Radio predates albums, cassettes, CDs and MP3s, so it’s no surprise that Internet radio came before on-demand music streaming. What started as a just a few companies, is now populated by tons of Internet choices and nearly every on-demand streaming service has some kind of radio feature. Today’s best options deliver customizable stations with a “set it and forget it” approach, or let you listen to live broadcasts from all over the world.
In this guide, I’ll outline the big names in Internet radio, running through their features and what makes them unique. I won’t cover the on-demand streaming services that offer radio-like features, but you can read all about them in CNET’s guide to streaming music.
What they all share
First, let’s talk about out the features that all of these services share, since there is significant overlap. All of the apps on this list, save for TuneIn Radio, let you create radio stations based on a song, album, artist or genre. You can then tweak the selection by up- or downvoting songs: an upvote tells the service you like what you hear, while a downvote does the opposite. The service uses that feedback to fine-tune the selection, aiming to give you exactly what you want to hear, including familiar favorites and new music.
Once you start playing a station, you cannot rewind, repeat, scrub forward or select songs to play on-demand. Normally, the only controls are play, pause and skip forward to the next song. Many services have a limit on how many tracks you can skip per hour or per day. With radio, the lack of control is the tradeoff for a discovery-focused, and often free, listening experience.
|Pandora (US only)||TuneIn||Slacker Radio (US only)||Rhapsody UnRadio (US only)||iTunes Radio|
|Free option||Yes, with ads||Yes||Yes, with ads||Free 14-day trial||Yes, with ads|
|Premium offering||$4.99 per month for no ads and more skips||One-time fee of $9.99 (£7.99, AU$12.99) for Pro app, which removes banner ads||$4 per month for Plus, $10 per month for Premium||$4 per month||$25 (£22, AU$35) per year for no ads|
|Skip limit||6 per hour per station, 24 per day for all stations||Not applicable||6 per hour per station||None||6 per hour per station|
|Offline listening?||No||No||Yes, with Premium||Yes, up to 25 songs||No|
|App availabilty||iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Playstation, Xbox||iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, Roku, Sonos||iOS, Android, Windows Phone||iOS, Android, Windows Phone||iOS, Mac and Windows|
Around since 2000, Pandora dominates the Internet radio scene. That’s due in part to its secret sauce, called the Music Genome Project, a system that analyzes songs for 450 “distinct musical characteristics” to understand what makes a song unique. Using that information, Pandora finds songs that sound alike or complement each other to build your stations.
In my years of using Pandora, I’ve found that it does a great job of creating stations that flow together almost seamlessly. The service even explains why it chose songs for each station with a short blurb about the musical characteristics of a song.
When it comes to tuning a station, you have a few options. The best way is to vote up and down songs to give feedback, which helps Pandora understand your musical tastes. For tracks that don’t fit with a station’s vibe, you can move them to another station that’s more appropriate. Annoying songs that get too much play time can be shelved so they don’t show up in the rotation for a while. Finally, you can edit stations to add more songs or artists from which Pandora can draw inspiration and remove upvoted and downvoted tracks.
Pandora is a free service that relies on ads to make money. You’ll hear and see ads quite frequently, almost one between every song. With a free account, you also get the chance to skip six songs per hour per station and up to 24 total skips per day for all of your stations. Skips are counted as selecting the skip button, downvoting tracks and shelving music with the “I’m tired of this track” option.
For more freedom to skip songs and remove ads, you’ll need to pay $4.99 per month for Pandora’s paid service, One. Pandora One offers higher-quality streaming (up to 192Kbps on the Web only), five hours of continuous music without pauses, and unlimited skips per day. However the six skips per hour per station limit still applies.
Where it excels
- Pandora is skilled at figuring out what music you like and which songs to avoid.
- The service has extensive biographies of bands and artists, with descriptions of their musical style, their discographies and similar artist recommendations.
- You can shuffle all of your stations when you want to hear a wide variety of tracks.
Where it falls flat
- Pandora can get stuck playing the same several songs over and over, especially if you listen to the same stations frequently.
Best for: If you crave intelligent radio stations that flow well and give you plenty of control to tweak your music.
For live radio fanatics, TuneIn is the 21st-century way to listen. It lets you browse and listen to 100,000-plus live radio stations from your local area or all over the world. Instead of constantly switching between stations to see what’s playing, you can see that beforehand in the app or via TuneIn’s site, and then select the station to hear that music or show.
Stations are grouped by location and genre, everything from Adult Contemporary and Top 40, to Talk Radio, Sports and News. TuneIn also includes podcasts, if you’re into that. As you listen, the service learns about your listening habits and recommends stations for your musical tastes.
Unlike Pandora and others on this list, TuneIn does not create on-demand stations. Everything you’ll hear in the service is from a live station that is currently broadcasting somewhere in the world. While you cannot search for songs or artists to create stations, you can search to see if any live stations on TuneIn are currently playing your favorite music, and then tune into them.
A stand-out feature on TuneIn’s Web player is that you can see the previous songs a station has played, so you’re never guessing what the song is. For some stations, you can also see upcoming shows in a schedule.
TuneIn has apps for all the major mobile platforms; both a free, ad-supported option and TuneIn Pro, which requires a one-time $9.99 charge. The Pro version removes ads from the app itself (not from the radio broadcasts) and lets you record shows and music to listen to later.
TuneIn’s great if you have favorite stations from different parts of your country or the world and can’t hear them on your local broadcasts. It really opens up your radio selection beyond what your car stereo can do, which makes TuneIn great for driving. It also works as great guide for stations in your local area, showing descriptions of the content.
Where it excels
- TuneIn shows you exactly what is playing on each station, so you’re never guessing.
- The apps and Web player let you find stations from all over the world.
Where it falls flat
- Music quality can vary, since you’re listening to a live broadcast.
- The mobile apps can have trouble connecting to a station.
Best for: Anyone who wants to listen to live radio from all around the world.
Much like Pandora, Slacker Radio lets you build or browse stations based on your favorite music. The difference here is that, with a paid subscription, you can play songs on demand and download them for offline listening.
Slacker also promotes a human-focused approach, using music fans and experts to create stations, instead of algorithms. Those music fans are responsible for Slacker’s impressive library of precreated stations, which include those centered on new music, genre essentials and an artist’s best work, plus their influences. One particularly cool station theme is Artist Takeover, where artists, actors, YouTube celebrities and even TV ensembles, (like the cast of “Archer” for instance) act as the host and DJ. Those stations have audio blurbs that introduce and explain the song selection. Because of all these special stations, Slacker is more like a guide for music enthusiasts, built by enthusiasts, than purely an Internet radio service.
On the Web player and in the apps, you can browse featured stations, and those that suit a particular activity, such as working out or getting motivated. You can fine-tune a station with sliders that control the amount of popular, newer and favorite songs from an artist or genre.
Like Pandora, Slacker gives you six skips per hour with a free account, and the service helpfully gives you a counter next to the skip button so you see how many you have left. Small design touches like that help set Slacker apart, giving it a cool yet intuitive style.
Slacker offers two paid plans, Radio Plus and Unlimited. Plus gives you unlimited skips on stations, no ads and offline listening. The Unlimited plan takes it a step further and lets you play songs on demand and create custom playlists, in addition to all of the features of Plus.
Where it excels
- Slacker’s selection of radio stations is unique and well-curated.
- The apps’ and Web player’s design is sleek and stylish.
Where it falls flat
- There’s no way to temporarily take overplayed songs off a station.
Best for: Music fans who want fun and unique stations, and the option to listen offline.
Rhapsody is best known for its on-demand streaming service, but it has a standalone radio option, too. This is the only pick on this list that doesn’t have a free option, since it costs $4.99 per month after a 14-day trial. However, if you’re a T-Mobile customer with the right plan, you can get it at no extra charge.
With UnRadio, there are no ads and you get unlimited skips for all your stations. Like the others, you can create your own stations or browse by genre, artist and recommendations from Rhapsody. You can tune your stations with a thumbs up or thumbs down, and tapping the Favorite button (the heart) saves the current track to your library and downloads it for offline listening. However, you’re limited to just 25 songs that you can save to your favorites.
Rhapsody gives you some tools to control the music playback, with an equalizer and streaming quality settings. You can pick from a variety of preset equalizers for different genres of music or simply change the various frequency sliders yourself to get the best sound. Over in settings you can pick between 64Kbps, 192Kbps and 320Kbps streaming quality.
Like TuneIn, you can listen to thousands of live radio stations, though the selection doesn’t seem as vast. You can set your location to find stations in your area or pick a station from anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, with live radio, you cannot see what songs are playing, but Rhapsody’s Track Match feature (available on the mobile apps) determines the song and gives you the option to save it your favorite tracks.
Where it excels
- The Track Match feature works quickly and returns accurate results.
- Unlimited skips mean you’ll never hit a wall while listening.
Where it falls flat
- There’s no free option for those looking to save money.
Best for: Anyone willing to pay a few bucks per month for no ads and unlimited skips.
Finally, there’s iTunes Radio, the Internet radio offering from Apple. Introduced in 2013, the service is destined to be folded into Apple Music, Apple’s forthcoming streaming service launching in late June 2015. For now, I’ll cover iTunes Radio as it is today and update this section when Apple Music is available.
Built into the iTunes app on desktop and iOS devices, iTunes Radio is a simple service with few bells and whistles. Like the others, you can either create your own stations or browse the ones Apple has created. Depending on the type of station you play, your tuning options are different. With stations you create, you can tell iTunes Radio to play more songs like the current track or never play the current song again. Other options include adding the song to your iTunes Wish List to purchase later and using the “Tune This Station” slider to change the selection, from hit songs to more varied tracks.
For the stations that Apple has created, you cannot tweak the selection. If you don’t like a song, your only choice is to skip it. Like a song? You can only add it to your iTunes Wish List.
There are some live radio options, mostly ESPN, NPR and other talk-radio choices. Overall, the selection of live and Apple-created station seems much smaller than the competition, so you’re better off creating your own stations that you can tune.
As it works now, iTunes Radio is meant for people who already use an iPhone or iPad. There’s no way to listen via Android, and the desktop experience is confusing and lackluster. iTunes Radio has a limit of six skips per hour, per station, and you’ll hear ads between songs. The upshot is that it’s completely free with a free Apple account. If you’re willing to pay $24.99 per year, you can get iTunes Match, a streaming service that also includes ad-free radio.
Where it excels
- The service’s simple design is easy to get around.
- Stations you create pull music from iTunes’ massive library.
Where it falls flat
- The tuning features are limited, leaving you with little control over what you hear.
Best for: Those with an iPhone or iPad who don’t want to download a separate app for Internet radio.
The list above is by no means meant to be exhaustive, and there are plenty of other radio-streaming services you can use. Here are few off-the-beaten path options if you’re looking for more choices.
iHeartRadio is very similar to TuneIn, letting you listen to thousands of live radio stations around the world without even creating an account. By signing up, you can listen to iHeartRadio’s custom stations based on your favorite artists.
Though it was acquired by Google, Songza is still around, delivering radio stations for every mood and activity. On its website and mobile apps, you pick a station based on what you’re doing or feeling, and it will deliver hand-picked songs. The available stations change often throughout the day, taking you from waking up, commuting, working all day, hitting the gym and relaxing after dinner.
Another service that works without signing up is Jango. It’s a simple, yet very well-designed option that lets you create any station or browse options by artist or genre. What’s great about it is that it pulls together tons of info about each artist, with links to YouTube videos, lyrics, tweets and biographies. And for each station, it shows the artists you can expect to hear, which I really like.
Lastly, Dash Radio is a newcomer that uses DJs to pick the music, instead of computers. Each station is curated and hosted by a DJ, the most famous of which is Snoop Dogg. On each station, you can see what song is playing and tune in to listen.
[“source – cnet.com”]