Why I’ve made the snap judgment that Apple Music is crap

First, let’s begin with several paragraphs of me explaining, in general, why I make snap judgments

As I’ve gotten older, my life seems to be more and more about resisting complexity. I want things to be simple. Part of that comes out of the aesthetics and principles of my job. The web has a tendency towards over-complication, and it’s my job to fight that.

Also, more generally, as you get older there are more and more decisions to be made in a day. Every hour, every minute, every second, you have to make a decision about something. It’s overwhelming and drains your soul. I have to prioritize the things that matter to me, and, more and more, cast the rest aside.

When something new comes along, I have to make a snap judgment. Not necessarily a permanent judgment. That would be foolish and self-defeating. But I do need to make that initial choice: whether or not to let this new thing occupy more of my time right now. Essentially, whether or not to give it a chance.

Sometimes I revisit things I never gave a chance the first time around. On rare occasions I discover that I missed out on something good, and I welcome it in. Most of the time, though, I just confirm that I was right to dismiss it in the first place.

Enter, Apple Music

This week’s biggest choice has been whether or not to embrace Apple Music. On the surface, it sounds like a no-brainer. Apple and Music are two of the biggest parts of my life. I have gulped down my glass of Apple Kool-Aid and asked for a refill, please and thank you. I was a music major in college. I make music, I listen to music. Over a span of 30+ years I have collected and pored over and obsessively thought about music.

Come to think of it, that’s probably the problem.

Apple Music seems like it’s for people who don’t already own a lot of music. I suppose all of the streaming music services are. After all, if you owned it, why would you stream it, other than convenience? But even then, you’d probably just stream it from your iTunes or Amazon library (both of which I have done, often).

From my perspective, owning a music library of over 23,000 songs (enough to play for 75 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes straight, 24 hours a day, without repeating a track), the subscription streaming services have never had much appeal, so I’ve never even tried Spotify, Rdio, etc. But, being an Apple fan, I somehow thought their service might be different. Might be for me. But I guess not.

What would a post like this be without a bullet list?

So what is it about Apple Music that has turned me off? It’s many things, actually:

  • The initial experience of picking, by tapping on hovering bubbles, your favorite genres (from a very narrow and mainstream set), and then favorite artists (from suggestions it pulled in from the selected genres), is basically the same as it was in the old Beats Music service, which I had also already tried and abandoned within 24 hours when it first appeared. This process did quickly home in on many artists that I like, but I reloaded at least a dozen times trying to get it to refine the selections further. Even then, the best it came up with were only what I’d really call “second-tier favorites.” (Also, the UX with the bubbles sucks and needs to be fixed.)
  • Once everything was set up, the “For You” screen did offer me a lot of music I like. But, guess what. Almost all of it was music I already own. And of the 2 or 3 selections it offered that I don’t already own, I was either mildly disinterested or they were musicians I actively loathe.
  • Beats 1. What the hell is this? I mean, OK. The chance that I would actually like what they play on a single, worldwide “radio” station that Jimmy Iovine has anything to do with was already less than zero. But I have actually given it a chance 3 or 4 times, and every time I turn it on, it’s the same “underground” alternative hip hop vibe. This is music I do not dislike. I mean, I wasn’t repulsed by it. It wasn’t Celine Dion or Kenny G. But it’s just not what I’m into, and maybe I just didn’t listen long enough but there was no variety in styles. (Granted, other than the one time I listened to it in the car, I haven’t bothered to leave it on for more than one song. But the first song that’s playing when I turn it on is always in this style.)
  • The return of DRM. I can’t say it any better than this, so I won’t even try.

All of that led me to one simple conclusion, and my snap judgment. I do not want to give Apple Music any more time or attention, at least right now. I just want the same convenient access to my own extensive music library that I’ve come to appreciate with iTunes Match. So I’ve turned off auto-renew on my Apple Music subscription. I’m going to make sure I don’t cancel iTunes Match. And, just to be safe, I’m going to re-download and back up my entire library from iTunes Match just in case… you know… someday.

I love Apple’s hardware and, usually, their OS software. But cripes, they just cannot get online services right, can they?

But see, here’s the thing. Remember how I said I sometimes revisit things I hadn’t given a chance the first time around? I feel like here I am revisiting something. I’ll admit I don’t have extremely vivid or extensive memories of it, since I had only initially looked at it so briefly, but to me Apple Music feels very, very much like Beats Music was. To the point where I find it hard to believe they spent much time at all changing anything about it other than simply fusing it into the iTunes ecosystem. Oh, and adding that pointless radio station.

I may still give it another try at some point before the free trial period ends. Maybe I’ll change my mind. But I doubt it.

Follow the money

One last thought, as I try to make sense of what this is really all about. Apple is a big company, and so are the record labels they had to negotiate with to get permission to offer all of this “content.” My very brief experience listening to music through Apple Music consisted mostly (and, rather strangely, if you think about it) of listening to music that I already had in my library. But because I was listening to these songs through an Apple Music subscription instead of playing them directly from my library, Apple was making micropayments to the record labels for the streams.

So, yes, indirectly, I was paying again for music I already purchased. Just a few fractions of a cent really, but still. That’s the business model here. Especially with the concern I mentioned above (this, if you weren’t paying attention) over Apple Music replacing iTunes Match’s “matched” files with DRM-restricted ones (only if you’ve canceled iTunes Match, apparently), I am left feeling pretty cynical over this whole enterprise, and disappointed that Apple would take things in this direction.

But, then again, they bought Beats, so I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Update: HEY, WAIT! Don’t go. This is important.

I’ve discovered a small change in the new version of iTunes for the Mac (version 12.2) that has a huge impact on all of this. This is the version that introduces Apple Music and changes the icon from red to white.

The ability to tell iTunes to download multiple songs at once is gone. It used to be, if you selected multiple songs in your library — like, all of them — and right-clicked (Ctrl-click), the contextual menu had a Download option, right at the top. Click that, and it starts downloading all of the selected songs.

Um, yeah. That’s gone.

The little icon of the cloud with an arrow is still there. You can click it. You can still download songs. ONE. AT. A. TIME. Good luck with that. So, here’s the important thing: If you haven’t upgraded to iTunes 12.2 yet, DON’T. At least, download all of your music first.

Lucky for me, I have access to multiple Macs, and one of them hadn’t been updated yet. Even as I type this I have my external hard drive hooked up to it, and I’ve begun the process of downloading all 23,000+ songs. Should only take a week or so. (Thanks, CenturyLink!)

In light of the above considerations about money and playing ball with the record labels, I can only interpret the removal of this feature in one way.

Update to the update (August 26, 2015)

Regarding my panic in the update above about the removal of the ability to download “make available offline” multiple tracks at once, I should note that in a subsequent update (not sure which; I’m currently running Apple restored this feature. You can now select multiple tracks, and “Make available offline” appears in the contextual menu. And it works.

I think little by little features are going to get rolled back in that those of us who don’t wholeheartedly embrace streaming services in general, and Apple Music in particular, are asking for. But whether or not those restored features will come with improvements to the interface (especially in the iOS Music app) remains to be seen.

The quest for audiophile headphones

Although I’m a musician with (I think) a fairly good ear, I’ve spent most of my life listening to music on cheap equipment, mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to do something so foolish as throw $200 at a pair of headphones. But the more I produce my own music and strive for sonic perfection, the more incongruous it becomes that I’m mastering my recordings on a pair of $20 Sony earbuds. (Although I have to say, they’re pretty decent for $20 earbuds… good enough that I own three pairs of them!)

Anyway, the stars aligned this month for me to finally take the plunge and foolishly throw that $200 at a pair of headphones. Initially I succumbed to both my impulsive nature and a fair bit of effective marketing and bought a pair of Beats by Dr. Dre Solo HD headphones for $200 at the Apple Store. Although I was impressed with some of the details of the product, it wasn’t long before I realized that more care had been put into the packaging and trivial aspects like a detachable red cord than into what really matters: a balanced sound and comfortable design. Put simply, the things sounded muddy and gave me a splitting headache after 20 minutes of use. Seeing a parade of music industry tools on American Idol gratuitously sporting Beats headphones (among other branded accessories like baseball caps) was the nail in the coffin.

Fortunately, the Apple Store has a good return policy, and a week after buying them I had brought them back for a full refund. (No restocking fee!) And now I had $200 burning a hole in my pocket again. But this time I decided to do my research. I decided to go with Sennheiser, and I studied their various offerings both on their own website and on Amazon.

Now is a good time to buy Sennheiser headphones on Amazon. They’ve recently updated their product line, and Amazon seems to have ample inventory of the previous generation, which they’re selling at massive discounts. I settled on the HD555 audiophile headphones, as a nice balance between quality and price. Only $85!

But, after I placed my order, I began to discover how little I know about audiophile headphones. The HD555s have open cans, meaning there’s an outer grille rather than a solid enclosure, which allows air in to help the speakers vibrate, but therefore it also lets sound in… and out. These are not good headphones for private listening in a public place, or for drowning out external noises. So I began exploring other options. I found that Amazon also offered the closed-can Sennheiser HD448s for $100. Since I was already $115 ahead on the deal, I decided to go ahead and order both. I figured I’d try them both out, see which ones I liked best, and return the others.

They arrived today, and it didn’t take long to make my decision. I expected… no, hoped… that I would prefer the closed HD448s, because I prefer the idea of closed cans. But in comparing them I discovered just how many other factors are in play.

From the moment of opening the package, it’s clear that the HD555s are higher-end than the HD448s. The HD555s come in a cleverly designed box that opens easily by pulling a tab at the top. The HD448s are packaged in the dreaded plastic “blister pack”… the kind of packaging that can only be opened by utterly destroying it, often slicing your fingers on the razor-sharp edges that such destruction inevitably produces.

The difference in build quality between the HD555s and the HD448s is almost as immediately apparent. While both are made of plastic, the HD555s feel solid, whereas the HD448s feel like they’ll shatter into a thousand brittle pieces if you look at them too intently. The HD555s have a thick, solid cord, and the HD448s have a thin, flimsy one. Most critically, the earpiece and headband cushions on the HD555s are velour. (I had read that in a review but didn’t believe it until I saw it.) Contrast that with the shockingly thin plastic film wrapping on the foam cushions of the HD448s. I owned headphones with cushions made of this material as a kid, and all I remember about them is how quickly this film dried out, cracked and flaked off all over everything, exposing the foam rubber underneath, which itself quickly began to break off.

Another big difference in the design of these two sets is how the earpieces cover your ears. A major problem I had with the Beats was that they didn’t cover the entire ear… they pressed against the ear, which provided a nice seal to block outside noise, but it caused even more pressure on my ears (and specifically, pressed my ears against the frames of my glasses) in a way that exacerbated the headache situation. The HD448s have a similar on-ear design, whereas the earpieces of the HD555s are big enough to go completely around even my big ears, providing greater comfort. (Honestly, though, even the HD555s are proving to create some discomfort after an hour-plus of wear, but I suspect that will improve after they’re broken in a bit.)

Oh, wait… I haven’t even compared the sound between the two sets yet. I’ll give the HD448s credit… they don’t sound terrible. In fact, they sound pretty decent. But again, there’s no comparison. Side by side with the HD555s, the HD448s have a thin, flat sound, with a muddy midrange and poor stereo separation. The HD555s by comparison are sparkling with detail and present an astounding stereo soundscape.

In all, it took me more time to write this blog post than it did to compare the two headphones and make an unambiguous decision as to which set I would keep. As I write this, the HD555s are on my head, and the HD448s are already packaged up for return shipment to Amazon.

Before I go, I should note that there’s a lot of talk online comparing the HD555s (the bottom end of Sennheiser’s audiophile line) with the considerably more expensive HD595s. Some people claim that by partially disassembling the HD555s and removing an adhesive foam strip inside each can, you can dramatically improve their bass response, effectively turning them into HD595s. (There’s even a video guide to the modification.) Others respond that the foam strip is not in there to simply “cripple” the sound of the cheaper headphones (which use the same drivers as their more expensive cousins), but that it in fact protects the cones from rattling against the grille on the outside of the cans. Personally, I think the HD555s sound great as they are, though I admit I haven’t heard the HD595s for a comparison. But I refuse to believe Sennheiser would only put the foam in to make these sound worse so they can sell them at a cheaper price. There’s an engineering reason for the foam. Leave it in.