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Apple Music vs Spotify: Which is the streaming king?

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Apple has launched its long awaited music streaming service Apple Music, but how does it compare to our current favourite Spotify? Let’s take a look.

It has been a long time coming and even needed Apple to spend big on Beats Music, but the brand’s music streaming service is finally here. And it’s called Apple Music. It boasts some major features and is looking to take your monthly subscription away from Spotify.

The road to release for what Apple hopes will be an all conquering music service has been, well, a little turbulent. Since the WWDC announcement, the Cupertino company has seen a lot of backlash from the music industry. Notably, Taylor Swift. The pop songstress was dismayed at the lack of payments to artists during the free three-month trial, so she said she wouldn’t put her latest release, 1989, on to the service. The story didn’t end there though, as Apple finally agreed to pay during the trial, Taylor relented and when Apple Music hits it will be the only streaming service to offer 1989. Result.

Apple’s service comprises of music streaming, 24/7 live radio and a new kind of social network called Connect that will let artists share pictures and behind-the-scenes video with fans. Of course, Spotify has built up quite the store of playlists, exclusive live sessions and support for a massive number of devices. With both services here and available to everyone, we take a look to see which is most deserving of your money.

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Pricing

Music streaming services seemed to have all pretty much agreed - or more likely been forced by labels - to stick with the basic £9.99/$9.99 pricing for their main tier. A couple of services have gone beyond this with more premium offerings (Tidal’s HiFi tier for example), but we’d be very surprised if any new services offered a full featured streaming app for less than £9.99.

In-fact, it was rumoured that Apple had tried to push through a $7.99 pricing tier, but the idea was quickly shut down by music bosses.

So, Apple Music and Spotify both start at £9.99 a month. If you’re a student with an NUS Extra card or a UniDays account you can save 50% on Spotify and it also currently offers a 60 day (up from 30 day) trial to give you a taster of the service.

Of course, if you’d rather not dip into your monthly spend for music and are happy to live with fairly frequent and annoying ads, Spotify still offers its basic free tier. It’s fairly limited though, the sound quality is 192 kbps and you can’t store music for offline playback - making it pretty much useless on phones if you’ve got a data cap.

But, it’s still free and Apple can only counter it with its Beats 1 service, which doesn’t let you manually search and play songs you want. But you can listen to Zane Lowe and his cronies live 24/7, which is something we guess. Lowe will be joined by a variety of other guests, with everyone from Drake to Elton John having a spot.

As we mentioned before, Apple is also extending that trial period to three months and for £14.99 you can get a special family bundle that six people stream tunes simultaneously. That last point is pretty important, as Spotify’s service only gives each family member 50% of their subscription.

User Interface

As Spotify has grown and evolved over the past few years, it’s user-interface has changed with it. It’s now a mixture of dark hues, green accents and a lot of transparency effects with a leaning towards artists pictures and album art over text.

The mobile apps continue this look and while we approve on the most part, it can sometimes be a little bit tricky to find exactly what you’re looking for.

You slide in from the side (on mobile, it’s always present on desktop) to access your sections - Search, Activity, Browse and Your Music - and here’s where all your music lies. ‘Your Music’ holds your saved songs, albums and playlist, while ‘Browse’ lets you see the latest charts, releases and Spotify’s own curated playlists. There’s even a social network aspect with the ‘Activity Feed’ that lets you snoop on what your mates are listening to.

The problem with Spotify’s approach is that it feels a bit messy, there’s to many sections and you keep on jumping in and out of them to find what you want. Why can’t you search for music while you’re in your album view? Why isn’t this just grouped together with playlists? And why can’t the search be always visible?

With the introduction of Apple Music, the company has updated its native iOS Music app for the occasion. As with Spotify, Apple has gone for a much more picture led approach - with artist images, custom playlist snaps and bigger album art. There’s a new ‘Recently Added’ tab that does pretty much what it says on that tin and search has been improved too. The ‘bright white with red accents’ colour scheme seems to be going nowhere though, making it pretty visually similar to the previous iterations.

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Discovery Features: Curation, playlists

Curation is key to a music streaming service. We’re no longer happy with just a list of the latest releases and our saved libraries, we want curated playlists and content served up right into our ears.

Thankfully, both Spotify and Apple are heavy on the curation side of things.

Spotify is packed full of ways to discover new music and it has really improved with playlist curation recently. The ‘Browse’ section in the app and web service pushes playlists to the front, each with a dedicated theme. A quick scan through reveals such gems as ‘Happy Folk’, ’Sunshine Reggae’ and, erm, ‘Barefoot Blissout’. If you want to get broader results you can search by Genres, Moods and New Releases. One of Spotify’s newer features is a special Running section, jammed with hits to (hopefully) make you move faster and topple that PB. Along with some running more generic playlists, there’s a couple devised by Euro-pop DJ Tiesto and these even alter due to how fast you’re moving.

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Apple’s curation takes a lot, as you’d probably expect after its rather pricey acquisition, from the Beats Music service which launched last year. There’s a heavy leaning towards content created by ‘industry professionals’ including 300 editors and input from music publications like Pitchfork. There’s also a new ‘For You’ section in the app that will aggregate content it thinks you’ll like. Just tap in a few artists you like, a couple of genres and the app should rustle up something for you to listen to.

But, the real killer here is Beats 1. It’s an evolution of iTunes Radio, but this time it’s actually like classic, old fashioned radio rather than a random stream of songs. It’ll be anchored by ex-Radio 1 hotshot Zane Lowe and will broadcast from LA, London and New York 24 hours a day, seven days a week. An always on live radio, streamed over the internet with real hosts and shows is a pretty big undertaking, so we’ll have to see whether Apple can really make it work.

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Sound Quality

While it doesn’t offer any high-res music to battle the likes of Deezer and Tidal, Spotify has three ranges of streaming quality to choose from - Normal (96kbps) High (160kps) and Extreme (320kpbs). We like that there’s a choice - not everyone has the bandwidth for the larger files - and you’ll also be able to cram more tunes onto your phone that way. But, we’d always stick to the ‘Extreme’ as it gives off the best results. To our ears Spotify sounds excellent, whether it’s on your phone or through a Sonos, and we’re sure Apple Music will sound equally as good, but we’ll have to take it for a real spin to determine this.

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Apple didn’t initially announce the bit-rate that it would be streaming at, though it has since been revealed that it’ll be just the same as music you download from iTunes - 256kpbs. That’s below Spotify and even the Beats service Apple Music is replacing. But, we really can’t tell if there’s going to be any noticeable difference until we’ve really put the service through its paces.

Compatibility

One of the biggest things that Spotify has going for it is compatibility. It has apps available on almost every platform, from iOS to Android to Windows Phone to OS X, and it works with products you might already have in your house. Amazon’s Fire TV can utilise Spotify’s Connect feature for beaming music from one source to another as can a number of wireless speakers. There’s native support for Sonos too, which is something that won’t be coming to Apple Music until the end of the year. Finally, if you’re a PS3 or PS4 owner you can use Spotify with Playstation Music and turn your tunes into background audio on your games. Support for Spotify is simply fantastic.

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Apple Music will kick-off solely on iOS and iTunes (for Mac and PC), though we’ve been promised an Android app will hit in the autumn. There also doesn’t seem to be a web player available, something which Spotify currently has. We’re personally big fans of the web app, as it means you can access your music collection from any computer.

Apple will really need to up its game in this area if it wants people to truly ditch other services and solely use its.

Music Libraries

We sort of feel like we’re past the stage in the age of music streaming where it’s important to brag about how many millions upon millions of songs you have. Whether it’s Spotify with 30 million, Tidal with 25 million or Xbox Music with 38 million, the likelihood is that the majority of the music you want to listen to is there.

What’s much more important is the exclusive content - live sessions, pre-release plays, special tracks and deluxe editions. Spotify have impressed here in the past with its ‘Spotify Sessions’ and you’ve always got access to the deluxe versions of albums. It has been a little scant though at offering up exclusive content, especially recently, and it seems like Spotify is more concerned about keeping hold of what it's got rather than signing up exclusive contracts.

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We thought Apple would be going in full-throttle with the exclusives. Especially as a few years ago it used a portion of an event to announce, with great fanfare, that it would become the exclusive destination to download the entire back catalogue of The Beatles.

We know that Taylor Swift’s 1989 will be on the service, but The Beatles won't. Apple Music will also be the only place to stream one of the greatest rap albums of all times, Dr Dre’s The Chronic. It’ll also be, initially we think, the only service to house Pharrel’s latest single and some exclusive Drake content. With the power that Apple has, we’d expect a raft of exclusives to be constantly available.

Both services will have access to AC/DC’s whole back catalogue, as the band has finally allowed their tunes to be streamed.

Early Verdict

With its tight iOS integration and ambitious 24/7 radio, Apple Music certainly has a lot going for it. Will it revolutionise the industry? We'll have to wait and see but considering it will come installed on all iPhones, iPads and Macs and the prospect of an enticing three month free trial, we expect a lot of people to give it a try and maybe give up Spotify in the process.

Spotify though, seeing as it’s been around for such a long time, is almost synonymous with the music streaming game. It has support for a number of services, from Sonos to Playstation Music, and works across iOS, Android, Windows Phone and the web.

Apple Music has a tough challenge ahead of it, that’s for sure. But if anyone can topple it, then Apple can.

Andrew Corris

June 30, 2015, 8:08 pm

Just tried the service on a few tracks. Downloaded several for offline listening that I also have for offline on Spotify. Did a back to back listen and Apple Music is notably worse (using Bowers and Wilkins P3 Headphones). It is not bad, but it sounds noticeably less distinct and distant compared to Spotify (IMHO). And for the record, I like my Apple products. What was more funny was the much vaunted curated music lists. I tapped on "For You" and the very top list was "Cold Days, Warmer Music" with a description along the lines of "Cold days, long nights and lack of sunshine making you feel melancholic...?" On any other day of the year Apple could get away with that statement in Britain, even when it is high summer, but today the hottest day so far it was completely and utterly wrong for the mood. If Apple Music cannot even know what season it is in a particular region of the world, how on Earth are we meant to trust their music judgement? I did not expect the new service to be such a fail for me in the first hour. I will be sticking with Spotify given the price is the same.

Dick Dickson

July 4, 2015, 1:00 am

I'm surprised that Apple Music cannot be played on Sonos. Beats music works on Sonos now.
You would think that Apple would have fixed that before the intro. Sonos says that it will be available before the end of the year? That's six months from now. What were they thinking?

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