Streaming music showdown: Xbox Music versus the world

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The last two options I'll discuss differ from the previous contenders in that they come from a radio-style-first perspective. Rdio, Spotify, and Xbox Music Pass focus on on-demand listening; although all of those services include noninteractive radio-type options, they're fairly lackluster. In contrast, Pandora and Slacker Radio—as the latter service's name implies—were built from the ground up for hands-off listening.

Slacker Radio

Slacker's attractive Windows 8 app makes finding specific stations easy.

Slacker Radio uses flesh-and-blood DJs to curate its 200-plus radio stations, making the stations much more intriguing than the algorithmically generated radio options found in Slacker's competitors. Slacker offers radio stations for every genre and subgenre imaginable, along with awesome specialty stations like "Great Songs You Forgot" and the punishing "Bass and Beats," which managed to blow my Beats headphones two days after I started tuning in. (No, that's not a complaint.) Four comedy stations keep things merry, while premium subscribers get access to live ABC News and ESPN Radio affiliates.

What, none of that sounds good? You can also create autogenerated stations built around music related to your favorite artists and songs.

That's still not enough? Slacker actually mixes the best of both worlds: Paying $10 monthly for a full subscription lets you play any of its tunes on demand, complete with Spotify-esque playlist functionality and offline mobile caching options. Slacker also carries songs from some big-name artists that you can't find on most other streaming music services, including Pink Floyd and The Beatles.

Similar to Spotify, Slacker lets anybody listen to unlimited ad-supported songs for free, though nonpaying subscribers are restricted to radio functionality. Slacker's device support also stands out from the crowd: The service's hardware reach extends far and wide, and you don't even need a premium subscription to listen on auxiliary devices. None of the on-demand-focused streaming services offer free device support.

Slacker isn't perfect, however. The Web client is bland, the audio quality is just average, and the service doesn't integrate your local music collection. Nevertheless, the blend of DJ-curated tunes and free device support makes it a strong option for gratis listeners, while the mix of strong radio stations and full on-demand listening should appeal to people who don't mind paying for the privilege of listening. It even has a Windows 8 app. Slacker's versatility makes it my favorite streaming music service.

Catalog size: Unknown, and representatives didn't answer my queries (though the service claimed to have 10 million songs in October 2011)

Audio quality: 128-kbps MP3 for Web client; 40-kbps AAC-Plus V2 on mobile devices

Subscription plans: Unlimited free ad-supported radio listening and device support; $4 monthly fee allows ad-free Web listening, unlimited song skips, mobile radio station caching, and live ESPN and ABC News stations; $10 monthly fee unlocks on-demand listening with playlist functionality, ability to create single-artist radio stations, and offline album and playlist caching

Device support: Windows 8, iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Palm, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, Symbian, Roku, Logitech Squeezebox, Acoustic Research Infinite Radio, Sony TVs and Blu-ray players, Sonos, Ford Sync

Extras: Mix of on-demand and radio-style listening; 200-plus DJ-curated radio stations; live ESPN and ABC News radio stations; offline station, playlist, and album caching; specialty and seasonal radio stations

Pandora

Pandora looks great! Too bad the audio quality doesn't match.

By now, everyone knows about Pandora, the Internet radio station that brought streaming music to the mainstream. Pandora's standout features are its unmatched device support—you can even tune in on several cars and a Samsung smart fridge, for crying out loud—and the vaunted Music Genome Project, which dissects the myriad musical elements in songs that you thumbs-up and thumbs-down to create a listening experience tailored for your ear. In a nutshell, Pandora is scary good at playing songs that you may not have heard before but that you immediately love.

Pandora is also an incredibly cheap streaming music option. Anybody can listen to as many ad-supported tunes as they want, and a Pandora One subscription that kills the ads and increases audio quality costs only $4 a month or $36 a year. You can't beat those prices anywhere.

Pandora isn't all roses and sunshine, though. Licensing restrictions limit listeners to six skips per hour, and free users have to sit through a ton of ads. The music quality isn't great either, clocking in at an unimpressive 64 kbps for free accounts and at 192 kbps for Pandora One subscribers. Pandora's audio quality on home entertainment devices splits the difference at 128 kbps, Slacker's default streaming rate.

More noticeable, perhaps, is Pandora's paltry song selection. While most of its competitors offer more than 15 million songs, Pandora chugs along with around 1 million tunes, which leads to frequent repeats—especially if you've dedicated the time to crafting a carefully honed station. Pandora is also the only service covered here that doesn't let premium subscribers cache songs for offline listening on their mobile phone.

That said, Pandora is a useful tool for the frequent wanderer's musical arsenal. The ridiculously deep device support, free listening, and cloud-saved settings mean that if you expend the effort to create a decent station or two, you'll be able to access them from pretty much anywhere you have an Internet connection. Pandora is decent for casual listening aside from that, but overall, Slacker and the other streaming music services mentioned here outshine this old hand.

Catalog size: Around 1 million

Audio quality: 64-kbps AAC+ for free Web listeners; 192-kbps streaming for Pandora One subscribers; 128-kbps streaming for home entertainment devices; 65-kbps maximum for mobile phones

Subscription plans: Unlimited free ad-supported radio listening and device support; $36-per-year Pandora One subscription removes ads, ditches 12-skips-per-day limit (6-skips-per-hour limit still applies), ups quality to 192 kbps, and unlocks desktop client with custom skins

Device support: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, TiVo, Roku, Sonos, Verizon FiOS TV, Livio Radio, Logitech Squeezebox, Grace Digital Internet Radio, Chumby, Boxee, VUDU, DirecTV, Dish Network, Denon receivers, HDTVs, home theater systems and Blu-ray players (Insignia, JVC, LG, Panasonic, RCA, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, and Vizio), in-car support (select BMW, Buick, Ford, GMC, Mercedes-Benz, Mini Cooper, and Scion models), car radio (Alpine and Pioneer), Cambridge Audio NP30, Rotel Hi-Fi tuner, Sangean Internet Radio, Sony Dash, Sonoro elements W, Autonomic Controls Mirage Media Servers, Netgear NeoTV Streaming Player, NuVo Music Port, RCA Streaming Music Players, Sony Streaming Media Player, WD TV Live

Extras: Music Genome Project

One final thought…

Before you plunk down your cash on a subscription to any of these services, remember that each offers free listening options that let you try before you buy. Give 'em a spin before jumping in!

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