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 ....

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COMMENTS
omahapianist's picture

I found your article interesting and informative. Like you, although not as extensively, I listened to some of services you discussed with varying results and found that MOG was the better choice. I've been a MOG subscriber for three months now and have enjoyed the user experience as well as the CD-quality sound.

Your choice is spot-on.

pulleyking's picture

For reference, what is your high end setup for testing?

John Grandberg's picture

Good question. I used most of my gear at some point. A partial list:

DACs: Anedio D1, Audio GD Reference 7, Violectric V800, Yulong D100

Amps: Violectric V200, Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, Yulong A100

Headphones: Lawton Audio LA7000, AKG K701, Sennheiser HD800, various custom in-ear monitors from JH Audio, Westone, Unique Melody, 1964 Ears, and others

Power conditioning by Furman, cables from Signal Cable (I don't consider these to be crucial aspects but someone might)

A few pics, poorly done but still:

http://cdn.head-fi.org/f/f9/f97fc9ed_DSC_0121.jpg

http://cdn.head-fi.org/7/74/742340cb_DSC_0118.jpg

http://cdn.head-fi.org/3/3e/3efc71a3_DSC_0103.jpg

thestewman's picture

Great article.
You missed testing and possibly recommending two other audiophile streaming services. I have used both and they qualify as audiophile quality.

Linn Radio ,Linn Jazz and Linn Classical at http://www.linn.co.uk/music#radio

Radioio
http://www.radioio.com/paid-subscriptions-music-only/
or
http://www.radioio.com/free-membership/

Currently I listen to the above and occasionally MOG using my Transporter streaming to a Weiss DAC then analog out to my music system.

dalethorn's picture

My experience is probably not typical, but I find these services not very useful, since their genres are defined by people and standards that don't correspond to my interests. More to the point, I enjoy music in nearly every genre, but only one percent of the items in any given genre. Going through 100 tracks to find one I like is a waste of time. The only music service I ever found useful was the original Napster, which had nothing at all to do with being free. The key with Napster was taking a specific song and artist I liked and finding users who had that song, then exploring what else those users had. Relying on services to define genres or "if you like this, then you might like this and this" etc. has never worked for me.

I've had other rare experiences in finding music with a much better hit rate than one in a hundred, but those were almost like events in history rather than venues. When Allan Freed played his bucket of 78's in Akron in the early 50's, many of my older cousins jumped on the stuff and I enjoyed their records years later. The explosion of rock-n-roll on hundreds of *independent* radio stations in the late 50's was a goldmine. The emergence of FM radio for independent DJ's before it became commercial (circa 1966) was wonderful - often we heard full length tracks that were not played on AM radio, and the types of music were amazing. The acid era and classic rock era were OK, but the glam, punk, disco, newwave and other genres were far more fertile for original ideas and music construction. The explosion of indie recordings in the 90's when young people could afford quality recording gear to make their own tracks at home - that was the most important factor in what made Napster so great - the indie artists could get distributed democratically. When it comes to jazz, I've had a lot of exposure to jazz groups playing in public so that I didn't have to go to clubs and bars.

I could never understand how so many audiophiles who are so picky about sound reproduction could enjoy so much mediocre music. Especially the so-called classical music. I've heard a number of good things, but extracting those from the overall heap is an arduous task that requires a lifetime of drudgery - not for me.

John Grandberg's picture

Have you tried the latest group of services, specifically MOG? If you haven't, I'd recommend giving them a shot just to see what you think.

The thing is, they offer something for everyone. Some people might rely solely on their suggestions, others might use the social aspects and follow the playlists of some friend or musician that they enjoy. Some folks (myself included) just like to browse on our own, saving artists with potential for further listening later.

It's kind of like being in a huge record store, except you get to open everything and play it is much as you want.

A few examples: I started a playlist using only songs containing the word "Hallelujah" in the title. I ended up with a broad range of songs I enjoyed, by diverse artists such as Jeff Buckley, The Head and the Heart, The Helio Sequence, Jens Lekman, Rita Coolidge, Thao & Mirah, and Rufus Wainwright. Another time I searched artists with names having to do with snakes. I ended up with a playlist featuring The Snake The Cross The Crown, Cobra Skulls, Viper Creek Club, Python Lee Jackson, These Arms Are Snakes, and The Dayton Sidewinders.

The freedom to have access to all this music, with pretty high sound quality, for less than the price of an average album on iTunes, is phenomenal. Yes, I realize that I don't actually OWN any of this music. I'm merely renting it, or the ability to access it any time I want. But the important thing is that I'm enjoying it, and I can always go out and buy my own copy if I feel the need.

I guess the point is that you don't necessarily need the service to spoon feed you music if you prefer to take charge and do it yourself.

Limp's picture

Much appreciated comparison.
I just tried signing up for MOG, is it at all possible to do without using Facebook?

John Grandberg's picture

That was not always the case, but MOG seems to have gone the way of Spotify and made Facebook a requirement.

If you are opposed to Facebook, you could always make a "John Doe" type account just to get yourself signed up.

jondoe's picture

Actually you can! MOG seems to have hidden links to this to meet requirements for being a premium partner on facebooks new music service, but if you sign up for a 14 day (credit card required) free trial, you don't need a facebook account. You won't be charged until after the trial period ends, so don't forget to cancel if you decide you don't like it.

http://www.mog.com/trials

John Grandberg's picture
This should be a great help to people who are interested in MOG but not Facebook.
Limp's picture

Ah-pooh!
For US addresses only. You forgot to mention that in your article.
Apparently the service is expected to be expanded in the future.

Thank you for your help none the less ;)

John Grandberg's picture
With the various services working (or not) in various countries, that was one of those details that I decided to leave out. I didn't want the article to be out of date within a few months.... and nearly all the reps I spoke to mentioned plans for expanding to new areas. Hopefully that brings MOG to your area soon!
martinq312's picture

You're actually spot on about the compression in Spotify, but luckily there is an option to turn it off. In preferences there is an option that says "Set the same volume level for all tracks" which is on by default. You can easily A/B the difference, which is big. If you want high quality (320 kbps) streaming, you need to have the $9.99/month service and manually check a box in preferences to enable it (which annoyingly sometimes gets reset on updates).

I like the organization and large collection Spotify offers, and generally think the sound quality is great. Thanks for the article though, will definitely give MOG a spin.

John Grandberg's picture

This, along with checking the box for enabling high quality audio, were actually things I did immediately after signing up.

Together they made the sound quality go from "consistently poor" to "sometimes poor, sometimes decent, sometimes pretty good".

cleopeak's picture

Do you know where do you check the box for high quality audio? I can't seem to find it.

John Grandberg's picture

I don't have it installed at the PC I'm using now, so I could be wrong. But from memory I think it is under "Preferences". You want to click "Enable Higher Bitate" and DISABLE "Volume Normalization".

That might not be word for word but it is something like that. This option is not available unless you pay for a premium account.

David D.'s picture

Not sure about the PC, but I wrote up instructions for Mac and iOS here:

http://mymusicthing.com/11tips-for-getting-the-most-from-mog-and-spotify/

flohmann's picture

Can't say I'm surprised at the result, since MOG founder David Hyman is a dyed-in-the-wool, vinyl obsessed audiophile. You should ring him up for an interview!

CarlSeibert's picture

It doesn't get the respect it deserves. Every time I try Spotify - either for the rare album that they have and MOG doesn't - or because goofy metadata has made something un-findable on MOG, I'm offended by the lack of quality. I've read on the internet that this or that percentage of their stuff is really 128kbps, bit so far they've batted zero for me.

Both services, by the way, seem to be plagued with the occasional bit of bad metadata. I'm listening to a Ben Webster live date at Ronnie Scott's club right now. MOG pimped it on the home screen, but it doesn't return from a search for either Ben Webster or Ronnie Scott. Go figure. I don't really think either search engine truly sucks, but it's hard to tell.

John Grandberg's picture
has to be tricky when dealing with 13 million tracks (and growing). But yes, I've had it happen here and there where things are a bit off. Come to think of it, all of the services seem to have a small amount of this.
CarlSeibert's picture

I don't know how it works or looks, since I have a subscription.

You can link to a sing on MOG and presumably, a non-subscriber should be able top play it. I don't know what a non-subscriber will see. When I follow such a link, I end up logged in and looking at my own play queue.

For the sake of science, here's a link:

http://mog.com/m/track/536711

Somebody who isn't a MOG subscriber, please follow it and post waht happens.

o153n's picture

I've read that MOG has a standalone app for PC (already out for MAC) on the way, and I know that the fidelity is going to be limited to lossy format, but I would love to see MOG have a WASAPI interface to the standalone player. Having the player bound to a web browser is a drag, as everything passes through the mixer, so you get PC sounds and web page (advertisements) blowing through your MOG music if you surf when you listen.

John Grandberg's picture

It was actually Kernel Streaming but the idea is similar. Here is a link: http://feedback.mog.com/forums/77043-home-audio-suggestions/suggestions/...

The MOG rep makes it seem like it could be a possibility so we'll see.

helluvapixel's picture

I read the article and unfortunately all of it except Rdio relates to me due to licensing for Canadian service. I've heard MOG is making the commitment to come but they haven't yet.

I have heard similar remarks about Rdio quality from my friends in the US. However, I cannot share their sentiments here in Canada. I have no idea if Rdio supports its stream regionally which would account for the difference, however I listened to many genres and songs over Rdio both streaming to my computer and syncing to mobile and to be honest there is little difference say comparing to a purchased song on iTunes (my a/b comparison).

I don't think comparing to music over 3G is going to be a fair field and if that is how you were streaming from all services then so be it, but 3G streaming is hardly consistent and at least for me I don't use that portion of the service.

By far syncing to mobile is Rdio's big strength because I can be listening on the computer via stream and then if I like I can sync to my phone and pick up where I left off and at very good quality.

Streaming Rdio is good quality. I've noticed some rare times the lower bit rates but it's rare. Quality in my guesstimation between 192-256kbps.

Syncing to mobile offers you the highest quality. As a guideline, I had a few albums loaded and I was surprised how much data it was storing on my phone for those songs. Equivalent to the same number of songs from my purchased iTunes library.

John Grandberg's picture

There may in fact be regional differences. It seems odd at first, but when you consider that Rdio has a very strong focus on Canada, it starts to make more sense. Either way - as long as it sounds good to YOU, that's all that matters.

I did test out the sync option to my phone for all three services. I searched until I found the files on my SD card (conveniently hard to find and oddly named), and file sizes were not all that different. MOG was larger but not by a huge amount. I still noticed differences in sound quality though. That's yet another reason why I think there must be some type of dynamic compression scheme being used. Or perhaps they started as a lower bitrate and have been converted to 320k (this has been suggested as a possibility for Spotify). Still, downloading the files is certainly the best way to listen on the go.

Do you run into any issues in Canada where Rdio will display, but not let you play, certain songs or albums? I saw that a lot from my side. Some albums would only have 2 or 3 out of 10 tracks "available in my region". Rdio had this more than the others.

helluvapixel's picture

John, in regards to not playing certain songs or albums the answer is yes. It's not a large percentage but it has happened, or what it will do is let you preview but preview quality is horrid.

Regarding quality and all it is very specific to albums too on Rdio. For example, I tried a Nickelback album or two and the quality was so so over stream. Then I tried a Daughtry album ( I was browsing new releases) and there was an improvement in quality.

I think the best option is to sync to mobile, but the stream is nice for background or sampling a whole album before buying.

cant_think_of_one's picture

I sympathize with helluvapixel about the lack of Canadian availability for all except Rdio. However, this will probably change once the feds pass their new copyright and intellectual property legislation (before Xmas, I hope). Word is that it will address a lot of the concerns that most a la carte media distribution companies (rhapsody, MOG, pandora, etc.) have about operating in Canada (to wit: our current legislation makes it easy to share media over the Web without paying). Whatever the weaknesses of the legislation when it actually comes (and there are major problems, such as the bizarre digital locks issue), it will likely have the positive effect of giving hosers like me and helluvapixel more choice for online music. In the meantime, I'm stuck with Grooveshark, although it is OK for enjoying the stuff I listened to in the 80's as a young pup (stuff I enjoyed back then on cassette anyway, so poor quality just makes me feel more nostalgic!).

Captfantastic's picture

Thanks for the great thought provoking article. It will be interesting to see these services grow (and hopefully improve) over the coming months and years. This website is so rewarding and articles like this add to the great experience!

zubba's picture

Having tested many of these same services, I came to the same conclusions regarding the quality of the streams.

Let me add that MOG has superb customer service; I have received prompt (typically within a few hours) engaged, courteous, and productive replies to my email inquiries, with proactive follow-up from the MOG folks.

Highly recommended.

epshade's picture

Does Sirius belong in this group? It is more expensive, but they have a lot of channels, and DJs that pick music and provide interesting information about artists, sometimes. It works on the web at home, and on phones/tablets, as well as my car.

I have read that the Sirius/XM codec is difficult or strange, but it sounds good to me at home on my computer, through a USB Music Streamer+ to NAD preamp.

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