Everything An Audiophile Needs to Know About Pandora

Published On: April 8, 2013
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Everything An Audiophile Needs to Know About Pandora

Pandora is a service that is pretty well known at this point. At least in its functionality. What many do not known is how Pandora can actually be a friend to an audiophile and benefit them.

Everything An Audiophile Needs to Know About Pandora

By Author: Adrienne Maxwell
Adrienne Maxwell is the former Managing Editor of HomeTheaterReview.com, Home Theater Magazine, and HDTVEtc.com. Adrienne has also written for Wirecutter, Home Entertainment Magazine, AVRev.com, ModernHomeTheater.com, and other top specialty audio/video publications. She is an ISF Level II-certified video calibrator who specializes in reviews of flat-panel HDTVs, front video projectors, video screens, video servers, and video source devices, both disc- and streaming-based.

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 . . .

I'm a satellite-radio subscriber, and I love it. Still, I'm thinking about canceling because I really only listen to a couple of stations in my car, so it doesn't seem like it's worth the money. There's no way I can go back to commercial radio and, as much as I love my iTunes music collection, I would miss the exposure to new artists that I get through satellite radio. Pandora provides the best of both worlds, and it's free. I'm continually impressed by how, with just a bit of feedback, I can craft a channel that I really enjoy, filled with artists I hadn't heard of before. Wisely, Pandora makes it easy for you to purchase any song you hear through iTunes or Amazon, and you can share your "likes" with friends via Facebook or Twitter.

Of course, there are some limitations in the Pandora approach. Beyond skipping tracks and shaping the content via thumbs up/down, you cannot control the Pandora playlist. You can't, for instance, listen to the brand-new album from your favorite artist, start to finish. Pandora's goal is to expose you to a wider variety of artists that fit your musical tastes, not to let you listen exclusively to all the songs from a certain artist, as you can with a service like Spotify. With that in mind, you're also limited in the number of songs you can skip in an hour. I counted six skips before I got a message saying I had reached my limit (but honestly, I seldom want to skip that many songs each hour). The free Pandora service also includes advertising. Ads are displayed in the browser window, and a short audio ad will play after every few songs. (The interface within A/V products like TVs and receivers may look slightly different.)

Now let's talk audio quality. For users of the free service, Pandora streams AAC+ files in stereo (no multi-channel) at a quality level of 64 kilobits per second via the Web browser. For Pandora One subscribers, it moves up to 192 kbps through the browser/desktop app. In-product apps like those found in a Roku box, Blu-ray player, or A/V receiver stream at 128 kbps. With mobile devices, the quality depends on the device and network, but it is never higher than 64 kbps. For comparison, Spotify streams the Ogg Vorbis format at 160 kbps for its free desktop app and 320 kbps for its premium service ($10 per month). Spotify clearly has the advantage in quality, but the premium service is more expensive and the free service is not available on as many devices as Pandora. We're not suggesting that these streaming music sources replace the full- or higher-resolution audio you can get from a disc format or med
ia server but, again, they can introduce you to new content that, it is hoped, you will then go purchase in a higher-quality form (no really, please go purchase some of the content!). That being said, how can you make the most of Pandora's sound quality? Clearly, the best option is the 192 kbps you get from a Pandora One subscription, but that option is tied to your computer. You could mate the computer with a good USB DAC and use it as a source ... and hey, if you haven't already done so, why not load up the hard drive with uncompressed music and good media-server software? If that approach doesn't work for you, the next best option at 128 kbps is the Pandora app in a smart Blu-ray player, streaming media player, or receiver. Many new A/V receivers and processors have a special sound mode that's specifically designed to help flesh out compressed audio sources; these modes can't work miracles, but they can help. If the Pandora app is on your new TV, you can send the audio back to your receiver over the TV's digital audio output or send it back over the HDMI cable you're already using for video, as long as both the receiver and TV support the Audio Return Channel.

Finally, before the comments section gets flooded with irate readers, let me clearly state for the record that there are other music-streaming services that allow you to create artist- or song-based radio channels and give feedback to tailor the playlist. We've chosen to focus on Pandora because, as I mentioned earlier, it's currently the most high-profile and ubiquitous of the streaming-music apps, but similar services are offered by last.fm, I Heart Radio, Rhapsody, and even Spotify. The difference lies in how each service makes its connections between songs/artists to create a channel. Many sites form connections based on user feedback and what other users are listening to, as opposed to the more analytical approach of the Music Genome Project. The resulting playlists can be quite different. For instance, when I created a U2 channel in Pandora, I also got tracks from the Police, Coldplay, Oasis, Dave Matthews Band, and Pearl Jam. When I created a U2 channel in Spotify, I got tracks from Queen, Muse, Blur, Guns 'N Roses, and Alanis Morissette. Most of these services are free to use through your computer (except Rhapsody, but they do offer a free 14-day trial), so why not have some fun with each one to see which makes the "right" connections for you?

Ultimately, this new crop of "smart" radio stations combines the best part of old-school radio with the instant gratification and personalization of the digital-music era. They may not sound perfect, but they encourage the mindset of discovery that can help keep our passion and excitement for music alive.

Additional Resources
• Read more original content like this in our Feature News Stories section.
• See more streaming, apps, and downloads news from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Explore reviews in our Media Server and AV Receiver review sections.

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