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Which online radio app is right for you?

This guide covers the top internet radio services to help you pick the best one for your listening habits.

James Martin/CNET

I remember when Pandora was the only streaming radio service in town. Now there are tons of choices and nearly every on-demand streaming service has some kind of radio feature.

In this guide, I'll outline the big names in internet radio, running through their features and what makes them unique. I won't cover the on-demand streaming services that offer radio-like features, but you can read all about them in CNET's guide to streaming music.

Before we get started, here's a brief disclaimer: CBS, the parent company of CNET, also owns Last.fm, Radio.com and many over-the-air AM/FM radio stations, all of which compete or provide content in this space.

What they all share

First, let's talk about the features all of these services share, since there is significant overlap. All of the apps on this list, save for TuneIn Radio, let you create radio stations based on a song, album, artist or genre. You can then tweak the selection by upvoting or downvoting songs: An upvote tells the service you like what you hear, while a downvote does the opposite. The service uses that feedback to fine-tune the selection, aiming to give you exactly what you want to hear, including familiar favorites and new music.

Once you start playing a station, you cannot rewind, repeat, scrub forward or select songs to play on-demand. Normally, the only controls are play, pause and skip forward to the next song. Many services have a limit on how many tracks you can skip per hour or per day. With radio, the lack of control is the trade-off for a discovery-focused, and often free, listening experience.

Internet radio stations compared

Pandora (US only) Apple Music TuneIn Slacker Radio (US only) Napster UnRadio (US only)
Free option Yes, with ads Yes, with ads Yes Yes, with ads Free 14-day trial
Premium offering $4.99 for no ads and more skips $9.99 (£9.99, AU$11.99) per month for no ads $9.99 (£7.99, AU$12.99) Pro app removes banner ads $4 per month for Plus, $10 per month for Premium $4 per month
Skip limit 6 per hour per station, 24 per day for all stations 6 per hour per station with free option Not applicable 6 per hour per station None
Offline listening? Yes, with Plus No Only for podcasts Yes, with Premium Yes, up to 25 songs
App availability iOS, Android, PlayStation, Xbox, Roku iOS, MacOS, Windows, Android (limited) iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Roku, Sonos, Amazon Echo, Google Home iOS, Android, Roku iOS, Android

Pandora

Pandora dominates the US internet radio scene, thanks to its secret sauce, called the Music Genome Project, a system that analyzes songs for 450 "distinct musical characteristics" to understand what makes a song unique. Using that information, Pandora finds songs that sound alike or complement each other to build your stations.

The Pandora app keeps it simple.

Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Pandora is a free service that relies on ads to make money. You'll hear and see ads quite frequently, almost one between every song. (If it's not an ad you can hear, it's a pop-up ad that shows up on the screen.) With a free account, you also get the chance to skip six songs per hour per station and up to 24 total skips per day for all of your stations. Selecting the skip button, downvoting tracks and shelving music with the "I'm tired of this track" option are all considered "skips."

For more freedom to skip songs and remove ads, you'll need to pay $4.99 per month for Pandora's paid service, One. Pandora One offers higher-quality streaming (up to 192 Kbps on the web only), offline listening and five hours of continuous music without pauses and unlimited skips per day. However, the six skips per hour per station limit still applies.

Where it excels

  • Pandora is skilled at figuring out what music you like and which songs to avoid.
  • The service has extensive biographies of bands and artists, with descriptions of their musical style, their discographies and similar artist recommendations.
  • You can shuffle all of your stations when you want to hear a wide variety of tracks.

Where it falls flat

  • Pandora can get stuck playing the same several songs over and over, especially if you listen to the same stations frequently.

Best for: those who like radio stations that choose your music intelligently, flow well and give you plenty of control to tweak your music.


Apple Music

Though Apple Music is its own a la carte streaming music service, it also offers a unique, free radio experience. Via iTunes or the Apple Music app, you can tune into Beats 1 Radio.

Apple Music has a live, worldwide radio station.

Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Beats 1 Radio broadcasts live worldwide with highly-lauded DJs like Zane Lowe and exclusive programs hosted by popular musicians, like Drake's OVO Sound station, which regularly debuts new music from top hip-hop and R&B artists. Beats 1 radio is free for anyone to tune into, but you do need an iTunes ID to listen.

Similarly, you can listen to stations like CBS Radio News, ESPN Radio and Bloomberg Radio, for free as well -- if that's more your jam. Availability and selection depends on location.

Apple Music offers traditional, on-demand internet radio stations that you can curate based on genre, artist, theme, etc., but these are part of the Apple Music subscription. If you don't have one, you can't listen to them.

Where it excels

  • Beats 1 radio features unique programming not found elsewhere

Where it falls flat

  • There's only one free radio station that plays music
  • There's no standalone app for radio-only

Best for: those who only want to listen to Beats 1 Radio. Or already have an Apple Music subscription.

TuneIn

If there's a local radio station you love (or miss listening to) TuneIn is the 21st-century way to, well, tune in to an actual radio station. You can browse and listen to 100,000-plus live radio stations from your local area or all over the world.

TuneIn allows you to listen to your favorite local radio stations.

Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Stations are grouped by location and genre, with the addition of select podcasts. Unlike Pandora and others on this list, TuneIn does not create on-demand stations. Everything you'll hear in the service is from a live station that is currently broadcasting somewhere in the world. You can't search for songs or artists to create stations, but you can search to see if any live stations on TuneIn are currently playing your favorite music, and then tune into them.

TuneIn Pro, a totally separate app from TuneIn, requires a one-time $9.99 charge and it removes ads from the app itself (not from the radio broadcasts) and lets you record shows and music to listen to later. There's also TuneIn Premium, which is $7.99 a month. It includes NFL, NBA and MLB game broadcasts and audio books.

Where it excels

  • The apps and web player let you find stations from all over the world.
  • Before switching to a station, you can see what's playing (in the app or via TuneIn's site).
  • Premium account includes NFL games and audiobooks.

Where it falls flat

  • Music quality can vary, since you're listening to a live broadcast.
  • The mobile apps can have trouble connecting to a station.

Best for: anyone who wants to listen to live radio from all around the world.

Slacker Radio

Slacker is more like a guide for music enthusiasts, built by enthusiasts, than purely an internet radio service. Much like Pandora, Slacker Radio lets you build or browse stations based on your favorite music. The difference here is that, with a paid subscription, you can play songs on demand and download them for offline listening.

Slacker doesn't slack with the station recommendations.

Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Slacker uses music fans and experts to create stations instead of algorithms. Music fans are responsible for Slacker's impressive library of pre-created stations, which include those centered on new music, genre essentials and an artist's best work, plus their influences. Like Pandora, Slacker gives you six skips per hour with a free account. Unlike Pandora, Slacker helps you keep track with a counter next to the skip button to see how many you have left.

Slacker offers two paid plans, Radio Plus ($4) and Unlimited ($10). Plus gives you unlimited skips on stations, no ads and offline listening for your stations. The Unlimited plan takes it a step further and lets you play songs on demand, create custom playlists and play albums and playlists offline, in addition to all of the features of Plus.

Where it excels

  • Slacker's selection of radio stations is unique and well-curated.
  • The apps' and web player's design is sleek and stylish.
  • Some stations have audio blurbs that introduce and explain the song selection.

Where it falls flat

  • There's no way to temporarily take overplayed songs off a station.

Best for: music fans who want fun and unique stations, and the option to listen offline.

Napster unRadio

Napster (which also has an on-demand streaming service) has a $4.99 per month radio service cleverly called UnRadio. However, if you're a T-Mobile customer with the right plan, you can get it at no extra charge.

Napster and Rhapsody are the same company, in case you're confused.

Xiomara Blanco/CNET

With UnRadio, there are no ads and you get unlimited skips for all your stations. Like the others, you can create your own stations or browse by genre, artist and recommendations from Napster.

You can tune your stations with a thumbs up or thumbs down, and tapping the Favorite button (the heart) saves the current track to your library and downloads it for offline listening. However, you're limited to just 25 songs that you can save to your favorites. Upgrading to the $9.99 per month plans allows you to preview and change upcoming tracks.

Where it excels

  • Each station is easy to customize to adjust the variety of songs played on a radio station.
  • Unlimited skips mean you'll never hit a wall while listening.

Where it falls flat

  • Aside from a 14-day trial, there's no free option for those looking to save money.

Best for: anyone willing to pay a few bucks per month for no ads and unlimited skips.

CNET recommends: Pandora and TuneIn

Out of the options listed above, our top pick for internet radio is Pandora for its simple design and abundant, but not excessive features. For the best listening experience, spend the $4.99 monthly fee for Pandora One, which gets rid of the annoying and abundant ads in the free version.

If you prefer to hear live broadcast terrestrial radio, TuneIn is your best bet. It has hundreds of thousands of radio stations from all over the US and around the globe, including tens of thousands that you wouldn't be able to hear from your local broadcasts.

Even more options

The list above is by no means meant to be exhaustive, and there are plenty of other radio-streaming services you can use. Here are a few off-the-beaten path options if you're looking for more choices.

iHeartRadio

  • iHeartRadio is very similar to TuneIn, letting you listen to thousands of live radio stations around the world without even creating an account.
  • By signing up, you can listen to iHeartRadio's custom stations based on your favorite artists.

SomaFM

  • SomaFM is a listener-supported, commercial-free radio station that focuses on underground and alternative music.
  • It has 30 unique stations (my favorites are the swanky, soundtrack-like Illinois Street Lounge and Secret Agent).
  • You can stream from the website on your computer or Android device, or there is an iOS ($7.99) app available.

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    Editors' note, 3:49pm. PT: This post was updated to clarify that Pandora Plus offers offline listening, Rhapsody is now Napster and TuneIn offers offline listening for podcasts.