Streaming music services: all the same, but different

Several reviewers say that all streaming music services deliver the same basic experience at their core. While that blanket statement is technically true, the details make all the difference when it comes to choosing which streaming music service fits your needs.

Experts say you should keep the following things in mind when selecting a streaming music service:

  • On-demand or radio-style streaming: On-demand streaming music services operate like an Internet-based hard drive: pick the music you want to listen to and play it on a whim. Radio-style streaming music services typically offer less control and shuffle through several artists, but require minimal input. Several services offer a mixture of the two, but experts say Slacker Radio's $10 Premium subscription is the only one to offer both on-demand and radio-style streaming at a high level of quality.
  • Catalog size and selection: All of the streaming music services covered in this report offer tunes from the four largest record labels in the U.S., but all the same songs aren't necessarily available on all the services. (For example, MOG offers Pink Floyd, while Spotify does not.) Obviously, streaming music services with larger catalogs are more likely to carry songs you want to listen to. Indie music availability is another consideration. Since Grooveshark depends on users to upload music, its selection is rather uneven.
  • Device support: Most streaming music services have smartphone and tablet apps, but you usually have to subscribe to a high-tier premium plan to actually use them. The various services also support a variety of home electronics -- including the Roku, home audio streamers like the Logitech Squeezebox and Sonos sound systems, and a variety of connected HDTVs and Blu-ray players -- but each service's supported device lineup is different. Make sure the streaming music service you choose supports your devices if that's a concern.
  • Audio quality: Many services stream music around 192 kilobits per second, but some offer higher quality 256 kbps or 320 kbps streaming rates. It may not make a tremendous difference coming out of stock computer or smartphone speakers, but if you plan on streaming music through premium computer speakers or a home theater system, experts say it's worth spending the money for higher-quality audio.
  • Try before you buy: Every single streaming music service offers either a free mode or a free trial period. Reviewers say to take advantage of those offers, and try out a couple of different services to get a feel for the various music libraries and user interfaces before committing to a subscription.
  • Data caps: Streaming music services stream audio files over an Internet connection. If your Internet plan includes a limited amount of data, you might hit overage fees if you stream music nonstop. If that's the case, music download services give you the ability to keep tighter control over your downloads and data usage. Some services also let you store and play your music offline.

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