Part 2 - Price, Catalog Depth, and Quality
Everything being equal, price is likely of paramount importance to many users interested in a streaming music service. The services above break down into one of three categories: ad-supported, paid (ad-free) subscriptions, and services that are a perk included with another paid service.
Most of the services have free, ad-supported options. Beats Music, Google Play, Sony Music, and Rhapsody's new unRadio are the exceptions. The ad-free services all have varying levels of access control, number of skips allowed, and limited features. At the end of the day if you're going to choose a service based on what you get for nothing, it's six of one, half dozen of the other.
iHeart Radio is unique in that it's all free, all the time, so long as you want to listen to Clear Channel-owned radio stations and the content that company licenses. The live radio stations have whatever ads those stations are already playing, but you can also create band, album, or song-centric stations that are commercial free. For a free option, that's a lot of bang for your lack of buck.
Seven of the services offer ad-free subscriptions for US$10 per month (more like $9.99). Last.fm at $4 and Pandora, Sony Music, and unRadio at $5 are the exceptions.
Apple's iTunes Radio and Amazon's Prime Music are the last category in that they are services included as a perk with other subscription services. In the case of Amazon, there is no free option. It comes only with the $99 per year Amazon Prime. Frankly, this is the weakest offering of the bunch. 1 million songs, limited features, and no songs from Universal Music Group as of this writing, makes this a real snoozer, even if you're already a Prime subscriber.
At $25 per year, Apple's iTunes Radio is the surprise price leader for all of the paid services. Apple's ad-free version is included as part of iTunes Match, the company's service for hosting your music in the cloud, and $25 per year makes either feature a great value.
Whether or not the number of songs available on a service matters to you will be highly subjective. If a service has every song you want, who cares if the total catalog is only 1 million deep? Conversely, if none of your favorite tunes are there, the fact that there are 32 million tracks available is irrelevant.
Most of us will fall somewhere in the middle, and that's where the subjectivity really comes into play. At 32 million songs, Rhapsody has the deepest catalog, by far. That said, that number is for the company's global catalog, and Rhapsody won't break down those numbers by market. Accordingly, I am not sure if any single market has all 32 million tracks.
Apple comes in second, with 26 million tunes, and Sony's service is a close third at 25 million. Most of the rest of the companies come in the 13-20 million range, with Amazon Prime and Pandora bringing up the distant rear at a million tunes.
I suspect that the vast majority of users will be content with the libraries of all of the services with 13 million or more songs. There is only so much time in the day to listen to music, and after that first 10 million, I'm personally listened-out. The big numbers are really for bragging rights, and at some point technology will allow most of these services to have all the songs.
File quality is a thing for me, but it's subjective. I know someone who thinks I am lying about hearing the difference between a 128Kbps file and anything higher, and there are audiophiles who sneer at anything less than lossless compression.
My subjective cutoff, though, is 256Kbps. I prefer 320Kbps and above, but 256Kbs is the worst quality I'll listen to without whining about it. My research found that Beats Music, Spotify, Google Play, and Sony Music are offering streaming at 320Kbps, and that is likely to satisfy most folks.
Apple's iTunes is the only service streaming at 256Kbps—Prime Music is "up to 256Kbps," and that's a big bucket of hogwash if you ask me. Come on, Amazon, show us enough respect to be more specific.
If sound quality matters to you, I'd dismiss the rest of the services right away. 128Kbps and 192Kbps sound like crap unless you're listening to your music through crappy speakers anyway.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Next: Stations, Playlists, and Album/Song Streaming