity and depth and hardware support aside, we prefer it to Pandora for that reason. It offers two levels of premium service, one that is similar to the paid version of Pandora, the difference is that is slightly more expensive $3.99/month, and adds a little more functionality – dedicated news and sports channels and song lyrics. The second is similar to Spotify’s service, in that it is $9.99/month and allows on demand selection of songs and playlists.
Two key distinctions between Slacker Premium and Spotify Premium these days are the libraries and the level of Facebook integration. For us, the latter is a negative. Our Spotify Premium account was created before they began requiring a Facebook account to register, so we can’t speak to that process of component of the service, but generally we tend to frown on Facebook integration. If you want a premium service, but want to avoid giving Facebook control over your music and insight into your listening behaviors, you should probably start with a trial of Slacker Premium and consider Spotify as a Plan B, if you can’t find all the songs you want to rock out to.
In summary, if you’ve got a lot of devices that have Pandora support and you aren’t interested in a premium service that lets you select what you hear, then there’s no reason to go exploring – be comfortable in the knowledge that you’re in a fine place. If you want a premium service (and especially if you want to avoid Facebook’s growing homogenization of the web), you should probably start with Slacker Radio. Give the library a try, if it has what you want, you’ll get that plus a few extra features over Spotify. If you like the idea of Facebook integration and are looking for a service that will almost certainly be around in 5 years, then Spotify is the way to go.