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In June, Rhapsody and T-Mobile announced Rhapsody unRadio, a subscription streaming music service. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen such an arrangement. Mobile carriers and music streaming services are increasingly getting together in this one-hand-washes-the-other kind of way (as evidenced by the relationships between AT&T and Beats Music and Sprint and Spotify). Getting free or less-expensive music streaming is a perk that might attract customers to a particular carrier, and pre-packaging the services with specific data plans increases the services’ visibility.
Similar to Pandora One, unRadio lets you create and tune into stations rather than select specific tracks or albums that you’d like to listen to, as you can with Spotify, Beats Music, and Rhapsody’s own $10-a-month Rhapsody Premiere. You can skip an unlimited number of songs and the service is ad-free. And you can “tune” your music preferences by assigning a thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating to a track.
Normally unRadio costs $5 a month but if you have T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Unlimited 4G LTE data plan ($30 data feature) you can use unRadio for free. Those with other Simple Choice data plans (including grandfathered unlimited 4G LTE data plans) pay $4 a month for unRadio.
Unlike with Pandora’s offering, you can mark tracks as favorites and call them up at a later time to play them in their entirety. unRadio also provides live streaming of terrestrial radio and includes a Shazam-like song identification component called TrackMatch that lets you create stations from tracks it identifies from the music picked up by your mobile device's microphone. In addition, you can see a short list of upcoming tracks and remove those you know you don’t want to hear.
Repackaging Rhapsody Radio
Long-time Rhapsody subscribers will realize that unRadio is mostly a repackaging of the existing Rhapsody Radio component. The ability to create artist and track stations isn’t new nor are the curated stations made by Rhapsody. And that’s not an entirely bad thing. Until Beats Music came along, Rhapsody had some of the best curated stations in the business. They include a solid collection of stations within genres such as jazz, Latin, and classical that are too often ignored by other services.
It’s when you step outside of the curated stations, however, and depend on unRadio to create stations for you based on a particular artist or track that you realize there’s a reason Pandora is so popular. Its algorithmic playlist generation is a significant step ahead of Rhapsody’s.
Just how musical is it?
Pick a popular modern artist or track and you may be pleased with the results. For example, I chose Katy Perry as a root artist and Rhapsody generated a list of tracks performed by contemporary female pop artists. Selecting Prince was a bit less accurate as it produced a list of tracks from the classic days of funk (including The Gap Band, Parliament, and Bootsy Collins) rather than venturing into hip-hop, where Prince has also had an influence.
You can alter the results a bit by adjusting a Variety slider within Rhapsody’s mobile apps (and Variety and Popularity sliders in the web interface). But the results don’t change wildly from what you see in the first go-around.
This may be because of the number of tracks Rhapsody has chosen to stream via unRadio. Although Rhapsody’s representative said that all 32 million of the service’s tracks were licensed for unRadio streaming, I received a “We are not breaking that information at this moment” reply to my more specific question about how many tracks were being actively streamed (versus just being licensed for this purpose). So even though Rhapsody has the larger catalog, there’s no way to tell if it's offering any more tracks than Pandora.
I’ve found you can tell a lot about a service when you venture outside the day’s hits. I routinely test services like this with classical and jazz artists to see just how insightful their algorithms are. In this case, unRadio wasn't entirely pitch perfect.
In the Rhapsody app on my iPad, I asked unRadio to create a station based on Baroque composer J.S. Bach. Results were from all over the classical spectrum—including Chopin, Gershwin, Satie, and Mendelssohn. If you’re someone unfamiliar with classical music you might think such results are just fine—these are all “serious” composers, right? But if you enjoy classical music you’d find the idea of mixing music that spans three centuries ludicrous.
Testing unRadio with a Louis Armstrong playlist was hit and miss. The first time I tried it produced a playlist with one of his syrupy ballads from later in his career along with some standard jazz vocals. An hour later I played it again and the results were far more satisfying—early “hot” jazz tracks and work from artists representative of traditional dixie music.
In contrast, Pandora produces more cohesive results. If you create a J.S. Bach station, you’re going to hear music from the Baroque period rather than a hodgepodge of music from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary periods. A Louis Armstrong station consistently produces more of his classic jazz duets and representative artists such as Fats Waller and early Ellington.
The bottom line
Whether you choose to give unRadio a tumble depends on a few factors. If you have a T-Mobile plan that offers the service for free, there’s no reason on earth why you shouldn’t sign up. Even if you have an incompatible plan, $4 a month isn’t bad for a streaming radio service that not only lets you create stations and listen to curated content, but pulls in terrestrial radio and allows you to mark tracks for later listening. But when you hit $5 a month you’re competing directly with Pandora One, which—though it may lack terrestrial radio and the ability to listen to marked tracks at a later time—offers generated playlists that make far more musical sense.