Beats Music Review: Don’t Forget About Dre

by Reads (7,694)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Design
      • 7
      • Performance
      • 7
      • Total Score:
      • 7.00
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Very good at recognizing your taste in music
    • Filled with thoughtfully-crafted playlists
    • Warm, easy setup process
  • Cons

    • Some inconsistent and irritating design quirks
    • Desktop version limited compared to mobile app
    • Could be better at introducing new artists

Quick Take

Beats Music may be late to the music streaming game, but it's got more personality than its competitors from day one.

Beats Music, the latest venture from hip-hop-star-turned-electronics-mogul Dr. Dre and Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine, understands that music is supposed to be a human thing. It’s a music streaming service that thinks that music streaming services have kind of ruined the way we consume the art. It’s a stylish, celebrity-backed platform that wants to free our ears from the algorithms and formulas that increasingly shape our taste, and reignite a more intimate, interpersonal sense of music discovery instead. “Music genome” just sounds so cold and mechanical, it argues — wouldn’t you like your gateway to one of humanity’s greatest forms of expression to feel more…alive?

Beats Music, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, software, music, streamingIt’s a noble pursuit, but one that’s arriving long after the Spotifys and Pandoras of the world left their computer-generated mark. We’ve been jamming with the service — which is now available on Android, iOS, and Windows Phone — for the past week, so let’s run down whether or not Beats Music lives up to its promise (and its $10/month asking price).

Aesthetics
The first thing you’ll notice about Beats Music is that it’s got style. It doesn’t quite reach Rdio levels of simplistic beauty, but it’s got that mix of flair and directness that you’d expect from a tastemaker like Dr. Dre. Text is almost always big and clear, with a nice black, white and light grey aesthetic punctuated by various shots of high-res album art and artist pics. When you’re playing a song, its cover art is overlayed with a giant play/pause button and large, self-explanatory options for liking, fast-forwarding, rewinding, sharing, and adding it to your personal library.

All of this works very well on a smaller mobile screen. From the Twitter-like artist profile pages to the smooth animations that transition you from tab to tab, Beats seems to understand that visual appeal is important for a service this late to the game. It’s not exactly colorful, but most of it is lively, and it’s good at providing a healthy amount of information and functions at any given time without feeling cramped.

Beats Music’s setup process demonstrates its style well, immediately presenting you with a series of floating bubbles marked with the names of various musical genres. You’re then prompted to double tap the ones you love, tap the ones you like, and long press the ones you want no part of. When you’re all set, you’re given a set of artists names based on your chosen interests, and again you choose the bubbles that align with your taste.

Beats Music, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, software, music, streamingThis is a warm, simple way to give the service a preliminary sense of your own preferences, and it makes starting up the service feel like starting up a relationship with your own DJ. Plus, there’s just something satisfying about sending all country music out into the ether, away from the cozy confines of your library for all eternity. (Sorry, Garth.)

Design and UI
Once you and Beats have broken the ice, you’re brought into the meat of the UI, which is split into four sections. The first is the most personal; it’s dubbed “Just for You,” and it uses your listening history to conjure up suggestions for albums and playlists you might like. This isn’t exactly new, but it’s superior to being thrown into a generic “New Releases” or “Most Popular” tab from the word go.

It also helps that its suggestions are usually useful. For instance, after noting that we were fans of Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, and some electronica during the setup process, we were quickly presented with a collection of songs produced by alternative demigod Butch Vig and a recommendation for the new Disclosure record. That was pretty spot-on for us.

This is an evolving thing, though, so those recommendations will get more attuned to your tastes the more you interact with the service. After slumming around and favoriting a series of our preferred alternative and indie tracks, the Just For You section provided us with a playlist of “The Greatest Indie Anthems” and shortcuts to classics like Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa” and Television’s “Marquee Moon.” After we mixed in some other styles of music to our library, the tab’s recommendations became appropriately diversified too. The idea here is for the service to be like your hip, musically omnipotent buddy, and the Just For You section helps it do a good job of recreating that feeling.

Swipe to the right of the Just For You tab and you’re presented with The Sentence, which is both the most intriguing and the most gimmicky sect of Beats Music. It’s basically a musical Mad Lib, always set up as follows: “I’m [PLACE] & feel like [ACTIVITY] with [PEOPLE] to [GENRE].” You choose from Beats’ list of assorted nouns and verbs to fill in the blanks, and the service churns out a playlist tailor-made for your given situation.

Beats Music, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, software, music, streamingSo, if you feel like soundtracking what you’d hear on a boat, with the urge to start a riot, with your co-workers, to the sounds of Mexican music, Beats Music can do that for you. It’s not always accurate for the situation — we ran that scenario up there and the first song generated was some soft, flamenco-style tune, hardly riot material — but it usually gets close enough to work with the various scenes you can mash together.

Admittedly, most of the songs generated here seem to be influenced by that last fill-in-the-blank. That’s a little redundant, since Beats already has a separate section that organizes playlists by their appropriateness for activities like “BBQing,” partying, working out, and what have you. Even still, The Sentence makes the service a little more accommodating to your particular state, and it can free up the half-hour you’d normally spend picking the background music for your next shower or pool party.

The remaining two tabs, Highlights and Find It, showcase Beats Music’s heavy emphasis on human curation. The former is essentially an “expert picks” section that showcases currently relevant and popular songs, while the latter lets you browse for playlists through three filters: genres, activities, and curators. That last one is where Beats most obviously flexes its monetary might, as it’s recruited major music publications (Pitchfork, Rolling Stone), radio stations (Hot 97, Power 106), and even some celebrities (Ellen Degeneres, LeBron James) to share their recommendations. Beats has its own team of editors that populate each genre with specific playlists, and any collections you create can be shared with the community of Beats Music users as well.

Generally speaking, most of these lists are thoughtfully made. You have your basic “Intro to X” and “Deep Cuts” lists that appear on most artists’ profile pages and run you through their most vital tracks. Plenty of publications give ordinary “Best of” lists that provide their take on a certain period or genre too. But you’ll also come across ones like Pitchfork’s “Driving at Sunset” — which gives a group of songs with a dreamy, nighttime feel — or Decibel Magazine’s “Two Minutes Hate” — which lists short, hardcore tracks with nihilistic themes. There are many other creatively themed collections like this too.

The end result of all of this may not be all that different than other music services — you can find interesting new music everywhere on the internet — but knowing that the recommendations come from other actual people helps Beats Music feel more personable than its competition. This is probably as close as any streaming service will get to replicating a conversation with the clerk at your local record store. It’s refreshing.

Beats Music, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, software, music, streamingEven better, none of these suggestions ventured off into unwanted territory. If we started up a playlist with a grunge theme, we didn’t end up going from Pearl Jam to Enya in a span 30 minutes. This is one of the benefits of Beats Music’s “human-first” approach to music curation and discovery: everything fits. Because the service doesn’t rely as much on algorithms as Pandora or Google Play Music All Access, it does a wonderful job of surrounding you with the kind of music you want at any given time.

Beats says it has more than 20 million tracks in its library, but if you’re digging indie and electronica, no country or smooth jazz is going to show up and kill your vibe here. It’s a service that excels at letting you find the right music for your mood — and that’s great, given how intrinsically intertwined music and emotion can be.

But the upshot of Pandora’s method is that it’ll always have something on tap. A machine like Google Play Music All Access can create an instant and endless series of songs in two clicks. Here, Beats will have to ensure that it keeps those playlists coming. Because all of the playlists in the Highlights and Find It tabs are static and finite (unlike Just For You, which is wholly personalized), someone who wants to listen to a particular style of music could theoretically dry up most of the playlists Beats has made for his tastes over a period of time.

In other words, there are questions to ask about the longevity of an approach like this. Yes, you can always use Beats Music like you would use Spotify, manually searching for songs and albums you like and living in your own library. But the personalization tricks and the barrage of intriguing, man-made recommendations are the hooks here. Without either of them, the service would be just like any other one, only with a lessened sense of discovery.

There are more tangible issues with Beats Music, though. From a simple design standpoint, it often takes way too many button presses to get from point A to point B. You can usually go back to your home screen via a slide-out menu from the left edge of the display, but if you’re looking at a track that’s playing, you’ll have to hit your phone’s back button four of five times just to return to square one. Here’s another example: if you’re listening to a song on a playlist, trying to get to the profile page of that song’s artist requires you to go back to said playlist, press the song that’s playing to get to its corresponding album, then click on a small artist icon at the top of the page. That’s three steps where there should be one, and it’s the kind of inconsistent quirk that popped up too often for our liking.

Beats Music, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, software, music, streamingThere’s another slide-out menu that’s activated from the right edge, but we found that much too easy to pull out by accident when going from tab to tab. That menu, by the way, prompts you to follow artists, curators, and other users within the app to get quick song suggestions, but even after doing that, we still haven’t seen it actually work. There’s also no horizontal rotation support here at all. And although Beats seems to be pushing the power of community and user recommendations, there’s no easy way to find other subscribers and their playlists outside of manually entering in their names. These are relatively minor quibbles, but they can add up to make an otherwise flashy and functional app more agitating to use than it should be.

Things get much more limited when you take Beats Music offline. Although you’re able to quickly download tracks, playlists and the like to your device for offline listening, all of the app’s main tabs and features disappear whenever you don’t have an internet connection. The service’s desktop app is similarly handicapped, simplifying the Just For You and Highlights sections of the app and removing the Find It and The Sentence ones entirely. Beats is thinking ahead by emphasizing mobile here, but its service feels incomplete if you’re not using it on a connected phone.

Finally, a couple of qualms with that aforementioned 20 million song catalog. It has most of what you’d expect in there, with more than 30 genres well represented. That’s good, but Beats tends to emphasize bands and artists you’re likely familiar with in both its general and its personalized recommendations. The magic of tech like this is in discovery, and although Beats showed us many good tracks, we can’t say it did a great job of introducing us to some of the lesser-known gems out there. We usually had to go digging for it ourselves. On the more technical side, we also encountered a few instances where certain tracks were missing from their otherwise-complete albums, which was strange.

Performance
Beats Music, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, software, music, streamingBeats Music performed well enough during our review period to not raise any major performance concerns — sound quality was good and menu navigation was smooth, although the app could be quicker at loading songs. We’d be remiss not to note that many users have reported technical issues during the app’s launch week, though. Beats acknowledged the problems itself by temporarily stopping new users from signing up until it got everything sorted out.

We had a couple of moments where the service didn’t load our library or outright refused to let us sign in, but since it’s normal to see bugs during the early days of software like this, we can’t be too harsh on Beats Music just yet. Things seemed to smoothen out as the week has gone on, but we’ll update this review if any major technical issues continue to affect the majority of users.

Conclusion
Beats Music is starting with a severe handicap in the battle for streaming music superiority, but it comes with enough style and personality to justify a spot next to Pandora, Spotify, Rdio and the like. Yes, it has some early performance and design kinks to work out, and ultimately, it’s another variation on the same theme all its competitors are playing. The fact that it only offers a 7-day free trial before asking for cash won’t help it attract new users either. But if you’ve been on the fence about those other platforms and you want a music service that feels a little less mechanical, grab a Hamilton and give Beats Music a try.

Pros:

  • Very good at recognizing your taste in music
  • Filled with thoughtfully-crafted playlists
  • Warm, easy setup process


Cons:

  • Some inconsistent and irritating design quirks
  • Desktop version limited compared to mobile app
  • Could be better at introducing new artists


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