Opening Pandora’s Premium Box

It ain’t easy being an internet pioneer. Sure, you get kudos for being the one to break new ground on the web, but once you plant your forerunner flag, everyone comes gunning for you. Sometimes you’re able to swat down all comers (all hail King Amazon!), sometimes you fade despite your best efforts (we hardly knew ye, Bing!), and sometimes, you just have to suck it up, regroup, reassess, retool, and re-emerge.

And with that, I re-give you ...Pandora.

After being acquired by SiriusXM in February 2019, Pandora, long anointed as the premier “automated music recommendation internet radio service,” has been on a yearlong rebranding mission (one that’s still in full swing, if their recent TV commercial campaign is any indication). If you already have a Pandora account and/or a SiriusXM subscription, you have access to their standard free service, but you can upgrade to Pandora Plus for $4.99 a month (not including tax; Plus is also offered at a discounted $54.89 annually), which gives you ad-free personalized stations, podcast access, unlimited skips, and offline listening.

For $9.99 a month (or $109.89 annually), Pandora Premium sweetens the pot with ad-free personalized music, the ability to make and share playlists, and discounted plans for family ($14.99/month or $164.89/year for up to six accounts), students ($4.99/month), and military listeners ($7.99/month). Plus offers a 30-day free trial, while Premium offers 60 days free.

Since I’m only interested in premium listening no matter what service I’m using, I’ve been test-driving Pandora Premium all the way. A friendly email titled “Getting Started With Pandora Premium” hipped me to the concepts of Search & Play, creating playlists, and offline listening. To put Premium through its paces, I bookmarked a Pandora window on my HP laptop, utilized the app on my iPhone Xs, pulled it up on my Roku, accessed it when I was mobile, and switched to it in my car without any hassle.

I began my trial run by going into Content Settings to ensure the Audio Quality slider was set to “The best audio quality we offer” — meaning it will default to 192kbps whenever possible. Note: If you don’t have your slider set that way — or, if you’re using the app and haven’t selected High as your Audio Quality option — you could be stuck with Low (32 kbps) or Standard (64 kbps) playback.

Naturally, I approved of the Collect designation (something that’s permanently embedded in my DNA), so I began adding favorites to My Collection including albums by Rush, Midnight Oil, St. Vincent, Fontaines D.C., and Strand of Oaks, plus a few key podcasts (Lore, Questlove Supreme) for whenever I need a tone break from my music obsession, er, appreciation. I enjoyed perusing the detailed Biography material supplied for each artist (a byproduct, I believe, of Pandora’s longterm affiliation with the Music Genome Project).

Many artist entries also include Lyrics, Song Credits, and the ever-intriguing Features of This Song shorthand (such as deploying the tantalizing descriptor “extensive vamping” to describe a key element of certain songs by the likes of The Tragically Hip, Billie Eilish, and Widespread Panic).

One annoying hitch — and one that’s not a new issue with Pandora — is some albums and songs are flat-out unavailable even though they’re listed in artist libraries, albeit with a small RADIO label emblazoned on them at the top right. If you do click on them, you’re greeted with, “Due to our music licenses, this song cannot be collected.” (It still says “song” even when you click on an unavailable album, btw.) One would hope that, given the scope of the music catalog that beams all across parent company SiriusXM’s satellite channels, the Pandora library should broaden considerably sooner rather than later.

As to checking Pandora Premium SQ, I cued up Rush’s prescient 1982 hit, “New World Man.” Geddy Lee’s uber-burbly bass line was as gurgly-deep as required, not to mention how crisp the right-channel snare work from Neil Peart came across in the pre-chorus (then properly re-centered during the full chorus), while his crash took over in the left channel in the second verse. Considering how muddled this track’s mix has often sounded via other services that use lossy compression, I was pleased.

That said, I’m still on the fence about whether I’ll continue with Pandora Premium after my trial period concludes. If the service shows good faith regarding upping the ante on its catalog offerings, I’ll be happy to keep my Pandora Premium window box wide open.

The Author
Mike Mettler, a.k.a. The SoundBard, is the music editor of Sound & Vision.

merge03's picture

Is Pandora stuck in 2010? I don’t see what value a 192kbps streaming service brings when products like Spotify and Qobuz exist.