When Apple acquired Beats, it took a big library of songs that became the Apple Music streaming service you know today. It’s big, and there’s a lot to hear, so is it worth spending money on?
Unlike a competitor like Spotify, Apple Music isn’t built on a “freemium” model, meaning if you’re not subscribed, you don’t get to access the service’s huge catalogue of over 70 million songs. But Apple does try to give you enough time to work the service into your daily routine to get you subscribing afterward.
Starting in June 2021, Apple expanded its streaming service to include spatial audio with support for Dolby Atmos, plus lossless music capable of playing at up to 24-bit/192khz, all at no extra cost. There is a catch to all that, as I’ll explain further down.
Not surprisingly, Apple prioritizes its own devices first, so you can listen to music on an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Mac, Apple TV, Apple Watch, HomePod and in the car through CarPlay. Some older devices won’t be able to do it, like the original iPad, for instance, but support is pretty widespread for anything with an Apple logo on it.
Some non-Apple devices also work. There’s an Android app, which works on just about any Android device running version 5.0 or later. Sonos integrates it into its app for its speakers as well. If a device doesn’t natively support Apple Music, but does have AirPlay 2, that’s one way to playback content on it.
Though iTunes has been discontinued for all of Apple’s products, there is a Windows PC version. That software, compatible with Windows 7/8/10, still holds access for both downloaded or purchased music and the streaming service itself.
In fact, that marriage of content applies to the Music app on other devices as well, though Apple tries to integrate the two as much as possible. If you’ve saved your music files to your iCloud Music Library, you can access both pretty seamlessly.
For Dolby Atmos and lossless tracks, you do need to have the requisite gear to get them. Apple’s streaming service automatically plays Dolby Atmos tracks (you will see a label designating them) on AirPods and Beats headphones equipped with an H1 or W1 chip. That also goes for built-in speakers in the (latest versions) iPhone, iPad, and Mac. You could get away with non-Apple headphones, but you may have to take an extra step to get the spatial audio to work with them.
Lossless tracks only work with wired headphones because you need a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) to handle these hi-res files. Phones, tablets and computers generally have DACs built-in, except they’re not all created equal. The higher you want to go in quality, the more likely you need to get a third-party DAC to connect between the headphones and your device.
Apple doesn’t offer a way to listen to the catalogue for free, but does give you something to play with without paying a dime. The Apple Music 1 (formerly Beats 1) radio station is available, regardless of whether you subscribe or not. Why Apple chose to make this available is understandable because of how unique it is. There are curated shows, sometimes run by artists, other times by good radio DJs, as well as special shows from time to time.
Beyond that, however, Apple isn’t giving you much for nothing. When you first sign up, you can start a free three-month trial for unfettered access to everything. There are times when Apple might offer more months to sweeten the deal. Other times, it may be through a partnership, like how Porsche offers an extra three months on top the trial for drivers.
If you already have an Apple ID, you can just use that to sign up. If you don’t, it’s free to create one. Apple breaks its service down to three different payment levels. Students can pay $4.99/month for access, whereas Individual accounts are $9.99/month. You will have to prove you’re a student, and there’s no sharing, either.
That’s because the Family plan at $14.99/month spreads out access for up to six people. They don’t necessarily have to be family members, though. If you have a few friends and family members willing to chip in, each of you gets a separate personal account, so there are no overlapping music preferences. If you want to share, you can through Family Sharing.
One of the benefits is downloading tracks to listen offline. This isn’t like the old iTunes, where you’re buying a song or album that you then own. These are cached to the device itself, and can’t be offloaded. The good thing is that when you listen offline, you’re not using any data. However, this won’t apply to Apple Music 1 or the 100,000+ Internet radio stations available. You will need to stream those when they’re live.
For Student and Individual accounts, you’re limited to streaming on one device at a time. You can register up to five devices per account. If you run out of space, remove one to add it.
As a subscriber (or on trial), you can play music by voice through Alexa and Siri — but not Google Assistant. It works pretty well, where you can go by song, artist, album and playlist. Siri works a little better on Apple devices, whereas Alexa is fine as an option on everything else. For instance, any Sonos smart speaker will understand what you want. Same with Amazon’s own Echo speakers. Your results may vary with other non-Apple speakers.
In the car, Siri isn’t bad for CarPlay, though Android Auto is a bit stuck because Google Assistant can’t get Apple’s app to do anything. You have to manually select what you want to play.
Apple Music differs from other streamers in that it uses a 256kbps bitrate with the AAC codec. By default, it compresses that to save on data when you’re streaming on a cellular connection. On Wi-Fi, it sticks to a higher setting.
You can toggle it on for both by going to the 3-dot menu at the top right>Settings>High quality on mobile data. Beware doing this if you’re worried about using too much. On average, a steady hour of listening could eat up 1GB. Also, be careful if Downloads is toggled on or not. When off, you can only download tracks for offline listening on Wi-Fi. If you’re ever wondering how much data Music takes up, go to Settings>Cellular and scroll down to find out on your iOS device.
There are also music videos and other visual content on the app, so it’s not just music. Video takes up far more data, as it is, so be careful when streaming those. On Wi-Fi, it’s obviously fine, so long as you’re on a fast enough connection to avoid buffering.
While Dolby Atmos may not take up anymore data than you would otherwise need to stream, lossless tracks are considerably larger — as much as 4x larger — so streaming those can eat away at your data bucket quickly.
This service is interesting in that it uses human curators more than algorithms. Featured playlists were likely put together by editors behind the scenes, though some elements, like the “For You” tab may be populated by algorithmic choices.
If you want to make a change in how the music sounds, you can use the rudimentary equalizer on iOS devices by going to Settings>Music>EQ and choosing what you want. For Android, it will depend on whether your device offers an EQ or not. Even if it does, it may only apply to music files, not streaming music services.
For all its merits, Apple can’t seem to get the interface just right. I find it messy and confusing to navigate at times. Especially when I compare it to Spotify or Tidal, which always feel smoother to me.
At the same time, Apple has some music that’s not available to others. Check your favourite artists and there may be albums, remixes or studio sessions you haven’t seen elsewhere. As an Apple user, it makes sense to give Music a try because of the integration. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the best fit. With 90 days to test it, you have plenty of time to gauge it yourself. You’ll know by then if it’s for you or not.