Long-time readers will know that I’m not a huge fan of music streaming. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of having unlimited access to just about every album I can name, not to mention the ability to discover new music based on the extensive catalogue of music offered by services such as Spotify. However, I much prefer to own the music I like in physical form, and I don’t like the idea of relying on a service for music consumption. Not to mention the need to always remain connected to the internet, or to have previously made all of your favourite music available offline on your device.
However, like many people, I was intrigued by Apple’s newly launched music streaming service – designed to compete with the likes of Spotify and Tidal. And having updated my iPhone to iOS 8.4 (and downloaded the beta of iTunes for OS X), I decided to give it a go and signed up for a 3-month trial.
The signup process was extremely simple thanks to Apple’s usual purchase platform. However, there was some initial confusion. Apple’s trial screen stated a price of £9.99 per month after the 3-month trial. However, when I attempted to begin the trial, I was presented with a standard app store purchase screen. Nowhere on that screen did it sate that i wouldn’t be immediately charged – which had me wondering whether I was actually subscribing to a trial or whether I was to be billed immediately.
I understand that this is apple’s usual process for pre-ordering items – however, this needs to be rectified so as not to cause potential confusion for new users. I proceeded with the signup procedure, and – as expected – haven’t been billed.
After confirming my payment info, I was signed up and ready to begin exploring Apple Music. I was pleasantly surprised by what ultimately turned out to be an extremely simple, fuss-free signup procedure.
Throughout this review, I primarily interacted with Apple Music via the revamped iOS music application. I also used the beta release of iTunes 12.2.1 on Mac OS X.
Once registered, you are presented with the main apple music screen. Pressing the ‘my account’ button at the top left of the screen gives you access to your account settings, as well as allowing you to setup the ‘for you’ section.
The ‘For You’ section of Apple Music allows you to discover new music based on the artists and genres you like or love. Entering the ‘for you’ setup screen presents you with a list of genres to choose from. You’re asked to tap on the ones you like, tap twice on the ones you love, and hold the ones you don’t like. Once you’ve made your selections, pressing next takes you to a screen of suggested artists. The same procedure applies – tap once to like, twice to love, or hold for those artists whom you’re not so keen on. The ‘More Artists’ replaces the artists you haven’t liked with new suggestions. I’d like to see the ability to search for and select specific artists to further improve your recommendations.
Both screens also feature a reset button. Sadly, this button is in close proximity to the new artists button, and thence I found myself pressing it by accident on a number of occasions. Perhaps more frustratingly, you’re not asked for confirmation before your selections reset – so 1 accidental tap on this control, and all of your likes and loves will disappear. I found this extremely frustrating, as i’d spent approximately 20 minutes scrolling through suggested artists to fine-tune my recommendations.
Once setup, you’re taken straight to the ‘for you’ suggestions screen. The suggestions seem reasonably accurate – mine featuring a music from the likes of Queen, Norah Jones, Imagine Dragons, Eric Clapton and Blink-182 to name a few. There are also a selection of pre-made playlists on offer.
Apple Music’s Radio feature is very similar to the previously introduced ‘iTunes Radio’ – a service which never made it to the UK. The service, much like that offered by similar streaming services, allows you to generate a randomised playlist, or ‘radio station’ based on a song, genre, or artist. The playlist will contain tracks by that artist and similar artists, or artists belonging to the chosen genre.
The radio feature is actually one of my favourite features of Apple Music – the playlists generated are excellent, and it’s a great way to discover new music. I also loved the Siri integration – asking Siri on a whim to “play me some classic rock” instantly began streaming an awesome selection of classic rock tunes.
The main radio screen gives you access to Apple’s ‘Beats 1’ station, as well as your most recently played stations and a selection of genre-based stations. My only gripe with the radio feature is that it appears to favour radio edits, and tracks from compilation albums over those featured on studio albums. While not a huge issue, if I’m not listening to ‘real’ radio I’d rather hear the original studio tracks.
Beats 1 is apple’s Apple’s attempt to create a global radio station. Similar in format to traditional radio, Beats 1 offers a schedule of programs broadcasted from studios in LA, New York and London. It’s the brainchild of Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, and lead by former BBC Radio1 DJ Zane Lowe, featuring programming from renowned DJs including Ebro Darden and Julie Adenuga, as well as artists such as Dr. Dre and Elton John.
My issue with Beats 1 is that, while the programming is decent enough, it’s a little all over the place and broadly speaking it offers nothing that traditional stations, such as those broadcasted by the BBC and local county stations don’t already offer.
While it claims to be designed to help listeners discover new music, I found that, much like other stations, the content was heavily focused on major label artists, or those who had already, for want of a better description, ‘made it’. There appears to be no attempt to give new, unsigned artists their big break.
Of course, the other issue I have with Beats 1 is that the audio quality is horrific. It’s compressed to the point where there is little to no dynamic range left. It’s clearly supposed to sound good over the tiny speaker built into your iPhone, or a pair of Beats own headphones – but it sounds awful on those, too. It’s loud, headache inducing noise.
The ‘new’ section of apple music allows you to view the latest releases, as well as top songs, albums, and videos. There are a selection of hand-crafted playlists to dig into – including the A-List’, featuring a selection of playlists curated each week by APple’s editors, covering a range of genres from alternative to electronic.
Remember Ping anyone? No? Of course you don’t… Apple’s attempt to build a social platform for musicians and fans was a rather short-lived venture to say the least. The problem is social media – artists, not to mention their fans, are so used to engaging with one another via popular social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, that building an entirely new social platform, to me and it appears many others, seems rather pointless.
But apple have gone and done it anyway – and here it is, dubbed ‘Connect’. Essentially what was once iTunes Ping, Connect is a way for fans to follow and connect with their favourite artists. Artists can share updates and exclusive content, including videos, audio, lyrics, photos, etc to their fans. Sound familiar?
Throughout my time with Apple Music, I’ve followed several artists. The few times I’ve taken a look at the connect tab, however, has revealed very little activity – in fact, many of the updates consist of advertisements for up-coming gigs or new merchandise (undoubtedly posted by the artists label and / or management), with very little in the way of artist and fan engagement.
Let’s get back to actually playing some music. As you would expect, the Apple Music catalogue is huge – featuring over 30 million songs. Most, if not all of the tracks that can be purchased from the iTunes store can be streamed via Apple Music.
Apple does offer you the ability to add albums to your library, much like other streaming services. Once added, they’ll appear along-side your existing music collection, and can be downloaded for offline listening if desired. I like the library integration for the most part – though I would like to see the ability to add an entire artists back catalogue to my library in 1 go.
Audio quality seems to be limited to 256KBPS AAC. The tracks certainly don’t sound bad, though a lossless (or at least, higher resolution) option would be a welcome addition. Offline files, as you would expect, are delivered in the M4P DRM-protected audio file format.
I found no significant gaps in the Apple Music catalogue – the albums I’m used to streaming via other services, as well as many albums selected from both my vinyl and CD collections (even some obscure ones) were all present. I found that at times the search feature failed to find a particular album or artist, and sometimes selecting an artist page and navigating to the album view would show me the majority of that artists albums with a few missing. Those missing albums did however exist on Apple’s music service, and were uncovered after some further searching.
I like Apple Music. There, I said it. I’ve enjoyed using, and continue to use Apple’s streaming service. But has it persuaded me to part with my CD collection? Certainly not.
As a music streaming service, Apple Music is everything I could want. It gives me access to most, if not all of the albums in the iTunes store for the low subscription price of £9.99 a month. It enables me to discover new music, as well as previously unheard material from the artists I love.
But it’s the unnecessary bloat that lets it down. Beats 1, for example, offers little that traditional stations don’t offer, and the quality of the sound, not to mention the random, disorganised playlists and programming make it, for me at least, unlistenable. And do I even need to mention iTunes connect?
When it comes down to music streaming, I believe that while Apple are a strong contender, other services do it better and with fewer unnecessary distractions. Apple has the advantage of being able to instantly push their new services onto millions of iPhone and iTunes users. But ultimately, it’s the music that matters. Apple music is a great effort, but far more complicated and feature-packed than it needs to be.