Which music subscription service should you use?

You’re well aware that you can purchase music directly over the Internet—from Apple’s iTunes Store, Amazon MP3, Google Music, and a host of other sites. And these are perfectly fine options if you want to own your music. But, for those who like to listen to—but not necessary collect—a vast library of music there’s an alternative: Music subscription services.

Cough up $5 or $10 a month and you can listen to any of millions of tracks in a wide variety of genres, whenever and (within reason) wherever you want. I took a look at the major subscription services—Mog, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker, and Spotify—to see how they shake out and which might be the best fit for you.

The basics

First, let’s be clear about what a music subscription service is. Unlike Pandora or Last.fm, these services let you choose specific tracks to listen to, rather than a station based on an artist or track. And, unlike Amazon MP3 or the iTunes Store, you can listen to entire tracks rather than just previews. So, if you want to hear the first track of Jason Mraz’s new album, you can call it up and stream it in its entirety.

To save bandwidth and server costs, these tracks are compressed—some more than others depending on the service you choose and the plan you’ve selected. Each allows you to listen to music on your computer via either a Web browser or dedicated application (or in some cases both) and, with higher-priced plans, you can additionally stream music to your iOS and Android devices, as well as some home entertainment devices and car audio systems. With these same premium plans, you can additionally download tracks for offline listening.

Lots of music

I surveyed the five players in this space and found that every one of them offers millions of tracks. Slacker—a new entrant in the subscription business—streams the least number of on-demand tracks, at a little more than 10 million tracks. Mog and Rdio claim more 15 million tracks, while both Rhapsody and Spotify have more 16 million tracks in their respective catalogs.

These tracks numbers are impressive, but they reflect the services’ global catalog. You won’t find all of these tracks available in every country in which the service is offered. For example, Spotify may offer a particular album or track in the U.K. but, because of licensing issues, not in the United States. And even if a service boasts millions upon millions of tracks, those tracks do you no good if they’re not the ones you want to listen to.

For example, I searched for Alison Krauss & Union Station: Live (iTunes link) among the services and only Slacker had it. Similarly, I searched for recordings by Paul McCartney. Spotify had no McCartney albums, Rdio listed a load of albums and tracks, but you can’t stream any of them. Rhapsody had some of McCartney’s latest albums but none of his classic recordings. Mog had a few scattered tracks. And while Slacker had the best selection, like Rdio, it listed lots of tracks that you can’t stream.

How the music is distributed among genres also varies. When it comes to the top hits of the day and last couple of decades, the music services are generally on equal footing, but some catalogs are deeper in regard to specific genres. For example, Rhapsody has a more extensive classical music catalog than any of the other services. I searched for Bach’s popular Goldberg Variations on each service and Rhapsody had 145 recordings, Rdio 127, Spotify 50, Mog 40, and Slacker fewer than 10. On the other hand, one of my favorite jazz labels, ECM, is far better represented on Mog than the other services.

All service offerings aren’t equal. Rhapsody, for example, has the deepest classical catalog, which you can easily browse

Also there’s a certain amount of gamesmanship when it comes to signing exclusive deals. For example, Spotify has recently signed an agreement with the Red Hot Chili Peppers allowing it exclusive streaming rights to the band’s catalog.

Given just how extensive these catalogs are, it’s difficult to say that one is clearly more complete than another. They all have holes. It’s simply a matter of whether those holes represent music that you desperately care about.

Plans

Four of the services provide a way to listen to free music beyond a trial period.

Rdio has an ad-free listening plan but the amount of music you can listen to isn’t defined. Listen to enough music and, at some point, Rdio will prompt you to upgrade to a paid plan.

Mog and Spotify offer free, ad-supported, on-demand plans. Each is limited to playback on a computer and they each have a way of limiting the amount of music you can stream. Spotify limits free accounts to 10 hours a month. Mog’s plan is more complicated. You’re provided with a “gas tank” of free music access. You fill the tank by exploring the service’s features (creating playlists, for example) and sharing playlists with friends on social networking services. So, in essence, you get paid in music by advertising the service to your friends and followers.

Slacker also offers free listening, but its free plan is much more like Pandora than an on-demand service. As with Pandora, you can create stations based on artists and tracks, but you can’t pick specific tracks to listen to with the free plan.

Rhapsody offers a 30-day unlimited free trial, but you have to pay to keep listening when the trial period ends.

If you don’t care to put up with ads or pimp a service to a friend, you can put an end to both by pungling up a monthly fee to keep the music flowing. $5 a month provides you with ad-free on-demand computer access for Mog, Rdio, and Spotify. For $4 a month you can switch off Slacker’s ads.

Pay $10 a month for any of these services and you get more flexibility. For that 10 bucks you get mobile and home player access from Mog, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker ($10 also gives you on-demand play from Slacker), and Spotify. Additionally, with these plans each service lets you download tracks for offline listening. Spotify also offers higher bit rate streams when you sign up for the $10 plan.

One advantage of premium plans is that you can download tracks to your mobile device for offline listening.

The quality of downloads varies among the services. Spotify and Mog provide up to 320-kbps downloads (if such files are available—see “Formats and bit rates” below). Rdio offers 256-kbps MP3 files. Rhapsody lets you cache 160-kbps MP3 files. And Slacker has 64-kbps AAC Pro V2 files. In some cases, you may need to enable a high-quality switch within the mobile app to access these higher-quality files.

Speaking of mobile devices, if your family shares an account and that family has multiple mobile devices, there could be some argument about who gets to stream what when. At the $10 level, all these services will stream to just a single mobile device. Attempt to stream to a second one simultaneously and you’ll either cut off the first, be asked which you’d like to use, or, in the case of Slacker, be informed that you must contact customer support (!). Rhapsody and Rdio allow you to overcome these limits by paying more. Rhapsody’s $15-per-month plan lets you use up to three mobile devices simultaneously. Pay Rdio $18 a month for support of up to two devices; $23 a month buys you three-device support.

This is another category in which it’s difficult to recommend one service over another. It’s hard to argue with free, and Spotify, Mog, and Rdio’s free plans are attractive, and their paid plans offer higher-quality streams and downloads. On the other hand, Rhapsody’s $15 plan with three-device support is the better way to go if you have multiple mobile devices.

Chart design by Kate Godfrey

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