App

If you’re frustrated by Apple’s built-in Music app, try these excellent alternatives

In the early days of the iPhone, there was an iPod app, which was designed purely to let you browse, search and play music you’d synced to your device. These days, you get the feeling Apple’s trying to railroad you into Apple Music, shoehorning your local music collection into a single tab within the Music app.

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Although you can hide iCloud Music (Settings app > Music > turn off Show Apple Music), thereby at least getting a Playlists tab back, we wanted to find some music app experiences that improved on Apple’s own, especially if you mostly use your iPhone for playing music synced to it from iTunes.

Here are our favorites…

Ecoute

Best for quick playback

$0.99/79p • v2.4.4 • 3.0 MB • By Julien Sagot

Opening with a grid of album art (and happily integrating iCloud Music Library if you use that service), Ecoute immediately feels welcoming. Using the Filters button, you can switch the main view from albums to instead show artists, compilations, composers, genres, playlists or individual songs. Whatever your choice, the grid is your main way into your music collection.

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Even with hundreds of albums on your iPhone, Ecoute’s scrolling is responsive. Tap an album to access its tracklisting; cover art is displayed above. Neatly, if an album has many songs, the cover art is reduced to a recognizable sliver, giving you faster access to titles to tap rather than forcing you to scroll. Tap a song and it starts playing.

Ecoute includes a mini-player at the foot of the screen, which has a play/pause button and accepts gestural swipes to skip tracks. Tap it and you access fullscreen playback controls, with cover art and all the usual buttons. This screen also accepts swipes for skipping tracks, and includes buttons for various functions, such as loading lyrics, sharing what’s playing, and checking out upcoming tracks. This list can be edited — handy if you want to remove the odd track from an album or playlist. You can also add new items, although they annoyingly appear before what’s already in the list.

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There are other quirks, too, notably the Shuffle button on the main screen turning on — but not off — track shuffles. Disabling shuffle requires a trip to the fullscreen controls. Also, the lack of always visible letter buttons in the main browsing screen can slow down navigating very large collections; fortunately, an efficient search is just a downwards drag away, and a letter bar can be accessed by dragging inwards from the right-hand edge.

Overall, though, Ecoute is a fresh, focused and affordable music player that’s very pleasant to use. And if you do grab a copy, check out its menu in the Settings app, which houses quite a few options, including themes, hiding iCloud music, and replacing the default grid view with a list.

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TapTunes

Best for rediscovering your collection

$1.99/£1.49 • v6.1.2 • 19.8 MB • By David Blundell

This one also starts off with a grid view, but it’s subtly different from Ecoute. Instead of albums being listed alphabetically, they’re randomised, and you can tap the refresh button at the top-right of the screen to reshuffle them. This might alarm very organized music fans, but we found it great for delving into a collection rather than playing the same old stuff. A big + button further helps in this area, enabling you to shuffle your entire collection or play a random album. (Note: animation that sees album covers lazily scroll upwards can be stilled in the app’s settings.)

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The app has some modern smarts by way of 3D Touch Peek and Pop to, respectively, preview an album’s tracks or open the album. More conventional selection is also available by way of the search field, which enables you to find something by way of keywords, or using tabs that list your collection by the likes of artist and album.

Regardless of how you select an album, you’ll end up on a tracklisting screen, with a ‘⋮’ menu that cleverly provides speedy access to other albums by the same artist, and an option for shuffling all their tracks. However, we found it irritating that when you tap a song, TapTunes immediately loads fullscreen controls. You therefore can’t tap a few titles to play them, without bouncing back and forth between two screens. You can swipe the mini-player to switch tracks (although there’s no play pause), but even so: hmm.

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Still, that gripe aside, we like TapTunes a lot. For anyone with a big collection and a tendency to only listen to a fraction of it, this app could be transformative.

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Cesium

Best for kicking it old-school

$1.99/£1.49 • v3.5.1 • 3.2 MB • By Mike Clay

Initially, Cesium feels a lot like greeting an old friend. Sure, it visually looks like a modern and swish iOS 9 app, but it feels like Apple’s own Music app, prior to the Apple Music hostile takeover. So what you get is a bunch of tabs for quickly switching between artists, albums, songs and playlists, each of which loads an efficient, speedy list view. Should you want to delve into genres, audiobooks, composers or the app’s settings, tap More.

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On selecting an album, you get a tracklisting screen that resembles Ecoute’s and pleasingly lets you tap to play individual tracks without loading fullscreen controls. The mini-player is the only slightly duff component — it has a play/pause button but no gestural skip capabilities. Fortunately, you can use the settings to change the button on the right to ‘skip next’.

When you do venture into the fullscreen controls (tap the mini-player), it’s devoid of cruft. The visual design is far less busy than what you get in rival apps, featuring larger art and no messing about with transparency effects. We like it a lot. This screen also gives you a bunch of buttons: repeat; info; queue; volume; shuffle.

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The info button’s a means of accessing song information, but also acts as a quick way to browse tracks by the artist or in the same genre. The queue, though, is a tiny slice of genius. It shows upcoming tracks (usually the rest of the current album or playlist), is editable (so you can move or delete items) and shows the remaining time left to play. But brilliantly, it also retains previously played item names in memory, so you can nip back and find out what that great song was that you heard a while ago. It’s also possible to add to the playlist by dragging tracks or albums all the way to the left in list views. New items are added to the end of the queue, as nature intended.

In many ways, Cesium is our favorite iPhone music player. It’s great for clarity and has some really smart features. If it added gestural controls to the mini-player, it would be just about perfect.

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iAudioGate

Best for high-end audio

$19.99/£14.99 • v2.1.0 • 43.9 MB • By KORG INC

Open Korg’s music player and you’re faced with a reassuringly expensive dark interface — all black and grey with neon blue glowing icons. It feels a touch retro, subtly echoing a piece of real-world audio kit, which is clearly intentional.

Tap the iPod tab and iAudioGate broadly mirrors the previous two items in this round-up. You switch between tabs to access playlists, artists and songs, and get the usual tracklisting and fullscreen controls views. But on playing a track, it’s evident there are some differences.

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iAudioGate does that ‘immediately flicking to fullscreen controls’ thing we find so irritating, but the screen itself is interesting. You get format and quality information about the current track, and there’s an equalizer button. Activate the equalizer and you can play with sliders to your heart’s content. Korg gives you some presets for boosting bass, treble or vocals, but you can create and save your own. There’s also a gain dial for ramping up the volume.

One thing Korg’s keen on noting about iAudioGate is that it features the company’s proprietary playback engine. This purports to upsample and “reproduce your favorite music with higher quality”. During testing, this didn’t seem to make any difference with compressed MP3s and AACs, but the app also supports high-res formats such as FLAC. There, pristine ears will detect superior quality audio, and everything we chucked at the app played well. Getting high-res tracks into iAudioGate is a minor pain though — you either upload them using iTunes or add them one at a time from iCloud Drive or Dropbox. Quite why there’s no way to grab entire folders of files from cloud storage, we’ve no idea. Additionally, we should note this app appears to ignore iCloud Music Library and choke on downloaded files from that service.

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So this is one for audiophiles with local files, and is priced accordingly for the enthusiast. If you just want something to play an existing collection of MP3s or AACs, iAudioGate’s overkill. But if you’re the kind of person who thrives on high-end audio and are willing to brave iTunes to upload a collection, this app’s worth a shot.

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Also consider…

Picky

$2.99/£2.29 • 1.9 MB • v2.9 • By Charles Joseph

The ‘best of the rest’, Picky broadly echoes Cesium. It’s perhaps a touch less elegant, but has some interesting features, such as filtering the artists list to those with a minimum number of tracks (great for weeding out singles), and superb queuing functionality.

Download Picky

Musicloud

Free • 35.6 MB • v1.4 • By BPMobile

This free app took an age to get going the first time we opened it; but once Musicloud sorts itself out, it’s pretty great. The interface is usable, there’s an equalizer, and it supports FLAC files, which can be imported from Dropbox.

Download MusiCloud

Marvis

Free • 24.3 MB • v5.0 • By Aditya Rajveer

Another impressive freebie, Marvis is a touch fiddly to use (tiny tabs at the top of the screen), but has a slew of settings if you enjoy customizing your music player experience.

Download Marvis

Musixmatch

Free • 43.7 MB • v6.2.1 • By musiXmatch srl

Using Apple Music or Spotify as a base, Musixmatch is all about finding and syncing lyrics to what’s currently playing. The lyrics are displayed boldly, although they’re not always accurate.

Download Musixmatch