IntroBack in July 2002, Listen.com's Rhapsody inked deals with all five major record labels and more than 100 indies, beating the labels' own music services, MusicNet and Pressplay (subsequently absorbed by Napster), to the punch by several months. Fast-forward a couple of years, and Rhapsody is now owned by RealNetworks, and it's still going strong. It has continued to expand its catalog, with music from more than 500 independent labels, and it remains the best provider of streaming audio. What's more, Rhapsody is the only on-demand streaming music service that offers integration with several digital media receivers to stream music over a network to your home stereo. Now, RealNetworks has taken Rhapsody to an entirely new level with its launch of three variants, the most newsworthy being Rhapsody To Go, which allows you to untether your subscription-based downloads and listen to them on compatible portable devices. Rhapsody To Go costs $14.99 a month, while Rhapsody Unlimited, which gives you unlimited streams and downloads--but no transfers--to portable devices, is available for $9.99 per month. The final choice is Rhapsody 25, a redesigned iTunes-like jukebox application that features 25 online radio stations and 25 on-demand streams per month, all for free. Considering the popularity of Rhapsody, the revamped service will likely make a huge impact on the digital audio world, as it is no longer so streaming-centric. In fact, the service is much more dynamic and will, no doubt, attract newbies, while still appeal even more to existing Rhapsody users. With a 7.93MB download, Rhapsody's installation takes a little longer than the previous version's, but the program comes full of more features and is ultimately a joy to use. You also aren't bombarded with the check boxes and the offers that are typical of a Real install. The updated controls look even more futuristic and streamlined, and they're easy to navigate. From glowing buttons to well-placed windows and tabs, the interface rivals iTunes' for simplicity and aesthetics. You search Rhapsody's library of music using the large browser window, which features a Flash-enabled rotating promo for albums, playlists, and staff picks. All tracks have Play and Buy options in the basic version, while the subscription versions substitute an Add To Library icon for the Buy option. Play a song, and it appears in your current playlist in the lower left. You can save and organize playlists to listen to your favorite songs in whatever sequence you wish, whenever you're connected. The new Mixer lives in the playlist window lives and includes tabs for Burn and Transfer, a new component that's key to Rhapsody To Go.
Stereo controls, song progress, and artist information (including album art) are displayed cleanly along the top of the application. Rhapsody packs curious factoids about artists, so it's fun and addictive to browse. Rhapsody includes links to artists' official Web sites and suggests related performers that might match what you enjoy. It even includes song information on albums that it doesn't carry--a truly useful resource.
In the midleft window, you'll find the main options: the Rhapsody Music Guide (default), Rhapsody Radio, My Library, and My Playlists, plus any portable attached devices. The browser includes a simple but effective search box with the option to search by keyword. In the Rhapsody Music Guide, you'll get links to features, 19 genres, a host of charts, and celebrity picks. You can also create My Rhapsody, your own music home page, which gets populated with music matching your tastes (more in). The My Library window is equally attractive and efficient, with a responsive search and a useful column dubbed Rhapsody Type, which can sort by imported, purchased, and subscription music.
Another big plus: Rhapsody is the only on-demand streaming service that offers seamless, off-the-shelf integration with digital media receivers, such as Rockford's Omnifi DMS1, Prismiq's MediaPlayer, Netgear's MP101, and Linksys's WMLS11B. With one of the aforementioned digital media receivers, you can navigate and stream Rhapsody's full content catalog over a wireless network connection to your home stereo, or you can use the excellentThose who choose Rhapsody 25 can download the application for free (with a valid e-mail address) and get access to 25 excellent ad-free radio streams and 25 on-demand streams per month. Basically, as with a jukebox but for free, you can listen to 25 songs from the vast Rhapsody catalog--not a bad deal. In addition, the basic program adds jukebox functionality, such as MP3/AAC ripping up to 320Kbps, WMA ripping up to 192Kbps, CD burning, and a well-organized music library designed to simplify the tasks of managing music and transferring tunes to an MP3 player. You can also purchase tracks for 99 cents each or albums for $9.99. A really nifty feature: You can send your created playlists to friends. If they download Rhapsody 25, they can hear all the songs in the playlist, in their entirety, free of charge. Essentially, you can make one 25-song mix every month, and nobody has to pay. , which even lets you play different songs in different rooms at the same time. The only caveat is that your PC has to be on and running the Rhapsody application.
Pony up the $9.99 per month for Rhapsody Unlimited, and you'll get unlimited streaming and download access to one of the industry's largest catalogs of albums, insightful background on your favorite artists, 128Kbps WMA streaming, 160Kbps WMA downloads, and access to many top-notch radio stations. One gripe about the radio: While you can skip past songs you don't like, you can't pause in the middle of a track; Napster, on the other hand, allows this. To date, Rhapsody's catalog contains more than 1 million songs. If that seems overwhelming to you, try the program's radio station creation tool, which customizes a station based on up to 10 artists of your choosing.
If you have a compatible portable device such as iRiver's H320, Creative's Zen Micro, or Dell's DJ-20, you'll want to investigate Rhapsody To Go. Following on the heels of Napster To Go's revolutionary Janus-based service, Rhapsody To Go gives you access to 100 percent of the downloadable catalog to transfer to your device. A clock built into compatible devices times out licenses for songs when the subscription runs out, but until then, these files can be played with aplomb. While you can populate your playlists with any track in your library, you can autosync when you connect your device with only purchased or imported tracks, not subscription-based downloads. In other words, subscription content must be manually transferred, so you can't automatically fill your 20GB player with random tracks from the Rhapsody catalog. Though we're picky about music, it'd be nice to have a one-click subscription fill-up on our portables.
New Rhapsody features
Since both subscription services allow on-demand streaming of any track available, most users won't need to purchase tracks, but studies have shown that subscribers still buy their favorite tracks. Subscribers have the option to buy tracks with a 10 percent discount. That's 89 cents per track or $8.99 per album. Purchased tracks are 192Kbps AAC files wrapped in Real's Helix DRM.