Comparing the Audio Quality of Streaming Music Services at Home and Portably
The Field of Play
Pandora, Spotify, Last.fm, Rhapsody, Napster… the list is long and growing. Practically every tech website has covered one or more of these services. Some have even done detailed comparisons between them. But most of those articles assume the listener is using computer speakers, basic headphones, or at best a modest home theater system. I set out to determine if any of these services might be appealing to a more critical listener using both a phone portably, and with high-end gear at home. My priority was sound quality so I won’t be covering things like social music discovery. The results were somewhat surprising overall, as well as encouraging for the future.
I started out by compiling a list of all the services I could find. The number was much higher than I originally anticipated, but I knew I could eliminate many of them if I set a few minimum requirements. For example: everybody is different when it comes to hearing artifacts from lossy encoding, and I find 128k mp3 streams to be perfectly enjoyable for casual background music. But since my focus here was on audio quality, I decided that 192k mp3 or the equivalent was my minimum threshold for a paid subscription, both at home and on my phone (with one possible exception that I’ll discuss later). That eliminated many of the bigger players such as Rhapsody, Grooveshark, Slacker Radio, and Last.fm. My other main requirement was that the service offer an app for my Android based phone. That eliminated Turntable.fm and Zune Music Pass. While researching this article I discovered that Napster had just been purchased by Rhapsody, although Napster would have been eliminated by my bitrate requirements anyway.
These services can broadly be put into two categories: radio and on-demand. Radio style services let you specify an artist or genre, then the service plays music for you that they believe fits your choice. On-demand services let you access to a massive library of music, and you make your own choices. Both types have their place, I felt it important not to directly compare one type with the other, but just focus on sound quality.
It’s worth pointing out that finding reliable information was not an easy task. Some of these services aren’t exactly forthcoming about bitrates or compression types. Some have changed over the years making old reviews no longer accurate. Even when something looked good on paper, it didn’t always deliver. For example, I initially thought Jango seemed like a perfect recommendation as a free alternative to Pandora on my Android phone. It offered unlimited skips, no commercials (just small banner ads on the screen), and “up to” a 128kbps bitrate. But upon listening I discovered that many of the songs sounded quite poor despite my having chosen the “high quality” setting. They may be delivering a 128k mp3 stream, but I suspect that some of these tracks started as much lower bitrate files. Whatever the case, I don’t recommend bothering with Jango, even as a free service.
At the end of the first elimination round my list consisted of Pandora, Aupeo!, MOG, Spotify, and Rdio.
I signed up with all five of the above services and got to work listening. For the past few months I’ve almost exclusively used these music services as opposed to my own music. That includes listening on the go with my Android phone as well as listening at home on a high end setup.
Let's have a listen ....