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Streaming music showdown: Xbox Music versus the world

Brad Chacos | Nov. 19, 2012
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.

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

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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 Radioas the latter service's name implieswere built from the ground up for hands-off listening.

Slacker Radio

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.


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