by Tom McNamara / April 26, 2018
Pandora is one of the oldest music streaming services around, and it's most known for the free ad-supported version known as Pandora Radio. However, in 2016 it added Pandora Plus for $5 a month, which removes ads, upgrades audio quality, and provides other perks; and Pandora Premium at $10 or $13 a month, which launched in March 2017 as a direct competitor to Spotify Premium and Apple Music. Let's see how Pandora's latest offering has shaped up with a year under its belt.
Exceptional recommendation system: Despite all the heated competition from Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and others, Pandora somehow manages to retain an edge when it comes to recognizing similar artists and songs and putting them in front of you. In years past, it had a habit of recycling some songs a little too often, but now you can dive deeply into track after track that you've never heard before but will probably like. After about 15 minutes of the Chillstep Radio station, we'd heard two remixes of songs we'd previously favorited on Spotify. It knows.
Along with Spotify, Pandora is also one of the few streaming services that can generate a playlist from a single song, and it even includes an AutoPlay feature that will keep more tracks coming when you reach the end of a playlist. Don't like the song? Just tap the thumbs-down button, and Pandora will reconfigure the queue to remove other recommendations that sound like it. It won't even finish playing the track.
Last but not least, there's also Thumbprint Radio, which is a dynamic playlist inspired by every thumbs-up you have ever given to a song on Pandora. As you might imagine, that can get pretty eclectic.
If you've felt the urge to explore beyond your favorite bands and sounds, there may be no other service that can navigate through an ocean of music as well as Pandora, and that's saying something.
Familiar interface and features: Like its competition at the $10 per month level, Pandora lets you download tracks for offline listening, queue up any song in the catalog, create playlists, skip an unlimited number of radio songs ("radio" in this context being a playlist designed by Pandora), and listen without ads interrupting your stream.
And navigation is pretty sensible, with a My Music section presented up front and a Browse section on a tab right next to it, and a search button on the far right. Browsing will present you with a variety of featured playlists, new music, genres, moods, top artists, popular "radio" stations, and an Artists on the Rise section at the bottom.
However, some of the text is squinty small, and it could easily be embiggened without distorting the visual template.
It's pretty much everywhere, including Android Auto and Apple CarPlay: Your car's infotainment system is turning into prime real estate with the integration of mobile devices. In many cases, even in vehicles without Android or iOS integration, the infotainment system will feature a Pandora app anyway. If it doesn't, there are eight different brands of aftermarket car audio systems that include Pandora.
In fact, it would take too long to list all the different platforms where Pandora is available, but to give you an idea: It can be found within all major web browsers, a dozen different brands of home AV receivers, five different cable/satellite providers, seven different brands of home audio systems, 16 different brands of streaming boxes, and 14 different TV brands. Not just models, whole brands. You can also get it on your wrist via an Apple Watch, Fitbit, or Wear OS (aka Android Wear) device. I mean, even Spotify has yet to get on the Apple Watch.
The list of platforms where Pandora isn't available is probably shorter.
Local concert dates: Like Spotify, Pandora can clue you in to when your favorite artists are scheduled to visit your area, thanks to the acquisition of Ticketfly in 2015. You'll get a notification from the app, and you can purchase your tickets right there on your phone. Will it be as cheap as buying at the door? It's hard to say, because the app doesn't itemize any fees, but probably not. But some folks may be happy just to not deal with Ticketmaster.
Integrated alarm clock: This is a pleasant surprise. You can set Pandora to wake you up with a music stream at a designated time every day. Unfortunately, you can't specify particular days of the week, but you can at least set the duration of your snooze timer, which is something that Apple's own built-in alarm clock app will not let you do. On iOS, this feature does require you to leave the app open and your phone plugged in overnight, but that's actually pretty standard for third-party alarm clocks on iOS.
The app still lacks an equalizer and sound presets: Everything else about Pandora is so great that the inability to adjust your treble and bass is a bit of a letdown. Most competitors at least offer optimizations for things like rock, hip-hop, dance, and classical music, and Spotify has a 6-band EQ on both Android and iOS. You may not notice the issue, and the service can be plugged into so many other devices around your home that have audio adjustment options. But if you want to tweak audio on your phone, you're mostly out of luck, beyond the three basic bitrate settings (Low, Standard, and High).
Apple dings you an extra $3 a month on iOS: If you sign up for Pandora Premium via the iOS app, it will want $13 a month instead of the standard $10. This is because Apple takes a sizeable cut of iOS app subscription fees. (That's why Amazon Music Unlimited is $11 per month within the iOS app, rather than $10.) However, there's an easy workaround: Sign up on the Pandora website. This will give you the standard rate -- and you'll never need to wrestle with iTunes to manage your subscription. Plus, Pandora's website currently offers a 60-day free trial, instead of the regular 30 days, so that's a no-brainer all around.
The lack of audio adjustment settings is unfortunate, but Pandora otherwise sets the bar for users who want to explore different sounds, and it's compatible with a crazy variety of devices. If you don't care about an EQ, it's arguably the best competitor to Spotify that you're going to find.