The best free music streaming services: Pandora vs Spotify vs iTunes Radio

There are a lot of free music streaming services out there, and they each have their unique pros and cons.  We'll summarize some of the best services for free music streaming and also go over some other options for free music streaming on mobile devices and PC's.  If you're looking to get rid of the ads and get more features see our post on the best paid services.

Best free music streaming service: Pandora

Pandora is the best overall free music streaming service.  It's great at generating playlists for your unique tastes, easy to use, and is available on tons of devices.  Just enter a song or artist and a playlist begins playing.  However, to get those playlists tailored to your liking you'll have to rate a lot of songs, and you'll quickly encounter Pandora's biggest weakness: you're only permitted to skip six songs per playlist per hour, and twelve songs total per day.  (Tip: switch between multiple browsers and devices to get more skips.)

  • Quality:  64kbps AAC+
  • Apps:  iPhone/iPadAndroid, other mobile phonesconnected devices
  • Upgrade:  Pandora One is $4/mo, no ads, higher quality streams, but skip limits remain
  • Pros: Great music discovery tool, tons of supported devices, comedy playlists are good too
  • Cons: Skip limit makes it difficult to quickly tailor new playlists to your tastes, lower quality streams
  • Best for: Discovering new music, 'set it and forget it' listening once you've got your playlists set up, people without Apple or Android

If you want to make your own playlists: Spotify

Spotify has become quite popular in the last few years for good reason, and it just got better with free streaming on mobile devices.  You make your own playlists from scratch and skip whenever you want, with ads occasionally playing in between songs.  You can listen to any track at any time on PCs and tablets, while on phones your playlists must be shuffled with a limit of six skips.  Spotify also has a radio feature that works just like Pandora but it's not at the core of the service and isn't quite as good.

Now that Spotify is available for free on mobile devices, it's a great all-around streaming service.  Make your own playlists and listen to them, or start a streaming radio station and save your favorite new songs for later.  Spotify is a great product that keeps getting better.

  • Quality:  160kbps
  • Apps:  iPhone & iPadAndroidWindows Phone
  • Upgrade:  Spotify Premium is $10/mo and comes with offline listening, no ads, and better sound quality
  • Pros: Any track any time, skip limits only on smartphones
  • Cons:  On phones you can only listen to your playlists on shuffle
  • Best for:  Making playlists of your favorite songs

Other free music streaming services:

 best free music streaming services Pandora vs Spotify vs iTunes Radio

iTunes Radio only works on Apple mobile devices, PCs with iTunes, and Apple TV.  It is similar to Pandora's free music streaming service, but there are several featured playlists that are ready to play.  iTunes Radio can be controlled by Siri, which is a nice feature to use in the car.  It's simple to use and easy to bookmark songs or purchase them in the iTunes Store.  If you're happy with Pandora there's no reason to change in my opinion, especially if you already have some Pandora stations that are tuned to your tastes.

YouTube has tons of music videos that you can watch and listen to.  There's nothing stopping you from making playlists of your favorite songs and listening to them as often as you'd like and using it as a free music streaming application.  Plus, with YouTube there are no skip limits.  A new free app for iPhone and iPad, Tuner,  lets you listen to music from YouTube in the background while you browse the web or do other things on your device.  You can make your own playlists or browse popular music.  It's a neat little app for unlimited free music.  The website Torch does something similar on for computers.  YouTube also has apps for iPhone/iPadAndroid, and a mobile web app.

SoundCloud is sort of a 'YouTube for audio' so it has lots of music available.  A lot of the music is uploaded by individuals, so it can be hard to find full albums and there are lots of duplicates and user-made remixes.  Just like YouTube, you can create your own playlists called 'sets' and listen to them as often as you'd like.  SoundCloud also has mobile apps for iPhone/iPad and Android.

Wrap-Up

These are just a few of the major free music streaming services.  There are more that are similar to Pandora or Spotify (Slacker, Grooveshark) and several paid streaming services (Rhapsody, Rdio, Google Play Music All Access, Beats Music).

I go back and forth between Pandora and Spotify depending on what I'm doing.  I have some great Pandora stations that I can put on and listen to for hours.  I've also discovered several great lesser-known artists on Pandora and continue using it for that purpose.  I use Spotify when I want to hear specific songs or create my own playlists.  Happy streaming.