In the race to power what music is playing in your earbuds, the Beats go on.
On Tuesday, Beats Music — a new streaming music service from the Dr. Dre-associated Beats Electronics — launched, offering music lovers yet another choice for how to stream their jams and offering competition to entrenched services like Spotify and Rdio.
Considering the near ubiquity of Dr. Dre’s music accessory empire, it’s no doubt that many people will at least give Beats Music a go. But is it the one that you want?
Below, we’ve gathered a list of the pros and cons of all of the most promising streaming music services, to make it easier for you to decide which one deserves your hard-earned cash. Let’s start with the newcomer.
Pros: In theory, Beats Music could change the way music services generally work. Rather than using your social networks and baseline listening habits for primary recommendations, Beats runs you through an initiation process, analyzing your musical tastes based on your age, gender and every aspect of the listening choices you make while using the service.
Its algorithm doesn’t just clock your age and robotically conclude that because you are 20 to 25 you must like Justin Timberlake. It goes deeper to understand the music you listened to in your adolescence — what might have been playing at your senior prom or blasting from the speakers of your parents’ Volvo on a particular sophomore year joyride.
And it doesn’t stop at your history. Beats continues to track your everyday listening habits by noting your location, listening method and volume every time you listen to a song. It knows that you play Macklemore at high volume on your earbuds when you’re alone at the gym, as opposed to the Stan Getz that tastefully wafts from your home speaker system at perfect dinner party volume.
Also brilliant: Beats’ ability to prioritize the essential albums of artists you search for. Say you’ve just recently gotten into Weezer. Rather than being immediately presented with “Death to False Metal,” a human with respectable musical tastes will have organized the band’s discography to present The Blue Album first and foremost.
And in the same vein, it will also cajole musicians, DJs and music writers to create playlists (kind of like how Dre has persuaded almost every major recording artist to prance around in a pair of blinged-out Beats headphones).
And, by the way, in true Dre fashion, everything you’ll listen to on Beats will stream on Beats Music’s gorgeous app at a 320 Kbps bitrate, the highest audio quality possible.
Cons: Some aspects of the Beats service strike me as awesome but overly attentive. For instance, subscribers will receive a personalized selection of albums and playlists at least four times a day. Even if I find every single one of these recommendations helpful, that sounds a little like spam. One of Beats’ touted services, called “The Sentence,” will ask subscribers to answer questions about their location, activity, surroundings and musical preferences at that very moment.
That sort of constant interrogation hints that, in its overzealous attempt to build the greatest music streaming service on earth, Beats has forgotten one of the most beautiful things about music on the go: the ability to play it with a swipe or two and then get on with life.
And without an option to stream for free for an extended amount of time, it’ll be difficult for anyone to truly test the service out before they make a switch. We need time to dip our toes for a good two or three months, not a week.
Catalog: More than 20 million songs.
Free streaming option: Seven-day trial.
Cost for unlimited use: $9.99 per month or a five-person family plan through AT&T for $14.99 a month.
Pros: There are reasons why Spotify has more than 24 million users: Its catalog is vast, its social features are solid and the company snatches up some nice exclusive previews to boot.
If you’re a subscriber, it’s easy enough to make a playlist on your desktop and save it on your phone to play without service later. The drag-and-drop features of the desktop program make it a breeze to move entire playlists or single songs into the folders of your choice, and it takes just a quick right-click to send a song to a friend. Nothing breathtaking, but it gets the job done.
Spotify’s vast and wonderful app library, available only to Premium users, employs sources like Pitchfork, Billboard Top Charts and Last.fm to help users find new music. Useful extensions like TuneWiki will also transcribe the lyrics of any song you’re playing in real time. And there’s an option to stream your own Pandora-like radio station from your laptop or mobile device.
Important for audiophiles, however, is Spotify’s supreme bitrate (the higher the bitrate, the higher the audio quality). Premium users can stream music on their desktops at 320 Kbps. That’s basically the level of quality you’d get from a CD.
Cons: What Spotify has in sheer girth, it lacks in fine-tailored experience. Discovering new music depends heavily on 1) whether you’ve chosen to integrate your Spotify account with Facebook and 2) whether your Facebook friends actually have good taste in music (most of mine really don’t). And with Facebook integration comes privacy problems. I, for one, prefer that my followers not know when I’ve listened to Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” for the 10th time in one night. Sure, I have the option to make my listening session private, but it’s annoying to have to adjust that feature whenever I have the urge to indulge in crappy pop music.
Also unfortunate: Spotify tends to bury some of its cooler features (including, as I’ve noted before, the ability to collaborate on playlists with your friends.) Not to mention, it’s quite impossible to find a Spotify account that’s not integrated with Facebook, which a lot of people are understandably hesitant to do.
Catalog: More than 20 million songs available globally.
Free streaming option: Yes! Unlimited with ads, in fact.
Cost for unlimited use: $9.99 per month for all-device access without ads.
Pros: Spotify is to Beyoncé as Rdio is to Solange — a hipper, younger sibling that’s found a groove of its own, despite the already-intimidating success of its elder.
Rdio’s strength is its interface. Though you can download the service as a desktop player, the visually striking homepage is easiest to use in your browser. There, a series of album covers that have been on “heavy rotation” within your social circle will pop up, marked by the exact people who listened to the song below. Its Start Station button (featured on the upper-right corner of the page) also brings users to an automatically generated mix of music, based on what they and their friends are listening to. With Rdio, sharing tools are intuitive and quick, and the process of finding new music is much less laborious.
Cons: Like Spotify, Rdio’s discovery process relies heavily on whether you choose to integrate the service with your social accounts. This creates the same privacy issues I mentioned with Spotify (embarrassing late-night listens, the public airing of your soft spot for country music and so on). But at the very least, however, your feed has some rhyme or reason to it and isn’t a constant ticker machine showing what that random dude from your freshman year dorm is listening to at that very second.
Rdio doesn’t publish its bitrate quality, but homemade tests claim that its streaming quality is similar to that of an iTunes or Amazon song, which, to the untrained ear, is perfectly acceptable.
Catalog: 20 million songs.
Free streaming option: Free and unlimited with ads.
Cost for unlimited use: $9.99per month for all-device access without ads.
Pros: Rhapsody is the perfect bare-bones streaming service for the deliberate music listener. My stubborn father, for instance, doesn’t have Facebook, has no idea who Jay-Z is and would probably balk at the idea of live-streaming his current record of choice to everyone in his social circle. All he wants is to turn on his computer or phone, put on a CD-quality version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and get on with his life.
That’s not to say the latest Lady Gaga song isn’t there if he wants, for some inexplicable reason, to listen to it. But the modest banner of new releases, editor’s recommendations and genre-based channels are probably all the target Rhapsody user wants in his musical life.
Cons: That being said, the Rhapsody home page is a little too static. Users should still have the ability to adjust their home screens so that useless genres don’t take up valuable front-page real estate. If you happen to hate metal or country music, it doesn’t make sense that a link to those genres should show on the left bar of your welcome screen every time you log in.
Catalog: 20 million songs.
Free streaming option: Free 30-day trial.
Cost for unlimited use: $9.99 per month for unlimited ad-free use on all devices.
Pros: If Rhapsody is for deliberate listeners, Pandora is for lazy ones. In case you need a refresher, it works like this: You type in an artist, track, genre or composer that you know you like. Pandora, with the help of its Music Genome Project database, will then play a song that best exemplifies your search (with a helpful little descriptor to boot). If you like the song Pandora chooses, you can give it a thumbs up. If you decide to give a thumbs down, it’ll move on to the next song. You can save up to 100 of these personalized stations on your own account and access them anytime you have an Internet connection.
It’s a fantastic little tool for situations where you don’t have the attention span to hover over your computer and pick a new song every few minutes. And if you don’t care about accessing Pandora remotely or saving a playlist, you don’t even have to sign up. Just go to the website, type in the genre you’re in the mood for and listen. Like I said, perfect for anyone who’s afraid of commitment.
Cons: Pandora’s most obvious downside is that you can’t actually search or listen to a specific song. Nor can you skip through more than five songs within a short period of time.
And then there’s the bitrate. If you pay for Pandora One, you’ll get a 192 Kbps bitrate on your desktop. That’s way less than any of these contenders, meaning that you might actually notice its subpar audio quality level.
Catalog: About 900,000 songs
Free streaming option: Unlimited with ads.
Cost for unlimited use: $3.99 per month or $36 a year for ad-free streaming.
Pros: It’s amazing to think how far Microsoft has come since the Zune. For all the guff the company gets about its misguided projects and clunky interface, Xbox Music is actually very nice to navigate: tidy, flat, responsive and straightforward. As implied by its name, Xbox Music’s social sharing is focused less on networks like Facebook and Twitter and more on the people you game with — a useful tool for those of you who have a deep and meaningful bond with your game consoles (and gamer friends).
Cons: Perhaps Xbox Music’s greatest flaw is its incredibly niche social community. Anyone who isn’t a gamer would be better off going with a service that houses a more robust pick of social networks in its recommendation rounds.
Catalog: 30 million songs.
Free streaming option: Unlimited with ads.
Cost for unlimited use: $9.99 per month for unlimited ad-free use.
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