nternet radio has come a long way from hobbyists playing around with RealAudio to serious broadcasters finding it a less restrictive environment in regards to their ability to freely express themselves, Internet radio has grown to become the more commercialized playground of big tech and media companies. The big players, from old AOL Radio to today’s iTunes Radio, have aligned themselves with music licensing companies like BMG and ASCAP, and have now have extensive licensing agreements with the Big Four and independent music labels, proving Internet radio to be more than a just a hobby. These developments have lent the big music streaming services legitimacy in the eyes of consumers who, over time, have become more comfortable with digital delivery of music.
The most dominant player to evolve from the mish-mash of services like Rdio, Spotify, iHeartRadio was also one of the earliest: Pandora, hatched in 2000 as a way to continue and commodify the Music Genome Project started by Will Glaser and Tim Westergren. Using egghead math and algorithms to delve into musical genres and reduce them to their essence, the Music Genome Project was designed to adapt to the listener’s taste in music and recommend songs based on certain similarities. Pandora automates the process, adding user input features such as “liking” songs so that more of the same type of song plays, asking that a specific song never be played, and including social networking features to share your musical favorites with others.
Pandora has been a big hit with listeners, and the company has since grown, partnering with mobile device and set-top manufacturers and OS developers to include the service… it’s even gotten to the point where you can now find Pandora radio included as an option in new cars.
Enter Apple. Always on the lookout to improve consumer technology by making it easier to use (with typical minimalist elegance), the folks at Cupertino also want to drive more traffic to the iTunes Store, which is the perhaps the core reason for iTunes existence. Noticing that Pandora was driving quite a bit of traffic to the iTunes Store probably didn’t hurt in Apple’s decision to enter the Internet radio fray.
Leaving other, less similar services out, we wonder how does iTunes Radio stack up against Pandora? Well, let’s take a look…
USER INTERFACE (UI)
Pandora’s look and feel has hardly changed in the past few years, aside from some newly included features buried in the existing UI. Accessing it via Pandora.com on a web browser allows for easy account setup and song/artist selection. It’s a clean UI that anyone can figure out, and that ease of use extends to the mobile platforms such as Android and iPhone. It’s easy to create playlists with a click or a swipe, check off liked and disliked songs, and purchase music through either iTunes or Amazon.
Pandora offers the same experience using either the free web, paid desktop or mobile UI, though it is a bit easier to manage user created stations via the web/desktop versions. One caveat: users must interact with Pandora often (liking/disliking songs) or the service will pause the music until a user is actively listening. This minor hassle makes it tougher to listen uninterrupted at the office or while in another room, an irritation that iTunes Radio avoids.
iTunes Radio is fully integrated into Apple’s iTunes application for Mac OS X / iOS. As it’s so well integrated, if you know how to use iTunes, then using the Radio feature is a cinch. Aside from maintaining iOS 7′s look the feature set is the same as Pandora. You get the playback controls, along with social share, and can seamlessly purchase tracks through iTunes while your current song is playing. While Apple offers iTunes/iTunes Radio for Windows, it does not yet have an Android app available… yet.
It’s easier to manage stations with iTunes Radio, which offers ways to view an entire history of tracks played as well as the ability to “tune” the station by selecting Hits, Variety, or Discovery modes. That seems to work… I noticed more hits from the artist/songs I seeded while in that mode, and I noticed more depth to tracks when using Variety mode. Discovery mode allowed for even more extensive, offbeat tracks to play… exposing me to a more extensive variety of music similar to the source track. iTunes Radio offers featured stations updated periodically with playlists created by DJs, celebrities and music artists. These can get you started when you can’t figure out how to design your own station or if you just want to hear a pre-built playlist.
Pandora’s backbone is the Music Genome Project. With songs licensed from the Big Four music labels and most of the independents, Pandora has an exhaustive supply of songs at their disposal. Not that you’ll hear them all, but depending on genre, type of artist and song, you’ll get an excellent mix of tunes. Pandora does have a knack for playing several songs over and over within a few hours of listening, but you can always choose to shelve a track for a while by telling Pandora you’re tired of hearing it. While songs can get stale, the overall breadth and scope of music from a variety of genres make Pandora hard to beat.
Apple also has licensing deals with the music labels, and the iTunes store offers songs that many competing online music retailers don’t because Apple built a special relationship with the artist directly or they have an exclusive deal with the label. Apple is a dominant driver in the music business in ways Pandora is not. iTunes Radio builds directly on top of your own MP3 library within iTunes in the same way that Apple’s Genius feature can data-mine your music library to create “radio” playlists from songs you own. This seems to help create playlists that truly reflect the taste of the user.
iTunes Radio doesn’t lack anything that Pandora has… in fact, listening to both services, I heard the same types of music, and often the same artists or song within similar playlists I created. Both services offer song skipping. Pandora allows for six skipped songs within the hour with 12 skips daily regardless of station played (the paid version allows for more skips per day, though still caps hourly skips at six). Apple is a bit more lenient… still only six skips within an hour, but that’s per radio station and there does not appear to be a daily limit. Buying the premium version of iTunes Radio does not change the limit.
Many will argue that Pandora has a bigger music library because they’ve been at this longer… Hogwash! Apple is well known for its licensing strength, finally nailing down acts like the Beatles who’ve long viewed music streaming with dismay. Unless you’re trying to find music from artists who view Internet radio with disfavor (Radiohead, we’re looking at you!), you’ll have a chance to hear just about anything you might want.
Unless you’re a true audiophile, you won’t discern much difference in web-radio quality. Usually bit rate, which indicates digital audio quality must be balanced within the current parameters of real-world broadband usage.
Pandora offers variable bitrates of up to 64 kbps via its free service. That’s lousy considering that for the longest time the average quality bit rate for MP3 playback was 128 kbps. As broadband speeds increase, you would think that Pandora would up the ante, but nope… for years it’s been 64 kbps, which sounds rather tinny even through speakers or headphones. Premium Pandora offers 192 kbps rate and the aural quality is markedly better. Most of today’s broadband based and satellite networks are capable of playing higher bit rates without so much as a buffering issue, so it’s hard to understand why Pandora doesn’t achieve higher bit rates for both sides of its service.
Apple has still not released specs on the streaming quality of iTunes Radio, particularly the bit rate. A variable bit rate of 256 kbps has been standard for songs purchased through iTunes for some time… in fact, iTunes Match, the service that allows users to store all their music in Apple’s cloud kicks up the bit rate to 256 kbps for storage and playback. It’s doubtful iTunes Radio is streaming at a full 256 on standard data networks though it probably is up to that rate when using Wi-Fi.
I noticed little difference in listening to iTunes Radio via Wi-Fi on the computer (over good speakers) to playing songs from my iTunes library (via iTunes Match). iTunes Radio’s streaming quality was generally excellent. Pandora sounds good, but sonically there is a less rounded sound, a tinny quality that zeros in on the higher frequency range rather than the mid- or low-ranges.
Both services can post to Twitter and Facebook without leaving the main UI or affecting song playback, but only Pandora allows you to share either the song or the station you’re listening to. iTunes Radio only allows you to share only the station, which is something Apple needs to rectify in the next iTunes update since often it’s the songs, not the stations, that reflect our mood at any given moment… which is really what sharing is all about.
Pandora offers a community “Music Feed” feature where you can find friends with whom you can share and discover music… iTunes lacks this, though Apple did once have a similar feature called Ping that was removed for lack of interest.
Both services allow for easy purchasing of songs during playback, but iTunes Radio goes a few steps further allowing you to purchase from a history of tracks played, which is really nice if you happen to miss interacting with a track once it has played out. I did not find this feature in Pandora’s station options (the place for managing station details). Pandora forces you to be actively listening to a track in order to make a purchase, and it’s a few extra clicks to go to either the iTunes Store or Amazon, further proving that Apple is using iTunes Radio to create more direct purchasing opportunities.
Both services are ad-supported in their free iterations, and feature an assortment of audio, video and banner ads. I found the preponderance of Pandora ads to be more of a nuisance than what iTunes Radio foisted upon me. Regardless, free use means advertising in your ears and in your face… Premium is the way to go if you can.
Pandora unlocks a host of features for $36.00 yearly or $3.99 monthly, including higher bit rate audio (192 kbps, still lower than iTunes Radio seems to be offering), ad-free playback, custom skins and a desktop application for Mac or Windows (which is nice considering the impact streaming has on browser performance). Even in premium mode, Pandora requires you to interact to keep music playing, though less frequently than with the free version.
iTunes Radio, already integrated in iTunes, offers ad-free playback when subscribing to iTunes Match ($25/year, no monthly option). iTunes Match is geared toward the total Apple user, someone with Mac desktop/laptop and mobile iDevices, and uses a specifically defined portion of Apple’s iCloud for music storage, which frees up space on computer and mobile devices, probably its most forward-thinking feature.
Pandora vs. iTunes Radio Score Chart
|USER INTERFACE (UI)||ITunes Radio||Ability to view full track history and not just songs liked or disliked. Tuning bar is a nice touch. Featured stations offer an easy way to start listening and are a nice add-on to user-defined stations. It’s far easier to purchase a song without pausing radio playback.|
|MUSIC LIBRARY||iTunes Radio||Ability of iTunes to data mine personal music library and Apple’s relaxed attitude on song skipping.|
|STREAMING QUALITY||iTunes Radio||iTunes Radio’s free, ad-supported version seems to offer a higher bit rate than Pandora. Both premium services acquit themselves nicely, but on an average broadband Wi-Fi network, iTunes Radio has a richer sound.|
|SOCIAL FEATURES||Pandora||Pandora offers greater flexibility for sharing both songs and stations using Twitter and Facebook. You can publish directly to Facebook automatically using a virtual switch in the UI.|
|MUSIC PURCHASING||Tie||It’s far easier to shop through iTunes with fewer clicks and the ability to purchase songs from a history of previously played tracks all without interrupting listening pleasure.|
|PREMIUM VALUE||iTunes Radio||iTunes Radio offers a better value due to tight integration with iTunes Match, especially if you’re already an Apple-centric consumer. Putting all of one’s music in the cloud is a big plus in addition to radio features.|
|OVERALL WINNER||iTunes Radio||Wins 5-2|