Streaming Music Prize Fight: Spotify vs Rhapsody

Spotify takes on Rhapsody and the winner is?


Last summer celebrated European music service Spotify finally debuted in the United States, terrifying iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, and all the rest with its any-song-for-free listening model. However, the free Spotify version is riddled with huge ads, lower bit rates, and extreme time limits, so comparing it to, say, Rhapsody isn’t apples-to-apples. To create a proper battle, I pitted the unlimited-music, ad-free Spotify Premium ($9.99/month) against Rhapsody Premier ($9.99/month).

Song Selections
Both streaming music services offer 13 million-plus songs, so you’ll never run out of stuff to play (as long as that stuff doesn’t include live-streaming holdouts Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, or Metallica). To compare artist/album/song selection, I began by searching for artists on Spotify that I already had on Rhapsody, starting alphabetically. Disappointment didn’t take long. Hip-hop supergroup 213 (Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Nate Dogg): Not on Spotify. Same with downtempo electronica group 60 Channels. Okay, not fair to compare the services with obscure groups? How about Adele’s 21, one of the best-selling albums of 2011? Rhapsody, yes. Spotify, no.

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Spotify offers 2 million more songs than Rhapsody, so what gives? Look up the Rolling Stones on Spotify, and you’ll be greeted with scads of albums you’ve never heard of, usually U.K.-only releases populated with the same old songs. So if you want every obscure version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” available, go with Spotify. If you want this year’s number-one album, go with Rhapsody.

Music Selection Winner: Rhapsody.

Desktop Player Interface
Rhapsody was once owned by RealNetworks, which tortured innocent music lovers with the bloated, virus-like RealPlayer music player. Rhapsody, now independent, still emanates a faint RealPlayer stench, with its bright background, stale 2003-erainterface, and blue and gray accents. Unlike RealPlayer, however, Rhapsody is intuitive to navigate, play music, store songs, and create playlists. It works like a typical computer app, so there’s no learning curve. Find a song or album you like? One click plays the song or whole album. One click saves the song or album to your library. Creating playlists is much like iTunes.

All Rhapsody interface panels (Now Playing Mixer, Play-lists, Artist, Album, etc.) are resizable, and the user controls the metadata panels they see in their library (genre, bit rate, time, composer, beats per minute, and 19 more).

Spotify, on the other hand, tries way too hard to be cute and novel, at the expense of usability. The top and left-side panels will be familiar to iTunes users, which is cool. Not so cool: Spotify went for that dark-gray, squint-to-read Adobe Air look that couldn’t be more aggravating for anything longer than a few seconds’ viewing. Users have no control over metadata. Spotify gives you only the four basics: artist, album, track, and time—plus it adds one more, popularity, that you’ll likely file under Who Gives a Damn. But before you do, there is one great use for popularity. Spotify streams at “up to” 320kbps quality. This highbit rate is reserved for the most popular songs. So, if there’s more than one version of “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder, go for the most popular version. It’s more likely to be streamed at the better-sounding 320k bit rate.

Both apps sport microscopic text throughout their interfaces, and you don’t get to resize it. You’ll (not) read it and you’ll like it, dammit!

It ain’t pretty but, in every conceivable way, Rhapsody provides a far more intuitive user experience.

Interface Winner: Rhapsody

Building a Music Library
Both services sport a library, a place to hold every song/album you save. Their libraries can also scan your computer for your own music files, and put those in the library as well. Rhapsody has a metadata panel that tells you which is which, including the bit rates of the various music files you’ve ripped or purchased.

While both services are streaming-first, they both allow you to download tracks to your computer’s hard drive as well, ideal for travelers.

To add a song or a whole album to your computer’s personal Rhapsody library, just didc the ADD TO LIBRARY button next to the song/ album. Done.

Adding songs/albums isn’t so easy with Spotify. You need to “star” the song. Click a yellow star next to the song, and it’s added to your library. It’s also inexplicably added to a “starred” group directly below the library. You don’t get to “star” a whole album with a click. You have to individually click stars for each song, or CTRL-A the album to select all songs, then right-click, then “star” them. As I considered populating Spotify with the 15,996 tracks I had saved in my Rhapsody library, the task loomed before me as a monumental pain in the ass. I quickly gave up on that idea, but managing even the most modest library in Spotify was a maddening, head-scratching exercise.

Music Library Winner: Rhapsody

Queue/Now Playing
With both services, you can add songs you want to play right now to the queue (their name for a Now Playing list) by dragging and dropping songs you’ve found, or songs from your library. With Rhapsody, you can also click the PLAY NOW button next to each song or album. In Rhapsody’s Preferences, you can decide whether the PLAY NOW button immediately plays the song/album, or simply puts it into the queue for you to play at your convenience.

Spotify doesn’t feature a PLAY NOW button. You have to right-click a song, then click ADD TO QUEUE. For an album, you CTRL-A to select all the songs, then right-click, then click ADD TO QUEUE. What a hassle. Inexplicably, when you find a song during a search, Spotify adds every version of that song to your queue, whether you want it or not. Soon, your queue is cluttered with all kinds of stuff you don’t want, and there’s no way to get the unwanted songs out. The only way to clear Spotify’s queue is to close and reopen the app. The queue always opens empty.

With Rhapsody, the only songs in your queue are songs you want there. And to clear the queue, you simply did< the CLEAR button. You can delete any song from the queue with your keyboard's DELETE key. And songs in the queue stay there if you close and reopen Rhapsody, so all your desired music of the moment is ready until you say otherwise.

Queue/Now Playing Winner: Rhapsody


Radio Stations
Both services feature “artist radio.” If you like an artist, select artist radio to hear more songs by that artist, plus songs by similar artists. Think of it as a poor man’s Pandora, somewhere in the neighborhood conceptually, but nowhere near as good.

For true commercial-free genre radio stations, Rhapsody is king. If you’re in the mood for some rock, blues, soul, Latin, country, jazz, or 13 other genres, click the RADIO tab and go. Each of the 19 genres reveals an average of around a dozen subgenres, giving Rhapsody a total of more than 200 stations. If that’s not enough segmentation and personalization for you, you can didc CREATE CUSTOM CHANNEL, enter up to 10 artist names to give Rhapsody an idea of where you’re going, and let it play. Regardless of what type of Rhapsody radio station you’re listening to, a mini-bio about the current artist scrolls at the top right of your screen, helping you to learn more about your favorite artists—or new artists.

In contrast to Rhapsody’s 200-plus stations, Spotify Radio sports 27 genre/ subgenre radio stations, including the curiously titled “black metal.” No worries, though—hardcore, death metal, and heavy metal are also represented, leaving a full 23 non-metal radio station types to choose from. Remarkably, Spotify, a far more global brand than Rhapsody, offers no world music station, whereas Rhapsody allows you to choose from 11 different regional stations under their world music banner.

Either service’s radio feature is a great way to discover new artists in your favorite genres. Best of all, if you don’t like the current song, click the FORWARD button to play another. It’s radio with choices.

Radio Station Winner: Rhapsody

Sound Quality
First off, don’t compare these Internet-based services to Internet radio, which is decidedly lo-fi and usually riddled with commercials and DJ patter. Rhapsody and Spotify both sound great, suitable for at least casual listening on home and car systems. Secondly, higher bit rates mean better sound. But neither service is helpful at identifying bit rates. Rhapsody is all over the map: You’ll find claims of 128k (various forums) and 160k (CNET). Some claim it’s MP3; others say AAC. Rhapsody’s mobile and Sonos apps get 192k streams. Downloads to your computer are also 192k.

Spotify’s Premium service improves streams “up to 320k” over its lower-priced services. The disclaimer states that “not all tracks will be available in 320k,” but there’s no way to tell which are which. We’ll just have to listen, won’t we?

For the sound comparison, I used the potentially more compromised PC players, not the Sonos or mobile apps. I listened through the stellar Asus Xonar DX audiophile sound card, with a 96/24 digital output to a Yamaha receiver feeding JBL nearfield monitors and a Monitor Audio sub. First, I queued up Donald Fagen’s “On the Dunes,” from Kamakiriad. The song, while mellow, features some extraordinary drum and cymbal work, and has tremendous top-end air. MP3-type audio compromises are easy to hear with this track. After the Donald Fagen track, I stepped through several musical genres and repeated the listening comparison.

Spotify sounded better. But I had to go back and forth a lot to hear it. And true to Spotify’s disclaimer, not every song sounded like a 320k stream, and those songs were no better than on Rhapsody. The CD versions sounded predictably better than both services. While even tiny improvements in sound quality hold paramount importance to me, we should also consider how we use the apps. These are computer players. They’ll be hooked up to an office system or PC speakers. They’ll play in the background while we multitask. Consequently, the (sometimes) slight difference in quality may not be enough to switch to Spotify. For me, it wasn’t, especially considering that the playing field is leveled considerably through the more critical Sonos and mobile device apps.

Sound Quality Winner: Spotify

Mobile Devices
Both services offer free Apple iOS and Android apps to play music on the go. You can stream live if your mobile device is Internet-connected. You can also download songs to the device for listening offline.

Rhapsody Premier allows only one mobile device for the $9.99/month fee. For $14.99/month, you get up to three mobile devices. Spotify Premium gives you three mobile devices for its $9.99/month fee.

Mobile Devices Winner: Spotify

Who emerged victorious? The audiophile in me didn’t make the choice easy, considering Spotify’s certain (on some songs) but barely discernible sound quality advantage over Rhapsody. I attempted to jump on the Spotify bandwagon mere moments after its U.S. release. A day later, I jumped right back off. The reason: I use my PC music player daily; it’s the soundtrack to my workday. Rhapsody’s relevant music selection, its simple learning curve, its superior control and personalization, its enormous variety of commercial-free radio, its miles-ahead lead in ease-of-use and intuitive-ness —all make collecting and listening to music as I work ajoy and abreeze. The phenomenal Sonos Rhapsody app is icing on the cake. Someday, maybe Rhapsody will add to this a prettier, easier-to-read, more modern PC interface — and one for the Mac, too. Until then, I have all those awesome jams. So I have that going for me.”

Charles Thompson, via his company Sell-Through Solutions, creates retail training programs for several consumer electronics manufacturers, including Sony, Yamaha and DirecTV. He began his career in high-end audio, working in retail and management for 10 years at Home Entertainment Inc. in Houston, Texas.


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