If you are looking to expand your musical horizons, discover new music or simply bolster your access to various songs or genres, then you should consider one of the many streaming music applications available for the iPhone and iPad. Some are available for free, while others require a small monthly subscription charge. There are a number of applications that allow you to stream your own collection, but our focus in this segment of the App Filter is to find the best streaming music app for iPhone and iPad that offers access to music outside of your current iTunes library. For apps to qualify, they must provide some level of control over the content, so Internet Radio apps won’t be on the table. Let’s get started!
It would be hard to start any discussion of streaming music apps with including Pandora. It’s the most recognized and prevalent brand in the business. Pandora relies on a station concept, one that is customized to your preferences. You provide Pandora with one or more of your favorite artists, along with a title for your new station. The app will stream similar music from similar artists, along with your favorites. Using the ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’, you can help dictate if Pandora’s virtual DJ is doing a good job. The free version is heavily supported by ads, with pop-overs appearing regularly over the album artwork. If you find yourself struggling with the selection, you hit an unfortunate roadblock with the free version, that disables forwarding to the next track.
The concept of ‘stations’ works well and helps with music discovery. The interface allows for creating new stations as you find new artists of interest. As you are browsing and listening to new music, the ‘info’ tab helps you learn more about the artist. Browsing is an appropriate term, as Pandora has options to ‘Bookmark this Track’, ‘Bookmark this Artist’. Integration with iTunes presents inroads to iTunes, where you can purchase and add to your library.
Pandora One is the paid version, which is $3.99 per month. This offers a completely ad-free experience, higher quality audio, a desktop app, custom skins and the promise of fewer interruptions.
Pandora is popular for a reason. As Michael noted in his review of Pandora for iPhone and iPad, “This is truly a great app for any music lover. I’ve added close to a 100 new bands to my listening list and that number climbs almost daily”.
This service feels like Pandora, but with bells and whistles. Using a similar ‘stations’ set-up, once you add an artist (ie. Motley Crue), it will provide you with a list of similar artists. Checking the box next to these artists will create a station filled with songs from these artists and help refine the similar artists that Slacker will select for you.
Instead of ‘thumbs up’, ‘thumbs down’, you use a heart for favorites and you can ‘ban a song or artist’. Thankfully Slacker didn’t push any Justin Beiber into my playlists, so I didn’t have to wield the ban feature. For those looking to getting up and running quickly, the app provides a prefab set of stations for every genre. This is particularly good for listening to holiday music on your iPhone.
The premium version, known as Slacker Radio Plus, allows you to have an ad-free experience, unlimited skips, ability to play stations without a connection and the inclusion of ABC News Radio. You can also see what song is coming up next.
Yet another spin on streaming music is Spotify. The service offers millions of tracks allowing you to listen to anything you want, whenever you want it. There is a tight integration with Facebook that cannot be avoided, so those of you with an aversion to the social networking giant will be better served steering clear of this app. This tie-in with Facebook makes it possible for Spotify to excel at making the sharing of music and playlists. Spotify will provide you with a list of your friends on Facebook that are Spotify users. You can browse, listen and subscribe to those playlists.
Back in the day (see the 80’s), I enjoyed making a good mix tape, often shared with friends at weekly parties. The parties are few and far between, but I still enjoy sharing music with friends. I can make a list in Spotify and friends using the service can receive notifications of new lists or updates to an existing list. These lists aren’t just for your friends, you can create playlists with music using songs from your iTunes library and music you don’t own.
The drawback to some services are the need to have a persistent wireless or WiFi connection. Spotify has an option to make your playlist available offline. Doing so downloads the tracks to your iPhone or iPad.
If you are someone who enjoys listening to current music, the ‘What’s New’ tab offers the top tracks in the US which mirrors what you’d find for purchase in the iTunes Store. Also available are a list of new releases.
I was particularly impressed with the audio scrubbing (fast forward/rewind) features of Spotify, which made it seem as if the music I was streaming was served up locally. The killer feature for Spotify would have to the seamless feel of social music sharing. The vast library of tracks play as if you were listening locally and that’s quite a feat, making for a seamless experience.
This application scores all points for originality, creating playlists for you based upon your mood, the day of the week and the activity you have planned. You are then presented with yet another set of options. While I appreciate trying to refine my choices to deliver the best possible music, it started to feel like work. Do I want 1980s, ‘80‘s party or ‘80‘s rock.
When you dig down to a specific genre, you might also find yourself disappointed with the quantity of songs, limiting the usefulness of Songza. If you have a diverse taste in music, then the tightly curated playlists might have appeal. There is also a very noticeable iTunes slant, with the app providing iTunes: Top Pop Songs, iTunes: Top Songs. Unlike Pandora and Slacker, you can skip songs to your heart’s desire.
The Rdio app feels as if it were a relative of the music app, in a good way. The clean and minimal UI gets out of the way, allowing you to dive into the music collections. The search bar will allow you to search for a track or artist. Like Pandora and Slacker, Rdio will auto-create and offer playback of your newly created radio station.
The ‘+’ sign next to the song list can be used to:
- Add to collection
- Sync to Mobile
- Add to Playlist
- Share this song
When you add albums or songs, ‘Collection’ is used as a drop all. You can add an album from an artist, but absent is the ability to add all albums. Since you are not paying for each album, I would have liked to had an option to quickly add ‘all albums’ from Motley Crue. Playlists are meant for adding specific songs.
There is no denying the amount of music in the Rdio vault, all of which you have instant access to on your iPhone or iPad. Features such as Heavy Rotation, New Releases and Top Charts show the emphasis to be on newer music. Press and hold on any of the icons allows you to move the icons around, similar to the home screen on your iPhone.
If you have a fairly decent library of music, then you might find yourself using Rdio to reinvent the wheel. I found the music discovery to be lacking. I added several albums and to my dismay, Rdio’s recommendations remained the same. I had two friends within Facebook that use Rdio, none of which had added any music. For social to be effective, your friends need to be there. After using Rdio for iPhone, I see why Spotify forces your hand with Facebook. The social aspects of Rdio were lacking, due to the lack of participation. The slant towards new and trending music might appeal to some. Out of the bunch, the interface in Rdio will make it feel like a natural extension of the Music app, which is a good thing.
All of these apps have a specific feature-set that make them worthy of a try out on your iPhone or iPad, especially if you like to enjoy music on a daily basis. All the apps are free in the App Store and they all offer a free trial of their subscription services, which range in price from $3.99 to $9.99 for individual plans. Depending upon your tolerance for ads, you might even get by with the free versions. Spotify excels at making music social and it helps propel the app a notch above the rest, making it our best app for streaming music on iPhone and iPad.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to my friend Andrew, whose Spotify playlist of Deftones songs is flat out awesome.