Streaming music showdown: Xbox Music versus the world

If music soothes the savage breast, then why are so many 800-pound gorillas slugging it out in a battle for your eardrums? Microsoft recently stepped back into the streaming music fray with Xbox Music Pass, a revitalized Zune Pass replacement that's baked right into Windows 8 and Windows RT. It may be pretty and it may be (somewhat) free, but Xbox Music Pass faces stiff competition from a crowd of contenders that includes heavyweights such as Pandora, Rdio, Slacker and Spotify.

How does Xbox Music Pass stack up against the entrenched alternatives? Let's compare Microsoft's latest streaming music service against the big hitters mentioned above.

Xbox Music Pass

Xbox Music Pass continues Microsoft's Live Tile motif.

Xbox Music Pass may be part of the Windows 8 Music app, but it's no slouch. Microsoft's streaming music service offers more than 18 million songs for U.S. customers, and you can fill its handful of coverage gaps by paying for tracks à la carte in the Xbox Music digital storefront.

The "Smart DJ" mode does a decent job of generating playlists inspired by your favorite artists and songs. The audio quality sounds good, though the 192-kbps bit rate won't impress dedicated audiophiles. The polished interface wows. Like the rest of Windows 8, however, it's prone to emphasizing attractiveness over usability, resulting in superfluous clicks and swipes.

Xbox Music Pass offers free unlimited listening for a limited period, allowing you to pay for your freeloading ways by tolerating the occasional audio ad. After six months, Microsoft slams on the brakes and limits your listening to 10 hours each month.

Springing for a $10 monthly premium subscription ditches the ads and opens streaming to Windows Phone 8 handsets and Xbox 360 consoles, which raises my biggest qualm about Xbox Music Pass: It's available only on Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone 8, and the Xbox 360. Android and iOS support will come "within 12 months," but current Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 users are left out in the cold.

This severely limits Xbox Music Pass's reach and usefulness, dropping it to second-tier status for all but the most fervent Microsoft faithful. And why do I need to be a $60 yearly Xbox Live Gold subscriber to use Music Pass on my console? Isn't that what I'm paying $10 each month for?

Catalog size: 18 million-plus

Audio quality: 192-kbps WMA streaming; 256-kbps streaming for à la carte digital downloads

Subscription plans: Unlimited ad-supported free listening for six months, limited duration after; $10 monthly fee removes ads and unlocks device support

Device support: Windows 8, Windows RT, Xbox 360 (requires Xbox Live Gold subscription), Windows Phone 8

Extras: Smart DJ radio listening, console support, à la carte downloads (per-download à la carte songs stream to any device you're signed in to)

Spotify

Spotify is cluttered, yet conscientious of your clicks.

Spotify's cluttered desktop client doesn't come close to matching Xbox Music Pass's eye candy, but it does deliver an abundance of functionality: Most options are only a click away. The 18 million-strong tune selection is just as large as Microsoft's, and you can fill the gaps by integrating your local music library with the Spotify client.

One area where Spotify outshines Xbox Music Pass is in device support. Spotify doesn't support Windows Phone 8, or have a Windows 8 app yet, but the service is available on every other major mobile and desktop client—even on Nokia's Symbian platform and a wide array of home theater equipment. The lack of a Web client stings, however.

Listening to Spotify on anything other than a desktop client requires a $10 monthly premium subscription. That subscription includes an audio-quality boost to a best-in-class 320 kbps, which is a vast improvement over the desktop client's 160-kbps standard and matched only by MOG. (Mobile devices have the option of dropping down to 96 kbps to save on cellular data.) On the desktop you can tune in for free and forever if you don't mind hearing frequent ads, or you can pay $5 monthly to scrub the commercials from the PC client.

The service hosts a bevy of third-party apps, including offerings from Billboard Top Charts, Last.fm, Rolling Stone, TuneWiki, and song-discovery services. It's a huge attraction for Spotify. The Last.fm app in particular makes up for Spotify's so-so music-discovery talents; in fact, I consider it a must-have.

Spotify's widespread device support, deep on-demand catalog, and no-strings-attached, no-limits-involved free listening option make it an extremely compelling service for the average user—assuming that you don't mind hand-picking tunes. Spotify's Radio functionality sucks.

Catalog size: 18 million-plus

Audio quality: 160-kbps Ogg Vorbis by default; 320-kbps streaming for $10-per-month premium subscribers; 96-kbps option for mobile listeners

Subscription plans: Unlimited ad-supported free listening; $5 monthly fee removes ads from desktop client; $10 monthly fee unlocks device support, higher audio quality, and offline mode

Device support: iOS, Mac, Android, Symbian, Windows Phone 7 Mango, BlackBerry, Sonos, Logitech Squeezebox, WD TV Live, Boxee, Onkyo/Marantz/Denon receivers, Phillips Streamium, Samsung Smart TV

Extras: Radio stations, third-party apps, offline mode, "inbox" for shared music, related-artists listings, gift cards, local music library integration, collaborative playlists

Rdio

How did Justin Bieber end up in my Heavy Rotation suggestions?

In song selection, Rdio goes toe-to-toe with any top-tier streaming competitor, but the service truly shines on the social front. It encourages new users to start following other Rdio users, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, and email pals, before the service even shows off a single track.

Keeping tabs on your friends is just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Rdio prominently displays the songs, albums, and playlists that users are currently listening to, and the service generates a "Heavy Rotation" list of suggested albums based on your listening history and follow list. Collaborative playlists are another fun social-oriented extra.

The Web client is white, clean, and crisp, while the desktop client can integrate your local iTunes and Windows Media Player libraries. Rdio plays sly with its audio quality, copping only to streaming at "up to 256kbps" rates, but songs sound average or slightly above average compared with other services.

Unlike the other options described here, Rdio doesn't offer free unlimited listening. Instead, free users receive a short amount of listening time that's replenished monthly. That may sound like a drawback, but it also means that the service rolls along blissfully ad-free. Opting for a $5 monthly Rdio Web subscription unlocks unlimited listening from the Web and desktop apps, while a $10 monthly Rdio Unlimited subscription lets you listen from non-PC devices. All the major mobile platforms are supported, but home theater hardware support is pretty much limited to Roku and Sonos systems. Discounted family subscriptions are available.

Rdio is a great streaming music service, especially if you're a socialite who's willing to pay for your audio pleasure. The limited home theater support, the barely-there passive listening options, and the lack of an ad-supported free-listening tier may drive some people toward other services, however.

Catalog size: 18 million-plus

Audio quality: Won't say, other than "up to 256kbps"

Subscription plans: Free listening of very limited monthly duration; $5 monthly fee allows unlimited listening through Web and desktop clients; $10 monthly fee unlocks device support; discount family subscriptions available

Device support: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7, Sonos, Roku

Extras: No ads, offline mode, desktop client integrates local iTunes and WMP libraries, strong social focus, Heavy Rotation list, collaborative playlists

Subscribe to the Now Playing Newsletter

Comments