When it was released in 2000, Pandora was probably the best thing since sliced bread. Offering users an unexplored valley of new music based on their past listening history, the internet radio sensation took off and within a few years was at the top of the food chain. In the time since, however, Pandora has found itself clawing for a spot in the charts.
While the other services on this list are considered music streaming services that mostly allow you to pick which song you'd like to listen to on an on-demand basis, Pandora is like the internet version of a customized radio station. Like terrestrial radio, you don't have much of a say in the song coming up next.
Other limitations are that Pandora doesn't allow you to replay songs and, due to licensing restrictions, it's rare you'll hear two songs from the same album in a row. It lacks decent social integration and with a pool of only about a million songs, there isn't a lot of variety. All that said, if you're looking for something to throw on at a party, Pandora is still the best bet thanks to its ability to keep the beat going with only minimal intervention.
Pandora does offer a subscription service called Pandora One, that eliminates the all-too-frequent commercial breaks and ups the sound quality to 192Kbps.
It's also worth mentioning that Pandora is only officially offered in the US, New Zealand and Australia, as the service pulled out of the UK back in 2008.
"So," you might find yourself wondering, "if Pandora has the smallest library and refrains users from picking their songs, why do people use it?"
Pandora is probably one of the best values of any available streaming service, offering you every song and myriad customization options for the low price of $0/£0 per month. It's absolutely free to sign up and, if you don't mind an ad or two every 10 minutes, will stay that way as long as you use it.
Should you decide that advertisements are messing with your groove, you can subscribe to Pandora One to the tune of $4.99 or $54.89 per year.
Honestly, though, if you're willing to open up your wallet, your money is best spent on one of the other premium music services like Spotify, Tidal or Apple Music.
While other services will try to sway you with limited exclusives, that's just not a ploy Pandora cares about. At a recent press conference in New York City, Pandora CEO Tim Westergren called Apple's exclusive approach "a losing battle."
That said, it hopes a recent partnership with Music Reports – a service that allows for more transparency in music licensing and payments – will bring more artists back to Pandora.
User interface and experience
Pandora comes in a few flavors – you've got a desktop version, a mobile version and a set-top version that you'll find on game consoles like the Xbox One and PS4, as well as streaming video boxes like the Roku 3, Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV.
Let's start with the tried and true interface work: the desktop.
Getting started with Pandora is insanely easy. The service offers apps on both Windows 10 PCs and Mac, but the best place is straight in your web browser. Head over to Pandora's website, and before you even register you can enter an artist, song or genre that you usually like and Pandora will queue up a list of songs it thinks you'll like.
Your "station" – Pandora's name for your custom playlist – appears on the left-hand side of the screen. In the middle around where you find the cover art is the name of the song playing, the artist and the CD it's from. Underneath are the lyrics (perfect for when you want to do some deskside karaoke) and a short bio of the artist.
Along the bottom of the interface is a list of similar artists you might like, as well as an ad or two if you don't subscribe to Pandora One.
At any point in time you can add variation to your playlist by going to the station and selecting "add variety." This is a great feature for parties if you know half the crowd gets down to EDM while the other half enjoys '90s alternative – start a station with one and then simply add in the other.
The other remaining options on the web interface allow you to share what you're listening to on social networks like Facebook and Twitter or via traditional email. You can also buy any song you like using the "Buy" option, but you'll be redirected to either Amazon or iTunes.
The set-top and mobile versions of Pandora condense the web version of the service into a bite-sized nugget. Even better, though, every mobile version of the app supports Google Cast and Apple AirPlay, if you're using a device running iOS.
Pandora has finally launched a 'voice assistant' helper of its own called Voice Mode for its iOS and Android apps. It can be activated by saying “Hey Pandora” while the app is open.
Powered by SoundHound's Houndify Voice AI platform, Voice Mode is designed to play a specific artist, album, radio station or playlist when asked to, but it can also be used to match your mood when you give it commands like “play music for relaxing” or “play workout music”. This request is then personalized by Pandora's algorithm and you'll then hear a personalized result that's tailored to your music tastes... sometimes.
For better and worse, simplistic is the name of Pandora's game. The service doesn't allow for much customization when it comes to music quality – you get what Pandora gives you.
On desktops that's a 64kbps AAC+ file, while on mobile you'll hear a bit of variance depending on your connection, but it will never be higher than 64Kbps. If you're connected to a streaming video player or multimedia device you'll get a 128Kbps MP3, while Pandora One subscribers will be treated to a 192Kbps MP3. (In case you're keeping track, that's far lower than the 320Kbps Ogg Vorbis file Spotify Premium listeners are getting, and lightyears behind the 1411Kbps FLAC file supplied to Tidal Hi-Fi subscribers.)
Content and curation
As mentioned earlier, there's not a lot of content on Pandora – only about 1 million songs. But, for the most part, Pandora makes it work.
If you're someone who likes to set it and forget it, Pandora is a solid option, usually transitioning from one similar sounding song to the next without missing a beat. Of course, it does better when you're there providing feedback via a thumbs up or a thumbs down, but it's not absolutely essential that you do so.
If you're looking for a more directed experience, Pandora music editors hand-picked playlists are available in the "browse" section of the site and apps. Here you'll find playlists sorted by artist – they're currently featuring Gorillaz and The Black Keys, for example – as well as top hits and new music playlists. These can be helpful if you have a genre in mind and want to stay up on the latest tunes or need some theme music at your next holiday party.
Unfortunately, though, because you can't ever select individual songs, the experience here is a slightly limited one – it's more akin to a friend giving you a mixtape of songs he or she thinks you'll like, rather than a person at a record store giving you full reign to listen to whatever song you'd like.
But, as we often like to say, you get what you pay for.
One to go for if...
You adore the unexpected. You think music, in the words of Forrest Gump, should be like a box of chocolates. You don't mind giving up control and you especially don't mind saving a few dollars on your music streaming service.