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About a month ago, I got some neat reccomendations from majitha concerning online streaming services. Upon further inspection, I concluded there were too many choices to pick from, so I spent the past few weeks testing them all out, and I decided to share my findings here, to the benefit of all who wish to hear some useful info on these services. My philosophy was simple - I was to find a way to use them completely free, because I feel that is the only way they can compete against torrents. That's why there is no mention here of Rhapsody or Rdio, because they are not available for free at all, or do not have the option of limitless ad-supported free usage.

What's reviewed:

The choice of services is great, but the requirement of unlimited free profile of some sorts significantly narrows down the scope. They can all can be divided into two categories, On-line Radio with on-demand (Spotify, MOG, Grooveshark), and only Online Radio (Pandora, Jango, Last.fm, Apeo!, Slacker Radio, iHeart Radio, Raditaz), with honourable mentions of ex.fm, StereoMood, JustHearIt, CloudDrive, SoundRepo... The mentioned services are reviewed only according to their desktop performance, as I don't have an Android phone to tinker with. Perhaps someone could do the same tests on a phone.

What you'll need:

In order to get as much out of these free services, a Mozilla user will need the Greasemonkey addon, with userscripts I'll link to during the review, along with screen-shots of the final effect of the tweaks. Occasionally, there will be a Mozilla add-on specific to the service, to which I will also link to and explain its functions.

Further, to bypass the geo-block many of these services have, a user will need a US-based VPN or proxy. Should you not have one, I recommend making a simple VPNBook PPTP connection from here. It is not secure enough for anonymous browsing, but bypasses the blocks just fine, it's fast enough, convenient to turn on, and doesn't require any additional installations. Most, if not all free VPN's will work, however, so whatever feels best for you should be fine.

Finally, a dedicated ad-blocker like ABP or AdMuncher are very useful, to eliminate pesky visual ads that exist on most services.

How is it reviewed:

Accidentally, while listening to the Bioshock 2 Soundtrack, I devised what I call "The Hanshaw Test". Basically, I took a very little known female vocalist from the 1920's, Annette Hanshaw, and asked all the services to make radio stations. I did so for two main reasons:

1. It's a very little known singer, so any database which has her listed is bound to be good.

2. Because the style of the 1920's music is very recognisable, it is much easier to see what genres, tracks and authors the radio added based on it's algorithm.

While the choice of author is debatable, I found the method sound overall, and an accurate depiction of the possibilities of most services. Of course, your mileage may vary, if you choose electronic music, I have no idea what will happen - I simply had to implement some system of comparing them all, and once I started with this little test, it was too late to change anything. I tried to be as general as possible, so that you can still get a general sense of how each service works.

Based on these requirements, the ideal radio station would provide music of the same style/period as the singer in question - that is to say, as similar to her as possible, but with as much new names as possible, because part of the radio's function is to help in music discovery. What is bad in this case is to skip into later era's, or confuse genres, which would lower the overall score.

The services also have a separate score for usability, configurability, interaction with other services, and the level of comfort the tweaks currently accessible have been able to achieve.

The Sites:

1. Aupeo!


CONS: a small database (900.000 tracks), poor choice of material, no social integration, no available tweaks.


Overall, horrible.

Usability - 2/10

The Hanshaw Test - 0/10 (the author doesn't exist in the database.)

2. Pandora


CONS: Requires a USA proxy or this Firefox addon, low streaming quality (64kb AAC), limit of 6 skips per radio station or 12 skips per hour across stations, small database (only 800.000 or a million tracks - could be old information), inserts visual ads (can be blocked) and audio ads (THEY CAN'T BE REMOVED), no rewind, no repeat.

PROS: Pandora Freemium (a terrific script that boosts the radio's usability greatly. Blocks visual ads, unlocks lyrics, enables artwork and track download, enables searching across multiple services like Last.fm, TPB, YouTube, Google, Spotify, Rdio...) and Pandora Scrobble (a script that enables scrobbling to last.fm) enhance the functionality greatly. Natively, Pandora supports FB and Twitter integration, has a clean interface, station tuning (ban tracks you don't like, which boosts overall station quality), and unlimited duration of play for free users.

Usability: 8.5/10

The Hanshaw Test: 9/10

Pandora had lots and lots of tracks from Hanshaw, lots of tracks from that period and style, even predominantly selecting female vocals. Instances where it went wrong were very rare, and even then it was 1940's swing, still a comfortable listen. I listened to the station for several hours, not depleting the 6 skips, but actively tuning the station. The only gripe are the audio ads, or Pandora would be completely awesome.

3. Jango


CONS: Poor integration (FB only), no information on database size or audio quality, no repeat or rewind allowed. There are no available tweaks or scripts, what the website gives you is all you get.

PROS: Sounds "feels" better than Pandora's, no geo block, no audio ads, shows artwork, station tuning is available, has unlimited skips, offers external search for artist bio, lyrics and videos.

Usability: 7.5/10

The Hanshaw Test: 7/10

Jango is a purported Pandora-killer, and it truly is a better radio service on paper, but it just hasn't performed that well overall. It has no tweaks, it looks pretty ugly, and has virtually no integration with it's neighbours. While it's perfect for people that want to listen to music and listen only, but in spite of ads, the tweaked Pandora offers more. The Hanshaw radio was unfortunately divided halfway between the music of the 1920's and swing. The lyrics feature was inconsistent, delivering wrong lyrics instead of none at all. Overall, a strange experience - I expected more.

4. Slacker Radio


CONS: Requires a USA address, allows 6 skips per radio station, unknown bit-rate and DB size (says that it has more music than Pandora, though), has ads (blockable), offers only partial lyrics, the old interface, which is needed for a better overall experience is ugly, no repeat, no rewind.

PROS: With this script, Slacker gets no ads with the old interface, and this add-on enables last.fm scrobbling. Natively, Slacker boasts album artwork, artist bio, album review, integration with Google, Twitter, MySpace and FB.

Usability: 8.5/10

The Hanshaw Test: 7.5/10

You can do stuff with Slacker. Constantly reverting to the old interface is a bother, and so is logging in with your Google account, since it can only be done via the old interface. When it's cleaned up, it's quite the radio. The station was quite good, boasting lots of period artists, even some Hanshaw. It featured some bop, some swing and other stuff that didn't quite belong. A truly useful feature is the in-depth station tuning, where you are able to force certain preferences, age restriction on the tracks, etc., but still some flaws managed to slip by those settings, which enables hard swing or bop to emerge.

5. Last.fm


CONS: limits 6 skips per station, requires a USA, UK or German address, unknown track quality, no repeat, no rewind.

Pros: Beautiful artwork, no ads, this script enables Spotify integration, this one enables lyrics. Natively it offers track pages, artist pages, artist tags, artist biography. Large radio database (12 million tracks). Integrates well with almost anything that exists, with a wealth of add-ons and tweaks scattered across the Web.

Usability: 9/10

The Hanshaw Test: 9.5/10

This was a whopping surprise to me. Even though I have scrobbled a lot to last.fm, so that it knows my tastes, the radio station played almost exclusively period music, that's to say female vocalists from the 20's and 30's. Very rarely, however, last.fm would spring some random jazz track, basing it on an artist I had listened to some time ago. However, with a few banned tracks, it soon stopped entirely, enabling a near-perfect listening experience, which even sounded a bit better than Slacker or Pandora in terms of quality. Even after listeting for hours, I didn't encounter a repeated track.

6. iHeart Radio


CONS: no rewind, no replay, skip limit to 6 tracks per out on a single station, buffering issues, shabby integration.

PROS: Not geographically limited, no ads, clean interface, can scrobble with this script. Artist bio, artwork, song-lists are all there. Has a station tuner, and an artist group switch from known to obscure related artists, which doesn't help much in improving the choices.

Usability: 6/10

The Hanshaw Test: 7/10

Overall, an average radio with nothing new or interesting to offer. The radio experience was on par with Jango and I see no reason to use it when Jango removes most of the limitations of this service. Plus, there are better options around.

7. Raditaz


CONS: No rewind, no repeat, requires USA proxy, 6 skips per hour per station, no tweaks available;

PROS: Clean interface, integrates with last.fm, Facebook, Twitter, has lyrics, artwork, artist bio, large database (23 million tracks), no ads, excellent station tuning.

Usability: 8/10

The Hanshaw Test: 8/10

A very solid performer. No nonsense features, an on-line radio with a database of dreams, with just enough features to make it one of the best radios out there. The tuning is great - Slacker-like sliders tune known or unknown artists with popular or rare tracks. In my tests, turning discovery to max, and telling it to play unknown tracks improved the station dramatically, but even with thumbs up/down, it still goes into swing when it shouldn't. I was surprised it was not compared to other services often.

8. MOG.com


CONS: Terrible integration (FB only), makes you work for free, unlimited listening, no tweaks available, need a proxy to sign-up;

PROS: No ads, no clutter, superb quality (256-320kbps MP3), large database 15+ million, artwork, shuffle, repeat, rewind, replay, unlimited skips, after signing up you are free.

Usability: 7/10

The Hanshaw Test: 5/10

MOG was a surprise on many levels. It's not meant to be integrable, but of high quality. Other services have a lot to learn from MOG. In terms of radio, however, it has the lowest score, since it doesn't really offer a radio option - it's actually an artist-based shuffle mode. The fact that there are hours of Hanshaw play is a testament to the database of MOG, but the only discovery going on is in the Similar artists list.

9. Spotify


CONS: ads, ads everywhere (blockable), annoying USA adress (tweakable), MP3 cca 160kbps (mediocre);

PROS: Offers both a Web player and dedicated software, this script skips ads, best integration overall, scrobbles, has two lyrics apps (desktop only), proprietary music discovery mode, boasts artwork, artist bio, a large DB (15+ million), unlimited radio skips, radio tuning, rewind, repeat, unlimited streaming;

Usability: 10/10

The Hanshaw Test: 8/10

As a radio service, Spotify is better than most, to my surprise. The tuning is a bit rigid, less sensitive than it ought to be, but it will eventually get there. And who cares when you can skip tracks as many times as you want to. The radio is completely integrated in the service, so when you hear a song you like, simply star it, and it will be available to you whenever you wish. The ads that are inserted around every 5 songs can be skipped in the Web player. In my tests, the radio offered plenty of Hanshaw and period tracks, but occasionally skipped to newer stuff and contemporary versions of old standards (Woody Allen, really, Spotify?), some swing, etc. Negligible, except when compared to services that do it better.

10. Grooveshark


CONS: Disorganised and often cumbersome, bit-rates vary all over the place.

PROS: No ads (with this script), available everywhere (Germans, look here), huge user-based database (100+ million on a monthly scale), unlimited skipping, on-demand replay, repeat, cross-fade, good integration with Google, last.fm, FB...

Usability: 9/10

The Hanshaw Test: 6/10

The Grooveshark radio seems to me like a tag based play-list, that latches on to the single largest available sub-genre - in gist, because Hanshaw had jazz as one of the tags, Grooveshark, having very little of her in there, calculated that any jazz will do - perfect if you wanted to discover a million different artists, but bad if you wanted 1920's style music in general.

A few notes on the on-demand services

It would be wrong to determine that Spotify is the on-demand king based on solely on the grades my test has provided, as it rates their radio performances. In fact, as on-demand services, they are all evenly matched, as they all have fields they excel in - Spotify is the most integrated one, offering a desktop app even for free users, MOG the best in quality, and nothing beats Grooveshark's DB. They also match up in that they all have a big annoyance or two.

MOG makes you share referral links to your friends, make play-lists and FB promotions, to fill up the Music Meter, which represents free music. It's a bother, but you get quality audio. Besides, you can easily create false accounts using temp e-mails.

Grooveshark deletes stuff often, it's definitely contemporary, so you won't find a lot of the old stuff, both MOG and Spotify will win there. It always feels like it's rushed. The Retro version has more tweaks spread around the Web than the new interface, it's worth a look.

Spotify has unlimited plays for USA-based accounts only, so make sure you sign-up with a USA proxy. Once your profile has been created, you can login from any address, but make sure you log-in from a USA address every 14 days, to reset the geo-timer, otherwise you will be warned that the profile and location IP don't match. The Web app is still in beta, and it needs a cookie to access it (here it is), keep that Facebook link, you'll need it. The desktop version has apps which are superb. The desktop app can also replace your audio player (but won't play FLAC O.o). Visual ads will remain no matter what, but the audio inserts are gone with this.

Honourable mentions

In the end, there are a few useful services for music that are inventive and well-made, that deserve to be mentioned here, if only to make them more known.

StereoMood connects to several audio databases (archive.org, SoundCloud, etc) to provide the user with good tag-based music (mostly moods and activities) per user request. Completely free, set-and-forget music discovery system, it hosts mainly contemporary alternative music. The service also links with Facebook, Twitter, Stumble Upon, Delicious, Friendfeed and MySpace.

JustHearIt has a 16 million database, and a simple purpose - to give you the chance to listen to what you want, when you want it, for free, and legally. It's available anywhere, and has a killer GUI.

ex.fm is an indie platform that works best on Chrome. With the help of an add-on, ex.fm crawler scans blogs you currently visit and loads it's little player. It also has a website, where you can search for user submitted tracks, follow users with listening habits you like, follow various blogs, integrate with last.fm, Facebook... The website has the same user-base feel as Grooveshark, only incredibly smaller (it's supported by a team of five).

SongRepo, scowers Grooveshark database to get the user their tracks faster (I didn't notice the speed increase). What's more important, it you can download the tracks, if you really need them. And all that in a clean, slick interface!

Songza doesn't integrate much, doesn't support artist based stations, rather includes artists you've searched for and a bunch of others that are in predefined stations, and if you want to play it, fine. As a result, you get someone else's choices (a music professionals', apparently), resulting in a mix of tracks, with standard tuning available on the simple interface. In my case, it was labelled "Prohibition music", and wasn't half bad - shows that the system works. You can integrate with FB or Google.

CloudDeck is a desktop app designed for browsing and managing SoundCloud tracks, creating and synchronising play-lists. From my experience, works better than the SoundCloud website, has visualisations, a clean and useful interface. If you are a SoundCloud user, this is a good thing to try out.

The End

That's all folks! If you have any suggestions for more services that I can review and compare to these, let me know! If you have any questions, feel free to ask! Hope someone finds this useful! Cheers! :)

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