I renewed my annual subscription to Pandora One at the tail end of June. As of this writing, Pandora One runs $36 a year.
Pandora One gives you some nifty things like ad-free listening in the Web browser version, better quality audio settings, longer listening times between “Are You Listening?” pauses, and unlimited listening time per day. However, I subscribed to Pandora because I’ve loved them ever since I joined in 2006. As a side benefit to subscribing, my friend works there.
Here’s my opinion on the value of Pandora One after a year and how it stacks up compared to other streaming media services that get my money.
Service quality and reliability
The majority of my Pandora listening time is via the computer. I strictly use their Web-based interface, although Pandora One users are able to download and use the desktop application. The Web-based Pandora has been absolutely rock solid. I don’t ever remember the service being unavailable, nor do I remember any songs skipping or acting oddly. Over a five year period, including heavy usage of over 40 – 60+ hours per week, I think the only more robust services I’ve ever used on the Web were Amazon.com and Gmail.
I also use the Pandora app for Android when I am riding my motorcycle into work or on longer trips. I have used it a time or two in the office when I forgot my external hard drive that houses my music collection.
The Android application is far more stable than the Amazon MP3 Cloud Drive application (see my review). The Verizon network is pretty crappy in Minnesota, and sometimes songs will stop playing as I lose connection to the service. However, the application fails over pretty gracefully and a new track begins as soon as I re-enter a service area. The Pandora mobile app will attempt to reconnect to the service, and it’s only completely crapped out on me once. The Amazon MP3 Cloud service fails a lot more quickly, and often refuses to reconnect. This is a major issue while riding, since I can’t easily restart the app.
Music suggestions are worth every penny
Pandora is the first music recommendation engine to get widespread use. You’ll get the same suggestion features if you’re a free customer or a Pandora One customer, but this service has been invaluable to me. Pandora is responsible for introducing me to my most favorite music within the last two years, including Pendulum, Panjabi MC, the Qemists, and Skrillex. I consider myself fairly well-versed in electronic music, but I didn’t really appreciate modern dubstep until this year thanks to Pandora.
Like I said, free users will benefit from the suggestion engine, but finding new music is easily worth the annual cost of Pandora One for me.
Bonus / subscriber-only features
- Unlimited monthly listening. This is by far the most important subscriber-only feature to me. Free users are capped to 40 hours a month. I would outstrip this easily just by playing DJ at the office when I lived in Virginia. My usage has climbed now that I listen to Pandora on my phone while driving my car or riding my motorcycle.
- Higher quality music stream. The normal Pandora stream is rumored to be 128kbps. The Pandora One stream is 192kbps. Basically, the higher the bitrate the more information about the music, the better the sound. This isn’t always true at the technical details, but you get the idea.
I don’t expect high fidelity audio from streaming media. I really don’t expect high fidelity audio from my car, computer, or mobile device. I guess a higher quality stream is better than a lower-quality one, but I don’t really notice. Pandora offers a comparison example on their Pandora One landing page, so you can try it before you decide if it’s that big of deal to you.
- No ads. I don’t really care about this. I don’t mind if Pandora gets my money as well as money from advertisers. I don’t know if Pandora is compensated via a pay-per-click model or an impressions model (like radio and television). Since the second dot-com bust few advertisers are compensated by impressions, but you never know. I never found the Pandora ads to be intrusive or annoying. I wonder how much money Pandora “loses” by offering ad-free listening to their subscribers.
- Fewer “keep-alive” pauses. “Are you still there?” Every once in awhile I play enough music without interacting with the player that Pandora thinks I’m gone. See, Pandora and other online music services pay royalties for every song played. They don’t want to have to pay for songs that no one is listening to. There is also a cost associated with transmitting the song to you, but I think that’s of lesser concern from a business perspective.
The free version of Pandora will stop for confirmation every hour. The paid version checks every five hours. Any interaction with the Web application at all, like clicking the pause button, giving a thumbs up or down, etc will reset the timer.
I don’t like to waste stuff and I’m always looking for ways to reduce or recycle around the house. I don’t mind if Pandora checks on me to make sure I’m still listening. I guess extending the keep-alive to five hours is nice for when I’m doing chores around the house or playing music while my friends are over. However, I wouldn’t mind at all if the timer was trimmed down to three hours, just to make sure. I am sure Pandora runs metrics on all of this type of stuff, and I wonder what the royalty and transmission savings would be if they lopped two hours off of the keep-alive.
- Desktop application. The supposed reason you’d want to use the Pandora desktop application is so you don’t have to keep a Web browser open. I always have a Web browser open if I am listening to music. The only time I don’t have a Web browser running while I’m on the computer is if I am playing a high performance game, and in that case I’m not listening to Pandora anyway. This feature is totally worthless to me, but perhaps others make good use of it.
- Custom skins. I admit it, I have a custom skin on my Pandora One account. It’s the one with the birds. However, I probably wouldn’t even notice if Pandora disabled this feature. I certainly don’t think it’s worth paying for. It would be awesome if the backgrounds were dynamic based on at least the genre of the music being played. I’d be even more happy if there was some visualization going on, either via the Flash in the Web-based application or the desktop version. That might compel me to use the desktop app in the first place.
Was I willing to resubscribe after a year of Pandora One? Hell yeah I was, and I did it gladly. At $3 a month, it was only slightly more expensive than my SomaFM subscription, which I felt was of much less value. The Pandora One subscription is one of those “don’t drink a Starbucks today” expenses that seem easy for me to justify. I guess the more interesting question is, how much would I pay per year for Pandora One?
The only cross-reference I can think of was my Premier subscriber over at Ars Technica. I was an Ars subscriber since the year they launched the program, and I happily paid $50 a year to keep the lights on. Once Ars was purchased by publisher Conde Nast I started wondering exactly what I was getting for my money. I failed to renew last year, but was given a gift subscription by a friend.
Would I pay $50 a year for Pandora One? That would be a tough one. I’d say Pandora would have to add more recent electronica music for sure. I would also be more critical of other streaming services — and who knows may be providing similar levels of service by the time my renewal comes around.
For now, I am definitely happy with the Pandora One subscription at $36 a year. I plan on renewing indefinitely, and the service is strongly recommended.