Pandora, one of the oldest and most recognizable names in the online streaming music category, continues its evolution. In its early days, Pandora simply hitched its wagon to its Music Genome Project recommendation engine, but as competent competition entered the digital music fray, the company adopted new features to stand out in a packed field. In 2020, Pandora boasts podcasts, album commentary, and artist tour information. Those features aren’t enough to for Pandora to challenge LiveXLive Powered by Slacker Radio, Spotify, Tidal, or even its own SiriusXM Internet Radio parent company, but the service is capable and has apps plugged into numerous ecosystems.
A New Plan
Pandora has free and premium service levels, so you can explore the music whether or not you want to sign up for a subscription. Free account holders enjoy the expected ad-supported personalized stations, plus podcasts and the ability to play music on demand. Pandora is similar to Spotify, a PCMag Editors’ Choice, in that regard.
Still, Pandora occasionally makes you jump through hoops to listen to free music. For example, in order to hear The Dirtbombs’ Top Songs playlist, I had to watch a video ad and then redeem a temporary Premium account unlock that would last a few minutes. A Pandora representative stated that the Premium bonus length may fluctuate. Unlocking the Premium tier is as simple as clicking an icon, but the whole process is a bit funky.
On the other hand, the $4.99-per-month Pandora Plus is a more traditional plan that builds on the free tier by adding ad-free personalized stations, unlimited skips, and offline listening. Pandora’s highest-level plan, Premium, costs $9.99 per month and adds playlist creation and sharing to Pandora Plus’ feature set. The fact that playlist creation is locked behind Pandora’s priciest tier is a bummer. The Editors’ Choice award-winning LiveXLive Powered by Slacker Radio has a similar, annoying limitation, but Spotify does not.
Pandora also offers discounted Premium plans for students ($4.99 per month), active military members and vets ($7.99 per month), and families ($14.99 per month, covering six people).
Good Features, Odd GUI
You begin your musical journey by browsing Pandora’s many categories or keying the name of an artist or song into the search box. For instance, my “Prince” search caused Pandora to display results that included albums, songs, an artist page, and a Prince-based station. That’s typical of what you’d find in competing streaming music services.
Pandora, however, has a cool feature powered by its Music Genome Project. When Pandora played “Let’s Go Crazy,” a song the service notes as exemplifying Prince’s musical style, it listed bullet point highlights of what you could expect from the Purple One, including “basic Rock song structures,” “R&B influences,” and “danceable grooves.” The bullet points aren’t a game changer, but they’re a nice touch that offers music insights.
The music player showcases album art in the middle of the page, with easily accessible lyrics, player controls, song favorite/ban icons, and song and artist information just south of it. The Pandora website is one of the most barebones interfaces I’ve seen in the streaming music space, but that isn’t an insult. Many other services feed you content via panel-driven interfaces, but Pandora scales things back and places the focus on what you want to hear.
Unfortunately, Pandora’s web interface also has too many different appearances. There are at least three different color schemes I’ve come across during testing, and another handful of page layouts that differ wildly by whether you’re on the Artist, Album, Now Listening, My Collections (listening history and saved albums or stations), or some other page. It’s highly, highly irritating.
In addition, the Pandora website occasionally loaded pages at a snail’s pace over the course of several testing days.
Music satisfactorily streamed over both my home and office network connections in my testing. Unless you’re an audiophile, Pandora’s sound quality should satisfy, especially when the audio is pumped through a phone or desktop speaker. On the desktop side, Pandora doesn’t list the bit rate, but you can enable the “best audio quality” that the company offers.
Paid subscribers enjoy three mobile bitrate tiers that impact the music’s sound quality. You can select Low (32Kbps AAC+), Standard (64Kbps AAC+), or High (192Kbps MP3) audio settings. The Low setting is good for people who don’t want the music streams to chew through their data plans, while the High setting is all about sound quality, data caps be damned. The Standard setting, naturally, is a balance between Low and High.
Unfortunately, people who possess more discerning ears should look elsewhere for their tunes. Pandora lacks Hi-Res Audio, a better-than-CD-quality music class. Only a handful of streaming music services carry Hi-Res Audio catalogs, including Amazon Music Unlimited and Tidal, but the category is growing.
Mobile Apps and Cool Extras
Pandora’s offers apps for Android, Android Wear, Apple Watch, Fitbit, iOS, Kindle Fire, Mac, Nook, and Windows. I tested the Android version on my Google Pixel XL and found it a pleasure experience. The app is easy to navigate, and quite attractive, too. I much prefer it to the web version.
If, like me, you haven’t fired up Pandora in a while, the service’s new features may come as a surprise. Like Spotify, Pandora has a rich podcast well that features popular shows, such as The Breakfast Club, Serial, Sway in the Morning, This American Life, and Welcome to Night Vale. Oddly enough, The Joe Rogan Experience, one of the world’s most-popular podcasts, is nowhere to be found. That said, Spotify lacks the show’s presence, too, so the show’s absence may be on Rogan himself.
If the live music experience is more your bag, Pandora lists artist tour dates and links to where you can purchase tickets. It’s not unlike iHeartRadio, in this regard.
Our favorite Pandora feature is Pandora Stories, which sees artists deliver insights into the making of an album. For example, the Mary J. Blige episode celebrates the 25th anniversary of her classic My Life album, and highlights the processes that led to its creation. Interspersed between her reflections are tracks from the album. Pandora Stories is similar to Slacker Stories, except that artists deliver the information instead of DJs.
Pandora has a few cool things going for it, including good mobile apps, reasonable plans, Pandora Stories, and artist tour information. By all means, fire it up if all you want is an incredibly simple lean-back listening experience—just avoid Pandora’s mediocre website.
Still, this expanded iteration of the service isn’t quite on the level of the best of its competition. As a result, LiveXLive Powered By Slacker Radio, Tidal, SiriusXM Internet Radio, and Spotify remain our overall Editors’ Choice award-winners among streaming music services, thanks to their incredibly deep feature sets.