While Apple has outgrown the iPod, music is still a big deal for them 16 years later. Apple Music launched in 2015 in response to the rise of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, who were also eroding the iTunes Music Store where Apple had been selling individual albums and songs for over a decade. How does Apple Music shape up three years later, against some pretty stiff competition?
Deep integration into the Apple device ecosystem: Apple Music is featured on every iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV; it's the default music app for Apple CarPlay; and it's the only music streaming app available on the Apple Watch and the HomePod smart speaker. If you're committed to buying Apple devices, you'd better like Apple Music, because in some cases you won't have any other choices (though Spotify is rumored to be coming to the Apple Watch this year).
Interesting playlist and radio options: While checking out the Browse tab, we stumbled across a playlist assembled in collaboration with famed chef and author Anthony Bourdain. But it wasn't just a sampling of his usual punk rock. It was specifically based on one episode of his CNN show Parts Unknown, where he visited the state of Virginia. It's impressive to get a snapshot of a moment in time like this, blending regional musical tastes with his own, and it's something we haven't quite seen from any other streaming service.
Compelling video content: Apple Music is the only place to stream Carpool Karaoke, a segment of The Late Late Show where its host James Corden drives around town with a famous artist and they sing along to songs on the radio. It's been hugely popular and is very charming. (Disclosure: The Late Late Show and Download.com are owned by the same parent company.) And like Tidal, there's a selection of live concert videos from famous artists like Sam Smith, Taylor Swift, and Skepta. However, we would like to see some sorting options to help us navigate this section.
Then Apple Music has a separate section dedicated to music videos, which uses the same navigation as the regular music streaming section, with playlists, genres, and a feed of the latest content. That might not be compelling on a phone or tablet, but you can stream it to a nearby Apple TV that's on the same Wi-Fi network.
Potentially confusing blend with the iTunes Music Store: Apple hasn't forgotten about your past iTunes purchases and integrates them deeply into Apple Music. These old purchases heavily influence the service's recommendation system, since it has little else to work with, which can make the day-one experience frustrating for explorers if you have a pile of old iTunes purchases that you're no longer interested in.
Limited settings: When you compare the customization options of Apple Music with a more established competitor like Spotify, some differences emerge pretty quickly. Apple's penchant for minimalism and "it just works" simplicity doesn't always click, and the struggle to mold your Apple Music experience is a good example.
In the app's settings, you can't adjust the stream quality, nor does Apple Music even tell you what bitrate it's using. There are also no notification controls. And you can't filter out explicit content. Instead of an equalizer, you get a list of audio presets that require trial-and-error because it doesn't show you the EQ bands.
That said, the stream quality and presets should be good enough for non-audiophiles, based on our testing.
Opaque settings: There's a Volume Limit toggle, which is pretty self-explanatory. But just below that is another setting called "Sound Check," with no details about what it does. After some Googling, we found an Apple Support page with this statement: "Use Sound Check in iTunes to make song volume consistent. Turn on Sound Check in iTunes to make all of your songs play at the same volume." So it's audio normalization. But there aren't any normalization levels to choose from; it's just on or off.
If Apple Music was newly launched, some quirks would be expected here, but the service is nearly three years old at this point, and it should have a better spread of features.
Overall, Apple Music caters more to people with pre-defined tastes who want a drop-in answer to their needs, while Spotify is arguably better at encouraging discovery and tailoring your audio settings.