Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Beats Music: The music service for people who don't know what they want to listen to (hands-on)

When you create your profile, you start by selecting some favorite genres and artists.
(Credit: Beats Music)
Audiophiles and anybody who doesn't care for overhyped, celebrity-endorsed products often have disparaging words for Beats by Dre headphones, which have enjoyed remarkable success in recent years despite their high prices.
Love 'em or hate 'em, one thing is clear: With a clever branding campaign and some smart strategic partnerships, Beats helped ignite the headphone explosion we're seeing today. It demonstrated that mainstream consumers, not just
business-class travelers buying Bose noise-canceling headphones, were willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a set of cans, even if they really couldn't afford it. What a revelation!
Now the company has launched a subscription music service, Beats Music. It shares much in common with other leading subscription music services, all of which feature very similar catalogs of over 20 million songs, thanks to deals that have been struck with the same music labels. Like Spotify and Rdio, Beats Music charges $9.99 a month to "rent" all the music you want and either store music on your mobile device for "offline" listening or stream it unfettered with an Internet connection from your mobile device or desktop.
However, while Beats Music has some limited free streaming options available at launch, including a seven-day trial, it's being billed as pay-only "premium" service. So this isn't Pandora or iTunes Radio, which are currently built around free streaming with restrictions placed on the number of songs you can skip (Spotify and Rdio also have free streaming options).
No, Beats Music is a slightly different beast, with an interface that's geared toward more passive music listeners who are looking for a more automated discovery experience. While ultimately its biggest innovation may once again be the way it markets itself to the world, it's good to see that Beats has put forth something a little different, even if it's still very much a work in progress.
Beats Music does some things very well -- let's call them strengths. But like any new service, it's also got some kinks to work out and could do some things better -- let's call them "areas that could be improved."
With that in mind, here's a quick look at the things I like about Beats Music and the things that I think could be spiffed up.


1. It thinks for you
Beats has designed the service to appeal to people who aren't quite sure what they want to listen to next and don't want to have to think about it too much. So you start out by selecting some genre and artist preferences and the service starts learning your tastes and making playlist recommendations based on those tastes under the "Just for You" tab. As with other services, you can then express your approval or disapproval for certain songs to further refine your tastes and get better recommendations.
Under a separate tab labeled "The Sentence," you can select certain words that fit your mood and create a sentence. It can end up sounding a little silly. For instance: "I'm in a field and feel like cleaning with your mom to the 80s." (That sentence yielded Barry Manilow's "Let's Hang On" as the first track in the playlist). It's a fun way to put an accessible interface over some filters, but I wouldn't call it revolutionary.
2. Lots of curated playlists
Beats is touting its strong curation as one of the selling points of its services. Under the direction of Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor, Beats' "chief creative officer," it's lined up a bunch of the "best experts in music," which includes publications, radio stations, and even gyms such as Equinox (disclaimer: I am a member) and retailers such as Target to "handpick" albums, artists, and playlists for you. Though Spotify and Rdio, which has a strong social-media backbone, also serve up plenty of ready-made playlists, Beats has doubled down on offering up a plethora of them (you can also search for playlists under Activities such as "Breaking Up," "Being Blue," and "Cooking"). Another options is to create a custom playlist yourself and choose to share it publicly or keep it private. In the Highlights section, I also liked the "Influences" playlists where publications such as Rolling Stone create playlists around a hit singer or band's influences.
You can create some weird moods with the Sentence feature.
(Credit: Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET)
3. Full album saves
With Rdio, you can save a full album (instead of just a single) and it'll show up in your library as a full album. With Spotify, the only way to store an album separately in your library is to save it as a playlist, which is kind of irritating. With Beats, you can add full albums to your library and they appear as albums.
4. 320Kbps MP3 playback
If you're wondering what bit rate Beats plays back at, it's 320Kbps, which is the same as Spotify for premium subscribers (you can choose to stream at a lower bit rate if you wish). The only difference is Beats uses the MP3 codec while Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis. Some say Ogg sounds best at higher bit rates, but it's hard to tell the difference. One of these days, we'll attempt to run some listening tests to determine which music service sounds best, but for now my gut reaction is that they're pretty comparable and vary from track to track (it really depends on how well tracks were recorded).
The 'Just for You' tab delivers customized content geared to your tastes.
(Credit: Beats Music)
5. Available on Sonos at launch
If you own a Sonos multiroom wireless audio system, Beats Music is now integrated into it via the app (you have to download the Beats Music app on your Android or iOS smartphone and sign up for the service for it to work). In some ways, I liked how the Beats Music interface looked on my Sonos controller app better than the way it looked on my iPhone because it was stripped of all the extra flair.
6. Family-friendly pricing
Perhaps Beats Music's biggest selling point is its family plan, which it's offering through AT&T. For $14.99, up to five family members can use the service on up to 10 devices (that means members of your family can create up to five user profiles). You currently get the first three months free and then the $14.99 is automatically added to your AT&T bill each month.

Areas that could be improved

1. Too many playlists
When I spoke to Beats Music CEO Ian Rogers a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I sometimes felt that Spotify was trying to hide new releases (or at least make them harder to find). Rogers promised that wouldn't be the case with Beats Music. He said that under the "Find it" section if you searched under a particular genre, the first thing you would get is new releases in that genre. In the early going at least, when you search by genre, you simply get more playlists and no new releases. I'm going to take Rogers at his word and assume we'll see more new releases surface in due time, but at launch, I ended up experiencing some ready-made playlist fatigue.
2. Offline mode needs work
I think Beats may be ahead on curated content but behind in the very important area of offline listening. Offline listening on my mobile phone (or tablet) is one of the main reasons I pay the $9.99 a month for a music service. Rdio does a really good job with this (to save an album for offline listening, you simply press and hold on the album cover and a "Sync to mobile" button pops up, allowing you to save the album for offline listening). Spotify is pretty good, too.
To me, the term "offline" doesn't resonate all that well and can be confusing to people, especially ones who are new to the whole music subscription service thing. It's also worth mentioning that with the Beats Music app when you swipe the toggle button to make something available offline, the whole window gets swiped over and you're not sure whether you did something wrong. (There are a few other small problems with the interface and navigation that will require tweaking, but in all it's pretty user friendly).
Beats Music apps will also be available for Windows and Android smartphones, but there isn't a native iPad app at launch.
(Credit: Beats Music)
3. Buggy
Though the version of the Beats iOS app is listed as 1.01, I would still call this beta software. After I logged in and signed in to the official app, the app ended up working for several hours and then it started kicking me back to the start page where it asked me to select my music preferences and artists again. This is a new service, so Beats is obviously contending with an influx of users, but expect to encounter some bugs.
Services like Rdio and Spotify have the advantage of having been out for a while (both are over two years old), so they've had a chance to work out a lot of the kinks as well as add new features. Now that Beats has launched, expect those services to counter with new features and improvements of their own (Spotify is reportedly in the process of revamping its interface).
4. No native iPad app at launch
While Beats is offering apps for Android and Windows smartphones at launch (the Windows app will be available January 24), there's no native iPad app at launch, and no Kindle Fire app. I also wasn't able to test the desktop app yet.


Despite some bugs and small shortcomings, Beats Music has an appealing interface and some features -- particularly its emphasis on curated playlists and $14.99 family plan through AT&T -- that help differentiate it from its competitors. In the short term, while I have my doubts that it will steal users away from the likes of Rdio and Spotify, it has an opportunity to attract plenty of customers who are new to subscription music services and it will certainly improve over time.
As the service is updated, I'll update my review, and put a rating on it after I feel Beats Music has truly come out of the beta stage.

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