Our Pandora review for 2021: Is it worth it?

Joe Supan

Dec 20, 2019 — 8 min read

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Pandora review summary

  • Free, ad-supported version
  • $4.99/mo. for Plus plan
  • $9.99/mo. for Premium plan
  • $14.99/mo. for family plan (up to six users)
  • 30-day free trial for Plus, 60 days for Premium

Pandora vs. Spotify and other streaming services

Pandora shares a lot of the same features as the other top streaming services: $9.99/mo. for its Premium plan, the ability to download music for offline listening and lengthy free trials so users can test it out before making a payment. 

Unlike TIDAL and Amazon Music, Pandora doesn’t offer any Hi-Fi audio plans. It doesn’t sound as good as those plans, but we thought it was still on par with Spotify and Apple Music (more on that below). Here’s how the major music streaming services compare:

Pandora plans and pricing

With four different tiers of service, Pandora has more flexibility in its plans than nearly any other music streaming service. Its Premium and Premium Family plans are the same price as those from Apple Music and Spotify, but Pandora is the only one to offer a step between Free and Premium. Here’s how its four plans compare:

The free version of Pandora is what the company built its name on: radio over the internet. You create radio stations based off songs, artists or genres you like, and Pandora provides an infinite playlist for you. You’ll have to put up with around seven 15- or 30-second ads per hour, but the rate and length vary depending on the station you’re listening to and the device you’re playing it on. There’s also a daily limit on how many times you can skip songs on the free version. Once it’s up, you have to sit through an ad every time you want to skip. 

Pandora Plus vs. Premium

Both Pandora Plus and Pandora Premium come with unlimited skips, no commercials and the ability to search for and play any music on-demand. 

But with Pandora Plus, you won’t be able to make playlists and share them with your friends. You’re also limited to downloading four radio stations for offline listening, compared to unlimited downloads with the Premium plan. 

Pandora claims that “Plus and Premium subscribers will not receive advertisements,” but we got occasional video ads when we played songs on demand in the Plus plan. 

Pandora Family plan

Like Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL and Amazon Music, Pandora’s family plan covers six users and costs $14.99/mo. However, along with Amazon Music, it’s the only one to offer a discount if you pay for the entire year upfront. Weirdly, Pandora requires you to be 21 or older to purchase a Premium Family subscription. 

Student discount

If you’re a student “currently enrolled in a United States Title IV accredited higher education institution,” you can get Pandora Premium for $4.99/mo. That’s the same discount offered by Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL and Amazon Music. Pandora will verify your status as a student when you sign up, and you’ll be required to re-verify every year for a maximum of four years. 

Worst music library of top streaming services

Pandora is the only major music streaming service that doesn’t publicly boast about how many songs it has in its library. It’s almost impossible to fact-check these claims anyways, but we did find that Pandora was missing a lot of music that the other services had. 

To measure the quality of each service’s library, we checked each one against three lists: Albums that have sold more than 20 million copies (74 in total), Billboard’s top 100 songs for the week of Week of December 14, 2019 and Pitchfork’s Top 200 albums of the 2010s. That gave us a good picture of how each service fared across a variety of music genres, as well as with popular and more niche artists.

It was a limited sample, but Pandora had one of the weakest libraries we saw. From the top-selling albums list, it was missing Celine Dion’s album Let’s Talk About Love, along with Robyn’s Body Talk, Margo Price’s All American Made, Kelela’s Cut 4 Me and Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah, Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh from Pitchfork’s list. 

Pandora is also missing Garth Brooks (only on Amazon Music) and a handful of Dr. Dre albums (only on Apple Music). It’s only a handful of artists, but it indicates that Pandora is more likely to have gaps you’ll care about than the other streaming services. 

No high-end audio option

Pandora Premium Subscribers have three different audio quality levels to choose from:

  • Low: 32 kbps, AAC+
  • Standard: 64 kbps, AAC+
  • High: 192 kbps, MP3

Those numbers refer to the file’s bitrate, which is how much data per second is needed to play a track. The larger the number, the more data is stored in each song, and the more detail you should hear in the music. It’s not a bulletproof indicator of sound quality, but it does tell you how good the music can potentially sound.

As you can see, Pandora offers the lowest bitrate of any of the major streaming services. Each song played on TIDAL’s Hi-Fi plan has more than seven times as much detail as the same song on Pandora Premium. It also uses AAC+ and MP3 for its library — inferior file formats according to most audio experts. 

“Streaming services tend to use AAC or Ogg Vorbis, which is a slightly more advanced algorithm for compressing audio in a way that doesn’t deteriorate the sound so much,” said Sam Wale, vice president of creative production at ALIBI Music Library, a leading provider of music and sound effects. “MP3s lose quite a lot of the dynamic range and the frequency spectrum.”

That means there won’t be as much difference between the loudest and quietest moments of a song. Music will sound more squished and brittle in this format.  

Pandora doesn’t reveal what audio quality it plays for its Plus plan, but it sounded noticeably worse to us than the High setting in the Premium plan. 

Great radio stations, but no customized playlists

Pandora is still great at playing radio stations, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of personalized recommendations beyond that. To test out the radio features on each streaming service, we listened to each one for about five hours each, alternating genres after about an hour. We tracked how often it played songs we liked and how often we skipped over to the next one, keeping track of whether or not recommendations improved as the station went along. 

Pandora performed as well as any other service we tested — better than Apple Music and TIDAL, and about the same as Spotify. Where TIDAL seemed to repeat a lot of the same songs when we started separate stations in the same genre, Pandora seemed to have an endless catalogue to choose from. We loved how it chose songs based on the same mood, and not just genre.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where Pandora’s recommendations end. Unlike every other service, it doesn’t create custom playlists for you based on what you’ve been listening to, and its suggestions felt pretty impersonal. Pandora seems to suggest music based on what’s popular, rather than what might be popular with you. 

Sub-par user experience

Overall, we found Pandora’s mobile app to be a little more frustrating to use than its competitors’. We had a lot of issues, but overall, it seemed to prioritize music other people liked at the expense of what we actually listened to. 

On its For You tab — the place you would expect to find music tailored to your tastes — Pandora fills almost every inch with general “most popular” categories. Even after a week of using the app, this tab still never showed us much that we were interested in.

Artist discographies are confusing to navigate

One of Pandora’s most frustrating sections is its artist discographies, where there seems to be no organizing principle at work. On artists with only a few albums, this doesn’t really matter. But with someone like Miles Davis, who has 217 albums, it’s almost impossible to navigate. It was mostly chronological, but there were often random years interspersed in the list.

Apple Music (right) made it easier to navigate artist pages than Pandora (left)

That was a far cry from Apple Music’s artist pages, where you see the Essential Albums near the top with a brief explanation of why each one is important. 

Can search by lyrics

Like Apple Music, Pandora allows you to search for music by song lyrics, a nice feature when you can only remember a snippet of a song you like. Unfortunately, the feature didn’t work as well as it did with Apple Music. Pandora had no problem finding popular songs, but when we tried more obscure artists, it came up empty.

Unlike Apple Music (right), Pandora’s lyric search (left) struggled with more obscure artists

Pandora FAQs

Does Pandora work with Alexa?

Yes. You are able to use Pandora with Amazon Echo and Alexa devices. Just go to your Settings in the mobile app and choose Link With Alexa. When a screen pops up that says Listen With Alexa, click Connect Now. This will take you the Alexa app, where you can select Link to enable Pandora.

For more information on connecting Alexa to Pandora on other devices, you can find more detailed instructions here

How much data does Pandora use?

One bright side of Pandora’s lower audio quality is that it won’t use up as much cellular data. Here’s how streaming on Pandora’s “High” audio setting compares to some other common internet activities:

How do I cancel Pandora?

If you signed up for your subscription through Pandora, you’ll need to cancel it using a web browser. In the web browser, go to Settings > Subscriptions > Switch Plans > Cancel Subscription. You’ll still be able to use your subscription until your billing cycle ends. 

How much does Pandora pay its artists?

According to an annual study conducted by Digital Music News, Pandora pays out less per stream than almost any other music streaming service, including Apple Music, Spotify and TIDAL. If you want to make sure more of your monthly subscription goes into the pockets of the artists who actually make the music, Pandora is one of your worst options.

The bottom line

Unless you’re already a longtime user of Pandora’s free plan, there’s little reason to sign up for a Pandora Premium account. It has worse audio quality, a lesser library and a weaker mobile app than almost all of the other popular options. The one edge it has is its radio stations, and even that edge is a small one compared to Spotify’s. Add to that fact that it has some of the lowest royalty rates for artists of any service, and there’s little reason to go with Pandora for your music streaming.