Four music subscription services compared

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All of the sites have prominent search fields that allow you to search for tracks, albums, and artists. In this regard, if you know what you’re looking for, you’re set. Napster and Rhapsody additionally allow you to easily browse genres thanks to genre lists and menus found prominently on the home page. Mog and Rdio don’t have any obvious genre listings, and instead focus more on playlists and recommendations.

Each site also lets you create and save playlists. Playlists are important not only for sharing recommendations with others as well as allowing you to revisit the music you like, but also because these playlists are also accessible from your iOS device running a service’s app.

The mobile experience

Speaking of which, all four services have released free iOS apps that let you listen to all the music available on the service and listen to tracks you’ve downloaded to the device (downloads are included as part of the price of the subscription).

Searching for Elvis on Mog.

The Mog app presents you with a home screen that includes Search, New Releases, Mog Charts, Today’s Picks, My Favorites, My Downloads, and Play Queue icons along the bottom of the screen. Tap Search and you can search by artist, album, song, or playlist. The search results screen includes Albums, Songs, Playlists, and Mog Radio entries. The radio feature is also accessible from the Now Playing screen and, like the Web interface, features a artists only/similar artists slider. New Releases displays a screen of 30 recently released albums. Mog Charts displays 50 tops songs, albums, or artists. Today’s Picks shows you 30 albums Mog thinks are worth your attention—both new and older. My Favorites are those artists, albums, and songs you’ve designated as such.

My Downloads displays all the music you’ve downloaded, sorted by artist, album, song, or playlist. And Play Queue displays all the tracks in the queue. It’s very easy to download albums and tracks. Next to each is a Download button. Just tap it and the item downloads. Within the My Downloads screen, tap Download Settings and you see that you can choose to download music as 320-kbps MP3 rather than in the lower-quality (but space saving) 64-kbps AAC+ format. In this same screen you see how many tracks you’ve download and the amount of space they consume. You can delete them all by tapping a Delete All button.

The Napster app's Now Playing screen.

The Napster app offers four broad sections—Explore, Collection, Search, and Player. In the Explore area you see New Releases, Napster Playlists, Billboard Charts, Napster Top 100s, Explore by Genre, and Automix entries. Tap Collections and you find the music you’ve chosen or has been recommended specifically to you—My Artists, My Playlists, My Albums, Recommended, My Top Songs, and My Play History. Search produces a Search field. And Player is where you control playback of your music. You can additionally edit tracks in the queue.

When you find something you like, you’re welcome to save it to your iOS device by tapping Save Offline. The music will download to your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad and you can then play it without a Wi-Fi or 3G connection.

Albums in heavy rotation on Rdio.

Rdio’s app has five buttons along the bottom—Dashboard, Collection, Playlists, Search, and More. Dashboard can be configured to show recent activity (what the people you follow are doing), heavy rotation, your Web queue, and your listening history. Select an item in one of these lists and it plays. Collection is a list of your online library, organized by artist. Again, this list is initially derived from the list of tracks in your iTunes library that you’ve synced with Rdio. Playlists are all those playlists you’ve created on Rdio’s site. Search produces the expected Search field. And tap More to access the app's settings.

When you view tracks or albums you have the option to save them to your collection or to download them to your iOS device by tapping a Plus button and choosing the appropriate option. (If music is already in your collection, it has a check mark next to it. Tap the check mark to download the associated music.) You can download other people’s playlists, but not add them to your collection by tapping this same Plus button when viewing a playlist. Music you’ve downloaded appears in your collection with an orange check mark next to it, making it easy to identify when you’re offline.

Al Green's screen seen on the Rhapsody app.

The Rhapsody app has five buttons arrayed across the bottom of an iOS device’s display—Queue, My Library, Browse, Search, and Settings. Queue lists all the tracks you’ve added to the Queue, both online and within the app. You can edit this queue as well as save it as a playlist. Tap My Library and you see entries for Artists, Albums, Radio, and Playlists. Artists and Albums reflects the music you’ve listened to on the service. Radio lists those Rhapsody radio channels you’ve added. And Playlists lists any playlists you’ve created. When you tap browse you find Genres, New This Week, Charts, Rhapsody Radio, Playlists, and Listening History entries. These are largely self-explanatory except for Playlists. In this case the playlists include not only those that you’ve created, but also playlists generated by Rhapsody and celebrities. Search does what you’d expect. And Settings offers app settings.

Downloading tracks from Rhapsody to the app isn’t straightforward. To do it you first have to add music to a playlist. Once you’ve done that, tap the My Library button at the bottom of the display, tap the Playlists entry on the screen, locate the playlist that contains the music you want to download, and tap the Download button next to the playlist. The means for purchasing tracks isn’t much more evident. Although Rhapsody sells music on its Website, you can’t purchase music from Rhapsody via the app. Instead, tap and hold on an item in the app and a sheet appears that lists Buy From iTunes at the bottom. Tap that option and the iTunes app opens and takes you to a search page that displays the item you want to purchase.

Who they’re for

In the days when subscription services were tied to Web browsers, they were a tough sell unless you used them primarily to preview full-length tracks rather than live with the 30-second previews offered by the iTunes Store and Amazon MP3. Although many people listen to music while working or playing at their computers, those computers generally don’t serve as a primary music player. Move to another part of your home or outside and that music isn’t available to you.

Thanks to devices such as those from Sonos, Squeezebox, Roku, and TiVo, some of these services are making their way into other rooms and to higher-quality audio systems, where their convenience becomes more apparent. And now that they can stream (and download) to iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads, they become enticing mobile music options.

Yet two groups of people will object. The first are those who demand that they own their music. For them, the idea that their music libraries will disappear when they stop paying their subscription fees is unacceptable. (Subscribing doesn’t preclude also purchasing the music you most enjoy, but some notions are hard to shake.) The other is the most persnickety audiophile. Those with keen hearing, a perfectionist bent, and the kind of quality equipment that exposes audio anomalies in the streams will resist such services. I, however, routinely listen to subscription music with a Sonos system connected to high-quality B&W speakers and find the sound quite acceptable.

Is it time to try?

Recent rumors suggest that even Apple is exploring music subscription. And if any company can sell the idea, it’s Apple. Fortunately, you don’t need to wait for Apple to add subscriptions to iTunes to reap the benefits. Of the four services, I favor Rhapsody. Mog and Rdio may offer higher bit rates—both on the Web and in their iOS apps—and Napster's annual subscription plan is less expensive, but I like the completeness of Rhapsody's catalog, its integration with my Sonos system, and its wealth of radio stations. But that's just me. Each of these services offers a free trial—one where you can take both the Web interface and app for a spin. If you’re a music enthusiast, interested in exploring music not in your iTunes library or CD collection, you owe it to yourself to give one or all of these services a try.

Updated 3:00 PM 10/12/10 to describe Rdio's Rdio Stations feature.

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