Zune Pass vs Rhapsody

Sunday, September 13, 2009| by Will Chen

We’ve all read the stories, illegal downloading is killing the music industry and album sales are in the pits. While these truths are undeniable, I have been to the mountain top and seen the light…and that light is music subscription services. For less than the cost of a single CD at your local music store (if you even have a local music store anymore) you can eat all you want at the proverbial musical buffet. In addition to having access to today’s big hits and your favorite songs from your formative high school days, (and everything beyond) these services also often provide great tools for discovering new acts by making suggestions based on your listening habits.

The music subscription market has seen a few new players recently and in this review, we’ll take a look at the new kid on the block, Microsoft’s Zune Pass, as well as the one who started it all, Rhapsody.

Zune Pass

With the recent launch of Zune Pass, Microsoft is the newest big time player in the online music subscription world. The Zune Pass program was built from the ground up to directly compete with Apple’s iPod and iTune applications, tightly bundling a rich multimedia experience with a specific portable player. Microsoft’s approach is also very social network based attempting to build a community experience around Zune Pass media consumption. Fortunately, (from a music perspective) Zune Pass downloads directly integrate with Windows media player and can be transferred to many devices (such as affordable players from Sansa). I should note that the Zune Pass content includes a fair deal of video content. However, this review will only focus on the music side of things.

Microsoft has done a good job securing a fairly comprehensive selection of music across many different genres. However, once you stray a bit from the mainstream and major releases, the selection begins to thin a bit and many albums aren’t available in their entirety. Also, only a partial selection was available from a good deal of artists rather than their full discography.

Sound quality for the most part was excellent. Much of the music is offered as high quality wma (Windows Media Audio) files, however, an MP3 icon appears on a duplicate album for users who prefer that format. The only caveat is that on occasion a song would transfer with a skip and in one case a partial transfer occurred. However, the songs played from the host PC so it could’ve been anything from the DRM encryption to issues with the transfer process or my player rather than the Zune service.

Outside of a few managed channels covering the most popular genre’s, channels are implemented based on download popularity which resulted in some channels being dominated by tracks from a single album. The most humorous example was when a Kenny G. album shortly dominated the Bop Jazz channel. Honestly, this is one of the weaker features of the Zune Pass experience which would benefit greatly from a wider variety of managed channels until their customer base is wide enough to allow media ranking more effectively.

Another social networking tie- in…based on your plays, Zune will begin to make recommendations. In theory, this would be a great way to discover new music. However, in practice the recommendations seem to gravitate towards the lowest common denominator. For example, the trial run consisted of about an even amount of rock (mostly old school 80’s rock), instrumental guitar jazz, and children’s music with the single exception of Pink’s latest album and we were constantly recommended top 40 pop titles. Zune Pass also displays users with playlists similar to yours. This was actually a nice feature and turned me on to a few interesting acts I would likely have never checked out.

A large variety of podcasts are available, featuring everything from unsigned bands and the best of South by Southwest to foreign language lessons.

During my extended test period, there was only one outage which was announced in advance, otherwise there was never any issue connecting to the service. While the interface is intuitive but a bit sluggish and graphics heavy, it is very easy on the eye including some cool screen savers with pictures of the bands and a very cool collage of all the album covers in your music library. Media transfers are very, very fast but I encountered spotty stream quality when trying to stream music while downloading content. As I previously mentioned, I don’t have a Zune Player, as such I wasn’t allowed to download media directly to my player and instead had to download them to my local machine and then transfer them over using Windows Media Player. Additionally, I couldn’t download individual songs but rather had to initiate a download of an entire album, then cancel the downloads I didn’t want. Finally, Zune offers 10 DRM free songs a month you can keep forever, though I believe this only works with a Zune player, as I couldn’t figure out how to utilize my free credits.

Rhapsody

Rhapsody, initially launched in 2001, was the first music subscription service to offer unlimited on demand access to its entire library for a flat monthly fee.

Rhapsody’s service consists of two interfaces: a web based interface allowing users to access your library from any computer and an application which can be used to transfer media to your portable device (Rhapsody’s “To Go” service which is offered at an additional charge and isn’t tethered to any specific device) or stream media from the computer on which it’s installed. While Rhapsody’s web interface is fairly sleek, the application interface is pretty rudimentary and could stand to be upgraded with a bit more pizzazz and dynamic functionality. That being said, navigation is very intuitive and fast. So fast that at times it eerily seems to predict the content you’re searching for and preload it.

The way Rhapsody allows you to access your content from anywhere in the default settings for their service is to create a virtual library and stream content over the web rather than downloading to your local box. While one may worry streaming media would require dumbing down the quality or spotty quality of stream, the worries are completely unfounded. Rhapsody stream quality is superb. Even while running multiple web based apps and transferring content to my player, stream quality was solid. On the other hand, I should note that transferring media took ages compared to Zune Pass’ speedy transfers.

The library of music provided is very robust, as to be expected from the company who made history by being the first music subscription service to offer the complete digital catalogs of Sony, EMI, BMG, Universal and Warner (the five biggest labels in the early 2000’s). Just as Zune Pass’ content begins to thin out once you stray from the more popular acts, as does this. However, you have to wander quite a bit further out to completely stump Rhapsody. Many missing titles from the Zune Pass which frustrated me are included here.

Like any modern music subscription service, Rhapsody also offers a good deal of programmed content via channels covering pretty much every main genre (as well as a few rather obscure ones). Rhapsody offers “intelligent” channel programming a la Pandora in which channels are defined by musical attributes as well as human programmed channels. Channel programming quality is pretty good, but not outstanding, often including songs which are a bit of a stretch based on the user’s selection. However, a very cool feature of Rhapsody channels is the ability to include content streamed on a channel which isn’t typically available as part of a digital catalog. For example the Beatles’ and AC/DC’s discography aren’t available to any subscription service I’m aware of. In spite of this, their licensing does allow streamed radio broadcast and Rhapsody’s got ‘em. Very cool. Rhapsody also offers playlist sharing which I often found more interesting and entertaining than any of Rhapsody’s actual channels.

Who’s Better, Who’s Best?

Zune Pass has some very unique features, a striking interface, and offers an album’s worth of material per month to keep forever, making it a very attractive service. Conversely, it’s tethered to Microsoft’s rather pricey Zune players and their catalog is a bit limited when straying for the biggest most popular artists. For my money, music subscription services are all about the selection. So despite a somewhat outdated interface, Rhapsody wins this round with a library deep in all the right places: good selection of programmed content, and the ability to access your library from any computer with internet access.

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