- Beats 1 radio station is great for music discovery
- Great curated playlist and recommendations
- Consistent experience across iPhone and iPad
- My Music section is very clunky
- Playlists and offline mode need work
- App UI is rather overwhelming
- 35 million track catalogue
- Access to Beats 1 24/7 radio station
- Integrated iTunes Match support to add own music collection
- 256kbps AAC audio quality
- Apple Connect social network platform
- Works only with iOS devices
What is Apple Music?
Apple Music is the Cupertino-based company’s first music streaming service – although Apple’s not entirely had to work from scratch. It snapped up Beats by Dre in a multi-billion-dollar deal last year, which also included the acquisition of the Beats Music streaming service that launched a year ago. This, along with Apple’s own native music application and iTunes store, provide the foundations for a service that currently only works on iOS devices.
Prospective subscribers get a three-month trial, after which you’ll need to pay £9.99 a month or opt for a family membership to give up to six users access. Apple’s pretty late to the party, with the likes of Spotify, Deezer and Rdio having been on the scene for a few years now.
Apple Music has everything you could want from a music streaming service, though. There’s a big catalogue of music, curated playlists and live radio stations to help discover new music.
But has Apple done enough to persuade a loyal Spotify subscriber to make the switch? We’ve spent a few weeks with Apple Music and we like what we’ve heard and seen so far. Unfortunately, it’s not without its issues, some of which might stop you from jumping aboard.
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Apple Music – Design
Apple has built a reputation for building hardware and software that you can pick up and use within minutes. Whether it’s a MacBook or an iPhone, there’s little debate that this is an area in which the company excels. That’s why it’s so surprising, especially when you’d have thought lessons would’ve been learnt from the chaotic Apple Watch user experience, that Apple Music has a UI that’s initially overwhelming and not really user-friendly. It gets better over time, but it just doesn’t feel very Apple.
The good news is that Apple does treat that chaos in a typically sleek and stylish way. Once you’ve made your way through the Beats Music-inspired selection of your favourite music genres and artists, the app is an evolution of the look and feel of Apple’s native Music app. There are those slightly faded red icons and sections running down the bottom of the UI. It’s packed with album covers and content feeds that seem to go on and on.
It’s mostly a consistent experience across the iPhone and the iPad, but it has a tendency to make you jump through a few more hoops on the Apple tablet version to get to the same features as on your phone, which seems silly when there’s so much more screen space to play with. We know some iPad users have had problems – you only have to head to the Apple support community threads to read about missing features or buggy performance. Hopefully a forthcoming software update will smooth these things over.
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What’s most disappointing about Apple Music is the lack of a web player, and here’s hoping Apple has plans to introduce one at some point. All rival services have them and nobody wants to have to plug headphones into a phone or tablet at work, sapping their battery in the process. Especially if you dont have a spare charger lying around to top it up. You can access the service through iTunes, which now puts it at the forefront of the iTunes UI. We’d still prefer a web player option, though.
As a starting point, Apple gets a lot of things right with how you navigate the app, but we know things can and will surely get more intuitive, because right now it’s far from perfect.
Apple Music – Features and Performance
Apple Music is broken into six sections and we’ll approach each of them in order of how much time we’ve spent using them.
Somewhat surprisingly at the top of that list is Beats 1. This is Apple’s 24/7 live radio station, which delivers DJ- and artist-led shows throughout the day. Shows range from simply playing what’s hot right now, to artists talking and playing songs that helped shape their careers and music. It’s essentially a more personal approach to radio than you get on services like Spotify or Pandora. Users can call a toll-free number (in some countries) to request tracks, and Apple has also added the ability to replay shows such as Dr Dre’s The Pharmacy from within the New section.
We’ve tuned in during the morning, early afternoon and in the evening throughout the week, and we’d say it has a leaning toward certain tastes. There’s definitely a greater focus on Hip Hop, RnB, Soul, Electronic and dance-focused content. There are plenty of indie-based shows there, but they’re definitely in the minority.
The most impressive feature of the service is that it’s a great place for discovering music, and that’s not really what we were expecting. Even the genre-led stations, which work more like those on rival services, can be great places to find new songs. We’ve discovered more new music in two weeks with Apple Music than we have in the past year of using Spotify.
What doesn’t work so well is that not all of the music played on Beats 1 is covered in the Apple Music streaming catalogue. So you might find yourself taking a screenshot instead of “hearting” – pressing the little heart icon – next to something you like.
The artist-led shows are the most interesting element of Beats 1. We never imagined we’d end up listening to Will.i.am talk about being inspired by the tempo change in Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Come on Eileen, but it’s impossible not to get drawn in by such things. Hopefully Apple can keep the quality of shows up in the long term.
Next up is the For You section. This is where those selections you’ve made in the setup shape the kind of music that’s suggested to you, whether that’s curated playlists, classic albums or new music. Initially, it doesn’t feel very useful at all. In fact we mostly ignored it due to how impressive the radio stations proved for discovery.
That lack of usefulness was mostly down to the recommendations being directly linked to artists and genres we’d selected. After time, playlists evolved and we had content based on running or progressive house and a mixture of both old and new albums. When you favourite tracks, this will also influence what you see in the For You section, so recommendations will get better over time. There’s no chance of running out of recommendations either. Scroll down and the list of content just keeps on going.
One thing you don’t have to worry about is having a big enough catalogue of music to satisfy your tastes. It doesn’t match the iTunes store for content, but with around 30 million tracks, it’s roughly in the same ballpark as Spotify and Deezer. The Beatles and Prince fans will be disappointed that those two didn’t make the Apple Music cut, but there’s pretty much everthing else you could want to find on there. We’ve spent the past couple of weeks testing it to its limits, looking for obscure songs and artists, and it holds up as well as we thought it would. You won’t find any dodgy tribute acts on here like you do on Spotify, which is most certainly a good thing.
Moving onto the New section, it’s here where it starts to feel more like we expected from Apple. This where you’ll find a Hot Tracks section, as well as playlists both curated and from Apple Editors. Scroll down and there’s even more, including tracks discovered on Apple’s Connect service and recent releases. You can spend a lot of time in here finding new music to add to playlists.
Connect is an interesting social feature that resurrects the idea of Ping. But it’s one that we haven’t paid a great deal of notice to since the launch day. It’s up to artists to bring it to life, so we’re willing to invest time in it like we would with Facebook or Twitter, and right now that’s not really happening. There’s been shout-outs during Beats 1 broadcasts that artists had debuted music videos on Connect, but that wasn’t really enough to get us to stop listening and go watch a video in another section.
A quick flick through reveals some new album launches or behind-the-scenes photos. Maybe we’re only scratching the surface of what Connect can become, but at the moment it needs to feel more part of the experience than a disparate section of the service. Notifications might help that, and some actual ability to interact with other Connect users. Right now Connect feels like it has an equal chance of being great or sinking without a trace like Ping before it.
The area of Apple Music that certainly needs the most work is the way it manages your own music collection and the all-important offline mode. From the frustrating process of using iTunes Match to making a simple playlist, everything feels a bit like an afterthought.
Our biggest frustration is the playlist aspect. First of all, making those playlists is far from straightforward. We spent a few minutes thinking a track hadn’t added properly, when we’d actually added it ten times because the Add button didn’t make it that obvious. Indicating which playlists are offline would be a simple addition as well and there’s no clear way to keep track of what’s being downloaded either.
Getting your own music into the iCloud Music Library is broken as well. This is the process where Apple scans all of your music, finds versions of the track it has in its own catalogue and saves a version in your iCloud account so you have access to it all the time. That includes iTunes purchases that don’t appear in the Apple Music streaming catalogue. There’s a current limit of 25,000 tracks, which should go up to 100,000 later this year, probably when iOS 9 launches.
The problem is that doing this is by no means straightfoward. We found that it’s picky about moving all the tracks in an album or not uploading the album covers. If you value your music collection, we’d suggest staying away from this Apple Music feature until it’s fixed.
If you love Siri, there’s integrated support in Apple Music. We didn’t use it a great deal, but when we did it worked well. You can ask to play a certain track or play music from a certain decade. We asked Siri to play a playlist from the ’80s and it queued up tracks from A-ha to Journey and we were more than happy.
Apple Music – Sound Quality
The audio quality of Apple Music is going to be an issue for some, but the majority will probably not care because they’re so accustomed to listening to audio in more compressed file formats. That’s what we’re dealing with here: a difference in file formats and bitrates. Apple Music offers 256kbps audio in the same AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) file format it uses for its standalone iTunes Match service. Spotify in comparison uses 320kbps in the OGG (Ogg Vorbis) format. Apple’s decided to go with an option that’s less than the industry standard, but can deal with smaller file sizes.
Can you tell the difference? We could. We tried Apple Music on an iPhone and iPad Air 2, running it through both cheap and high-end headphones. We also did the same with portable speakers. Ultimately, things can tend to sound a lot louder and harsher in comparison to Spotify and Deezer. It’s more significant when listening to Beats 1, but you’ll find the same delving into Apple’s music catalogue.
Could we live with the drop in audio quality? In most instances the answer to that question is yes. It’s not bad enough to make you want to stop listening, but audiophiles who value Tidal-like lossless audio quality will be left disappointed.
Should I subscribe to Apple Music?
Whether or not you subscribe to Apple Music is going to depend on what you value from a music streaming service. If having a big catalogue to choose from, great playlists and the surprisingly refreshing addition of a more personal radio station are all appealing, then Apple Music is worth a go, even if just for the three-month trial.
If audio quality, offline playback and having all of your music available at the touch of a button are qualities you value more, it’s possibly not for you. These are certainly the areas Apple needs to work on the most.
Google Play Music was also a far-from-perfect solution when it first launched, but it’s evolved into a significantly better service. If Apple can dedicate the time to iron out the issues with Apple Music, and we’re sure it will, we have no doubt it’ll be grabbing plenty of subscribers from rival services.
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Apple’s first music streaming service makes a promising start, but there’s clearly room for improvement.
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