Hands-on review: In Depth: Apple Music

Hands-on review: In Depth: Apple Music

Apple Music review

You can count on one finger the number of companies in the world that could launch a new music streaming service and expect to become a major player overnight.

That company is Apple and today it duly obliged by launching Apple Music – the long-awaited music app that integrates subscription-based streaming capabilities with the playback of existing songs in your iTunes library.

So you no longer need to buy an album on iTunes in order to listen to it on your iPhone inside stock apps, you can simply pay $9.99/£9.99 per month and stream as much music as you like directly into your head, preferably via the ears. And you can do it from inside the Music app on your iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, or with iTunes on your PC or Mac.

(An Android app will be available later in the year – an app which is definitely still in development and definitely isn’t being intentionally held back by Apple for, you know, reasons – don’t be so cynical.)

Apple Music also offers extensive music discovery channels including round-the-clock radio station ‘Beats 1’ featuring renowned radio DJs like Zane Lowe, as well as social features that aim to put artists and bands closer to their fans. It’s all exciting stuff.

The best thing about all this? Apple is giving everyone three months access to Apple Music as a free trial. That’s a killer feature that gives Apple Music a good shot of quickly establishing a respectable subscriber base.

apple music free trial

A challenge for Apple

The launch of Apple Music is an enormous moment for the music business, not just because Apple has been such a major player over the last 15 years but also because it’s taken Apple so long to get here. After all – music streaming is not a new thing.

Spotify launched, if you can believe it, seven years ago now. It has 75 million active users around the world including 20 million paying subscribers who have collectively created over 1.5 billion playlists. That’s not a temporary deal – Spotify is here to stay and Apple has its work cut out for it if it wants to be the number one.

But as we’ll see, Apple’s strategy is as self-serving, insular and crafty as usual, with its goal not necessarily to be the number one on the planet from the off, but rather to be a unique and reliable service that can be used in future to sell more iPhones and iPads while becoming a profitable service in its own right.

taylor swift 1989

The basics of Apple Music

Apple Music costs $9.99/£9.99 per month for a standard dose of all-you-can-eat music streaming or 14.99 for a family package which gives access for up to six people.

That pricing is the same as most of Apple Music’s competitors, but the family plan is a nice addition and offers real value for money.

denied

Don’t even try listening on more than one device at the same time with a standard subscription – you’ll be instantly be cut off on one of the devices, given a stern warning and administered with a painful electric shock. One of those things isn’t true.

Sound quality is possibly one area of contention, though, because while Tidal and others push towards CD-quality music at 1441kbps, Apple Music streams tunes at a fairly pitiful 256kbps, and in the MP3 format as well.

Even Spotify and Google are able to stream 320kbps in OGG, a far more accomplished method of music delivery. Come on, Apple, we’ve moved past 256kbps MP3’s by now.

Give us more bits per second!

Focus on music discovery

The Apple Music library is 30 million tracks strong and growing – that’s not quite as high as the number of tracks available in iTunes but on a par with Spotify and Google Music which are, lets face it, its biggest rivals.

Any music that you have in your own personal library that perhaps isn’t available to stream you can upload to iCloud and have them seamlessly integrated with the other tracks that are natively available. You’re currently limited to 25,000 but that will increase to 100,000 when iOS 9 launches.

music discovery

The service has taken a leaf out of the Tidal playbook by offering playlists created by real, living, breathing (we assume), human music experts and initial signs are positive on that score – I found myself happily sitting through a number of them as I worked this afternoon and for me that shows real patience – normally I don’t like anyone telling me what songs to listen to.

And the whole service is underpinned by Beats 1, a real internet radio station in the truest sense.

It’s not an auto-generated playlist based on your personal tastes, though Apple has done a good job with those as well, but a full-blown DJ-hosted 24-hour radio station hosted by Zane Lowe and others, designed to help you discover what Apple wants to call "new music".

Whether "new music" to Apple means giving exposure to the indie stars of future or simply being the first to play Kanye West’s latest deep sustained booming sounds remains to be seen.

radio

First impressions

I’ll be putting Apple Music through its paces for a while before delivering a full verdict, but here are some thoughts while you wait:

  • As a non-Apple user and someone who abandoned the burning building that is iTunes many years ago, the design of the app is not particularly intuitive. I think the problem is that there is just so much going on in there, finding a place for it all has inevitably led to some compromises in the design. I’ll probably get over it but I think it’ll put plenty of people off right from the start.
  • Sound quality is disappointing. I won’t labour the point here but in an age where we’re pushing for high res music, 256kpbs MP3 just doesn’t cut it. It’s noticeably inferior to other services when listening with a decent pair of headphones. Sorry Apple, it’s not good enough – particularly as you, of all companies, can do a lot better.
  • Apple has put music discovery at the very heart of this service and I think it works. For those people out there – hey dad – who like music but don’t know what to listen to, Apple Music could be a dream come true. I don’t usually like to be told what to listen to, but I’m looking forward to testing its effectiveness – does Apple know my music taste better than I do? We’ll soon see.
  • Beats 1 is a backwards idea but I think it’s going to really work. Only Apple could pull off a global radio station like this, and while I can’t imagine myself listening to it very often – or, let’s be honest, ever – a lot of people will, I’m convinced.
  • The app is slow at times on both my iPad and my iPod touch 5th gen. The app is divided into six main sections – For You, New, Radio, Connect, Playlists, My Music – and switching between them always gives me a spinning wheel of doom. Usually only for a couple of seconds, but still, don’t make me wait – I’m impatient.

So to sum up my first couple of hours with Apple Music I’d say that I am impressed. For iPhone and iPad owners who don’t currently stream music, it’ll be a revelation and I suspect that the more time you spend with Apple Music, the more you fall in love with it.

But whether it’s enough to tempt Spotify or Google Music subscribers to jump ship… I have my, albeit preliminary, doubts.

Don’t take my word for it though – get stuck in with the free three month trial and let us know what you think of Apple Music in the comments below.

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