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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.

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

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 supportyou can even tune in on several cars and a Samsung smart fridge, for crying out loudand 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.

 

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