Spotify vs. Pandora

Ryan Waniata

You’ve probably heard that there are two types of people out there: people who listen to their music on Spotify and people who use Pandora. While Pandora has been around for decades and many people credit the streaming service for revolutionizing the music industry, there’s also a reason Spotify has become so popular in the past few years. 

After comparing these two music services closely, Spotify comes out on top, and here’s why.

Background

For better or worse, Pandora’s Music Genome Project helped revolutionize the music industry when it debuted in 2000, creating a new standard for online music streaming. Since then, numerous competitors have sprung up, with iHeartRadio, Last.fm, TuneIn, and more borrowing Pandora’s “radio station” model with varying degrees of success. In fact, Pandora has been so successful at radio-style programming that SiriusXM recently agreed to purchase it.

Spotify, meanwhile, was conceived by two Swedish businessmen who simply wanted a way to listen to all their favorite music in the same place. The service debuted in 2008 and has since gone gangbusters, growing into one of the most successful on-demand music platforms in the world with more than 240 million active daily users and more than 120 million paying monthly subscribers. While Apple Music is the only on-demand service that comes close to matching Spotify’s might, Pandora’s on-demand service offers several compelling reasons to give it a shot.

If you’re a music lover, both services are certainly worth using, but if you’re considering upgrading to paid tiers like Spotify Unlimited or Pandora Premium, you will want to know what you’re getting for your hard-earned cash. We pit Spotify and Pandora against each other to help you decide which is right for you.

Music catalog

Spotify for Windows 10 Screenshot

For years, Spotify enjoyed a massive lead in this category, touting tens of millions of songs in an ever-growing library. Contrarily, Pandora’s once-meager catalog included roughly 1 to 2 million songs — nothing to scoff at, but hardly a number capable of competing with Spotify or Apple Music. Following the acquisition of Rdio, however, Pandora inked deals with several major record labels and eventually launched the on-demand Pandora Premium.

Spotify’s 40 million track count still trumps Pandora by a slight margin, though it owes that feat mostly to remixes, covers, original content, and amateur artists — but the libraries are very comparable, and there aren’t any notable artists who appear on one service and not the other. Some artists have exclusive deals in place with other platforms, while others prefer to keep their work away from streaming services entirely. All told, Spotify holds a slim lead in sheer numbers, but there is essentially no difference between the two here.

Winner: Tie

Social features

There is no denying music’s incredible power to connect people. Realizing the invaluable worth of friendship, Pandora and Spotify afford their users the ability to connect with friends, share their favorite songs, or simply recommend artists and playlists. However, these streaming clients differ vastly when it comes to comparing the social components of each service. Pandora’s rather lackluster attempt at social features essentially offers little to satisfy social media junkies. Users do have the ability to share their favorite stations across Facebook and Twitter, but because on-demand playback is locked behind a paywall, it feels fairly empty.

Spotify easily gets the nod in this category, providing users with a slew of options for sharing music and connecting with friends. Spotify users can share individual songs, entire playlists, and even specific artists with any of their friends and followers on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Skype, Tumblr, or any other app you can send a regular old text link to. Spotify’s Snapchat-esque barcodes make it easy to check out the tracks featured in those Monday vibe screenshots everyone posts. The service also lets users share and collaborate on public playlists, and future updates promise even more opportunities to enjoy music with friends.

Winner: Spotify

Music discovery

Everybody wants to find musical diamonds in the rough, and a big part of a streaming platform’s value comes from its ability to help users find new tunes. Music discovery is the backbone of Pandora. The Music Genome Project we mentioned above is the engine that drives Pandora, offering the uncanny ability to provide listeners with songs they like based on a vast amount of variables, down to the unique cocktail of instruments, vocals, and pacing that make the song what it is. In addition to creating radio stations, the Music Genome Project helps to curate playlists (if you have Pandora Premium) by automatically adding music once you have selected a few songs.

Spotify is no slouch in this category either, and the company has made acquisitions to get better at it over time. The extremely popular “Discover Weekly” playlist, a 30-song list that magically shows up each Monday, blends music you love with music you’re likely to love. Spotify is constantly adding similar features so you can keep discovering. Spotify’s home interface is also brimming with themed playlists, and you’re just one click away from the “Discover” tab, which features personalized recommendations based on your listening history.

We’re still inclined to give Pandora the nod here, however. After all, music discovery is its primary function and its radio stations far outshine Spotify’s, which too often seems to blend genres and repeat tracks.

Winner: Pandora

Podcasts

This streaming game began with music, but eventually, both Spotify and Pandora thought it wise to incorporate another audio-only format into their platforms: podcasts. Most popular podcasts can be found on either platform, and they both have their share of unique exclusives to secure the edge, but Spotify’s status as the dominant market leader has predictably shifted the early numbers of this relatively infantile market in its direction. This has led to more ubiquity for Spotify, whose logo is consistently spotted among the top shows’ list of official destinations. Add in a big sports push set to come thanks to its acquisition of The Ringer, and Spotify gets the nod.

Winner: Spotify

Free versus paid versions

Both services offer free — albeit limited — access to streaming music supported by occasional ad breaks. The ads aren’t overwhelming, and the free offerings provide a great way to test-drive these services before splurging on a premium account, but these services differ greatly.

With a free Pandora account, subscribers are limited to radio functionality — pick a song (or an artist, or an album, or any combination), and it builds you a station. Hit the “thumbs up” button to tell Pandora to play similar music in the future, and hit the “thumbs down” button to make sure you never hear that song (or songs like it) again. Moreover, users of free options only have access to a lower-quality audio stream (limited to 64k AAC+ at best), and aren’t afforded the luxury of downloading a desktop client like users of Pandora Plus or Pandora Premium. Both mobile and web users have access to similar features — the same amount of skipped songs, the same available stations, and the same occasional advertisement.

For Spotify users, the free experience is far more robust. The ads are here, too — as is the loss in audio quality — but with a free Spotify account, you can listen to music on-demand via the desktop and web apps (mobile users are limited to on-demand listening from 15 playlists that Spotify generates based on their taste every 24 hours).

You can also try the ad-free versions of each service for free. Standardly, Pandora offers a 60-day free trial of its $10 per month Pandora Premium service (which includes ad-free radio and on-demand streaming), 30 free days of its $5 per month Pandora Plus service (ad-free radio stations, but no on-demand streaming), while Spotify offers a free 30-day trial of its $10 per month Spotify Premium service (on-demand listening and radio stations). Both services also offer a discount for a yearly membership.

Winner: Spotify

Cost

While Spotify may offer better choices for freebie chasers, Pandora’s $5 per month tier is a killer option for those who want to rock out to quality tunes free of ads, but don’t have the scratch to shell out the full $10 per month. Families up to six can sign up for $15 per month on either service, while sizable half-off discounts await students and, in Pandora’s case, military veterans.

Both Spotify and Pandora have regular promotions for three months’ access for no more than $1, giving you more than enough wiggle room to see all they have to offer. You’ll regularly see promotions tied to device purchases and other companies, too, such as the six months of free Spotify you get for being an AT&T subscriber. Pandora doesn’t do nearly as much in that regard, but you’ll see decent deals on occasion.

With very little deviance from the music streaming pricing playbook that everyone else seems to follow, this should be a wash. That said, if you want to go ad-free with Spotify, you’ll have to pay at least $10 per month, which gives Pandora an automatic win.

Winner: Pandora

User interface and experience

Though both platforms look and feel great on smartphones, tablets, and desktop, it’s worth pointing out how the user experience differs between services. Pandora offers three different methods for playing music: A mobile application for Android or iOS, an in-browser player, or a downloadable desktop program (Pandora Plus or Premium only). With an easy-to-use interface and intuitive controls, each version provides largely the same experience. Users also have the ability to sort radio stations either alphabetically or by date for quick access.

No matter which way you listen, you will have access to background information on the artist currently playing, lyrics, listings of similar artists, and links for users to quickly buy any song that strikes their fancy, not to mention how cool it is to see all of the track’s traits as defined by the Music Genome Project. “Browse” and “My stations” sections allow you to quickly switch between listening and discovering.

You can also use your voice to control Pandora on your phone, even from across the room — no Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, or hands required. (Note that Pandora also supports Alexa.) Commands such as “Hey, Pandora, play something awesome,” “Hey, Pandora, thumb up this song,” and “Hey, Pandora, pause,” all work once you enable Pandora’s voice assistant feature on iOS or Android.

Spotify likewise offers three main apps — web, desktop, and mobile for Android or iOS — and they each feature an incredibly polished user interface. The desktop version functions like iTunes (but is less cluttered), meaning most people should find navigating it straightforward and intuitive. Searching for music via the program’s search bar produces Google-like results, auto-generating artists, songs, or albums as you type. On both the mobile versions, the bottom navigation bar features three tabs — Home, Search, and Your Library — within which everything lives. Whether it’s new music or the stuff you jam every day, you’re only ever a couple of taps away from finding it.

Casual browsing mostly happens within the Home tab, and it’s there that users have access to newly released music, daily curated music playlists, and podcasts, while the Discover tab has been retired to put all the personalized recommendations within the search interface. The company has also continued to develop its radio-style algorithm, adding a feature called Endless Artist Radio, which are personalized playlists based on your listening history.

There’s no denying that Spotify offers users a more well-rounded user experience, and its solid platform and slick interface make it an even more attractive option. Pandora’s no slouch — and its hands-free voice control is pretty slick — but Spotify reigns supreme here.

Winner: Spotify

Third-party integration

We talked about mobile and desktop apps above, but what about other platforms? Both Spotify and Pandora enjoy widespread integration as part of vehicles, TVs, smart speakers, gaming consoles, wearables, and other computing systems and connected devices, as well as within several third-party GPS and workout apps. However, Spotify earns the edge as its reach stretches just a bit further. For instance, while both Spotify and Pandora have Xbox One apps, you can only find the former on PlayStation 4. Spotify’s Connect feature makes these integrations a lot more pleasant to use, to boot. You can start listening on desktop and seamlessly transition to mobile whenever you hit the road, keeping your place in the tracks and playlists all the same.

Winner: Spotify

Other information

Location: If you’re not located in the United States, go ahead and ignore Pandora altogether — it’s only available stateside following the removal of support in Oceania territories. Spotify, on the other hand, is available in a vast number of countries.

Compatibility: With Wi-Fi-enabled smart speakers reaching an all-time peak in popularity, you might want to consider whether your favorite speaker is natively compatible with Spotify or Pandora. Popular smart speakers like the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo line support both Spotify Connect and Pandora Everywhere via Wi-Fi. Here is a full list of Spotify devices and a full list of Pandora devices. Keep in mind, integration with devices like smart speakers often requires a paid account, so don’t forget to check the fine print while shopping.

Conclusion

Despite having existed for nearly twice as long, Pandora simply can’t keep up with Spotify’s impressive versatility and usability, though that may be attributed to its ongoing development of the Music Genome Project. The introduction of Pandora Premium ushered in a new area for the service and made it viable among standouts of the music streamers, but Pandora is playing catch-up at this point, and it’s pretty far behind. Spotify has better social features, better apps, and more value for your dollar. If you’re constantly looking to expand your musical horizons and are in love with its powerful radio-style listening, Pandora is absolutely the most reasonable investment, but it’s not beating Spotify.

Overall winner: Spotify