Obsolete; also music

Melbourne, October 2012. Ipod earbuds from 2005, on ivory from 1897.

Recently I tried out three music subscription services: Spotify, Rdio and MOG. A few people asked for my opinion on them, so I thought I’d write something up here. This is not a general purpose review, there are plenty of those around, it’s intended to answer the questions I was asked.

First up, the basics. These are all subscription streaming services. You pay a monthly fee, and they let you listen to any music you like from their vast libraries. You can search for whatever music you want, play it in any order, pause, repeat, make playlists and so on. It’s much like using iTunes, only you have an almost unlimited selection of music. If you cancel your subscription, you no longer have access to any of it.

All three services are excellent, and great value in my opinion. Being able to listen to almost any music you can think of, whenever you want, is a great experience. If you just want to listen to music and don’t care about the details, you could pick any one of these services at random and you’ll like it. In most respects they are very similar, and you have to delve into the details to find differences. If you’re fussy about exactly how it works, or exactly what music you want to have access to, you’ll need to look closer at the details.

I’ll start by outlining what they all have in common:

  • They all have a desktop application you download and install to listen to music. It lets you search and browse for music.
  • They are streaming services, which means it downloads as you listen. You have to be online to listen (with some exceptions for the mobile versions).
  • They charge a flat rate per month. You can listen to as much music as you like as long as you keep paying the bill.
  • You can’t download a permanent copy of the music or burn it to CDs or give it to your friends, nor put the songs on an iPod or other mp3 player. If you cancel the subscription you can’t listen to the music anymore.
  • Listening to music will use bandwidth on your internet connection. It varies, but something like about 1G per day (for around 8 hours listening a day).
  • They all have a basic version that works only on a desktop computer, for about $7 – $9 per month (AUD). It’s more expensive in Australia because of the prices charged by local music distributors.
  • They are all legal and above board. They all pay royalties to the record labels and artists when you listen. (Some artists get a raw deal, but that’s the fault of their record label).
  • They all have an optional mobile app that costs a few dollars more per month.  The apps work on iPhones and iPads; I’m not sure about other devices.
  • In addition to streaming like the desktop version, the mobile app allows you to pre-download a limited amount of music at home, so it doesn’t chew through your 3G bandwidth when you’re out, and you can keep listening if you’re out of coverage.
  • They all have collections of music that are huge, but not perfectly complete. None of them has The Beatles.
  • There will be some music that is available on one service but not the others.
  • They all tend to focus on new music, but have good selections of older stuff, kid’s music, classical, jazz, and so on.
  • Your subscription will only work on one computer/device at a time. If you want to have one person listening on a computer while another is listening on their phone or laptop, you’ll need two subscriptions.

Now for the differences.

Rdio:

  • Is more expensive. $8.90/mo for the desktop version, $12.90/mo for the mobile.
  • Has a 7 day free trial. You don’t need to give them your credit card details to try it.
  • Was the most robust, in my testing – I encountered no bugs, crashes, glitches at all.
  • Can be used straight from a web browser, without having to install a special application (unless you want to). That might come in handy if you ever want to listen to something on a friend’s computer.
  • The desktop application looks almost identical to the web browser version.
  • The UI is very clean, minimal, slick.
  • Has a very large library. It does list some albums and tracks as unavailable.
  • I found it to be the best application for searching and navigating by album. Also at keeping track of albums I like.
  • It’s also very good at suggesting other related artists and albums. You can follow playlists created by other people.
  • Although none of them are very good at cataloging classical music, I found this to return the most accurate classical searches.
  • The desktop application can index music that is already on your computer in iTunes.  It doesn’t play your files directly, just looks for matches in the Rdio catalog.
  • It doesn’t really support gapless playback, despite claiming to.  There is a short gap between songs, which can be annoying with certain types of music like live recordings.
  • Generally speaking I thought it had the best experience.  The application was the most satisfying to use, and the best at finding what I was looking for.
  • The initial impression and signup process is very slick and well done – they’ve really thought it through and perfected it.

Spotify:

  • Is cheaper than Rdio, on par with MOG. $6.99/mo for the desktop only version, $11.99 for the mobile.
  • Has a free version, with ads both on-screen and in audio. They are quite intrusive and annoying.
  • Also has a 30 day free trial, sans ads. You have to give your credit card number to start the trial, and they’ll start charging you if you don’t cancel before it ends.
  • The desktop application is the most busy and complicated. It looks a lot like iTunes.
  • It’s good at searching for artists and songs.
  • I found it frustrating to search and navigate by album. You can’t bookmark or favourite albums directly.
  • I encountered a few glitches: searches occasionally returned no results, the music stream would occasionally drop out or pause for a few seconds.
  • Is the only one that properly supports gapless playback.
  • Their selection of music is roughly on par with Rdio. I found a few omissions – Pink Floyd for example.
  • I found a few obscure songs on Spotify that the others missed, especially bonus tracks. The others might have the same album, but omitted the bonus track.
  • They have a lot of classical music, but it’s hard to find specific things. There were quite a few recordings I searched for and could not find; only to stumble across later. It’s there, but they haven’t properly indexed all of the composer/title/performer details. There are lots of classical compilations with track titles like “Adagio for Strings” – and no indication at all who the composer is.
  • The desktop application can also index and play music that was already on your computer.
  • Generally I found it to be good, but the experience is a bit frustrating and fiddly at times. The initial impression (starting with the free ad-supported version) is a bit ugly and hostile.
  • The mobile app is pretty good, and a bit less fiddly in some respects than the desktop.

MOG:

  • Same pricing as Spotify, cheaper than Rdio. $6.99/mo desktop, $11.99/mo with mobile.
  • Has a 14 day free trial. You have to give your CC details and they’ll start charging if you don’t cancel.
  • Has some ties to Telstra. In some cases, bandwidth is unmetered if you use Bigpond internet or Telstra 3G, so it’s possible you can listen without using up bandwidth – but they’re not very clear on exactly which plans cover this, so check carefully.
  • The desktop application is very simple and minimal, like Rdio rather than Spotify.
  • It’s also the most basic in terms of features. The desktop app feels unfinished and flimsy.
  • The mobile app is pretty good.
  • Can be used directly from a web browser without installing an application.
  • Like Rdio, it’s good at navigating by album, and keeping track of albums you like.
  • It has the highest sound quality, and also uses the most bandwidth. For casual listening the difference in sound quality is probably not noticeable. If you’re a hi-fi enthusiast it is.
  • The Mac desktop app is the only one of the three that directly supports Airplay. If you don’t know what that means then it doesn’t matter.
  • It doesn’t support gapless playback.
  • It can’t play other music that was already on your computer.
  • It doesn’t have much in the way of features for discovering new music or seeing suggestions by other people.
  • The experience is generally fine, and everything works, but it does feel a bit neglected and in need of improvement.

In the end I went with Rdio, mainly because I found their better client and data meant I had more success finding what I want to listen to. I don’t mind paying a dollar or two more if it means I use it more. My opinion might change, and if it does I’ll switch. But I expect it’ll be to one of these or a similar service – as far as the subscription model goes, I’m sold.

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