TuneIn Radio has been kind of a deceptively quiet player in the online radio wars that have heated to a boiling since Apple introduced Beats 1 Radio at the end of June. Yet the service claims a user base of 60 million monthly active users who clearly find value in the service’s single-platform access to millions of streaming radio stations and programs.
While TuneIn has been generating income with banner display ads and pre-roll audio ads ahead of streams, yesterday the company added a paid subscription tier, TuneIn Premium. That service adds access to live Major League Baseball games, European soccer in the Barclays Premier League and Bundesliga, 40,000 audiobooks and over 600 commercial-free music stations. TuneIn Premium costs $7.99 in the US, $8.99 in Canada and £5.99 in the UK.
600 Commercial-Free Stations – Where Do They Come From?
The sheer number of music stations certainly got my attention. TuneIn says it struck deals with “the largest radio broadcasters,” to get the stations. Immediately I wondered how the company got big US commercial broadcasters like iHeartMedia and Cumulus to strip commercials out of their live stream. The answer is, they didn’t.
Instead, most of those 600 stations come from established internet-only broadcasters like 977 Radio, JazzRadio.com and RockRadio.com. Even if curated by humans, playback on all those stations is automated, which means the ads are inserted programmatically. That means each broadcaster just had to set up a separate, possibly identical, stream that just leaves out the commercials. TuneIn also offers its own premium genre stations.
So you won’t yet find commercial-free versions of your local terrestrial stations. A TuneIn spokesperson told me that the company plans to add terrestrial stations “in the coming months,” but was not able to speculate about how they would strip out ads. Ads in most commercial radio streams are also automated, but it would seem that live reads would be more difficult to tackle.
Listening to TuneIn Premium
I took TuneIn Premium for a spin using both a desktop browser and the mobile app to see what you get for your eight bucks a month.
First off, TuneIn Premium is not a great deal if all you’re after is baseball, since MLB.com sells its audio-only streaming service for just $20 a year. Clearly, TuneIn is hoping that everything available in Premium as a package might make it an attractive alternative to satellite radio or even an Audible audiobooks-only subscription, both of which cost a little more.
The value proposition for the music stations is a little less clear. While 600 is a lot of stations, there’s a lot of overlap within genres, where the difference between some stations isn’t obvious. For instance, under the Alternative Rock genre there are three “90s Alternative” stations–how does a listener know which to pick? On other hand, some genres, like Classical, have a paucity of options.
Also, these are strict streaming stations without any personalization or interactivity. There are no skips or giving songs the thumbs-down. That doesn’t matter if the stations themselves are well curated, and indeed that’s what TuneIn sees as a selling point.
Premium Sound Quality?
One of the advantages to paid subscriptions to competitors like Spotify and Pandora is that they deliver higher sound quality. I wanted to see if TuneIn Premium means you get premium sound quality. As far as I can tell, the answer is “no.” Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t some good sounding stations available with Premium–there are. But most of these are delivered at the same quality as the broadcasters’ commercial, non-Premium streams.
JazzRadio.com offers a choice of 128kbps AAC and 320kbps MP3 streams, and both sound quite nice and are amongst the highest quality I’ve encountered on TuneIn Premium. Other broadcasters with premium stations like RockRadio.com and Radio Tunes also offer 128 kbps AAC and 320 kbps MP3 streams which all sounded better than the typical streaming terrestrial commercial station, both when listening over headphones and speakers.
I was a bit surprised to see that TuneIn’s own premium stations stream at much lower quality: 64kbps AAC and 128 kbps MP3. I find those to be the very lowest acceptable bitrates for music, better suited to background than for more focused listening. Over headphones distortion in the high end, especially with cymbals and other percussion, was very obvious and hard to ignore on TuneIn’s Infinite Indie and Classic Hip-Hop stations. Listening over speakers at low volume tamed these artifacts enough, but they became harder to ignore when I turned it up.
That’s a shame, because I enjoyed the mix of music on TuneIn’s own stations. Over the course of several hours I heard no repetition and a pleasingly broad array of tracks. I particularly like the balance of familiar favorites and more eclectic selections on the Punk Rock Radio station. For me a TuneIn Premium subscription would be much more attractive if all the commercial-free streams were streamed at higher bitrates.
The absolutely worst quality I encountered came from Big R Radio streams, which I truly found unlistenable. It sounds like Big R is using processing similar to big market top 40 broadcast stations, only they turn it up to 11. No matter which of Big R’s stations I tuned to, it was significantly louder and piercing than whatever station preceded it. Over headphones I had to take them off immediately because it was painful–and I didn’t even have the volume up loud. Big R offered up the opposite of a premium experience.
I spent less time with the sports channels and audiobooks. They definitely sounded compressed, though no worse than what I hear from the talk channels on satellite radio. I’m not a big audiobook listener, but could see how having access to them is a nice extra. However, it would be even better if you could download them for playback on road trips or airplanes when you have limited or no internet.
Interesting but Not Essential
On the whole TuneIn Premium is an interesting offering. Still, if I were going to subscribe to a commercial-free streaming radio service I would probably consider Pandora One first, at only $4.99 a month. For curated stations I would also take a hard look at Slacker Radio Plus at only $3.99. TuneIn Premium would only jump to the top of the list if the baseball and audiobooks were high priorities–but they’re not for me.
I am looking forward to seeing how TuneIn Premium brings terrestrial commercials stations on board, and how they get made commercial-free.