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Clear Channel ups the ante with 3 more months of commercial-free iHeartRadio custom stations

iHeartRadio screenshot

Clear Channel may have been too focused on scarfing up stations in the early 2000s to construct anything resembling an internet strategy, but the company has been making up for lost time with its iHeartRadio service. When it went live in 2008 it was primarily a site and mobile app to provide access to the live streams of Clear Channel stations. Since then iHeartRadio has morphed into a competitor to the likes of Pandora and, especially with the addition of custom stations in September which provide Pandora-like experience of music based upon a seed song.

Back in September Clear Channel promised that the stations would be commercial free through the end of the year. This week the company announced that they will stay commercial-free through April 1, 2012.

This is obviously a move intended to lure Pandora and listeners who want to avoid the free services’ commercials, in addition to hooking users already using iHeartRadio to catch terrestrial stations. However, when a Pandora user jumps ship she also loses the stations she has created and all the curating she’s invested by giving tracks the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. That user investment is one of the things that keeps Pandora users loyal, though a new user to iHeartRadio can make the same investment in Clear Channel’s platform.

Working in Clear Channel’s favor is that if a listener tires of her custom stations she can easily navigate to a broadcast station–that will have plenty of commercials–or one of iHeartRadio’s curated or themed stations, like CBGB Radio or Eagles Radio.

I must admit to being a strong critic of Clear Channel and the destruction it wreaked on the radio industry through its consolidation strategy that hemorrhaged staff and homogenized programming across the country. So there definitely is a part of me that wants to find fault with iHeartRadio, on principle, if nothing else.

But after spending the better part of the week listening to the service I must be honest and give it due credit. It’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades for internet radio listening. It offers a lot of options, even if none of them are class leading. But, as I’ll explain, the sound quality of iHeartRadio is probably its weakest attribute.

The customized stations work like or Pandora. Feed it a song seed and iHeartRadio starts serving up similar artists and songs. One aspect I like is the “Station Control” feature which lets you decide whether you’re interested in hearing more familiar artists or “more discovery” which plays artists you are less likely to have heard before. When I first tried the custom station feature I wondered if I would be limited to artists actually played on Clear Channel stations. So I entered the 1980 Swiss experimental metal band Celtic Frost as a test. And quite dutifully iHeartRadio created a station full of extreme and harsh sounds that are rarely found on commercial radio.

However, the custom stations are more limited than Pandora’s because you can specify only the initial seed. By comparison Pandora lets you finely tune a station by adding additional artists and songs as seeds. So if you like the 70s power pop of Cheap Trick, you can further refine it by adding in the more ragged punk edge of the Replacements, for instance.

iHeartRadio’s curated channels remind me most of satellite radio, organized around a genre, such as hair metal, the music of a particular artist, or songs ostensibly chosen by an artist, like Radio Weezer. Of course the terrestrial stations on iHeartRadio are just that. I’m not sure how much the rock station in Waco, TX will differ from WZZO in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. But if it matters to you, then you have the choice.

Fidelity is what I find to be iHeartRadio’s greatest limitation. I’ve listened to the service on my iPhone, iPad and two different Mac laptops. At home I’ve used both my MacBook Pro’s built-in headphone jack and two different USB audio devices. Across all devices I found that the custom stations sound the best. While quality does vary some from song to song, overall fidelity is roughly equivalent to Pandora’s free service. In general that’s equivalent to a 128 kbps MP3 file, which is considered the minimum for decent sound.

By comparison, the custom stations all exhibited perceptibly lower quality sound that would indicate a lower bitrate is used. No matter the station I chose the high end exhibited the shimmery quality of a poorly encoded MP3. There’s an overall graininess to the sound that I find fatiguing when listening on headphones for more than 10 or 20 minutes. These deficiencies are quite audible over speakers, too, though less bothersome at low volumes.

The broadcast stations are all over the map, in terms of fidelity. While some approach the smoother quality of the custom stations, most had a compromised and grainy sound like the curated stations. However, I found most of the broadcast rock stations to be even more fatiguing than the curated stations due to the heavy compression and processing evident in these streams. Most mainstream commercial stations use compression and other sound processing to make their stations sound louder and stand out when a listener is scanning the dial. This comes at the expense of dynamics, as the volume of the sound varies very little, with much less change than you’d hear when listening to the original recording.

Listening to most broadcast stations on iHeartRadio with headphones was tiring after 10 minutes or less. In all cases my local analog and HDRadio broadcast signals sounded much better than their internet stream counterparts. In particular the treble was overly pronounced and distorted on the internet streams, while the broadcast signals sounded smoother and more natural to my ear.

I recognize that I’m probably more sensitive to sound quality than many listeners, however I’d frankly rather listen to a decent AM signal than have to hear many iHeartRadio stations over headphones for more than a half-hour. Using cheap computer speakers at low volume the fidelity limitations are less perceptible, and I’m certain that’s how many folks experience internet radio. But I think the sonic flaws of even the curated and genre stations are obvious enough for an average listener to recognize, especially if she compares it to the custom stations or a broadcast signal.

That said, I can see the appeal of having all of these options in one app. I’m not sure it’s enough to keep me from using Pandora, Spotify and other services. The field is getting pretty crowded, and while each service offers something unique, none of them is sufficient to take over the majority of my online listening time. I may be a freak that way, with tastes that run decidedly outside the mainstream. Then again, isn’t the promise of the internet supposed to be infinite choice?

I’m curious to know what Radio Survivor readers think about iHeartRadio and other internet radio services. Let us know in the comments.

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One Response to Clear Channel ups the ante with 3 more months of commercial-free iHeartRadio custom stations

  1. Matthew Lasar December 4, 2011 at 8:24 am #

    Great review Paul. I did a shorter review of iHeartRadio. My disappointment was that when you select an artist channel, you get very little of the artist herself. For example, I only heard one Doris Day tune on my DDay channel (the first song). From there on it was pretty much Vegas strip and Rat Pack stuff (eg, Dean Martin, Eartha Kitt, etc).

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