November 24, 2012, 7:05 AM — 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.
How does Xbox Music Pass stack up against the entrenched alternatives? Let's compare Microsoft's latest streaming music service against the big hitters mentioned above.
Xbox Music Pass
Xbox Music Pass may be part of the Windows 8 Music app, but it's no slouch. Microsoft's streaming music service offers more than 18 million songs for U.S. customers, and you can fill its handful of coverage gaps by paying for tracks à la carte in the Xbox Music digital storefront.
The "Smart DJ" mode does a decent job of generating playlists inspired by your favorite artists and songs. The audio quality sounds good, though the 192-kbps bit rate won't impress dedicated audiophiles. The polished interface wows. Like the rest of Windows 8, however, it's prone to emphasizing attractiveness over usability, resulting in superfluous clicks and swipes.
Xbox Music Pass offers free unlimited listening for a limited period, allowing you to pay for your freeloading ways by tolerating the occasional audio ad. After six months, Microsoft slams on the brakes and limits your listening to 10 hours each month.
Springing for a $10 monthly premium subscription ditches the ads and opens streaming to Windows Phone 8 handsets and Xbox 360 consoles, which raises my biggest qualm about Xbox Music Pass: It's available only on Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone 8, and the Xbox 360. Android and iOS support will come "within 12 months," but current Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 users are left out in the cold.
This severely limits Xbox Music Pass's reach and usefulness, dropping it to second-tier status for all but the most fervent Microsoft faithful. And why do I need to be a $60 yearly Xbox Live Gold subscriber to use Music Pass on my console? Isn't that what I'm paying $10 each month for?
Catalog size: 18 million-plus
Audio quality: 192-kbps WMA streaming; 256-kbps streaming for à la carte digital downloads
Subscription plans: Unlimited ad-supported free listening for six months, limited duration after; $10 monthly fee removes ads and unlocks device support
Device support: Windows 8, Windows RT, Xbox 360 (requires Xbox Live Gold subscription), Windows Phone 8
Extras: Smart DJ radio listening, console support, à la carte downloads (per-download à la carte songs stream to any device you're signed in to)
Spotify's cluttered desktop client doesn't come close to matching Xbox Music Pass's eye candy, but it does deliver an abundance of functionality: Most options are only a click away. The 18 million-strong tune selection is just as large as Microsoft's, and you can fill the gaps by integrating your local music library with the Spotify client.
One area where Spotify outshines Xbox Music Pass is in device support. Spotify doesn't support Windows Phone 8, or have a Windows 8 app yet, but the service is available on every other major mobile and desktop clienteven on Nokia's Symbian platform and a wide array of home theater equipment. The lack of a Web client stings, however.
Listening to Spotify on anything other than a desktop client requires a $10 monthly premium subscription. That subscription includes an audio-quality boost to a best-in-class 320 kbps, which is a vast improvement over the desktop client's 160-kbps standard and matched only by MOG. (Mobile devices have the option of dropping down to 96 kbps to save on cellular data.) On the desktop you can tune in for free and forever if you don't mind hearing frequent ads, or you can pay $5 monthly to scrub the commercials from the PC client.
The service hosts a bevy of third-party apps, including offerings from Billboard Top Charts, Last.fm, Rolling Stone, TuneWiki, and song-discovery services. It's a huge attraction for Spotify. The Last.fm app in particular makes up for Spotify's so-so music-discovery talents; in fact, I consider it a must-have.
Spotify's widespread device support, deep on-demand catalog, and no-strings-attached, no-limits-involved free listening option make it an extremely compelling service for the average userassuming that you don't mind hand-picking tunes. Spotify's Radio functionality sucks.
Catalog size: 18 million-plus
Audio quality: 160-kbps Ogg Vorbis by default; 320-kbps streaming for $10-per-month premium subscribers; 96-kbps option for mobile listeners
Subscription plans: Unlimited ad-supported free listening; $5 monthly fee removes ads from desktop client; $10 monthly fee unlocks device support, higher audio quality, and offline mode
Device support: iOS, Mac, Android, Symbian, Windows Phone 7 Mango, BlackBerry, Sonos, Logitech Squeezebox, WD TV Live, Boxee, Onkyo/Marantz/Denon receivers, Phillips Streamium, Samsung Smart TV
Extras: Radio stations, third-party apps, offline mode, "inbox" for shared music, related-artists listings, gift cards, local music library integration, collaborative playlists