In song selection, Rdio goes toe-to-toe with any top-tier streaming competitor, but the service truly shines on the social front. It encourages new users to start following other Rdio users, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, and email pals, before the service even shows off a single track.
Keeping tabs on your friends is just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Rdio prominently displays the songs, albums, and playlists that users are currently listening to, and the service generates a "Heavy Rotation" list of suggested albums based on your listening history and follow list. Collaborative playlists are another fun social-oriented extra.
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 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.
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)
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
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