Best Internet Radio Services From Pandora to iTunes Radio

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I'm not a big fan of seemingly well-organized charts or even being wholly objective on things like this.

Despite baseless critiques (Hello, Thom Yorke) and lamebrain Wall Street analysis (Good Day, Richard Greenfield), there's not a better space going for consumers, media, tech and, damn it, the world than Internet radio.

One thing I have learned from interfacing with people who work with and for various Internet radio companies is that, almost to a person, they're passionate, bright and, more importantly, nice people. Almost every company I have approached that does Internet radio, particularly Pandora (P) and the attendant younger set of startups, has been responsive and fun to deal with.

All of this to say, if I tend toward not "liking" one service or another, a) this is not a reflection on the efforts of the people at the particular company and b) it doesn't mean you won't like the service.

On "b," I stress, it's ALL subjective.

And, on "a," I must stress, Almost all Internet radio in existence today was born out of what remain GOOD and RIGHTEOUS intentions. The folks in the business truly want to enhance the connection between artist and fan, while improving every single musician's lot in life.

Apple (AAPL) might be the outlier here. And that's just too bad. They're not responsive at all. Try finding out who's in charge of curation at iTunes Radio. I thought perhaps they were just too embarrassed to refer me to Echo Nest, the provider of music discovery/personalization to many Internet radio services. But within about 12 seconds, an Echo Nest representative replied to an email noting, "Apple's iTunes Radio is not a customer of The Echo Nest."

Good to know. So, we're really not sure what's happening in the black box over at Apple. Maybe it's drone-controlled personalized radio! 

So, with that setup, here's how Internet radio stacks up for me.

One tricky thing about the space -- you have to know when it's appropriate (and not) to compare services. You can make associations on one variable, but not another. I do my best to insert the proper qualifications and nuance in my analysis.

Apple's iTunes Radio

Bottom Line: It's underwhelming. If you have never used an Internet radio platform and have no plans to do so, iTunes Radio could work. Your grandparents -- even if they're no longer alive -- are, ironically, best suited for iTunes radio. But they probably don't own Apple products so it's a wash.

What's It Good For: Mindless listening. Making purchases to your existing music collection (though there's really no need to; see Rdio section). Drooling over Canadian hotties such as Sarah McLachlan because the artwork Apple uses in iTunes Radio appears more vivid than any other Internet radio platform I regularly use.

Why You Might Think It Sucks: Because, pursuant to what's it good for, iTunes Radio provides a largely mindless listening experience. But not mindless in a good way.

I cue up Sarah McLachlin from my collection. I ask iTunes Radio to create a Sarah McLachlin station. And, nine-point-nine times out of 10, it follows up with something like Alanis Morrissette's Ironic. A basic genre-based play. And it keeps doing that over and over again the entire time you listen. Until you just can't take it anymore.

When you enter iTunes Radio, often via your iTunes collection, Apple serves you a glorified Genius playlist. That's not good enough. Not in a space where others have come to play. For real. As people who eat, sleep and drink music.

If you have a limited collection of music, narrow tastes and don't like surprises, iTunes Radio could be enough for you. Though I still think you'd be better off elsewhere, even if you're not a big music fan.

But that doesn't matter because, as I explain in this article and at the links contained within it, Apple didn't come up with iTunes Radio to be a player in Internet Radio.

Platform Observations: I don't use Apple TV. And I note no meaningful differences between iTunes Radio on my Macbook, iPad or iPhone.

Additional Thoughts: Despite Apple cutting corners on iTunes Radio, I still love the iPad Air my wife bought for me and I can't wait to upgrade my iPhone later next year. In other words, iTunes Radio might only marginally help Apple, but it certainly will not hurt it.

Pandora Internet Radio

Bottom Line: Though I will not, I could fragment my way through this one, given how much I write about Pandora.

For my most recent peek into why the Music Genome Project (MGP) sets Pandora apart as Internet radio's finest, see Why Pandora Trounces Apple's iTunes Radio. For something more like an investment case, go to Pandora: The Definitive Look Back and Look Ahead.

What's It Good For: Personalized radio and music discovery. That's the focus. Always has been (at least since Pandora became Pandora). Probably always will be.

No, you can't call up a specific song you want to hear in the moment, but that's not how radio works. Pandora redefined traditional radio, making the experience its own. Even if it wanted to (and I don't think it does) the method Pandora uses to license music doesn't allow for on-demand playback.

It's a straightforward, though hardly mindless listening experience. The above-linked "Why Pandora Trounces Apple ..." story illustrates this assertion well.

Why You Might Think It Sucks: When you first start using Pandora, it can be a bit basic. Sort of like, but not completely like my description of iTunes Radio.

The MGP needs to get to know you and you need to get to know it better. Once that happens (it doesn't take long), you're on your way. You'll feel the power of a curation system that serves up songs on the basis of the attributes of the music not the obvious pop culture associations between artists.

Platform Observations: I listen to Pandora via mobile device (iPhone in my car or at the gym) and via Roku Player at home. Probably a 40-60 split between the two.

As much as I love my Roku, the experience as you shift from an app's mobile (or desktop) environment almost always degrades a bit. Fewer functions exist on the Pandora Roku app than they do on other platforms. It doesn't kill the experience; it just makes it a little less robust, relative to mobile (and desktop, which I still tinker with from time to time).

Additional Thoughts: I would like to see -- and expect to see, based on conversations with the company -- Pandora become a bit more social. More interactive.

There's was something cool about that time period a few years back when we were hearing what songs celebrities and such had on their iPods. I reckon it'd be neat (and useful) if Pandora took a handful of public figures, its own employees (preferably the folks involved in curation) and its heaviest users and had these people provide the larger audience with customized playlists of sorts geared toward music discovery and general camaraderie.

Rdio

Bottom Line: Hands down, bar none, the best on-demand Internet radio service I have ever used. And, even if I don't mention them here, I have, for all intents and purposes, used them all. Rdio -- the perfect complement (and compliment) to Pandora.

What's It Good For: Put simply, for better or worse, Rdio eliminates the need for a purchased music collection.

This piece from May -- Music Industry Should Worry About Rdio, Not Pandora -- adds color to that statement. More recently, Downloads Die, Apple Lives, Music Industry Suffers expands on the subject.

Everything at Rdio -- or at least everything should -- revolves around your "collection."

You can search for what you want to hear on Rdio or use other sections of the platform, such as "Heavy Rotation," "Top Charts," "New Releases" or what's trending among people in your network, to find music. One click. Clear interface. And, most importantly, it's easy to add either a single song or an entire album to your collection. And it's all stored and synced across devices.

From there, you can play individual tracks, listen to albums, listen to a particular artist or play a station based on your collection. Depending on what you tell Rdio (powered by Echo Nest) to do, it will only serve you songs that are in your collection during this mix or you can instruct it to add some stuff you don't "own" on a spectrum that begins with "in collection" and ends at "adventurous."

I can't tell you how many times Pandora serves me a song by a artist I am unfamiliar with (or I want to hear more of), triggering me to head to Rdio to hear more. It's the perfect 1-2 punch and drives home the notion of nuance and distinction between Internet radio services. I probably spend about 45% of my listening time shuffling my growing Rdio collection, 45% on my Pandora shuffle and the remaining 10% with other services.

Cost is $36 a year for commercial-free Pandora and $9.99 a month for Rdio -- it's easily the best bargain in entertainment. $155.88. That beats the heck out of the hundreds, if not thousands, I would spend buying music.

At first, it pained me to say that. It made me feel like I was ripping off musicians. But that's simply not the case. As I explain at many of the links throughout this article, particularly this one, the potential for artists to get exposed, succeed and earn money has never been bigger than it is in the Internet radio era. And it's only getting bigger.

Why You Might Think It Sucks: Probably because it requires greater scale to survive, Rdio doesn't focus as much as I would like on the notion of the user's collection. When you slide Rdio's music discovery lever closer to adventurous, the experience turns almost unlistenable. In fact, it might be worse than Apple's.

The best analogy I can come up with -- you tell your significant other you would like to spice things up in the bedroom. She (or he) agrees. The next day you show up with the hot girl (or guy) from the office wrapped in a bow. Music discovery, if not done with the level of thoughtfulness Pandora puts into it, can backfire on the Internet radio service and, worse yet, the stunned and unsettled end user.

To be a great Internet radio service, Rdio doesn't need to go here. However, to build scale and survive, it might feel as if it has to. The company just hired a new CEO, a former Amazon.com (AMZN) and Microsoft (MSFT) executive. I plan to get in touch to see where Rdio goes from here.

Platform Observations: Of all Internet radio I have used, including Pandora, Rdio's mobile and desktop environments are the best. Check them out for yourself. Just the right amount of user control and social media features. Simple to navigate. Pretty much the opposite of Spotify.

Rdio on Roku is another story. It works. Just not as well. Several bugs and limitations persist that drive me slightly crazy. For instance, you can't shuffle your entire collection from the collection tab on the Roku. You have to go to your history (which only loads half the time) and play what feels like an abbreviated version of your collection from there.

Additional Thoughts: Nitpicking here (and I apologize if this already exists and I just missed how to make it happen), but it would be swell if, after adding an entire album to your collection, you could easily go back and delete individual songs as you move through the LP.

Spotify

Bottom Line: This won't take long.

I love Spotify with respect to the fight it's fighting against a horrifically clueless music industry. The fact that Spotify -- or any other Internet radio player for that matter -- must prove its worth to the music industrial complex is patently absurd. Everybody from the major labels to unsigned acts should be beating down Spotify and Pandora's doors to work with them.

As a platform, however, I just can't get into Spotify. Tons of people love it, which brings us back to one of my initial observations that comparing Internet radio operations is an almost entirely subjective proposition. Who am I to say, categorically, that Spotify sucks given its wide-ranging and growing popularity?

What's It Good For: If you are a Spotify fan, probably everything I contend Rdio is good for.

Why You Might Think It Sucks: I shouldn't say probably. It's definitely every bit as good as Rdio is in my eyes in the eyes of ardent -- and even casual -- Spotify subscribers. But, from my perspective, it takes too long to get comfortable with Spotify's interface.

Once you get past the bells and whistles Spotify throws at you, such as way too many integrated "apps," you find go-to sections of the site such as Top Charts and personal playlists. Again, very subjective and somewhat arbitrary, but Spotify just didn't speak to me out of the gate like Rdio did.

Platform Observations: I actually prefer Spotify on Roku over desktop or mobile. By stripping away some features, you get better and easier-to-navigate functionality.

Additional Thoughts: None.

iHeart Radio

Bottom Line: I don't view iHeart Radio as a Internet radio; rather I see it -- and use it -- as a platform for seemingly limitless traditional radio.

What's It Good For: I grew up on and in terrestrial radio. I became obsessed with the business in elementary school and started working in it, officially, when I was 13.

As a youngster, I spent many nights tweaking dials and twisting antennas trying to secure reception on far-flung radio stations. Growing up in Niagara Falls, NY, my nightly routine consisted of listening, through the static, to WFAN in New York City and WLUP out of Chicago. On extra-triumphant evenings, I could get KOA in Denver, some 2,000 miles or so away, in. I literally dreamt of a time I could listen to any station, anywhere, any time -- for free -- on not only the AM band, but the now far-more-exciting FM smorgasbord.

That's what iHeart Radio accomplished for me and, as far as I'm concerned, the world.

I'm in Los Angeles, but whenever I have an urge to hear Z-100 in New York (easily the best Top 40 station in the land), it's no more than a few clicks away. When one of my favorite disc jockeys passed away unexpectedly, I was able to listen to KISS-FM in Dallas to hear the station memorialize Kidd Kraddick.

Why You Might Think It Sucks: Beyond bringing radio from pretty much anywhere within reach, iHeart Radio is little more than a rudimentary personalized radio platform.

Platform Observations: None.

Additional Thoughts: Clear Channel likes to boast about iHeart Radio's growth, but really, how impressive is it when you have hundreds of broadcast radio stations promoting it pretty much 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?

Notable Mention

It's not Internet radio, but Soundwave warrants a mention here. It's part of a growing and, I think, interesting and increasingly important set of applications that enhance the Internet radio and music discovery experiences.

I have heard the Mark Cuban-backed Soundwave referred to as the Instagram of music. You create an account and Soundwave records your listening on an Instagram-like feed. At this point, Soundwave integrates with what you play through Apple's iTunes, Spotify, Rdio and 8Tracks. If it ever adds Pandora integration, it will be complete, at least from a partner standpoint.

Soundwave works for me because it's another form of music discovery, yet, unlike better-known accompaniments such as Last.FM, it doesn't duplicate what the tunes I stumble upon at Pandora or Rdio.

As more users subscribe to the service, Soundwave's Music Map feature will become more fun and useful. You section out an area on a map and Soundwave shows you users within that space, along with what they're listening to at that moment.

Of everything mentioned here, I use Pandora and Rdio most, with Rdio enhanced by Soundwave. However, as noted at the outset, it's a matter of personal taste. You could undoubtedly couple iTunes Radio and Spotify and craft an experience that's just as fantastic for you as mine is for me.

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Rocco Pendola is a columnist for TheStreet. Pendola makes frequent appearances on national television networks such as CNN and CNBC as well as TheStreet TV. Whenever possible, Pendola uses hockey, Springsteen or Southern California references in his work. He lives in Santa Monica.

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