As music listening shifted from beautiful if clunky stereo systems to the internet, developers found ways to take the work of choosing what to play next out of the listeners’ hands, and into warm embrace of algorithmic intelligence.
The concept is simple, though the practice is not: Create a recommendation service that gathers and organizes musical traits and characteristics with which to provide listeners with a streamlined playlist of similar songs by like-minded artists, which each listener can edit and refine, homing in on their ideal personalized radio stations.
Online interactive radio stations aren’t new, of course — trailblazers Pandora and Last.fm will both celebrate their tenth years of existence in the year to come — but their status as major players in the radio game is (relatively) new. Pandora, originally an offshoot of the Music Genome Project that launched in 2000, took five years to release a player to the public, and didn’t really hit the mainstream until 2008, with the release of its mobile app.
On the eve of its initial public offering, Pandora stands as the most widely-regarded and popular interactive radio player in the U.S., and with good reason. It’s great at what it does, but other options are also available, either for a change of pace or for those looking for a different experience.
Here’s the quick dish on six free (or freemium) interactive radio services for the web and smartphonesthat deserve your attention, listed in alphabetical order. Click through for the full reviews.
This iPhone-only interactive radio service lacks in platform versatility what it makes up for in originality. Its core feature: an ability to create shared stations when two users bump fists while holding their phones. In addition, the ad-free Audiovroom (with radio stations created in part using an API from The Echo Nest, publisher of Evolver.fm) leverages game mechanics by allowing listeners to earn listening points by earning badges and performing socially-oriented tasks (such as introducing new users to the app). Less social users can pay for listening time instead.
If you’re going to spend any significant amount of time using the seven-million-track-strong Deezer Radio, we suggest opting for Deezer Premium, a subscription package steeply priced at $14/month that lets you download individual songs and play them back when you’re offline, as well as playing the app via AirPlay on a variety of sound systems. With the free version, most listeners will find that the France-based service lacks many of the features other interactive radio options put at the forefront of their products.
Thanks to its unique scrobbling function, which can keep track of every move you make on Last.fm, iTunes, and elsewhere to shape your stations, Last.fm touts one of the industry’s most satisfying radio players. Its playlists rarely repeat themselves and sprinkle in a solid mix of new discoveries. The service also makes it easy to learn about the music you’re listening to through comprehensive band info pages. Those hoping to use Last.fm on their mobile device should know that doing so is impossible without paying $3 per month.
The cleanest-looking service on browser and mobile device alike, Pandora also offers the most comprehensive recommendation features, from where we’re sitting. The San Francisco-based company touts a classification system with over 400 different musical attributes, subdivided into over 2,000 focus traits categorizing songs and artists with extremely minute musical detail. Such intricacies go over very well on Pandora, although some artist channels can eventually play the same songs again due to the limiting scope of the human-based approach. In the initial period anyway, Pandora does a fantastic job with music recommendation and discovery. And you get to listening quickly with Pandora, because its pre-play options are bare-bones without looking decrepit. A premium version for $3/month offers access to customizable desktop apps, an increase in skips from 12 a day to 144, and sound quality to 192 Kbps.
For interactive radio enthusiasts planning to listen on mobile devices without an internet connection, the paid version of Slacker is probably the best option. The California-based company, founded in 2007, offers a superior caching system to its “Radio Plus” members, though users should note that caching a station requires about 1MB of memory per song, and station caching starts at about 100 songs. Slacker’s second-most marketable component is its song request feature, which allows you to dive into a station’s DNA and tweak its algorithm based on a specific song or artist you want included. Such a feature should come in handy after a few listening sessions, as Slacker’s song and artist diversity left a bit to be desired, in our testing anyway. We suggest subscribing to the Radio Plus premium feature ($3/month or 12 months for $48), which offers no-ad listening, unlimited skips, station caching, unlimited song requests, and the ability to integrate on-the-hour updates from the ABC news network into any station.
While Stereomood offers you the opportunity to “favorite” and “block” songs from your player, much like the other interactive radio stations profiled here, the Milan-based service is the least interactive of the lot. That much is obvious upon opening Stereomood’s mobile app (for iPhone and Android), which lists of moods for you to choose from, with no other listening options. Still, it’s fun to choose music based on how you’re feeling — or how you want to feel — and Stereomood makes that easier than any other service surveyed here. It’s also a pretty solid tool for music discovery. The service currently offers no premium subscription packages.