The days when your TV is the same by the time you get rid of it as it was when you bought it are well and truly over. The ability to attach modern TVs to the Internet has suddenly made them wannabe PCs, regularly downloading firmware updates and even new features.
So it was that within seemingly hours of writing our previous Online TV Services update (published on December 28th, but written around the 22nd), Sony added yet another big feature to its Bravia Internet Video platform: Qriocity Music Unlimited. It felt like we’d been given a last-minute Christmas present. Even better, it was a Christmas present exclusive to the UK and Ireland; for once the rest of the world was (and still is) having to wait while we get our hands on a bit of new technology first.
Now that we’ve had time to digest it, Music Unlimited – which is also available on the PS3 or your PC – has turned out to be extensive and interesting (though certainly not always in a good way!) enough to warrant a dedicated review.
There are essentially two main strands to the Music Unlimited service. First, it wants to give you access to music stored on Sony’s Qriocity servers, for streaming radio-style into your TV or saving into personal playlists held on Sony’s ‘cloud’. Second and, to be honest, more interestingly from our point of view, it allows you to create your own library of music to share across your supported devices (linked via your simple email account details and a password) by importing sounds from your existing PC library or by adding songs that you discover through the service.
Its catalogue currently runs to a rather vague ‘millions of songs’ – and no, we didn’t actually count them all ourselves – and Sony’s boast is that Music Unlimited has the flexibility to allow you to ‘continue to enjoy your current favourites while discovering great new music through recommendations and channels organised by genre, era, mood, popularity and others’. What it neglects to say is that this is only the case if you don’t use a Mac.
For at the time of writing, there’s no software support for adding to the Music Unlimited system music stored on Apple Mac notebooks or desktops. When questioned about this, Sony’s reply was that Music Unlimited is designed for use with Sony products. The sheer dumbness of this is thrown into even starker perspective given the announcement just days ago of Apple’s soaring profits.
We guess you could just use the Music Unlimited service only on your TV, effectively as a ‘live’ radio station that also lets you build playlists from the content you find. But we really don’t think this level of service would be enough in itself to justify Music Unlimited’s cost.
Yes, that’s right, cost. For the elephant in the room we’ve carefully been treading around up until now is that Music Unlimited requires you to pay for it if you want it to deliver any even remotely useful level of service.
There are two price tiers to the Music Unlimited service: a £3.99 30-day Basic plan, and a £9.99 30-day Premium plan. Subscribers to the basic plan get:
– Music Sync, which scans the hard drive of your PC (not Mac, as discussed) and adds details of your existing music tracks and playlists to your personal music library in the cloud. You can then listen to those tracks and playlists using your TV, PS3 or other Internet-enabled compatible devices.
– Basic channels, where you can enjoy a variety of advert-free music channels grouped by era, genre and mood, or SensMe, which compiles playlists personalised to your identified tastes. Rather crucially, though, for basic subscribers on-demand playback of each track is limited to just 30 seconds. Er, great.
Make the leap to the Premium plan, and the system starts to make more sense. So much so, in fact, that the Basic plan becomes clearly just a teaser designed to persuade you that actually, you really need to spend a tenner a month for the full Premium deal.
With this in mind, it rather sticks in the craw that you won’t get a refund on any unused portion of a Basic Subscription if you decide to go Premium part way through a month on the Basic plan. Cheers. On the upside, Sony is at least currently letting you try the full Premium system for a full 30 days for free before you commit to it.
Anyway, getting back to what the Premium plan offers, you get all the Basic plan benefits, plus:
– Premium channels, which offer a variety of ‘step up’ music content including the Global Top 100 compiled from the music service library.
– On Demand Playback, where you can pick and choose tracks from the service’s entire music library and create your own playlist.
You can initially set up your account on your PC, TV or PS3 – though personally we’d suggest just doing it on your PC first, as you’ll have to use this at some point anyway if you want to get the best value out of Music Unlimited by letting it scan your PC music content.
This brings us to another huge catch, though: namely, that while Music Unlimited will scan your PC and add details of your existing music tracks and playlists to your personal music library in its ‘cloud’, it will only do it with tracks that don’t have DRM protection and are already within the Music Unlimited library. Which effectively means that potentially large chunks of the stuff you’ve already bought via or added to (eg, from CDs) other music software platforms will be unavailable on your new Music Unlimited system.
So far, so rather frustrating. But the frown did at least disappear from our faces for a while once we clocked its rather lovely interface.
The key point is that unlike the rival PC-focused platforms, Music Unlimited has been built from the ground up with TV use in mind, and the result is an onscreen menu system that in most ways is really outstandingly easy to use as well as looking cool and cutting edge thanks to the extremely high quality of the record sleeve artwork shown with each track. The menus react quickly and sensitively to your navigational commands, too.
The photos accompanying this article pretty much tell the whole story of the MU operating system, though for descriptions’ sake we might add that its approach of presenting rows of icons you can scroll quickly along, with the selected option popping up large while smaller icons to either side show the next options, is very reminiscent of the system Microsoft uses on the Xbox 360.
Adding songs from one of Sony’s playlists to your own collection is simplicity itself, meanwhile; all it takes is a couple of logical button presses while a song is playing ‘live’ and you can then access that song again at will from any of your Music Unlimited-compatible devices.
We did find one extremely irritating shortcoming about the current OS, though, namely that you can’t scroll along the premium playlists. So, for instance, if you choose the Indie Rock and Alternative Top 100 premium channel, it starts playing the number 1 track, shows you the artwork for the next track, but won’t let you just skip the track that’s playing to get to the second – or subsequent – tracks. This is presumably to maintain the seamlessness of the experience, rather than throw up buffering delays, but it really reduces the sense of freedom that’s so essential to music browser platforms. And it’s obviously a bit of a bummer for whatever poor band is occupying slot 100 on the chart…
Once you’ve listened to a track on a premium ‘channel’ right the way through, it gets added to a ‘played’ list that you can then scroll back through. But ‘forward shifting’ really needs to be supported as well.
If you’re using your personal library rather than Sony’s Premium Channels for your listening, you’ll find that your content is organised according to playlists, albums, or artists, plus there’s a ‘shuffle all songs’ option too.
Arguably, the biggest single strength of Music Unlimited is the quality of its sound. We’re not entirely sure what level of compression is being applied to the songs the system distributes, but our feeling is that it’s precious little, for songs appear on a Bravia TV’s speakers or even an attached amp/speaker system to be impressively dynamic, clean and pure.
The basic idea of Music Unlimited is sound. After all, the ability to easily share all of our content across all of our devices, including our TVs, is one of the holy grails of the new AV world. Its execution is bold too, and the scale of its ambition startling. However, Music Unlimited also suffers with a few significant problems.
First, there’s the simple fact that Sony is trying to create a new music platform – again! – when rival platforms are already established and widely used. We suspect that for many of you, a Spotify Premium or iTunes app would have been a much more appreciated addition to the Bravia Internet Video TV online platform.
Music Unlimited does, of course, get mileage from the notion that it provides a well-designed, user-friendly portal to your own and third party music via a TV rather than a computer. But the fact that it’s coming so late to the music server table still makes us think that most people who adopt it will be relatively PC-illiterate people who haven’t already got a music collection established on their computers. We’re certainly not convinced it will persuade many people to spend £9.99 a month to ‘migrate’ from their current music platforms, despite all of its presentational bangs and whistles.
Still, we concede that it is at least possible that the market for people not previously into music on their computers is quite large. Even if it isn’t, that shouldn’t reduce Sony’s achievement in working so hard to satisfy this technologically.
Perhaps the biggest problem we have with Music Unlimited as it currently stands, is that with its lack of Mac support, inability to skip forward through Channel tracks, and potential for not importing all the tracks in your PC library, the Unlimited part of its name seems rather inappropriate…
Score in detail
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