We explore the ins and outs of Pandora Music’s Free and Premium plans, and see how the streaming app fares against its closest competitors.
Pandora, formerly known as Savage Beast Technologies, was founded in 2000 by Tim Westergren, Will Glaser, and Jon Kraft. It initially started as a music recommendation engine called the Music Genome Project.
However, after a succession of failed pitches in 2001, Pandora saw several employee layoffs with many more working for free in the two years that the company struggled to find funding. This led the team to rethink the business model and move toward music streaming.
Unfortunately, there’s been a steady decline in users since then. According to their 2021 first-quarter financial report, Pandora now retains only 55.9 million monthly users, which is 5 million less than the previous year’s posting.
One may wonder if it’s because of a subpar music streaming service. Let’s find out in our comprehensive review of Pandora Music below.
- Excellent music discovery algorithm
- Flexible subscription options
- Offline listening and downloads
- Pandora Stories offers interesting commentary
- Offers a wide selection of podcasts
- No CD-quality audio
- Availability is limited to the US only
- Web player loads and buffers too slowly
- The user interface is cluttered and unintuitive
- Playlist creation requires a Premium subscription
- Pays one of the lowest royalties per stream
What Is Pandora?
Pandora started as an ad-supported internet radio service that offered personalized stations based on songs and artists.
After the 2015 acquisition of Rdio, a San Francisco-based music streaming service, the launch of a new Pandora Premium service was announced. It was poised to compete with the likes of Spotify and Apple Music.
Pandora Premium, like its competitors, is a freemium service. It offers basic app features for free and gives users an option to avail of premium features by upgrading to a paid subscription.
Today, Pandora operates under its parent company, Sirius XM Holdings, an American satellite radio broadcasting company. As such, the app is only available in the US. It currently has about 55.9 million monthly users and 6.4 million paying subscribers.
Pandora Plans and Pricing
Pandora offers pretty good flexibility with six types of subscription plans to choose from.
|Name||Price||What you get|
|Pandora Free||N/A||● Access to all music and podcast content|
● Ad-supported personalized stations
● Ad-supported on-demand playback
● Limited track skips allowed (maximum of 2)
● No track replays
|Pandora Plus||$4.99||● Access to all music and podcast content |
● Ad-free personalized stations
● Ad-supported on-demand playback
● Unlimited track skips
● Limited offline listening
● Limited track replays
|Pandora Premium Individual||$9.99||● Access to all music and podcast content |
● Ad-free personalized stations
● Ad-free on-demand playback
● Unlimited track skips
● Unlimited offline listening
● Create and share playlists
|Pandora Premium||$14.99||● Same inclusions as Pandora Premium|
● Available to 6 people living at the same address
|Pandora Premium||$4.99||● Same inclusions as Pandora Premium|
● Discount validity of up to 4 years
● Available to currently-enrolled college students
● Subject to verification
|Pandora Premium||$7.99||● Same inclusions as Pandora Premium|
● Available to active and retired members of any branch of the US military (including dependents)
● Subject to verification
Subscribers for Pandora Plus can avail of a 30-day free trial, while subscribers of Pandora Premium and all its variations get 60 days free. This is markedly better than Spotify and Youtube Music’s complimentary 1-month trials. However, Apple Music and Amazon Music supersedes them all with a 3-month free trial.
Pandora’s pricing is the same as most streaming apps, making it competitive and affordable. However, the inclusions of each plan are pretty basic. For example, they don’t offer additional services similar to Spotify’s tie-up with Hulu and SHOWTIME, or Apple Music’s 6-in-1 Apple One offering.
Free Plan vs. Paid Plan
There are several ways that Pandora’s free and paid plans differ. Let’s take a closer look at some of them:
- Ad-supported playback
- Stations and playlists
- On-demand playback
- Audio quality
- Offline listening and downloads
Pandora’s free plan is very much ad-driven, and it doesn’t try to be subtle about it. Right off the bat, when you first open the app, a fullscreen ad appears with a button to “Skip to Pandora”. Banner ads feature prominently on the web player. They also sometimes completely replace the album art on the mobile app’s Now Playing screen.
Moreover, track skipping is limited. After every couple of songs, you’ll get a prompt to “Get More Skips” by watching an ad or upgrading to Premium. The ads can be anywhere between 15-45 seconds but can be skipped after 15 seconds.
Personalized stations are ad-free on Pandora Plus since they don’t require active curation on the listener’s part. However, you may experience some ads once you start actively searching for other songs to play.
Ads can also pop up when you trigger a complimentary Premium Session, since these are also powered by advertisements.
Pandora Premium, on the other hand, provides blissfully uninterrupted listening across all features.
Stations and playlists
Pandora’s free plan is essentially a radio service that offers an endless stream of music. You can’t create playlists, but you can create stations based on specific genres, songs, or artists. Pandora then does the work of choosing what goes into the song queue. You won’t be able to further customize the station, other than pressing the thumbs down or thumbs up button to help Pandora learn what you like.
Like the free plan, Pandora Plus lets you create stations, but not playlists. In contrast, Pandora Premium allows more freedom with full customization. You can create stations and playlists, and personalize them to your heart’s content.
Pandora’s free plan imposes a hard limit on track skips, replays, and generally being able to choose what you want to play. To skip tracks or search and play what you want, you need to “unlock” the feature by watching an ad. By interacting with any of these ads, however, you can also unlock a Premium Session. This basically gives you complimentary access to all Premium features for a single listening session.
Pandora Plus allows users to skip and replay more tracks, whilst Pandora Premium gives you full reign over its entire music and podcast catalog.
On the web player, free listeners get one level of audio quality at 64 kbps AAC+ with no option to change. On the mobile app, listeners can switch between High (128 kbps mp3) and Standard (64 kbps AAC+) audio quality in Settings.
Pandora Plus is limited to the same audio quality settings as the free plan. As for Pandora Premium, subscribers get to choose between High and Standard audio quality in the web player. On the other hand, the mobile app offers three audio quality options:
- Low: 32 kbps AAC+
- Standard: 64 kbps AAC+
- High: 192 kbps mp3
These options are available for cellular, Wi-Fi, and offline streaming. For easy reference, please refer to the table below:
|Subscription Plan||Web player||Mobile|
|Pandora Free||Standard: 64 kbps AAC+||Standard: 64 kbps AAC+|
|Pandora Plus||Standard: 64 kbps AAC+||Standard: 64 kbps AAC+|
|Pandora Premium||Standard: 64 kbps AAC+||Low: 32 kbps AAC+|
Offline listening and downloads
Pandora Free does not offer offline listening.
Pandora Plus users can download up to three most-listened-to stations for offline listening, while Premium users can download as much content as they want.
Is Pandora Premium worth it?
What Pandora Free and Pandora Plus offer is basically an upgraded radio experience. As such, it might be better suited for those who already enjoy listening to the radio and don’t have qualms about ads and not being able to skip songs or customize playlists. It could also be a good option for those who are on a budget but still want an affordable streaming platform that allows them to listen to their favorite music and discover new songs.
Based on the subscription offerings alone, Pandora Premium may be a little lacking for some people in comparison to its rivals. Many other platforms offer additional perks to sweeten the deal, whereas Pandora is pretty much a no-frills streaming app. For some, that may be perfectly fine as it is. But if you’re already dishing out money, might as well make the most of it by choosing a service that offers a bit more.
How Is Pandora’s Stream Quality?
Pandora Premium offers 3 levels of audio quality, whereas competitors like Youtube Music and Spotify offer 4 and 5 levels, respectively.
At its highest audio setting, Pandora Premium streams music at 192 kbps. This value essentially determines how good your audio quality will sound. The higher the value is, the closer it is to the original recording.
However, internet speed is also a factor in this. This means that if your internet connection is laggy and slow, you won’t be able to take full advantage of that high-quality audio setting that comes with a Premium account. You’ll also likely end up with choppy audio.
However, Pandora’s stream quality does fall behind the rest of the competition. Youtube Music and Apple Music, for example, stream at 256 kbps. And Spotify streams at a maximum of 320 kbps. Some streaming services, such as Tidal and Amazon Music, even provide CD-quality audio ranging from 850 to 3730 kbps.
While some audio enthusiasts will say that there’s no discernable difference between 320 and 192 kbps, you’ll definitely pick up some odd details if you’re using top-tier audio gear.
How fast does the music load?
I tried to make an educated guess by comparing the data in previous streaming service reviews I did and concluded that the number is probably closer to 60-65MB an hour at Pandora’s highest audio setting of 192kbps. That’s markedly lower than Youtube Music’s 75MB an hour consumption, and even more so than the 150MB an hour that Spotify eats up.
Despite that, there is an impossible-to-ignore lag when transitioning from song to song. Even with decent internet speeds of 95 Mbps, each song buffers for at least 3 seconds before playing, especially on the web player and desktop app. Buffering is slightly better on the mobile app, but still noticeable. Needless to say, if you have a slower connection, you may experience longer interruptions.
How does it sound?
Using my Sabbat E12 Ultras, I spent some time closely listening to tracks like Infinite Destiny and Chasing Dreams by Sound Adventures and compared them to Spotify’s 320 kbps versions. Both tracks have a very nice dynamic range that I thought would be telling of the quality of sound reproduction.
Sure enough, I wasn’t getting that nice clear separation between the different instruments and layers, which I felt reduced the impact of certain instrumental passages. Whereas on Spotify, I felt that I was getting better depth and clarity. But mind you, this was mostly the result of some intense and focused listening. These details may go unnoticed to the busy casual listener.
Ultimately, while Pandora’s 192 kbps max audio quality is lower than other similarly-priced Premium streaming services, it gets the job done and provides a pretty decent listening experience.
All in all, Pandora Premium should be good enough for casual listeners, and those who just want a bit of background music to liven up the monotony of work, errands, or chores.
Pandora’s Content Library
Being a former internet radio service, it’s no surprise that Pandora Premium’s content library is largely made up of music, podcasts, and not much else. Here’s a closer look into what can be found in those categories:
The team behind Pandora has purposefully not disclosed exactly how many songs it currently has in its library. A few estimates are circulating the internet, many of which are well into the millions, but none of these estimates are recent or definitive.
That said, Pandora Premium has a pretty respectable music collection. This is mostly due to licensing deals the streaming app has with Sony, UMG, and Warner Music, which ensure an extensive collection of mainstream hits. However, unlike other streaming platforms, Pandora isn’t too big on album exclusives or advanced releases.
Pandora’s music content can be accessed through the Browse tab, which is found on the main navigation bar on both the web player and mobile app. There you’ll find a selection of featured playlists and genres.
Here’s a rundown of those sub-categories:
- Top (Genre) Hits: Thanks to partnerships with mainstream record labels, Pandora has a pretty good collection of current hits in its library, and you can find them all in their Top (Genre) Hits playlists. These consist of all the top current hits in all the main music genres such as pop, dance, rock, alternative, country, hip hop, and so on.
- A-Z playlists: Features a comprehensive list of all tracks from specific artists.
- Browse Genres: This category features all the available music genres on Pandora. It comprises 29 genres from African to New Age and everything in between. Under each genre, you can find anywhere from 20-90 stations that further flesh out the genre. Pandora is particularly strong in Country, with playlists like Country Pop and Country Love Songs garnering 15M and 12M listeners, respectively.
- Decades: For those who want a touch of nostalgia, Pandora’s Decades category is a good place to start. This features all past hits from the 2010s all the way back to the 1950s. The selection is quite comprehensive. It doesn’t just give you a generalized view of the era, but actually breaks down the most popular hits by year.
- Moods and Activities: This features music inspired by specific moods and activities. Whether you’re vegging out at home, on a road trip, or having a dinner party, you can expect to find playlists that are suited for every moment and occasion.
Independent music content
In addition to licensing agreements with mainstream labels, Pandora has also inked a deal with Merlin, an independent music licensing company that handles over 20,000 independent labels and distributors from 63 countries. Thanks to this, you can expect a similarly comprehensive Indie music offering from Pandora.
The category includes 57 different stations that focus on the different Indie sub-genres. You can find current hits on Today’s Indie, past hits on 2000s Indie and 2010s Indie, and loads of other interesting compilations like Freak Folk, Hiking with Distortion, and Dream Pop.
Suffice to say, both lovers of mainstream and indie music will have no trouble finding their faves in Pandora’s library.
Pandora is cited as one of the top podcast platforms in the US, next to Spotify. And that isn’t really a surprise considering how exceptionally extensive Pandora’s podcast collection is. As many as 25 different categories can be found in the Browse section that covers pretty much everything under the sun – from art to the unexplained.
In a 2019 blog post, Pandora announced a 5x increase in podcast content amounting to “thousands of shows and over 600,000 episodes”. While there aren’t any recent official numbers to show how much Pandora has grown since then, it’s safe to assume there have been more positive developments thanks to strategic acquisitions and exclusive content deals.
In 2020, Sirius XM (Pandora’s parent company) acquired the podcast platform Stitcher, which added a slew of popular shows like Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, My Favorite Murder, Freakonomics Radio, and others, to Pandora’s library. More recently, it also acquired 99% Invisible, a hit podcast about design and architecture, and partnered with Major League Baseball to produce and host an exclusive podcast called Black Diamonds.
In addition to music and podcasts, listeners can also enjoy ambient non-music tracks, spoken word tracks, and live sessions taken from Pandora Live.
Pandora specializes in podcasts and talk radio programming, which is great for those who enjoy a passive listening experience. Those who enjoy audiobooks, however, aren’t going to find that type of content here. At most, you’re probably likely to come across a podcast that discusses books instead. Video content, similar to what Apple Music and Youtube Music have going on, is also not available on the platform.
A pressing issue that Pandora has been faced with over the years is on the subject of royalties. Despite having a user base consisting of 25% of all adults in the US, Pandora still has one of the lowest payouts for artists. Currently, they pay a total of $0.00133 per stream, which means that an artist would have to score over 1.1M streams to earn minimum wage.
While this has little effect on the amount of music content you can get on the app, it does illustrate what kind of trade-offs artists are faced with when it comes to reaching a wider audience. As such, this information may be of value to those who prefer supporting streaming platforms that compensate artists better.
Ease of Use
Pandora’s interface is a conundrum of sorts. It looks simple at first glance, but the way some of the functions and controls are laid out makes navigating the app feel complicated once you start using it. This is especially true for the mobile app where certain functions are repeated throughout the interface.
For example, on the main screen you have a pseudo navigation bar at the top, which contains My Collection, Browse, and the Search icon. However, you also have a sidebar you can access by pressing the three lines in the upper left corner. This houses your Profile and Settings, and again, My Collection.
Playing a song on mobile isn’t exactly straightforward. On other apps, you can search for a song, tap on it, and it brings up the Now Playing screen. And from there you can like, save, download, and add the song to your playlists. Easy.
On Pandora Premium, tapping on a song you’ve searched for opens up a “song window”, for lack of a better term. Here you’ll find the song lyrics, a link to the full album, and a section called “Features of this Song” all grouped together. There’s also a row of functions, such as Collect, Download, Share, and a Play button. When you tap on More, it essentially repeats those exact functions, with the addition of a couple of new ones.
After hitting the Play button, you can bring up a separate Now Playing screen by tapping the bar with the song title at the bottom. Once again, when you tap the three dots to the right of the screen, it’ll bring up the same function menu that was in the previous “song window”.
The web player features a similar treatment with a separate “song screen” and Now Playing screen. Like the mobile app, the same sub-menus and functions are unnecessarily repeated throughout the interface.
Other than that, the content library itself is organized in a way that makes sense. Music and podcasts are distinct, and both sections feature a Genres category which allows listeners to easily find what they’re looking for. This is all displayed in a clear grid layout, similar to what many other streaming apps use.
What could be better
Other than improvements to the user interface, which I feel could be more streamlined, there are a couple of other aspects that could be made better:
- Seamless playback: When switching between devices, listeners get a notification that makes them choose which device they want to continue listening on. It can be a bit disruptive as it stops the music and interrupts your listening session.
- Auto-play: Pandora has an auto-play function that works by immediately playing the last song you listened to as soon as you open the app. It’s reminiscent of how traditional radio works, but can be annoying after a while.
Music Discovery is one of Pandora’s strong points, thanks to The Music Genome Project.
These qualities can be seen in the “Features of this Song” section when you click on a song.
By assigning extremely specific descriptive qualities to each song, Pandora has a means to better analyze all the music you thumb up on the app. It can then better determine your preferences and give you more accurate recommendations.
Essentially, listening to a station on Pandora is always an opportunity to discover new music because the algorithm is consistently refining itself with every song you thumb up or thumb down.
That said, here are some other ways you can discover new music on Pandora:
As mentioned earlier, the Browse tab is home to all of Pandora’s music stations. There you’ll find a New Music category that contains all newly released music, as well as any newly created stations. It’s also home to the Trendsetters section which features up-and-coming artists that are gaining traction in the industry.
Pandora’s Modes is by far the most interesting feature Pandora has. We know that we can create stations based on specific criteria, such as artists, songs, or albums. For example, I can set My Station to include Ariana Grande and Halsey. This will not only give me a steady stream of Ariana and Halsey songs but also give me songs that musically match that of those two artists.
Modes take it a step further by allowing listeners to customize their stations even more. By choosing specific modes, you can tailor your recommendations to play only chart-topping hits or underrated gems, etc. Here’s how the different modes work:
- Crowd Faves: Gives you the most liked or thumbed up songs by Pandora users.
- Discovery: Gives you more artists you don’t usually hear on this station.
- Deep Cuts: Gives you the less popular songs from station artists.
- Newly Released: Gives you the latest music releases from station artists.
- Artist Only: Gives you songs that are only from station artists.
Pandora allows users to create social profiles on the mobile app, which in turn allows you to follow friends and other users. By following someone, you’ll be able to see songs they’ve thumbed up, stations or playlists they follow, as well as who they’re following.
All the in-app activity of your friends shows up in the Feed section, allowing you to stay updated with what your friends are listening to. You can also easily share your profile, playlists, stations, or songs on other social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Just make sure your profile is set to Public, not Private.
Pandora Stories offer artists and listeners a new way to connect. Stories is a series of playlists that are interspersed with commentary from the artists themselves. In it, artists discuss their perspectives on music, give their fans added insight into how certain songs were created, talk about the inspiration behind them, and so on. Some popular playlists include Stories from the likes of Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Mary J. Blige, and John Legend.
Artist Takeovers is an extension of Pandora Modes and features a new mode called The Pop Up. The new mode is curated by the featured artist and showcases a selection of songs they’ve personally picked, audio commentary, and other fun insights.
If Pandora has piqued your interest, here’s how to get started:
- What’s the difference between Pandora Plus and Pandora Premium?
- How to create a Pandora account?
- How to download the Pandora app?
- How to subscribe to Pandora Premium?
- How to cancel Pandora Premium?
- How to delete a Pandora account?
- Can I upload my own music to Pandora?
What’s the difference between Pandora Plus and Pandora Premium?
The main difference between Pandora Plus and Pandora Premium is that the latter provides unlimited offline listening and allows you to create and share playlists. Pandora Plus is simply a slightly upgraded version of the free plan — hence, the lower price.
How to create a Pandora account?
Via web player and desktop app
- Go to pandora.com and click on Sign Up in the upper right corner.
- Fill out all the required details, and click Sign Up, and you’re ready to start listening.
To sign up via mobile, simply tap on Sign Up for Free at the bottom of the screen. Like the desktop procedure, just enter your details in the required fields and tap Sign Up.
How to download the Pandora app?
How to subscribe to Pandora Premium?
You can upgrade to a Premium account through the web player, desktop app, or mobile app.
Via web player and desktop app
- While logged into your account, click the Upgrade button in the upper right corner.
- A new window displaying the upgrade options available will come up. Click Get 60 Days Free under the Pandora Premium option.
- In the sign-up window that opens, you can choose between credit card or PayPal. Select the payment mode you prefer, input your details, and click Start Free Trial at the bottom of the page. After that, you’re good to go.
- Open the mobile app and tap the icon with three lines in the upper left corner of the screen. In the menu that opens, tap on Upgrade.
- In the new window that opens, tap on Get 30 Days Free under the Pandora Premium option.
- The purchase window will be launched and all you need to do is tap the Subscribe or Buy button.
How to cancel Pandora Premium?
Canceling a Premium account can only be done via the web player or desktop app. Here’s how:
- Click on your Profile icon in the upper right corner and click on Settings in the menu that pops up.
- In the new window that opens, click on Subscription in the left sidebar. Then click on Switch Plan next to Current Plan.
- A menu showing Pandora’s different subscription plans will drop down. Scroll past all of that to the bottom and click on Cancel Subscription.
- A dialogue box will pop up prompting you to input your password. If you’re sure about canceling, just type in your password and click Yes, cancel my subscription.
How to delete a Pandora account?
Via the web player and desktop app
- Click on the Profile icon in the upper right corner and select Settings.
- In the Account window, just scroll to the bottom and click on Delete Pandora Account.
- A dialogue box will open confirming the action. Click on Yes, Delete Account and you’re done.
- Tap on the menu icon in the upper left corner of the screen and select Settings.
- Tap on Account, and then Delete Account in the new window that opens.
- In the dialogue box that pops up, tap on Delete Account.
Can I upload my own music to Pandora?
Unfortunately, there’s currently no means to upload personal music files to the app from your computer. However, if you’re an independent artist who’d like their work included in Pandora’s library, you can submit music directly to Pandora AMP (Artist Marketing Platform) through the Independent Artist Submissions tool. Here’s how:
- Before creating a submission, you first need to make sure your music is distributed to Pandora via an approved digital distributor. This ensures your music comes with the proper information and licenses when delivered to Pandora.
- Create a Pandora listener account.
- Log into Pandora AMP with your listener account details.
- Complete the 3-step process by entering your name, filling in your release details, and clicking Submit. Keep in mind, you can only submit one release per submission form.
- You’ll receive an email confirming that your submission has been received and you can check the status of your submissions on your AMP profile.
Without a doubt, Pandora’s Music Genome Project is the highlight of the app. It’s highly intuitive and quick to adapt to what you like, which is what surprised me the most. As soon as I started liking and disliking songs to help the algorithm, I was immediately getting more and more new songs that I actually really liked. I would even go as far as saying that it’s almost equal to the prowess of Spotify’s discovery algorithm.
However, there’s still a lot of things Pandora needs to sort out. It would be great if they fixed the clunky interface and streamlined its functions. It would be even better if they offered a global service and worked on fairer compensation for artists.
Pandora is up against some heavy competition. But ultimately, I think it does well at holding its own, thanks to a unique approach to music streaming and discovery.