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By published 5 May 22
Value for money is not a tag you would normally associate with Apple, but Apple Music is something of a bargain. It’s priced to match Spotify, but has the sonic quality and curation skills of Tidal’s Hi-Fi tier, which costs twice as much. 24-bit masters and Spatial Audio? That’ll do nicely thank you! The content library is huge, with all the genres that matter covered in depth. And for Apple aficionados, there’s Dynamic Head Tracking, the icing on the spatial audio cake.
With so many online music streaming services vying for your attention and hard-earned cash, how does Apple Music stack up when compared to its rivals? And if you’re a non-Apple user, is a subscription to the service worth it? I put Apple Music through its paces to see if it’s worth sticking with or moving to.
Over the past couple of years, Apple has turned music curation into an art, and fine-tuned a formidable recommendation engine. I found after just a few days use, Apple Music begins to showcase bands and genres worth caring about, with sensible Top Picks and ‘Inspired by’ collections.
Admittedly, Apple’s AI occasionally goes a little wonky – it’s a little odd to be pointed at a Punk Christmas playlist in summer – but by and large the software does a good job.
Just as well, the catalogue, roughly deemed to number 90 million songs, is extensive. Subscribers can download tracks as well as stream on the fly, watch a dazzling array of promo videos and there’s a host of radio shows and podcasts to tune into.
There’s also the added option of calling up song lyrics while listening to a track, with the lyrics scrolling along with the beat. Not all songs have this feature, but it’s a nice touch.
When it comes to the UX, Apple gets most things right. The Apple Music app is clean to look at – you can choose between light or dark modes – and intuitive to browse. As part of the initial setup routine, you’re asked to favour artists, bands and genres, and it’s from this bedrock that Apple begins to build its music curation.
Its ‘Essential’ compilations are an easy win, while its recommendations are generally on the money. I was offered an ‘Inspired by Slade’ playlist featuring Kiss (Rock And Roll All Nite), Ramones (Blitzkrieg Bop) and the Bay City Rollers (Saturday Night). Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
You can nudge Apple in the right direction by hitting the heart icon in the playing submenu – equally you can give tracks a dislike – which helps refine the curation tools. Babymetal, Machine Head, Hawkwind… heart, heart, heart – that should get things sorted.
You can also share songs and lyrics across Instagram and Facebook.
The experience isn’t entirely bespoke though. A Music By Mood rail offers compilations classified as ‘Chill’, ‘Fitness’ and ‘Wellbeing’, but disappointingly there was nothing tagged ‘Rage’, ‘Mosh’ or ‘Sopping wet at Download.’ A missed opportunity, clearly.
If you’re looking for a single reason to jump ship from Spotify, or simply shortlist the service against the competition, it’s audio quality. While Spotify continues to offer lossy streams, everything on Apple Music is lossless, or better.
Apple Music delivers a variety of options: CD quality 16-bit/44.1kHz, Apple Music Lossless 24-bit/48kHz and Hi-Res Lossless 24-bit/192kHz, while many albums such as Rammstein’s Zeit are available as an Apple Digital Master and in Dolby Atmos! 320kbps doesn’t even come close.
Dolby Atmos (aka spatial audio), in case you’re wondering, is an altogether more immersive listening experience than regular stereo, with a bigger soundstage, and a greater sense of space around instruments. Zeit, in Dolby Atmos, sounds more immediate and pyrotechnic.
Def Leppard’s retro-rocker Take What You Want also gets the Dolby Atmos treatment on Apple Music, making it sound every inch the feel good festival anthem.
And if you have the right headgear, specifically Apple AirPods Max or AirPods Pro headphones, you even get Dynamic Head Tracking, which heightens the illusion of Dolby Atmos immersion further.
And while you won’t get access to that particular option if you’re rocking non-Apple headphones, Apple Music still sounds stellar. To get the most out of the service if you’re using a set of headphones such as the Sony WF-1000XM4, make sure to switch the Dolby Atmos option on in your music options menu.
It’s not just new cuts that are available in pristine quality. The 2009 Black Sabbath catalogue remasters are available as Apple Digital Masters, and they sound immense. Ozzy Osbourne‘s vocals on the title track of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath have studio clarity. It sounds like he sang it yesterday.
Like many other music streaming services, Apple offer a few different options for subscribers. Individual plans cost $9.99/£9.99 a month, with a family option available for $14.99/£14.99 a month or $99.99/£99.99 for an annual subscription. This gives up to six people the ability to access everything Apple Music has to offer and is a great option if you have a house full of music fans.
The final option Apple offer is a student plan priced at $4.99/£4.99 a month. There’s also a month’s free trial for new subscribers.
Apple Music faces plenty of competition when it comes to high quality music services. Tidal’s rival HiFi tier boasts MQA encoded Hi-Res Audio streams and Dolby Atmos sound mixes, but at £19.99 it comes with a hefty price premium.
Qobuz also offers Hi-Res Audio for around a tenner a month, but lacks the option of Dolby Atmos.
Undercutting Apple (if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber), and offering both 24-bit high-res and Dolby Atmos, is Amazon Music Unlimited. It’s impressive but ultimately it can’t match Apple’s intelligent music curation.
And no rivals have Apple Dynamic Heading Tracking, although it is limited to a small number of supporting headphones.
Steve is a home entertainment technology specialist who contributes to a variety of UK websites and mags, including Louder Sound, Yahoo UK, Trusted Reviews, T3, The Luxe Review and Home Cinema Choice. Steve began his career as a music journo, writing for legendary rock weekly Sounds, under the nom de plume Steve Keaton. His coverage of post punk music was cited in the 2015 British Library exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, as a seminal influence on the Goth music scene.
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