Apple Music came late to the streaming service party, but it has quickly risen to the top thanks to its excellent music curation, unique Beats 1 Radio with high-profile artists hosting shows, and integration across Apple’s ecosystem – including the Siri-controlled HomePod smart speaker.
Despite the initial mixed reaction, Apple Music’s user base has risen to 50 million, closing in on music stream giant Spotify’s 75 million paid subscribers. Not bad considering Apple’s streaming service is only three years old.
What is it?
Apple Music mixes your personal music library with an enormous catalogue of over 45 million songs – a mix of old and new songs, and on par with Spotify’s extensive catalogue – along with Beats 1 live radio, TV shows, films, music videos and expertly curated playlists.
Other deals include a student fee of £5 per month, while a family membership of up to six people can get a £15 package deal. There’s no CD-quality tier like Tidal and no free version as there is with Spotify - it's either brilliantly simple or a little restricted, depending on your point of view.
Apple Music is available on all Apple devices – it replaced the old Music app on iPhones and iPads, and is integrated into iTunes on your Mac laptops – and is also available to download on Android devices.
Ease of use
Apple Music initially launched in 2015 with a visual-heavy, cramped interface very much at odds with the clean, simple interfaces seen on rivals like Deezer, Spotify and Tidal.
Since 2016’s iOS 10 redesign however, Apple has stripped back its app design with cleaner typography and graphics, and a much simpler layout. The current version is easier to navigate (although there are sub-sections everywhere), looks appealing thanks to prominent album artwork, and after a few minutes of figuring out where everything is, it becomes a breeze to use.
Apple has cleverly hidden away plenty of options behind icons to keep the main screen as neat as possible. You’ll see three dots (or ellipses) everywhere: click them for sub-menus for various options such as downloading, sharing, adding to a playlist or looking up lyrics. Crucially, you’ll find the red heart/Love icon here, which you should tap if you like a particular song (or tap heart-with-a-slash if you dislike it) to help Apple curate music to your tastes.
The app is divided into five main sections: Library, For You, Browse, Radio, and Search.
The Library tab is where your entire music collection lives – from all of your iTunes albums (if you’ve turned the iCloud Music Library option on) to your Apple Music-saved playlists and songs stored on your phone. Everything is grouped into categories: artists, albums, genres, playlists, downloaded music. You can scroll through your recently added tunes, too, which is handy if you want to revisit a recent earworm.
We like being able to access our entire music library in one app, although you have to sacrifice a degree control over your music files for the convenience. There's no way of knowing the file size or type of your songs - which in your library are your ripped WAV files and which ones are Apple Music tunes, for instance.
That can be a problem if you’ve got plenty of the former and would rather Apple didn’t replace it with a different version from its Music service. If you have rare B-sides Apple Music doesn’t stock, you’ll have to store the song files on your phone to play them. But that’s easily done through your computer’s iTunes.
Searching is split into two filters: across Apple Music’s vast catalogue or within your own library. This seems odd at first, but can be helpful when your collection grows and sprawls.
Where Apple Music excels is music curation. The For You tab is where all the fun happens, with Apple Music recommending artists, albums, and playlists that are tailored specifically to your music tastes and listening habits. And it’s spookily spot on.
When you first sign up to Apple Music, you’re presented with floating red circles highlighting various genres of music. Tap on the ones you like to give Apple Music a head start, then tap ‘Love' on any song or album you like, and Apple will update your preferences to generate well-crafted playlists.
We’re impressed with how interesting the playlists are – not just in the song selection, but in the way they’re grouped and presented. From top hits to little-known tracks of an artist, from influences on a certain band or a playlist focused on a songwriter or particular era, Apple’s curation is nuanced and intelligent.
There’s a real sense the playlists have been curated by humans with an understanding of music, not just by a cold-blooded algorithm. Even the handful of words “Because you listened to…” in front of an artist or album recommendation goes a long way to making the user experience feel more personal.
The superb music curation also works a treat with Apple’s HomePod smart speaker, which is integrated solely with Apple Music. If you’ve got a HomePod, simply ask Siri to play your favourite tunes and it will always come up with a track you know or really like.
Spotify is no slouch when it comes to recommendations, but Apple Music’s little touches make it feel like everything is hand-curated for you. Apart from the weekly-updated ‘New Music Mix’ sitting in the For You tab, Apple Music doesn’t push new music and chart toppers as heavily as Spotify and Tidal. They’re all hidden away in the Browse tab, where you’ll find the latest releases, exclusives, Full HD music videos, TV shows, and playlists galore.
It’s worth diving into each section as there are hidden gems everywhere. ‘Curated Playlists’ has countless playlists sorted by genre, activities and moods, and from big brand names such as Pitchfork, NME, Sonos and more.
Unique to Apple Music is the much-hyped Beats 1 Radio – a 24/7 worldwide live ‘youth-oriented’ radio station with celebrity hosts and star guests. Regular shows (headed by former Radio 1 host Zane Lowe) offer a diverse mix of music, with plenty of exclusive launches and big-name guest slots.
The more interesting and idiosyncratic music choices are when major artists such as Dr Dre, St Vincent, Stormzy, Elton John, Pharrell Williams, Major Lazer or Corey Taylor host their own regular shows. These are a hybrid of radio shows and podcasts, where you can re-listen to your favourite shows on-demand.
How often you’ll listen to Beats 1 live depends on the calibre of artist you follow - Apple is clearly relying on star-power to draw in subscribers. If you already have your favourite BBC radio shows, it’s un likely to tempt you to switch allegiances, but they’re fun to dip into.
You also get more standard, genre-specific radio stations, and can start a themed station based on an artist or song. Simply tap the star icon to tell Apple whether or not you like the options it comes up with.
Annoyingly, Apple hasn’t disclosed what bitrate its songs are streaming at. We can confirm that the songs stored in Apple’s iCloud Library are 256kbps AAC (the same as iTunes downloads), but there’s no obvious way of telling how songs streamed in Apple Music differ over wi-fi or cellular.
But Apple Music’s streamed songs sound clean, snappy and detailed. Compared with similar tracks on Spotify (which are 320kbps Ogg Vorbis streams), Apple’s have greater subtlety and more space around instruments.
Dynamically, the sound is more fluid and exciting. Notes stop and start with punch, timing is good, and subtle shifts from quiet to loud are admirably handled.
Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit has plenty of wallop and attack. The grungy guitars are packed with texture and the noisy, sludgy, angry tone of the song is easily communicated. Kurt Cobain’s vocals are appropriately surly and mumbling.
Switch to something more polished, such as Charli XCX’s Boys, and the sparkly pop tune is slick and snappy. Her voice sounds loud, clear and expressive. It’s not as squashed-sounding as it is via Spotify, though you get a touch more openness and subtlety through Tidal.
Apple Music’s enjoyable and dynamic delivery is a more engaging listen than Spotify, so it’s worth considering if you want a step up in sound quality for a similar price. As always, we’d urge you to invest in a decent pair of headphones to get the best performance out of this streaming service.
Apple Music has come a long way in its short lifespan, offering plenty of unique features that set it apart from the streaming herd. Die-hard Spotify and Tidal fans may not switch allegiances, but we’d urge you to give Apple Music a go simply for how intelligent and engaging its recommendations are.
There are plenty of ways to stream music these days, but Apple Music’s personal touches and nuanced curation simply make us listen to music more. And that can only be a good thing.