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Spotify vs Napster vs Rdio vs Pure Music: Apps, Sound Quality

Andrew Williams

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Best Music Streaming Services: Spotify vs Napster vs Rdio vs Pure Music

Just as vinyls have bitten the dust, VHS tapes have gone the way of the dodo and Minidiscs are a mere memory, CDs are on the way out. And if Spotify, Napster and co. have anything to say about it, personal digital music collections' days are numbered. These music streaming services want to become your no. one destination for tunes. But which is the best? We've taken a close look at Napster, Spotify, Rdio and Pure Music to find out.

Platform Support

Spotify - iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Symbian, Palm WebOS, Mac OS X, Windows, Sonos

Napster - iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, web browser, Sonos

Rdio - iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry web browser, Sonos

Pure Music - iPhone, Android, web browser, connected Pure radios

If you have a smartphone that's not an Android device or an iPhone, it's pretty clear you're best off with Spotify or Rdio. They're the only music services to have put a great deal of effort into covering all the main bases - including Symbian, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7 and even the basically-dead WebOS. It's impressive stuff, although compared the iOS version, the others tend to look a little neglected.

The outlook on the other services is a lot worse. Napster and Pure Music have iPhone apps, but aren't at all optimised for iPads - although the iPhone/Android combo is likely to satisfy a fair chunk of the population. iPad fans should look to Spotify or Rdio, as using a blown-up iPhone app doesn't look good.

Napster app 1

Sonos user? The only one that doesn't play ball with the multi-room system is Pure Music, but that's partly because its motivations are a little different from the rest. Pure Music is designed in part to be used with the company's connected radios, such as the Pure Evoke Flow, so supporting every platform under the sun is less of a priority.

iPhone app quality

Spotify - A little spartan but efficient

Napster - Great, with some insight into artists

Rdio - Simple, fairly effective

Pure Music - Needs a little polish, but has some features others lack

Music streaming iPhone apps have been around for years now, so it's no surprise the dedicated streaming names here - Spotify, Napster, Rdio - have all leaned towards a similar aesthetic for their apps. Fancy visuals beyond album thumbnails are kept to a minimum in order to make navigation quick and easy.

Napster app 2

Aside from the slightly different Pure Music "Pure Lounge" app, most people's listening will be based around two sections - the search and radio. Radio makes up a streamed playlist of tuned based on a single artist or genre. Instead of offering this, Pure Lounge offers good, old fashioned internet radio. Sensibly, it orders the most popular UK stations up top, such as BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live.

However, we also found the Pure Music to be the slowest to load search results and the like, meaning it requires that bit more patience and doesn't feel quite as slick. It's also the worst-looking of the bunch and is a bit buggy. The rest feel a little more slick and professional.Napster app 3

The one other app that differentiates itself with its approach is Napster. It jams in little editorial descriptions of artists and sub genres, and does so neatly enough to let you easily ignore them if they're not your bag. It's a great bonus when you're looking for new music. On the web interface, there's also a blog called The Mix, which features articles written by professional music journos.

Plus, it offers a few dozen pre-programmed "radio stations" (essentially shuffling playlists) with themes such as 80s Metal, One Hit Wonders and Sad Songs. Yes, most are a little cheese-ified.

In use, Spotify, Napster and Rdio are all very effective. But Napster wins out by a hair for its neatly-integrated extra bits. That said, Spotify is the most carefully-styled.

Spotify also offers apps that hook into your account, ones made by companies other than Spotify. These let other companies suggest playlists and other such fun stuff - the most recent tie-in was with Virgin Media. We don't think it's necessarily something to factor into the buying decision of the average music lover, though.

Desktop experience

Spotify - app-based, simple

Napster - web-based, fairly easy to use, features own editorial content. Desktop app available.

Rdio - web-based, big on album thumbnails

Pure Music - web-based, app-like UI, efficient with space. Desktop app available.

Aside from Spotify, which demands you download a proper desktop app, these services all have web-based desktop interfaces. You simply head to a URL, log in and you're ready to go. This removes a load of compatibility headaches, but can also feel a bit wonky and cheap.

The Pure Lounge website in particular strives to look like a full iTunes-style app, fitting quite an info-packed UI into the screen. Of course, the more you try to cram in, the more the additional loading time of a webpage becomes apparent. And, once again, Pure loses out to its competitors. It doesn't feel quite as quick as Naptser or Rdio, and its interface traditionalism can come across as a bit old-fashioned.

Like the iPhone app, the Pure Lounge also includes internet radio access, making it a bit more useful as an all-round audio hub.

Desktop apps

Rdio opts for the simplest look of the lot. Almost all-white and with barely any interface elements to demand you attention beyond the small nav bar on the left, it's all about the search bar here. It's not feature-poor, though. As with Napster, you can choose songs to sync to your mobile's library from the website, creating a seamless connection between the two streaming types. All three let you create playlists too.

Once again, Napster's editorial descriptions of bands and genres make a return, although they seem less handy when you're already within a browser.

Spotify is the outlier here, only using a Windows/Mac OS X app rather than a web interface. Napster and Rdio also offer an app version of their interface. The benefit of this approach is that it feels a little more robust, as it's just the information within the interface that has to be "downloaded" rather than the interface itself.

Sound Quality

Spotify - Ogg Vorbis, ~96kbps, ~160kbps, ~320kbps (where available), manual selection

Napster - 192kbps and 64kbps streams, manually selection

Rdio - Not disclosed, reportedly "experimenting" with codecs

Pure Music - 128kbps streams (320kbps for purchased music)

Spotify offers the best streamed sound quality - and by a clear margin. When signed-up to the Premium service (required for mobile use), you can opt for 320kbps Ogg Vorbis quality whether using a mobile phone or the desktop app. Not all content is available at this "Extreme" settings according to Spotify, but even the step-down 160kbps is significantly better than an MP3 file at the same quality.

Napster offers what we would describe as a respectable audio fan's top option. The selectable high quality mode streams at 192kbps - with a 64kbps on hand if your connection is a bit dodgy or you're looking to save bandwidth. As the service primarily uses the effective eAAC codec, the top setting is virtually indistinguishable from uncompressed files.

Rdio has not publically revealed info on the codecs and bit-rates it uses. The last word on it was that the company is experimenting with bit-rates. We'd bet the quality isn't that high, and while there was not a disastrously different quality of sound evident from our A-B comparison testing, if sound quality is your top concern, you're better off looking elsewhere.

Graphs

Slumming it down at the bottom once more, though, is Pure Music. It uses 128kbps MP3s - a low bit-rate and a fairly inefficient codec. A good encoder must have been used because while some digital degradation is fairly clear with good headphones, we've heard much, much worse MP3s at this quality.

We'd rule out Pure Music if you have a discerning ear and want to find a streaming service to do the majority of your listening with. Pure says the quality is designed to suit its radios, most of which don't cost a great deal and use fairly petite 3in drivers. This level of encoding is just about ok for kitchen top radios like Pure's, but anything more challenging deserves better.

Bugblatter

August 21, 2012, 9:38 pm

This is pretty useful comparison to me; I've tried all but Pure in some depth and have yet to pick a winner.

First I tried Napster. Good library, decent quality, and my Squeezebox Boom could access it directly. Eventually I found I wasn't using it much and cancelled.

Later I wanted to start streaming again and decided to give Spotify a go. On the Squeezebox Boom I have to set up a separate server in order to access Spotify, and my NAS didn't have the right CPU. Luckily my other server box has an x86 CPU so I was able to do it, but it's a bit of a kerfuffle. Good library, good sound quality, app not good on tablets, doesn't support landscape (bad on a docked Transformer Prime) and doesn't make decent use of the screen real estate. The last straw was the major issues Spotify had with Virgin Media customers; for a couple of months I just couldn't stream reliably (I don't know if they've sorted that out yet).

So now I'm giving Rdio a try. They do have a desktop app by the way. It appears to be a shell for their web app, unfortunately they seem to have stuffed-up the sizing and positioning with the result that useful things like the actual play controls are hidden. I have to use the web page instead on my PC. The mobile app is far better than Spotify's for the most part. It works well on tablets, in landscape, and makes good use of the screen. However there doesn't appear to be a way to, for example, tell it to play both of Adele's albums. I can create a playlist in the desktop version or the web version but not from the mobile version. If it's there it's very well hidden. Also there are biiiiig gaps in Rdio's library, and I'm talking pretty mainstream stuff. For example they've only got one track by Caro Emerald; not good enough.

As far as I've seen a common theme with the mobile apps is that they'll only sync tracks to your phone's internal memory. I want to sync it to my external SD card and be able to swap that card between my phone and my tablet.

I think it's time to cancel Rdio and go back to Napster. I haven't used them in a couple of years and my needs are different now to what they were, but they're definitely the next to try as I know Spotify and Rdio just aren't quite there. I hope Napster ups its sound quality though.

Gubbletrouble

January 7, 2014, 8:58 pm

A friend said a difference was that Napster you could keep the albums? Is this correct?

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