In the world of music streaming, two names have reigned supreme: Spotify and Apple Music. While the latter once wore the crown as the most subscribed-to music streaming service in the U.S., with, as of 2021, roughly 40-million paying subscribers, the Cupertino behemoth recently gave way to Spotify, which has experienced substantial growth in the past year, now topping 45-million American subs.
But there’s certainly no shame in coming in second when your main competition boasts a whopping 165 million worldwide subscribers, and Apple Music still holds its own as a powerhouse music streamer. Home to more than 90 million songs (still besting Spotify’s 70 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 three-month free trial, 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 $5 per month, while a new $5 “Voice” plan was just announced, which is supposedly designed to optimize the functions of the Siri voice assistant. Available in late October, it lacks premium features such as Spatial Audio, lossless audio, lyrics, and music videos, but the Voice plan may prove to be a desirable tier for no-nonsense subscribers. Lastly, Apple also offers a lesser-known annual plan for $99, which will save you $21 a year, and if you’re in the market for a new Apple device, like the new AirPods 3, you can get six months of Apple Music free.
All of the tracks in the 90 million+ 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 roll 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 is rumored to be imminently launching its Spotify HiFi lossless tier for its premium subscribers. 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. The other way is via the separate iTunes Store app. At the very bottom of the Music tab, you’ll see a section called Music Quick Links. The first is usually a trial offer for Apple Music.
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.
If you have no interest in an Apple Music subscription, you can simply go to Settings, then Music, and click Don’t Show Apple Music — you’ll still get to listen to Apple Music’s Pandora-style radio stations, with up to six skips. The music loaded on your device will also show up in your Library section.
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: Library, Listen Now, Browse, Radio, 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. 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 light 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 to “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 vs. 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 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 buzzing artists, upcoming holidays, and other dynamic circumstances that Apple thinks would go perfectly with a little music.
This section of the Music app is like a magazine. It’s an editorially curated collection of sections, like Trending, Music by Mood, Daily Top 100, Just Updated, etc. Unlike traditional browse sections in music streaming apps, which focus exclusively on letting you drill down into the content via categories like artist or genre, Apple Music’s browse is more reminiscent of the homepage of the company’s App Store — hand-picked suggestions which help you discover something new from among that massive 50 million-track music vault. You can still browse by traditional categories if you like, it’s just that the Music app buries these options further down in the browse section.
What gets highlighted will partially depend on your listening habits and likes, but much like the Listen Now section, it has a time-of-day component, too. Around the noon hour, we were offered up a collection of playlists under the heading “Hit the Gym.” We’d probably have preferred one called “Making Lunch,” but then again, the gym inspiration is probably healthier.
You will start to notice that Apple Music tends to double up on the names that it likes. For instance, within the Hit the Gym playlist group, we found a 50-song playlist called Pop Workout. And yet, that’s also the name of an Apple Music radio station, which features much of the same content.
Speaking of radio …
Included with your Apple Music subscription is access to Apple Music 1, the company’s live streaming radio station staffed by expert music DJs. Much like live streaming TV, the Apple Music 1 schedule is a collection of shows that run 24/7 which you can listen to live, or on-demand after they air. The available archive of Apple Music 1 content, including interviews, shows, and special segments, is now incredibly deep. Some of these shows feel like podcasts, while others follow more traditional formats.
The Radio section of the Music app is where this live streaming and on-demand Apple Music 1 content can be found, but it’s also home to Apple Music’s selection of genre-based radio stations like Pop Workout, which we mentioned earlier.
These genre radio stations are a lot like terrestrial radio since the music keeps playing as long as you keep listening, but of course, there are no ads and no live DJs. They’re just like endless playlists (which also means you’re bound to run into some weird and funky stuff if you let it run long enough, not that that’s a bad thing).
As of iOS 13, the Apple Music app can also be used to access over 100,000 traditional terrestrial radio stations too, even if your device doesn’t support iOS 13. These are provided via radio aggregators like TuneIn, Radio.com, and iHeartRadio. Unfortunately, they’re very hard to find.
The only way to access them is via the Search tab. You can’t browse them by genre or location, and even when you find one you like, there’s no way to favorite it for quick access later. If your device is Siri-equipped, like an iPhone or HomePod, you can ask Siri to play one of these radio stations by name. The best way to handle that is to Google some cool radio stations and see if any of them turn up on Apple Music. Feel free to draw some inspiration from our own collection of favorite radio stations.
This one is easy: Simply type anything you want into the search field, be it a song, artist, album, radio station name, or even just a few lines from some lyrics you heard when you were out with friends. If there’s a match in your collection or the Apple Music vault (including radio content), it will show up here. If you’re curious about what other Apple Music users are looking for, this tab will show a Twitter-like trending list, but without the hashtags.
But for a really rewarding search experience, try using Siri. You can ask for a variety of Apple Music-related things, like “Play Niki Minaj,” or simply “play me something upbeat,” and the Music app will dutifully respond with customized playlists based on your request.
The Now Playing window lets you control the playback of the current track, but it’s much more than play/pause and skip forward and back. Bringing up the full-screen version of the window shows you the relevant album cover for the track, but the real magic is in the three-dot contextual menu below the volume slider. Tapping those three dots gives you a wealth of additional options such as:
- Add to library: Adds the track to your Library tab
- Add to a playlist: Lets you add the track to an existing playlist or create a new one
- Create Station: Triggers the creation of a custom radio station based on the track’s genre and artist. This new station appears in the Listen Now tab for access later.
- Share Song: Shares the info for the track via iOS’s normal share options like Messages and Mail.
- Share Station: Same idea as Share Song, but customized to create a radio station.
- Lyrics: Displays the lyrics for the song in a new window. As of iOS 13, this now includes Live Lyrics, a karaoke-style feature that helps you follow along. Not every song is supported. Android users needn’t apply just yet.
- Love and Dislike: Tells Apple Music a bit more about your tastes in music so it can make better guesses in the future for suggested listening options.
Play on the web
In September 2019, Apple unleashed its web interface for those who want to jam out without their phone or those who can’t access a PC with Apple Music or iTunes installed. The web player is available for any modern browser you fancy, and it has everything you need to support your next house party, including access to your playlists and library.
Play music on your Apple Watch
Whether you’re running, working out, or commuting, the Apple Watch is a handy way to play and control Apple Music from your wrist. You can utilize Apple Music in a number of ways via Watch — you can play music stored on your Watch, controlling it using the digital crown; you can use the Watch to control music that is stored on your iPhone, and if you’re subscribed to Apple Music you can stream music to the Watch.
Follow your friends
A slightly hidden option within Apple Music is the ability to check in on the music your friends are listening to. Before you can do this, you need to activate your Apple Music profile by tapping on the person silhouette at the top of the Listen Now screen. After assigning yourself a user name and a public name, the Music app will take a look at your iOS contacts and figure which of your friends are also on Apple Music.
Those who have offered to let anyone follow them will show up first — and you can tap the follow button next to each of these — but you’ll also see your Apple Music friends who have not offered an open-follow option. For these contacts, you can tap an invite button, which then sends an encouragement to them via the usual sharing options. It’s not a very personal message — just an Apple Music URL — so you’ll have to make it a true invite yourself, otherwise, it will likely be ignored.
Once this is all set up, you can choose to be notified if and when your friends follow you, or when there are artist or live show events that Apple Music thinks you might be interested in.
Yep, there’s an EQ, but it’s pretty limited at the moment. You won’t be able to make individual adjustments across the sonic spectrum, as Apple limits you to a collection of presets. On iOS, you’ll need to venture outside the Apple Music app to access it, which can be annoying if you’re a genre-hopper. Find it in Settings > Music > EQ.
More ways to listen
Apple Music works on more than just iPhones. You can find the app for other devices like iPads, Macs, and the Apple Watch. It works on Apple TV. You can access the service via the iTunes app for Windows-based PCs, and your Apple Music subscription will work via Sonos and Amazon’s Echo family of smart speakers, not to mention Apple’s very own HomePod, which is the most natural pairing you’ll find, but you should steer clear if you aren’t using it with an Apple device. There’s also a version for Android, which now lets you stream Apple Music to any Chromecast device on your network.
So there you have it — Apple Music in a nutshell. It’s similar to services like Spotify and Pandora, but with plenty of unique features to help it stand out from the streaming crowd. Is it right for you? Only one way to find out, so grab the three-month free trial while you still can.