Much like TV and movies, streaming revolutionized music as well, with Spotify and Apple Music reigning supreme today. Although Apple Music is no longer the more popular of the two, it still boasts 78 million subscribers as of Q2 2021.
Home to more than 90 million songs (still besting Spotify’s 82 million), curated playlists, social listening tools, Apple exclusives, and quality features such as Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio and lossless audio, Apple Music shows no signs of giving up the fight. If you’re thinking of grabbing yourself a membership, we’ve broken down the fundamentals of the service to let you know what you can expect.
Like Spotify, Apple Music offers millions of streaming songs on demand. It also blends your personal music catalog with on-demand streaming and live radio, all in one place. At the moment, Apple offers a one-month free trial (or more if you buy eligible audio devices), and after the trial period, the service will cost you $10 per month for the Individual plan or $15 per month for a Family plan that accommodates up to six members.
Students will pay $6 per month, while a new-ish Voice plan, designed to optimize the functions of the Siri voice assistant, was announced last year and will run you $6 per month. Voice lacks premium features such as Spatial Audio, lossless audio, lyrics, and music videos, but the it may prove to be a desirable tier for no-nonsense subscribers.
All of the tracks in the 90 million-plus Apple Music catalog use the AAC format, a compressed, lossy file type that has significant technical advantages over the similar but older MP3. While these AAC files are good quality for most people, they’re not considered hi-res, nor are they lossless, which means that, in theory, they won’t sound as good as CD quality. To better compete with lossless music providers (outlined below), in June this year, Apple rolled out Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos and lossless audio for no additional cost to subscribers. Apple’s entire library of more than 90 million songs has been remastered for the Atmos experience and made available in the Apple lossless format, which the company says is a reproduction that preserves the quality of the original recording. Keep in mind, however, that streaming lossless will take up significantly more data and more hard drive space when downloading, and there are some things you need to know to maximize the listening experience.
Competing music services like Deezer, Tidal, and Amazon Music HD take a different approach to high-quality audio. They tout the sonic benefits of their lossless and hi-res FLAC files (available in their more expensive optional subscription tiers), which they claim are an improvement on any lossy formats, including AAC, regardless of how those AAC files were created. Spotify has been rumored to be imminently launching its Spotify HiFi lossless tier for ages, but so far nothing has materialized. It remains to be seen if they’ll upcharge for the feature or offer it free, like Apple. Either way, you’ll have to give them all a listen to see the differences and decide for yourself.
All that, and Apple Music boasts hand-curated playlists, 24/7 live radio stations, and even an adapted version of iTunes Match, which lets you store as many as 100,000 songs in the cloud. If you don’t sign up for Apple Music, you can still access limited playlists and music stored on your device.
There are several ways to get signed up for Apple Music. You can just download and open the Music app on your iOS device, Mac, or PC, or go to music.apple.com. Android users can download Apple Music for Android. If you aren’t automatically prompted to sign up, tap on the Listen now tab at the bottom of the app, and you should see the option to join. Regardless of which way you do it, follow the instructions to set up a family, individual, student, or (when available) the new voice account. On tvOS devices, you’ll use the Music app to access Apple Music streaming.
Before you dig in too deeply, we recommend turning off the auto-renewal following the trial period, unless, of course, Apple blows you away with its offering.
Five ways to play
Apple Music’s original format proved a bit too confusing for some users, and some of the features available at launch have since been removed (like Connect, a place for artists to share directly with fans). The result is a much cleaner user interface that’s easier to navigate.
The Music app has five individual sections: Listen Now, Browse, Radio, Library, and Search. At the bottom of the app, the Now Playing window is always visible, so you’re never more than a tap away from skipping tracks or sharing a song. Each section lets you access your music and that of the Apple Music service in a different way. Here’s how they work:
As the name suggests, this is your content. It’s the music you ripped from CDs and added to your device via the now-defunct iTunes, the music you purchased from the iTunes store, and any playlists you’ve created. But it’s also the repository for any Apple Music content that you’ve chosen to add to your library (just look for the + Add button beside albums and tracks). You can usually sort your collection by album, artist, or song. Adding tracks from Apple Music requires that the iCloud Music Library be enabled. The iCloud Music Library is the cloud-based storage that Apple uses to house the synchronized music offered by both Apple Music and iTunes Match. Though that is bound to confuse a lot of people, the important thing to remember is that if you are subscribed to Apple Music, you don’t need to also pay for iTunes Match — it’s effectively included in Apple Music.
As with services like Spotify, once you add a track or album to your library from Apple Music, you’ll see a cloud-plus-down-arrow icon that lets you download them for offline listening (as long as you maintain your Apple Music subscription). Want to avoid any music that requires streaming, perhaps to save on your mobile data usage or for a red eye flight? The Downloaded Music section of the library will show you just the tunes that are physically stored on your device.
Both the music you add from Apple Music, as well as the tunes you’ve synced, will generate Apple Music suggestions as you navigate the library. When you select an album, artist, or song and then choose See more, the Music app will show you all of the relevant matches found in Apple Music. From there, you can add more albums or tracks to your library, making it easier to find your favorites later.
One odd aspect of the library is that although it categorizes your music by playlist, song, artist, and album, it doesn’t show music videos as a category, even though these can be added and downloaded from Apple Music, too.
Thankfully, Apple offers steady improvements in this area. Most notably, the company made a small yet infinitely helpful tweak that groups alternate versions of the same album into one view. Think explicit versus non-explicit versions, deluxe editions, and so on, so you’re no longer inundated by confusing repeats as you scroll through the library.
Previously known as For You before the iOS 14 update, Listen Now is more or less the same idea — offering music suggestions based on your likes and your listening habits. When you first enter, you’ll be presented with a series of questions and selections that help you designate your musical tastes, starting with genres like rock, classic rock, jazz, and hip-hop. Nothing you do here is permanent; you can change it at any time.
The result is a series of customized suggestions that aim to surface music from Apple’s collection that you might like. These suggestions range from albums in genres in which you’ve shown interest to playlists that are themed around the time of day. We checked out the Listen Now tab around 3:30 p.m. and were greeted by a series of upbeat playlists under the general heading of Got Off Early? You can also expect to see suggestions inspired by