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Online Music Streaming: What’s Best for You?

From Spotify to Zune Pass, SPIN takes a look at the best (and worst) places to hear music online.

Spotify finally launched in the States last week, making it the top contender to dominate the already crowded field of music-streaming services. But that doesn’t mean the dozen or so prominent options – from Rhapsody to Grooveshark – have become instant dinosaurs. Most still have pros (and some cons) that would appeal to a specific type of music fan. Which one’s best for you? SPIN breaks down the top services.

SPOTIFY

What It Is: An iTunes-like service for PC, Mac, or mobile that lets you stream more than 13 million songs (including every major label) and create and share playlists.
Best Features: The sleek, user-friendly interface rules. And with the premium model, you can access your playlists and streams even when offline.
Worst Features: The free version is ad-supported and littered with pop-up ads and snippets of mostly terrible songs you didn’t choose (i.e, ads and promotions).
Cost: There are three options: The free, ad-supported model; $4.99/month to skip the ads and get “radio mode;” and the $9.99/month for mobile access to playlists, off-line streaming, and exclusive content.
Perfect If You… Like Pandora (see below), but want more control.

PANDORA

What It Is: Personalized streaming radio station and recommendation service based on the wisdom of the Music Genome Project.
Best Feature: The recommendations, which are based on comparing dozens of criteria of new songs with tracks you like, are often uncanny (like Dan Deacon? Try Architecture in Helsinki).
Worst Features: Limited catalogue (800,000 songs), annoying ads, and limited skip-ability on the free version.
Cost: The 99-cents-per-month premium version is ad-free and skip-enabled.
Perfect If You… Are obsessive compulsive when choosing playlists for parties and would prefer to, you know, actually party.

RDIO

What It Is: A relatively new subscription service from the tech whizzes behind Kazaa and Skype.
Best Features: No ads, complete control over your playlists, and well-designed social media functions.
Worst Features: No free option.
Cost: $4.99/month.
Perfect If You… Are looking for a straightforward, relatively cheap subscription service.

LAST.FM

What It Is: A social media and music-recommendation service that uses data from like-minded users to find tunes you’ll (hopefully) like.
Best Features: “The Scrobbler,” which offers data on song popularity, frequency of plays, and other data.
Worst Features: Recently discontinued direct on-demand streaming.
Cost: Free.
Perfect If You… Like to meet people based on their musical tastes, have a bigger deficit than the U.S. government.

RHAPSODY

What It Is: The granddaddy of subscription services, with a straight-up $10/month fee to stream all the music you want, whenever you want.
Best Features: The “To Go” tier allows subscribers to load compatible mp3 players with as many Rhapsody tracks as they like, and is compatible with major mobile platforms.
Worst Features: No free option.
Cost: $9.99/month.
Perfect If You… Are willing to pay for unfettered access to a vast, 11-million-song catalog. You also haven’t gotten your Spotify invite yet.

SLACKER

What It Is: Streaming radio, with thousands of programmed stations and the ability to create personal ones, like Pandora.
Best Features: Unlike Pandora, there are unlimited song skips, and with premium memberships, users can create stations filled entirely with a single artist and play albums in track order.
Worst Features: Audio and banner ads in free service.
Cost: Ad-supported service is free; $3.99 a month for Slacker Radio Plus, which allows single-artist stations, or $9.99 for Slacker Premium Radio, for song-by-song programming.
Perfect If You… Are obsessed with discovering the next buzz band.

IMESH

What It Is: The only peer-to-peer service (a la Limewire and old-school Napster) to cut a deal with the major labels for access to their catalogs.
Best Feature: Multi-source downloads (“swarming,” like torrent sites) makes it fast and easy to get tunes.
Worst Feature: The free version only allows access to non-copyrighted songs and videos.
Cost: “Premium” membership allows unlimited sharing and downloading for $7.99/month.
Perfect if you… Don’t want to risk a prison sentence to file share.

GROOVESHARK

What It Is: A web-based, ad-supported service that allows users the rare opportunity to search and stream any tune in its 7-million-song catalogue, on-demand for free.
Best Features: Users can “follow” each other to discover new music from like-minded listeners.
Worst Features: The ads can be annoying and it’s not (legally) available for iPhone or Android.
Cost: Grooveshark Plus ($6/month or $60/year) is ad-free and has other benefits; Grooveshark Mobile ($9/month or $90/year) moves the party to your phone.
Perfect If You… Want to hear a specific song right now.

ZUNE PASS

What It Is: Subscription service that allows users to stream and download unlimited songs as long as subscription in valid.
Best Feature: It’s got a cool recommendation app called Smart DJ.
Worst Feature: When you end your subscription, you lose most of your “downloaded” music (you are allowed to download 10 tracks per month “for keeps”). You also need to own a Zune (hah!).
Cost: $14.99/month, $149.90/year.
Perfect If You… Still watch movies on Betamax.

NAPSTER

What It Is: The O.G. P2P has morphed into an on-demand subscription service with some nice features.
Best Feature: The last 100 songs played – plus any others you designate – are automatically saved to be replayed off-line.
Worst Feature: No free option.
Cost: $5/month for subscription service; $10/month for mobile subscription.
Perfect If You… Harbor ill will towards Lars Ulrich.

FIZY

What It Is: A search engine that scours other sites for audio and video streams.
Best Feature: The site has compiled a database of more than 75 million songs.
Worst Feature: The quality is unreliable and it exists in a legal gray area: It’s unsanctioned by the labels, but it doesn’t actually host any music itself.
Cost: Free.
Perfect If You… Want a service that’s the digital equivalent of crate digging in a thrift store.

YOUTUBE

What It Is: The video search behemoth that, ironically, is often the best bet for finding audio quickly and easily.
Best Feature: No signing up, no logging in, no subscription, just search, play, and link.
Worst Feature: Uneven audio quality at best; dubious legal status.
Cost: Free.
Perfect If You… Want to be the first to hear the Born This Way leak.

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