The much hyped and praised streaming music service Spotify debuted in the U.S. last Thursday and like many others, I signed up. One week after testing Spotify Premium extensively I’m sticking with my existing service, Rdio. I find Rdio’s excellent discovery tools and social integration trump any of Spotify’s advantages. Overall though, there’s not a definitive winner in these streaming music wars; each service has their own set of strengths and weaknesses.
It’s not easy at first to pick apart those differences as both Rdio and Spotify share a lot in common. Each has a huge song selection, mobile syncing for music on the go, search capabilities and integration with social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Yet the two services diverge in their user interface and sound quality on different mediums, the focus for the remainder of this article.
Rdio and Spotify have dramatically different user interfaces: the former a colorful web page, the latter a dark, sleek desktop player. Each embodies a very different philosophy on the best way to discover new music: Rdio favors a “lean-back”, social friendly approach, while Spotify caters more to “lean-forward” super users with powerful search capabilities and a speedy, highly responsive native app.
Rdio’s interface emphasizes music discovery and social interaction. Every page has links to discover new music and people to follow – all spread out over most of the page. It’s clear that by placing the actual player interface permanently alongside more listening options, Rdio is encouraging users to browse; you’re always a click away from finding something new. Admittedly the service’s social emphasis makes running more powerful searches a bit cumbersome: Only a limited set of results are returned by default, which occasionally necessitates movement through multiple pages of content to find what’s needed.
Spotify, in contrast, is very search-heavy and fast. Its player looks like iTunes with a darker palette and I think the resemblance is intentional. Like iTunes, Spotify’s goal is for users to find what they want, construct playlists and then get out of their way. Social features are less relevant to the Spotify experience, centering on playlists that your Facebook friends have made public. Unlike Rdio, Spotify generally wants you to have an artist, song, or genre in mind as a starting point. This kind of search-heavy focus is often very powerful; I was able to construct a complex playlist for an afternoon of work in far less time than any other service I’ve used.
Spotify’s emphasis on speed and power is likely one reason it’s the only music streaming service that runs in a native desktop player only. Spotify leverages their native app to offer virtually no lag between tracks, a cached offline mode and the ability to merge your existing iTunes music library into the service. Rdio is comparatively slower, but offers the advantage of being able to log into a web browser anywhere to listen and discover more music. This web focus meshes well with the company’s “social first” philosophy.
Unlike their clearly different desktop or web counterparts, both Rdio’s and Spotify’s mobile interfaces appear to be similar with initial usage: You can stream tracks from their vast libraries with a quick search, sync songs for offline listening and create playlists on the fly.
Yet there’s a few critical differences that emerge over time to sway the mobile experience in Rdio’s favor. First, Rdio has more flexible and granular syncing options. Any song, playlist or album can be added to mobile with just two clicks. Spotify insists on any track first being added to a playlist, and then, independently, the entire playlist has to be selected for syncing.
In addition, Rdio’s integration between mobile and web clients is excellent; users can mark tracks for mobile syncing either right on the mobile device or via the full rdio.com web site. The entire mobile listening history is also automatically synced to the web and easily reviewable. For the exception of playlists, Spotify doesn’t seem to keep anything else in sync between the mobile and desktop players; almost everything has to be hand specified on the mobile device.
Finally, I find Rdio’s inclusion of a “collection” in addition to the usual playlists and searches a big benefit to wrapping my head around what’s on the device. Spotify is too playlist centric and even then, playlists are organized in manual order with no way to sort alphabetically or group tracks by album or artist.
I conducted extensive tests with high quality headphones (Sennheiser HD-25s) on both services’ desktop and mobile clients. I also streamed the audio feeds via Airfoil to my home theater in 3.1 stereo mode to evaluate musical range, compression and overall quality. Finally, just to cross check my ears, I used the tracking app Net Monitor to measure inbound traffic and calculate each stream’s transfer rate in kilobytes per second (kbps).
Rdio hasn’t yet published their official bit rates of their streams, instead insisting they “experiment with different rates and encoding formats.” It’s a pretty bold, admittedly at times infuriating, position. Yet after measurements on many tracks I found a consistent 200 to 210kbps rate. Headphone tests confirmed Rdio’s quality was listenable but noticeably worse than CD-quality rips or music purchased on Amazon or iTunes. However, one aspect in Rdio’s favor is their equalizer; rather than a neutral approach the company favors a rock-centric equalizer setting with pumped up bass and treble. It was a smart move, at least for the majority of music I listen to (rock, electronic). Mobile connections, whether synced or streamed, fare mildly worse than the desktop and average around 180 to 190kbps, but it’s a barely discernible difference.
Spotify’s desktop player claims to stream at 320kbps for select tracks with reasonably fast bandwidth, and my measurements and listening tests bore that out. It’s a stellar listening experience, one of the rare times a streaming service sounded like an adequate replacement to my CD rips. Yet that quality drops dramatically when switching to the mobile player: streams and synced music cap at 160kbps or worse. In addition, there’s a lot of content not yet encoded at 320kbps (roughly half the content I measured) which reverts down to 160kbps.
Overall Rdio is the winner here. Its mobile sound quality trumps that of Spotify and I found its relative sound consistency among all its devices and sources to be an advantage. Granted Spotify’s 320kbps songs sound amazing, but I can’t depend on the higher service until more songs get an encoding bump.
After putting Spotify through its initial paces, I first expected my tests to end in a tie, i.e., two different philosophies for two different types of users. However, after a week of testing, I’d recommend Rdio over Spotify for several reasons. First, Rdio has a more refined app for mobile users; it’s got higher sound quality along with better organization, syncing and cohesion with the desktop client. Second, I found the enhanced sound quality that Spotify marketed with its premium plan oversold; in most cases, Rdio’s bit rate and equalizer were of a higher quality. Finally, Rdio offers far more extensive and diverse music discovery tools in comparison to Spotify’s Facebook integration.
Spotify overall feels a bit stale. I think it has ultimately suffered from lack of serious competition in Europe as younger U.S. competitors like Rdio and MOG have really redefined what a streaming music service can offer. It’s my hope that Spotify looks to this as a serious wake up call and makes adjustments, especially in its mobile app.