Beats Music (for iPhone) review

Beats Music (for iPhone) has several well-curated playlists, but a few gimmicky features and a questionable user-interface sullies the experience a bit.
Photo of Beats Music (for iPhone)

The youth-oriented audio company associated with lauded hip-hop producer Dr. Dre attempts to become a major player in the streaming music space with the recently released Beats Music for Android and iOS (reviewed here). The new service (free-to-use for 7 days, $9.99 per month afterward) specializes in curated playlists you create by selecting favorite artists/genres or by completing a Mad Libs-like questionnaire that gauges your mood. Beats Music, to its credit, dares to be a bit different. Unfortunately, many of the extra features are gimmicky instead of useful. Still, if you’re a themed-playlist junkie, there’s a lot to like.

Note: Beats Music has a special deal with AT&T that allows the carrier’s users to take advantage of a $14.99 per month five-person family plan that grants unlimited streaming and offline listening to 10 devices. This is a steal for households filled with diehard music fans.

Getting Started
You begin by creating a dedicated Beats Music account or by logging in with your Facebook or Twitter credentials. Beats Music then prompts you to select favorite genres and artists by tapping colored, labeled bubbles so that it may serve up a playlist mix that will please your ears. It’s a novel way to seed music recommendations. In fact, I preferred Beats Music’s method to Slacker Radio’s (our current Editors’ Choice pick) traditional channel-building method, which consists of keying in a single artist name/genre. Beats’ method offers greater opportunity to define your playlists.

After I selected The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Funkadelic, and other bass-heavy bands and genres, Beats Music presented me a collection of playlists in the “Just For You” home screen that included “Michael Jackson: The 1970s,” “Philly Soul Party,” and “James Brown: 1950s & 1960s.” It was exactly the mix I hoped to receive. What’s interesting about this “Just For You” section—it’s updated four times a day with fresh content based on users’ musical preferences, time of day, and other factors. I was quite pleased with the discovery aspect—Beats Music pushed artists, albums, and playlists to the home screen without requiring any work on my part. Convenience is a helluva drug.

That said, Beat Music’s interface could use some retooling. As you move from section to section by swiping left or right, it’s very easy to accidentally open the side panels that house My Playlist (where your created playlists live), My Library (where you’ll find music cached for offline playback), Search, and other options. Also, Beat Music’s different sections have different layouts (with different fonts!) which give the app a very inconsistent feel other than the color scheme. On top of that, Beat Music’s home screen is quite busy and difficult to read at times. The layout could be streamlined a bit.

The Big Playback
The sounds of Michael Jackson, Otis Redding, and some of my other favorite artists sounded super-crisp when I listened to their tracks using a pair of Sennheiser G4ME ZERO headphones—once you enable the 320 Kbps MP3 “high-quality” streaming option (otherwise the app will stream tunes at just 64 Kbps HE-AAC). Warning: High-quality streaming will devour your data plan, so you may want to set Beats Music to only stream at that bitrate when your phone is connected to a Wi-Fi signal.

As a track plays, a large circle (reminiscent of the iconic Beats logo) begins to fill with the familiar red color. This isn’t just a way to show a song’s runtime and promote the Beats Music brand; you can also tap anywhere within the circle and jump to a different part of the track—a nice touch. Unfortunately, the circle obscures the album art, which is disappointing to music fans like me who dig the visual element.

As with other streaming music services, Beats Music lets you favorite or ban songs to help the service determine the type of music to play in the future. What’s unusual here is the option to loop songs, which can prove extremely useful when playing “Eye of the Tiger” at the gym.

Other Features
Another standout feature is “The Sentence.” With it, you select words to form a sentence that represents your mood so that Beats Music plays the appropriate audio. When I constructed “I’m in bed & feel like making bad choices with no pants on to New Wave,” Beats Music served up Depeche Mode, New Order, Haircut 101, and other New Wave bands. It was the upbeat soundtrack I needed to power me through the early morning. It’s gimmicky—I could have just as easily found a New Wave playlist—but it works well.

The “Highlights” section features curated playlists that are designed to give you a deeper dive into an artist or genre. For example, “Richard Sherman: Straight…” highlights the outspoken cornerback’s favorite hip-hop tracks. The playlists remind me of Slacker Radio’s many themed stations, but without the bonus of DJs to add supplemental information and context.

These curated playlists come courtesy of Alternate Press, Pitchfork, Revolver, Rolling Stone, XXL Magazine, Hot 97, and other music notables (in fact, you can click on a curator’s name to see all of the playlists that curator has put together). If you want to learn a bit about an artist’s catalog, those playlists are a fine place to start. If you want to know more about music history, you may want to download Slacker Radio.

In addition, “Find It” offers over 30 curated genres and dozens of curated playlists (such as “Waking Up” and “Starting a Riot”). On the topic of playlists, you can make your own at any time. Tapping the “+” icon lets you add a song to a playlist, or download it (as well as entire albums) to your library for offline playback. However, you will not find song lyrics or live radio, which are Slacker Radio’s staples.

The Beat Goes On
I had my initial reservations about Beats Music due to its interface, disrespect for album art, and lack of a free feature (especially when Rdio, Slacker, and Spotify all have no-cost entries to their services). However, the app grew on me—a lot. Beats Music makes discovering intriguing albums and playlists extremely simple. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a focus on individual, new releases—it could use something like Slacker’s News and Trending. Still, it’s an exciting product and one that music fans should keep an eye on as it evolves over time. AT&T subscribers with a large household have an extra incentive to check Beats Music out, of course, as they get such a great deal on it. 


Verdict
Beats Music (for iPhone) has several well-curated playlists, but a few gimmicky features and a questionable user-interface sullies the experience a bit.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc