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You’re sitting there and that commercial comes on. You know, the one with the cool indie music in the background. What is that song? Normally, this would be the moment you’d whip out your iPhone and Shazam that -- but wait, your friend pulls out her iPhone and fires up SoundHound. Who gets the song first? And more importantly, who gets it right?
Shazam from Shazam Entertainment Ltd. has been around in one form or another on the iOS platform since 2009 and has dominated this sphere for some time. Currently it rolls in four flavors, an iPad only version; and on the iPhone a free version limited to five songs identified per month; Shazam Encore, the paid version with unlimited songs identified and tons more featuers; and (Shazam) RED, the charitable branded version of Encore.
Tap the big button to get started
Use is simplicity itself. Even if you don’t have a smartphone, you’ve probably seen someone whip their phone out, press the big button on their screen, then hold their phone up to speakers somewhere. That’s all it takes. A small “acoustical fingerprint” of the song is taken, and faster than you can say “Shazam” the app has uploaded it to Shazam’s servers and tagged it. In other words, it has identified the song, informed you who sings it, what the track’s name is, what album it’s on, and where you can buy it on iTunes.
There's an iPad version but there isn't really anything not in the iPhone verson
There are two separate apps for your iPhone and your iPad, but apart from a broader canvas to lay things out on, we didn't really see that having both was necessary. We wondered why Shazam didn't come in a universal flavor, but that's a decision the developers stuck with. That said, we liked Shazam on our iPad better than we liked SoundHound (which seemed very busy), but we are more likely to pull out our iPhone in any given moment, so the point is rather moot.
Lots of choices once you find your song
Since that initial service, Shazam has piled on more features to keep up with their challenger, SoundHound to the point that both apps offer fairly similar extras. The first offering was the ability to share your song taggings with your friends on Facebook and Twitter, and then came more. You could find out if the band had an upcoming tour, you could watch YouTube videos of that song or ones similar and get recommendations of other songs you might like.
Takes you straight to the song to buy it
The most recent version of Shazam Encore also provides links to reviews of the albums, a map of where you tagged the song in case you forget when you tagged a song but not where, and the ability to delete tags. You can also connect to your Pandora account and create a station based around that song. It also will connect to your Spotify account and play the song there. If lyrics are available, you can also download lyrics of the song as well as play a small snippet of the song to confirm your tag is correct.
You want lyrics? You get lyrics.
Which brings us to the main point, all of these additional features are just icing on the cake. The real question is, how well does Shazam do what it’s advertised as doing. The answer, dear reader, lies with you. Obviously background noise will play a role in how well the app works. Trying to tag a song in your living room by yourself is one thing and trying to tag a song in a noisy bar is another.
The right, the wrong, and the obscure
That said, we had to admit that Shazam had its strengths and weaknesses. Classical music was almost a bust no matter how many times we tried. Jazz fared somewhat better, though we can’t precisely see why Mingus’ classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” might be confused with Cher’s “Believe.” Songs with lyrics tended to fare better than those without but overall, Shazam was pretty good at whatever we threw at it as long as it wasn’t too far off the beaten path.
If you’re going to take on a recognized leader in the field, you’re going to have to bring something better or different to the table. SoundHound, Inc.'s first attempt at that with their app SoundHound was the touting that you could sing or hum a song into the microphone -- you didn’t need the actual tune. So if you heard it on the radio while you were in the shower and you could remember the melody, conceivably you could hop out of the shower, run down the hall, and sing a bit into your iPhone and sweet musical identification would be yours.
My "doo be doo be doo" got me close but no Sinatra
Well, while SoundHound still includes that as part of its offerings, it’s not quite as loudly touted because the results are so wildly varying. If you can’t carry a tune or even if you can, your answers are just as likely to be way off the mark as they are to be correct. And so SoundHound rolled in the ability to type parts of the lyrics in, a built in Google search just for lyrics, if you will. (You can also type in song name or artist, but if you know that, why are you bothering with this app?)
Tag a song or type in a snatch of lyrics
Basically operating on the same principle as Shazam, you hear a song, open the app, hold your phone as close to the speaker as possible (and hope for as little background noise as possible), and tap the big button. Across the bottom of the app are three buttons, a bookmark one to see previously tagged songs, a flame icon to see hot songs in the US and around the world, and what looks like a small iPod nano. Tap that one and suddenly SoundHound is your replacement iPod controls.
Control your iPod and you get lyrics with it? Sweet.
It gets better. If SoundHound has the song in its lyrics library, they scroll right across the top of your song from your iPod. Ever wonder what that guy was singing? Not anymore you won't. Of all the extras SoundHound offers, this is by far one of the killer ones.
Other items in the category of extras, SoundHound likewise offered lyrics, a direct link to purchase the track on iTunes, YouTube videos of the song in question, an automatic Pandora station builder based around the song, a tour date ticker, artists seen as similar (Bonnie Raitt is similar to Tom Waits?), and SoundHound’s recommended songs. It also shows you which albums you’re likely to find the song (those old jazz standards show up everywhere) and where on the map you were when you tagged it.
Get some extras
But that’s not the real question. Again, that’s just icing.
Was SoundHound always correct or better than Shazam? Well, it turns out it was better with some things, equal on others, and worse on still others. Once again, your mileage will vary depending on what you’re looking for and what your tagging conditions are. However, we should add that in almost every single test we ran, running the gamut of genres, SoundHound smoked Shazam in recognition speed.
The tricky, the more obscure, and the precise location
For example, Shazam was completely stymied with one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the world, the opening da da da dum of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. SoundHound, after three tries, not only got it right, but also got the orchestra correct as well. The exact subtle variations between the London Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra putting this out could well tax the most enthusiastic classical music buff. Shazam never even came close.
In fact, based on our record collection, SoundHound managed to nab more songs correctly than Shazam did overall. There were occasional obscurities (the Final Jeopardy theme music and Lou Barlow’s lo-fi cover of Bryan Adams’ “Run to You”) that SoundHound stumbled over, but then there were places it nabbed specifics Shazam missed (Radiohead’s “Faithless the WonderBoy” was on the EP Itch, which SoundHound found, while Shazam placed it on the Pablo Honey album).
The second set is more like our results
We’ve been faithful users of Shazam since we first got our iPhone. In fact, it was one of the apps we downloaded. Sure, there were times it failed us, and we suspect it will get better as it grows its song databases. And having Spotify just one click away from the song tag? Beautiful -- but something SoundHound is just as likely to add soon enough too. So we didn’t think SoundHound would sway us from our first love, but it did. Tagging was faster, more accurate, and on target over a wider range of material. Use was just as easy as Shazam and a couple of the extras, such as lyrics and iPod controls were more appealing. While Shazam touts LyricPlay, we found it often simply refused to cooperate. We’re practical people and we’ll pick a better core service any day, and SoundHound's core service is better and its extras had that something extra.