Catalogue and Performance
Of course, apps will evolve over time, so the key to any successful streaming music service like Sony Music Unlimited is the quality and quantity of its content. Perhaps surprisingly Sony has deals with all three other big record labels (Universal, EMI and Warner) and offers a Spotify/Rdio-equalling 15 million tracks.
It is impossible to say which service has more of any one particular type of music without an army of testers spending weeks performing searches, but we were pleasantly surprised to find it feels just as comprehensive as both its big rivals across a wide range of music and independent artists are well represented.
More controversial, however, is Sony's approach to streaming this content. The company uses the high efficiency advanced audio coding format HE-AAC v2, which retains fidelity at much higher compression than MP3. The problem is Sony takes this to extremes and Music Unlimited streams audio at bitrates of just 48Kbit per second - well below the 'up to' 360Kbit encoding of its rivals. The upside is content buffers very quickly, particularly on mobile devices, and is highly reliable on the move. For those on limited tariffs it is also worth mentioning this will consume far less data.
In practice sound quality is pretty good and most casual listeners will be perfectly happy. Where problems arise is for audiophiles as playback on premium speaker systems and ear/headphones where the audio is revealed to be slightly flat and rounded with narrow range. There is great potential for high efficiency coding in this sector, but Sony does need to up the bit-rate or at least offer higher quality streaming over Wi-Fi and for downloading offline.
On the surface Sony offers the cheapest streaming service in the UK with the 'Basic' subscription just £3.99 per month. The trouble is this is heavily cut down and works purely as a music locker letting you sync your existing music collection, there is no access to Sony's content, playlists, charts or new releases. To get the full experience therefore requires a 'Premium' subscription at a more familiar £9.99 per month making it no cheaper than any other service. Furthermore while Sony offers a 30 day free trial to new users it requires credit card information which will begin charging automatically if you do not cancel.
As such the me-too nature of Music Unlimited means it is currently only for the most ardent users of Sony hardware.
Music Unlimited's widened platform support has seen it finally emerge as a rival to the all conquering Spotify and exciting UK newbie Rdio. The trouble is iOS support is basic at best and it still lacks both BlackBerry and Windows Phone apps. Furthermore while the use of high efficiency audio coding makes streaming on the move reliable, audiophiles will be dissatisfied with the rather flat performance and lack of a 'high quality' option. Sony has the financial might to make Music Unlimited a huge success, but as it stands the service remains a work in progress.