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Ask HTG: Can I Improve The Quality of Pandora’s Music Streaming?

You love Pandora’s streaming music service and you use it on your computer, phone, and even pipe it into your stereo system, yet the quality of the stream seems to vary depending on the device you use. What gives? Read on as we show a Pandora-loving reader how to maximize the quality of his streaming experience.

Dear How-To Geek,

I listen to Pandora (the music service) a ton on my desktop computer and am pretty happy with the sound quality. It’s not CD-quality, but it’s pretty good for an on-demand music streaming service. Recently, I decided to recycle one of my old Android phones to serve as a little music jukebox attached to my home stereo system. I installed the Pandora for Android app on the phone, hooked it up, but the sound quality seems really lackluster.

I’ve ruled a bunch of things out. At first I thought maybe it was the phone, but I copied some lossless music files encoded in FLAC and some 320kbs MP3 files over and they sound great. That rules out a hardware problem with the phone as it can clearly play high quality audio over the headphone jack (which is how I have it hooked up to the stereo system). I’ve even tried to rule out the sound system itself playing a role by plugging in the same pair of headphones to both my computer and the phone.

Despite all those little tests, I’m still clearly getting worse sound quality out of the phone (but only when using Pandora, everything else sounds OK). For what it’s worth, I subscribe to the premium version. Am I imagining it? If not, how do I fix it?

Sincerely,

Pandora Puzzled

When comparing audio files/streams it’s easy to imagine that you are, well, just imagining the differences. We’re here to assure you that you’re not imagining a difference in the quality of your Pandora experience on different devices.

Per Pandora’s own policy (and outlined in this Pandora help document, Audio Quality) different devices and different subscribers (free vs. premium Pandora One subscribers) receive different kbps rates per stream:

  • Pandora via web browser is streamed at 64 kbps for free users and 192 kbps for Pandora One subscribers.
  • Pandora via mobile apps is streamed at up to 64 kbps (but frequently lower if you’re on the cellular network or a poor Wi-Fi connection)
  • Pandora via in-home devices (e.g. smart TVs, boxes, and receivers that can play Pandora) is fixed at 128 kbps.

With that outlined, your situation makes perfect sense. When you’re at your computer you’re able to enjoy the music at 192 kbps. Further, Pandora uses AAC+ (which offers much better sound reproduction compared to MP3 files at the same kpbs bit-rate). 192 kbps isn’t exactly 320 kpbs or lossless audio (like listening to a CD), but it’s still quite high quality. When you plug your phone into the stereo system, however, it doesn’t matter if you have a great broadband connection at home the Pandora mobile app automatically rate limits you to 64kbps (or lower) which, by comparison to the premium web-based experience, is pretty cruddy.

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So what’s the solution to your problem? You need to trick Pandora into thinking that your repurposed smartphone is actually a desktop computer so that you can stream the higher quality bit-rate. Further, you’ll need a browser that supports Adobe Flash Player so that the Pandora web browser interface will load properly. To that end, we recommend installing Dolphin, a popular third party web browser for Android as it includes both a simple mechanism for switching the user agent (the string that identifies the browser and platform to the web server) from mobile to desktop as well as support for Flash.

You can change the user agent via Settings -> User Agent in the browser. Toggle it from Android to Desktop:

While you’re in the settings, makes sure Dolphin can use the Flash Player. Navigate to Settings -> Web Content -> Flash Player and toggle it to Always On:

Note: While it sounds like you’re using an older phone and probably have Flash installed from the time before Google pulled Flash from the Play Store, if you don’t (or you’re using a relatively new Android 4.0+ phone) you’ll need to grab an off-market Flash installer. If you need Flash, we recommend checking out the XDA Developer forum; here’s a thread devoted to installing Flash on Android without the Play Store.

Once you’ve toggled the two settings above (and, if necessary, installed Flash), visit Pandora.com using Dolphin. Login and you’ll be greeted with a desktop version (albeit a cramped one if you’re using a phone instead of a tablet):

The mobile browser masquerading as a desktop browser will pull all your settings from your Pandora account and mimic the desktop experience on your phone. You might have to deal with a bit of a cramped interface that isn’t optimized for a small touch screen like the Pandora mobile app is, but you’ll effectively triple the quality of your music stream in the process.


Have a pressing tech question? Shoot us an email at ask@howtogeek.com and we’ll do our best to answer it.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 03/31/14

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