Everything An Audiophile Needs to Know About Pandora

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Everything An Audiophile Needs to Know About Pandora

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pandora-logo-with-artists-small.jpgLet's see a show of virtual hands from the audiophiles out there who use Pandora on a regular basis. I know, I know - it's a highly compressed streaming format, and audiophiles feel about compression the same way that videophiles feel about, well, compression. But I must confess, the more time I spend with Pandora, the more I enjoy it ... not for its sound quality, to be sure, but for what the service represents. In a world where traditional radio stations grow more homogenized and it's so easy to insulate ourselves within the comfort of our existing digital music collections, Pandora's goal is to continually expose us to different music, to broaden our musical horizons in a gentle, organic way.

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Even if you've never used Pandora, you've likely heard of it, as it has become the staple streaming-music app on smart TVs, Blu-ray players, A/V receivers, and other networkable products. The service is also accessible through any Web browser, and free apps are available for both iOS and Android devices. A basic Pandora account is free, or you can sign up for the higher-tier Pandora One service ($3.99 per month or $36 per year) to get an ad-free experience, better audio quality (more on this in a moment), and access to a desktop music player that doesn't require a Web browser.

Pandora was born out of the Music Genome Project, an effort to break down the DNA of music to identify how songs and artists are similar, beyond the generic genres of Pop, Rock, Hip-Hop, etc. Starting back in 2000, a team of musicologists began to analyze songs, old and new, based on over 400 characteristics in areas like melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, and vocals; they then developed an algorithm to link songs through their shared traits. Pandora puts all this research into practice to provide the listener a more intuitive (dare I say, clinical) way to find songs and artists similar to the ones he/she already likes - a streaming service akin to Internet radio, but a whole lot smarter.

Once you've signed up for a Pandora account, you can create various channels (up to 100 total) in two different ways. You can take the standard Internet-radio approach and simply choose a genre like "Rock" and then a subgenre like "Classic Rock," "Hard Rock," "80s Rock," etc. Pandora will assemble a playlist based on that genre. The subgenre categories can go pretty deep, and Pandora kindly names a few artists you might find in that subgenre so you can get an idea of what's in store. I've discovered some subgenres that line up quite well with my tastes, but I prefer the second approach - to create a channel based on your favorite artists, songs, or composers (even comedians are now represented). Choose an artist, and not only will Pandora play random songs from that artist's catalog, but it will play songs from other artists that it has identified as being similar. You can influence future song selections by giving instant feedback via thumbs-up and thumbs-down icons. Pandora learns from that feedback and fine-tunes the selections for that channel.

As an example, I created a Jack White channel and got songs from his own diverse catalog, including the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, as well as artists like Beck, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash and The Black Keys. With each track, the Pandora Web interface provides lyrics, an artist bio, and a list of similar artists. Hover over the cover art, and you'll also see a tag that says "Why was this track selected?" where you can read an explanation of the commonalities that landed this artist in your channel. The more feedback you provide, the more personalized the playlist becomes, eliminating songs and/or artists that you don't want or perhaps focusing more precisely on a certain direction in the artist's music. If you love Jack White's bluesy bent but don't care for the harder rock tracks, your thumbs-ups and thumbs-down can shift the playlist in that direction.

Click on over to page 2 to learn about the quality and limitations of Pandora . . .

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