What You Should Know About Streaming Audio


5 Things to Know About Streaming Audio

You have more ways than ever to program your own music.

Illustration by Chi Birmingham

1. WYOU is on the air.

Never mind paying a buck to purchase, download and store individual songs on a phone, tablet or MP3 player. You can now create your own radio station. The streaming field is crowded with spunky start-ups, such as Pandora, Spot­ify, Rdio and Slacker. Plus, relative old-timers are getting into the act with Apple iTunes Radio, Google Play Music All Access and Microsoft Xbox Music Pass. Each service streams tunes wirelessly to your digital devices and offers a free option (with ads) or a premium option. Fees range from just over $2 a month for iTunes Radio to $10 per month for Google Play Music All Access, Rdio (for Web and mobile streaming), Slacker, Spotify and Xbox Music Pass.

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2. You can program your station, too.

Your control over what you hear varies by serv­ice and whether you’ve chosen the free or fee option. For radio-style listening, it’s hard to beat free. Pandora users, for instance, go to the service’s app or Web site to enter the name of an artist, song or composer. The serv­ice then creates a “radio station” that plays songs in the category you’ve chosen. (You also have the option to choose one of Pandora’s Genre Stations.) The free version has ads; the premium edition ($4 per month) offers ad-free listening and higher-quality audio. The downside: Pandora doesn’t let you play a specific song; rather, it chooses the tunes for you. Spotify allows users of its free serv­ice a bit more control, most notably the ability to play the songs of one artist—say, Frank Sinatra—in shuffle mode. But to play a particular Sinatra song on any device, you’ll need to upgrade to the ad-free premium edition. Other premium services, including the $10-per-month versions of Rdio and Slacker, also let you play songs on demand.

3. Sample the music menu.

Each service offers a range of musical genres, from blues to country to hip-hop to classical to world music. But streaming services use algorithms to pick songs for their radio stations, and the resulting playlists can vary considerably. You may find you’re more in sync with one digital DJ than another. The services also vary in the depth of their music collections. Rdio and Spot­ify boast libraries topping 20 million tracks; Slacker says its library is more than ten times the size of Pandora’s repository of about one million songs.


4. Get the app.

Android, BlackBerry, iOS and Windows Phone users can go to their respective app stores and search for the name of the streaming vendor they want to try. And be aware that even when you’re disconnected from the Web on the subway or an airplane, you can still listen to tracks. Paying customers of Rdio, Slacker, Spotify and Xbox Music Pass, for instance, can download songs for off-line listening.

5. Import your iTunes tracks.

You probably listen to podcasts, audio books and interviews as well as music on iTunes. The good news is that longtime iTunes users can import audio files from an iTunes library into many streaming services. Google Play Music All Access, for instance, will bring in iTunes playlists free. Or, if you like iTunes and want to stick with it, give iTunes Match a try ($25 a year). The service uploads all of your iTunes tracks (including songs ripped from CDs) to Apple’s iCloud serv­ice. Plus, it automatically upgrades low-grade digital recordings to a higher-quality format. Match subscribers can also listen to iTunes Radio without ads.