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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.

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 repeatsespecially 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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