May 7, 2012
- Large selection of well-curated playlists
- Pandora-style music discovery and streaming
- Unlimited streaming
- No audio ads
- Can’t pick your own song
- Buffering problems
- Limited number of song skips (and some errors)
- Can’t create playlists in the app
Music lovers and those looking to discover new artists have long turned to the seminal streaming music service Pandora to get their new-music fix. With its intelligent system that delivers new music based on your past preferences, Pandora has long been a leading option in music streaming. Songza is one of a new generation of services that use Pandora’s basic template and try to improve upon it. While Songza has some appealing features, its mobile app version performs too inconsistently on wireless networks for me to ditch Pandora yet.
Playlists for Every Occasion
While Songza initially seems very similar to Pandora, that impression changes quickly. Songza plays songs for you based on a starting point you choose—though what that point is is important. Pandora let you select an artist or song; Songza doesn’t. Instead, you start with a genre, mood, or activity. While Pandora essentially functions as a radio station that you control and tune to your tastes, Songza takes that idea and applies it to playlists. It does this in two ways.
The first, Music Concierge, is the biggest argument for the service. Instead of starting you at a song, Music Concierge starts with a situation. For instance, if it’s 8:30 am, the app knows that and presents you with a number of choices related to the morning: singing in the shower, commuting to work, getting psyched up for the day. Select one of those and you then choose from 3 options that further refine your mood and what you want from music. Once you’ve done this, music begins playing. (Though on the downside, this feature presented the same set of playlists to me on multiple mornings, which could get a bit repetitive.)
Mood and time of day aren’t your only choices for finding playlists. You can also choose playlists based on criteria like activities, genres, and decades. Each playlist has a set of related playlists and gives you the ability to share it on social media or buy songs from the iTunes app.
When listening to a playlist, you rate a song with a thumbs up to get more like it, or a thumbs down to get less like that and to skip to a new song. Based on your preferences, the music delivered to you should more closely match your tastes over time. In that basic functionality, Songza is solid. It works as anyone who’s used Pandora would expect—and does so well. I’m not sure what Songza’s limit on the number of song skips per hour is, but it appears to be higher than Pandora’s. Pandora limits you to 6 song skips per hour on free accounts (up to 12 total per day), whereas I skipped at least 7 songs in my first hour testing Songza and didn’t bump up against the limit (though I’ve read that Songza has the same 6-skip limit, so maybe I benefitted from an error?).
That said, I did encounter a strange error in skipping songs. I began my testing on my commute in to work and, as noted, skipped a number of songs. Then, I resumed testing on the way home, 8 hours later. However, the first time I tried to skip a song, Songza presented an error saying that I had hit my skip limit for the hour—even though it had been 8 hours since I tried to skip anything.
Two other important ways that Songza differs from Pandora is that there are no audio ads in Songza, only image/text ads on the screen (though I wonder how long that will continue; If Songza gets enough users, it may need more lucrative audio ads to cover its costs) and there are no listening limits, whereas Pandora limits free users to 40 hours a month.
The one playlist-related feature that the app lacks is the ability to create and share your own playlists. This is somewhat odd, given that that is prominent feature of the web-based Songza experience. I’m not sure why it wouldn’t appear in the app (and I don’t know that I’d necessarily use it if it did), but for people who like sharing music that way, creating their own playlists is reportedly one of the joys of Songza.
The Big Bad Buffer
These elements of Songza make for a very promising app, but that promise is undercut by connectivity problems. I tested the app at different times of day on a 3G/4G connection that ranged from strong to spotty to non-existent (this is the coverage on my train ride to and from work; it's the same network that I use to test other streaming music apps).
Unlike some apps, Songza had real problems with the variable bandwidth. It was fairly common for a song to begin playing, only to stop again a few seconds later due to buffering. It also wasn’t unusual for songs to cut out 4-5 times before their first chorus.
Of course it’s not Songza’s fault that I tested it in a challenging environment or that AT&T hasn’t got great coverage on my commute. However, not all apps—Rdio and Band of the Day come to mind—have this problem (and, in fairness, some apps are much worse. Spotify is pretty unusable on the train), and those that don’t seem to have figured out a way to stream while still dealing with these issues.
That Songza has these issues makes me wonder whether it’s an app that can reliably supply music to you when you’re on the go in locations that aren’t blanketed in 5-bar coverage. Not all apps are (Spotify, I’m coming to learn, is basically useless in my car), but the best ones find a way to solve this problem. Perhaps the option to choose high-quality streams versus low-bandwidth connections, a setting that many apps offer, could help?
The Bottom Line
There are things I love about Songza, most notably the Music Concierge and the idea of delivering playlists curated for times of day and moods. Add moving through them, Pandora-style, and you’ve really got something. Unfortunately, the inconsistent and choppy streaming is just too much for me right now. It really hindered my enjoyment of the app and its music.
I suspect that problem can be solved, though, and when it is, you may end up reaching for Songza whenever the mood, whatever that mood may be, strikes you.