Buying music isn’t the only option these days and you can “rent” it from a subscription service for a pretty decent monthly fee. Rhapsody is one such service that also offers to sell you the tracks as MP3 if you want to keep them. Read on for a review.
Requirements, software and concept
By now it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a music service isn’t global. Rhapsody is only available in the US- due to licensing I assume. Proxies work fine for signing up and the software will work fine as long as your account is confirmed. This means that people outside the US can use it with some tinkering and you can also use it when outside the country if you’re actually from the US.
Rhapsody is available both as a subscription service and a MP3 store service. Subscription music means that you have to continue your subscription in order for the music to work and also connect the portable player to the computer/the computer to the Internet to update the license every now and then, but aside form that you get the full tracks available on your device. Any song in their library, as many as you want, for a monthly fee. You “rent” the music, you don’t own it. There is a Rhapsody download manager software which is far more complex than that of eMusic or Amazon and let’s you browse music as well as download and sync to devices, play etc. For MP3 files however you don’t actually need the software as Rhapsody will let you download the music as a ZIP-file. This is very useful since it will give you a single file to download even if you’ve bought an album or several files. Amazon will only let you download single files the “normal” way. The ZIP method lets you download from any web browser, but it also means you can’t have a WiFi enabled device take advantage of direct downloads without it having ZIP functionality or Rhapsody download compatibility. It’s not unlikely that public computers running old OSes might have issues with ZIP, but it shouldn’t be a bother for many. Be aware that Rhapsody only let’s you download a track you bought once, so if you lose it or delete it that’s your loss. Dumb system, if you ask me.
As for the Rhapsody To Go service (more on this later) which let’s you use the subscription music on a portable player, you do have to have a Rhapsody compatible player. Unfortunately Rhapsody support isn’t as wide-spread as for example Audible support, but at least many of the SanDisk Sansa players can use the subscription service. Of course there are also home systems that can use Rhapsody as well as the Rhapsody software.
Rhapsody has perhaps the single dumbest naming scheme for their services ever. There is Rhapsody Unlimited, and Rhapsody To Go. The Unlimited plan is, contrary to its name, the limited plan and will only let you play music only on the PC or through the web browser. The To Go plan however, is unlimited and includes syncing to a portable device. One would think “Rhapsody Local” or something like that would be a better plan for a limited plan than Rhapsody Unlimited, as the latter is certainly going to confuse many. It doesn’t help that when you sign up for a trial it doesn’t ask you what account you want; there are separate links for To Go trials and Unlimited trials, so if you’re new to Rhapsody and don’t know there’s a difference you might very well see the “unlimited” sign up, register an account and find you can’t use it on your player after all. If you have signed up for the Unlimited trial you also cannot sign up or convert to the To Go trial, which essentially mean
s that if you click the wrong link when you sign up you might lose the 14 day trial of the service you actually want to test. Pricing for the limited Unlimited plan is $12.99 and for the unlimited To Go plan $14.99.
As for the MP3 store, Rhapsody more or less uses the same prices as iTunes. Some tracks are $0.99, others $1.29. I haven’t seen any $0.69 tracks like on iTunes though and Rhapsody conveniently avoids prices as a topic in the “about” page and the help section. Albums also have about the same prices as on iTunes, being normally around $9.99-$10.99 but with some costing more or less than that.
Rhapsody is special in that it has both a browser based music store and one through the software. The look of each isn’t exactly the same, but the layout more or less is. On the main page you get the usual featured tracks and albums in the middle as well as new music (in the software version) or your latest activity (in the browser). You have the genres and other filters to browse by in the left sidebar and charts of the most popular artists, albums and tracks in the right. You also have various banners and access to your account if you’re using the browser store. There’s also a link to free music on the main browser page, kind of like Amazon has, but that link isn’t always there (it’s technically a random banner). Going through to a genre will provide you with basic info on what the genre is about and various featured music from that genre. From there you can browse on to subgenres and so on. Going into an artist page gives you artist picture and info (if available), top albums, top tracks and so on. The browser store also shows a calendar for concerts (if available), photo gallery and artist radio station.
Going into an album shows you the album art and a list of tracks which you can then play, add to playlist or buy as an MP3. Annoyingly, in the browser you get a pop-up with a player in it if you click to play a song. This is of course because as a subscription service you can play the full song and make playlists etc, so you need to have the player in a separate window from the browser, but it’s a bit of a hassle if you quickly want to play a single track. In the software this is of course not a problem since it will play in the software itself.
There is also a third way of browsing, which is online as an MP3 store. The basic layout is the same but it will show you real prices on everything and have different recommendations. You can also not add to playlist from the MP3 store even if you can buy as MP3 from the subscription store. If you don’t have a subscription account you can also get 25 free full plays every month, which means the normal previews will be the full song. This is probably a way to sneak in a small trial of subscription services into the MP3 store, but whatever the reasoning behind it it’s still nice.
The browsing works fine in all three places but the software version is a tad annoying. You have a top- and sidebar that blocks most of the screen and the scrolling inside the store is also rather annoying. Browsing through the software is also slower than the Internet connection and browsing online is noticeably faster and a more pleasant experience. There are however a few weird little “bugs” in each version. For example, the online version will show an artist in the navigation bar as home>artist, while the software will show it as music guide (“home”)>genre>subgenre>artist. The first method makes it a bit hard to see what genre you’re in if you find an artist you like and want more music of the same kind.
There also seems to be something weird going on with the search; first it wasn’t able to find “black eyed peas” through the search tool in the software, only manually. Later on, a search for “linkin park” in the browser store showed me three playlists called “linking park” but nothing else. Clicking on those miss-spelled playlists I was able to find a mention of Linkin Park and click it, bringing me to the actual artist. This also happened several times, including with “ferry corsten”. In all instances the name was spelled 100% correct, and the auto-complete list that popped up underneath the search bar also had the artists directly when I went back to check, but still no way of finding them by searching the name. A very weird and annoying bug.
It’s also a bit confusing to have three different versions of basically the same store, and they could easily have dropped the one in the software in favour for the one in the browser. I do get the MP3 store as that targets other people than those with subscriptions, but the software version of the store doesn’t.
Rhapsody do have an extra feature up its sleeves that is very nice: playlist central. This is basically a way to browse user-generated playlist and adding them to your own subscription. Since you don’t pay extra for music you can freely access all songs of playlists made by others and thereby having a whole new way of finding music. You can also find playlists that contain specific albums or artists, which makes it an even better tool for finding similar artists- recommendations by actual humans- users like yourself- not a computer algorithm.
To test selection I use 20 artists that represents different kinds of music and popularity. These 20 aren’t enough to provide a full picture of the selection, and errors like double entries etc do happen, but it’s better than anything and does show to some degree what the store has to offer. As more services is reviewed the list will be expanded, so I’ll let the chart speak for itself.
Rhapsody seems to think their customers are morons as the help section doesn’t specify the specifications of the codecs used, instead it specifies what an MP3 is at all. I looked through the help pages and found lots of info on how to search, browse, what an MP3 is, how to purchase etc- nothing on what you’re actually paying for. According to the Internet however the subscription service uses 192kbps .RAX files for subscription downloads and 160kbps for streaming (or 64kbps for low bandwidth streaming). Not the best quality out there, in other words, but it should do. As for the MP3 files, the ones I downloaded were 256kbps CBR. That’s inferior to both the 256kbps CBR AAC used by iTunes and the V0 VBR MP3 used by Amazon and eMusic. Bottom line, Rhapsody seems to aim at the “I don’t care crowd” by not only having the worst quality of the services so far but also hiding or not listing the specifications of the files.
Rhapsody is a nice service that gives you the option to either get a subscription service or buy the songs as MP3s. The selection is decent and the browsing is good, but the software is more complicated than it should be- I’d much rather see software for syncing and playback only and keep the browsing to the web browser which works better in this case. A very buggy search feature, dumb subscription plan names, lack of file format tech specs and a generally “dumbed down” system are the major downsides of Rhapsody, and it’s nothing most people can’t live with. I’m not sure if I’d use Rhapsody for buying music due to the lower (if not by much) quality and the somewhat high prices, but the subscription service is a nice deal- if you have a compatible player, that is. Overall a good service, but parts of it needs overhauling.