Apple Music, Cupertino’s streaming audio service, lets you stream most, but not all, of the iTunes library on your iOS devices, dive into numerous curated playlists, and find artists using Siri voice commands. There’s even an Android version of Apple Music, which is a major departure for Apple, one that shows how seriously it takes music. Overall, Apple Music’s many features make this service a strong contender in its category. Unless you’re dead set on becoming further entrenched in the almighty Apple ecosystem, however, there are even better options, such as Spotify and especially the Editors’ Choice award-winning Slacker Radio.
A quick refresher for those of you who are considering signing up for Apple Music: It is not the iTunes Store app from which you buy digital music files. Instead, Apple Music is a streaming music service that brings millions of songs to your iPhone, desktop iTunes app, or Apple TV. Confusingly, however, it only gets its own dedicated app on iPhone and Android. On all other platforms, Apple Music’s streaming functionality is built into iTunes.
On mobile devices, you access Apple Music by tapping the same music icon iOS has displayed for years. The free account included with your Apple ID lets you access several radio stations, including Beats 1 and NPR News and Culture, and you can also follow artists on the Connect social network. But to get the most out of Apple Music, such as unlimited skipping, no ads, and offline listening, you’ll want to sign up for the $9.99 Single Membership or the $14.99 Family Membership for up to six people using iCloud Family Sharing. I like seeing Apple Music and other streaming music services adopt family plans, which is something that Slacker Radio still lacks, unfortunately.
If you’re a college student who’s enrolled in an eligible college or university, you can subscribe to Apple Music for a wallet-friendly $4.99 a month. Students can take advantage of the discount for up to four years. Spotify and Tidal offer a similar student deal.
Put the Needle to the Groove
The white-and-red layout features large, eye-catching icons that invite you to explore the app. Honestly, that’s something that you’re likely to do anyway, as the interface features a menu structure that helps you find content quicker than before. Library, Playlists, Artists, Albums, and Songs are all prominent and easy to navigate.
If you just want to play the music you’ve bought, the Purchased playlist is where you should focus your attention. It let me stream songs from my iCloud Music Library that I bought in the past, even though none of them were downloaded on the iPhone 7 I used for testing. Playlists and saved albums from the Beats Music app transfer over, too. Thankfully, Apple Music lets you download music for offline playback. Unlike the majority of rival streaming music services, Apple Music doesn’t let you access your library from a Web browser.
As yet another music-related Apple app you’ll frequently be using on iOS, Apple Music does a good job separating itself from the regular My Music section where purchased tracks are stored, even though they are both technically the same app. However, it would be nice to see iTunes Store merged with Apple Music to create a one-stop iOS music shop, as the divide can lead to confusion. In testing I often forgot which app was the streaming app versus purchasing app, which proved frustrating.
Apple Music is also for discovering new music, not just for listening to old favorites. So I hopped over to the revamped For You section and swiped through numerous themed playlists, such as Eric Clapton: The Early Years and Lady Gaga vs. Madonna. Apple must have discovered that people really dig these prefabricated playlists, because the previous For You iteration was an entirely different beast. The older For You tasked you with manually selecting genres using brightly colored bubbles and creating stations around those picks. So, basically, the new For You removes the extra step. Of course, you still have the option to use the search box to find new tunes.
Digging Into the Library
Apple Music features a vast selection of songs taken from the iTunes library, including Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and other exclusive albums, as well as tracks from Taylor Swift and other pop acts. I found many Prince albums, too, including 1999, Batman, Controversy, Purple Rain, and Sign ‘O’ the Times.
You can also listen to radio stations dedicated to certain themes, such as Hip-Hop Workout Anthems and Disney Princess Radio. Apple Music takes a page from Slacker Radio’s playbook with the addition of non-music stations, such as NPR News and ESPN Sports.
Meanwhile, Apple’s flagship radio station, Beats 1, features tracks curated by DJ Zane Lowe, along with artist interviews. That said, the idea that a single radio station like Beats 1 can be all things to all listeners at all times is antiquated at best and arrogant at worst. Meanwhile, the more specialized stations aren’t as well crafted as what Spotify and Slacker Radio offer. Still, one of my favorite uses for music streaming services is queuing up chill instrumental tracks to listen to while editing text like this review. Apple Music does deliver on that front. It’s easy to select a favorite song or artist and listen to a station full of similar tunes.
Apple Music’s audio quality is about what you’d expect from songs downloaded from iTunes, but not as high as Tidal’s Hi-Fi offering. Only hardcore audiophiles will notice the difference, as the audio streams at 256 Kbps. That’s a lower bitrate than Spotify’s 320 Kbps streams, but Apple’s use of the AAC format enables its streams to retain more audio data. In addition, the app now supports lyrics (when they are available), so you can sing along to your favorite song, even if you don’t know the words.
Speaking of artists, Apple Music lets you follow your favorite bands, signed or unsigned, using its Connect social network. Here, artists can share thoughts and material that fans can comment on and interact with. For example, Pharrell used his page to debut his single, “Freedom.” Other social features include the ability to share playlists, albums, and Apple Music’s large library of ad-free HD music videos through Facebook and Twitter. But, again, while this is a pretty, glossy feature, it doesn’t offer much that you won’t find on other, more open, and more popular social networks.
Connect reminded me of MySpace’s major rebranding as a music-focused site a few years ago, and few things are less reassuring than MySpace comparisons. It is cool, though, that your Connect profile automatically follows artists whose songs you’ve purchased. I like having a big, fat Insane Clown Posse news feed waiting for me without lifting a finger.
What would an Apple service be if it didn’t encourage you to use other Apple services and products along with it? You can use Siri to tell Apple Music to play specific songs or ask for recommendations, like The Top Songs of the 80s. Apple Watch owners can sync music to their device and keep listening even when not paired to an iPhone.
A Fresh Take
The 90-day free trial should be plenty of time to determine whether Apple Music is a service you want to invest in. Just make sure to turn off auto-payments in case you don’t dig it. I suspect many people will keep using Apple Music, because it’s more convenient to use the streaming app already included on your phone, and Apple Music is good enough that those users won’t be disappointed. That said, if you want to use one of the best music streaming services currently available for iOS devices, check out my top pick, Slacker Radio.