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In recent months music streaming has been all about Apple Music. Though official figures on who’s using it, and who may continue using it after a three-month trial are hazy, it’s safe to say it isn’t for everyone.
Fortunately, there are lots of other apps which allow you to access thousands more songs, by streaming them to your iPhone. Three of the apps featured here allow you to stream music free of charge, with limitations on what you can do and/or adverts between tracks. The fourth Amazon Music, enables access to music you’ve bought from Amazon, either as MP3 downloads or, in some cases, on CD.
Spotify is the most well-known streaming music, certainly here in Europe. The app allows you to sign into your account and stream music from your playlists. You can also browse Spotify’s curated playlists and listen to the music on them. And you can search for artists, albums, and songs and listen to those too.
Spotify also has a Radio section which recommends ‘stations’ based on music you have listened to. Stations are either artist or genre based. If you find one you like you can save it to come back to later.
If you have a free account, you’ll have to listen to adverts every few songs, and there are some limitations on the way the app works. For example, the offline feature of the premium service which allows you to download songs to listen to when you’re not connected to the Internet isn’t available without a subscription. Nevertheless, the library of available music is huge, the curated playlists, excellent, and at £9.99/ month, the premium service isn’t bad value at all.
Deezer is very similar to Spotify in that it allows you to stream music for free and it has a similar number of tracks available – 35 million to Spotify’s 30 million. It also places limitations on what you can do for free, and charges £9.99/ month for premium access.
Where Deezer differs from Spotify is in the way it recommends music for you to listen to. Deezer’s discovery tool is called Hear This and it creates a music feed of playlists, songs and albums it thinks you’ll like, based on your own listening habits and those of users with similar musical tastes.
Like Spotify, Deezer recommends artists it considers to be ‘similar’ to those you already listen to. Explore is similar to Spotify’s Browse, though doesn’t have the sheer number or variety of Spotify’s Browse playlists. Deezer also has themed radio stations.
Rdio works rather like iTunes Radio, the US-only Apple service which looks increasingly like it will never cross the Atlantic. Like iTunes Radio, Rdio uses a radio stations metaphor to manage the way you listen to music. The free version of the service allows you to stream ‘stations’ based on artists, albums, genres, or your friends’ music tastes. There are also curated stations, a bit like Spotify’s curated playlists, which are designed to fit different moods. Also like Spotify, the free version plays adverts between songs.
If you upgrade to Rdio Unlimited, you can get rid of the adverts and listen to individual tracks, albums, and playlists you’ve created, as well as stations.
Rdio Unlimited also allows you to download tracks for offline listening and costs £9.99 a month.
The Amazon Music app allows you to stream digital music you’ve bought from Amazon. It also allows you to stream selected albums you’ve bought on CD and which have been made available to you as a free digital download. If you’ve bought a lot of music from Amazon, it’s a handy way to access it without having to use iTunes or the iOS Music app. You can link up to 10 devices to your Amazon account and stream music from Amazon’s servers or download it to your device.
When you launch the app, you can choose to view the music available to you that’s stored in Amazon’s Cloud or that which is stored locally on your iPhone or iPad and available to listen to offline. The app also allows you to create playlists and view your music by artist, as well as album.
What about Last.Fm?
We haven’t included Last.FM here because it’s iOS app, Scrobble for Last.FM relies on iTunes. It makes connections on music you already have, either in the Music app or in iCloud, using data from the Last.FM service. That allows it to create new playlists, but isn’t in any way an escape from iTunes.
What about HD music?
The other limitation of the native Music app is that it is limited to playing AAC, MP3, and Apple Lossless formats. If you prefer formats such as FLAC or want to play music at higher sample rates and resolution than supported by iTunes, you’ll need a specialist music player. So called HD (high definition) music has gained a great deal of publicity in recent months thanks to services like Tidal, and to Neil Young’s PonoPlayer.
There are two elements to playing HD music on an iPhone or iPad, hardware and software. As well as music files mastered and encoded in a hi-res format, you need a software player which can play those files and a digital-to-analogue converter that can process them. The Music app in iOS won’t play HD music, and even when played through an app that supports hi-res formats, the chip in the iPhone which converts digital data to audio waves, won’t do it (you can find out more on that in this article on Mashable). So you need an external digital to audio converter, a software music player, and high-resolution music files. You’ll also need a very good pair of headphones.
Listening to music on your iPhone or iPad is all very well, but if you don’t use headphones, you’ll be stuck with the less than perfect speaker on the device. The solution is to use an external speaker and for that you have three choices. You could plug a speaker or amp into your iPhone or iPad, either using its headphone socket or its Lightning/ 30-pin connector. Or you could buy an AirPlay speaker. Tethered speakers are inconvenient, however, and AirPlay speakers are expensive.
By comparison with AirPlay, Bluetooth speakers are less expensive and offer a much greater choice. And while Bluetooth audio used to be distinctly iffy in quality, it is now more than a match for AirPlay. Bluetooth has a shorter range than wifi, so you need to be closer to the speaker, but if you’re listening to music you want to be in the same room as the speaker anyway.
Bluetooth speakers start at around £30 and go up to a few hundred pounds. As you would expect, the more you pay, the better the speaker sounds. Speakers at the very bottom end of the price range are designed to be easily portable and so have small speaker drivers. In the cheapest speakers, these produce a shrill, tinny sound that’s barely an improvement on the iPhone’s own speaker.
At around the £50 mark, quality improves and while the speakers are still small, they produce a bigger, fuller sound than the speaker on an iPhone or iPad. At around £80 you’ll find bigger speakers, sometimes with more than one driver – perhaps left, right, and a sub-woofer – and features such as the ability to use it as a speakerphone, re-chargeable battery, and weather-proofing. Audio fidelity is significantly better than the cheapest speakers.
As the price passes £100, you’ll find bigger speakers, designed to be kept on a worktop, desk, or bookshelf. As you would expect, these produce and much bigger, fuller sound, with more detail and a wider frequency range. Beyond that, audio fidelity tends to improve steadily, and you’ll find big-name hi-fi manufacturers like Bose and Bang & Olufsen.
Which Bluetooth speaker you choose depends on your needs. If you want a speaker to use in the garden or beach, choose one with a re-chargeable battery and good weather-proofing. We like Braven’s 705 and TDK’s Trek MAX. If you plan to use it only indoors, choose a bigger speaker and pay a little bit more, for example, the Bose SoundLink Color is a great speaker. For a little bit more money, Denon’s Envaya and Ultimate Ears’ Boom won’t disappoint.