Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - 12:10pm
It is a busy month for Rhapsody, the godparent of music services. During October the Internet jukebox launched new “radio” features that enabled artist-centric listening (trailing some other services by a few years, but still), closed an important partnership with international telecom giant Telefonica, and started giving free service to CD buyers at Best Buy.
September wasn’t so buoyant. First came rumors of a leadership shakeup, then came the actual shakeup, accompanied by a broad swath of layoffs.
Back to October. Rhapsody continues its strong month by giving its Android app users an updated experience that adds these key features:
- A sleep timer
- Enhanced programming
- WiFi-only downloads
- Log of recent searches
- Backskipping in Stations mode
The on-board equalizer (EQ) is welcome, especially in mobile listening through earphones of varying quality. Most bargain earbuds don’t have the sonic capacity to bring EQ’ing fully to life (we’re looking at you, Apple), but for those very deficits it helps to punch the highs and lows. And with the advent of WiFi speakers in the home, massaging the sound in the app is a forward-looking feature.
As it happens, Rhapsody is looking backward and forward. The computer desktop app (yes, there is one, and while it’s no Spotify in most regards, it is a robust and reliable piece of software) has had a lovely pop-out EQ widget for over two years -- and it’s better than the new Android EQ. The desktop EQ has twice as many frequency bands: ten instead of five for mobile. And wow, does it sound better in side-by-side listening over the same speaker system.
We were hoping that the Android EQ would flip into a ten-band equalizer when in landscape mode, which would have inspired us to inaugurate a Cool Feature of the Month award. We twirled the phone around like a cheerleader’s baton, but sadly, no frequency-band enhancement was forthcoming.
The selection of EQ presets is reduced in the Android version, too, compared to the desktop. This seems like an unnecessary deprivation, especially when our favorite (“Presence Lift”) has been cruelly struck from the menu. We shouldn’t believe that Rhapsody is targeting our sensibilities particularly, but the evidence tempts our paranoid instincts.
A new sleep timer is nicely functional, and a welcome convenience to anyone who drifts off to music. (Provided they think ahead.) It shows up in the menu only when you’re in the Now Playing screen, and offers shut-off times of 15, 30, 56, 60, and 120 minutes.
Rhapsody is stepping into the “360 programming” trend with exclusive articles and videos. they are loaded into the Featured section, where new items are collected as Posts, as in a blog. That’s attractive packaging -- it seems up-to-date and timely. Band spotlights comprise the most interesting items. New house-built playlists are promoted there, too. Lou Reed-inspired tracks were all over the place during our testing, and some historical surveys (e.g. The Velvet Underground’s Legacy, and Hits You Never Heard Of, part 11).
It seems as if Rhapsody is allowing its editors to indulge their idiosyncratic passions. One article compared two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with audio samples -- our Baroque brains loved it, but we’re the first to admit that this particular feature lives way down on the long tail.
Finally, there is the introduction of backskipping in Radio mode. You can go backward to revisit a track that already played. With this feature, Rhapsody dishes out a major piece of interactive candy, and waves goodbye to Spotify in the rear-view mirror. Rdio is back there in the dust, too, along with iTunes Radio. Backskipping is not a unique innovation -- the arduously named Google Play Music All Access has it, too, with a beautiful graphic interface. But competing skip-to-skip with a big-media service is a perfect way for Rhapsody to start overcoming its arthritic image as the streaming grandparent.
All in all, an ambitious, even gleeful update during a tumultuous autumn for Rhapsody. And it appears that Android users are getting the juiciest bits first these days.