Dec 19, 2013 05:54 PM EST
With the death of the record store and increasing ubiquity of the cloud, streaming music services are quickly becoming one of the most popular channels for publishers to deliver content to consumers. Though offerings like Google Play Music, iTunes and Spotify are already well entrenched, there’s no shortage of competitors looking to convert new users, boasting superior features, a bigger library or some combination of both.
Is Sony’s Music Unlimited service and Walkman app the game changer that’ll disrupt the market for years to come? Probably not, but it’s not bad.
The Sony Music Unlimited library is pretty large, with 22 million licensed songs, according to the company. This includes music from every major U.S. label, as well as several independents. There are a few exclusives, but that probably shouldn’t sway you any more than Spotify’s Led Zeppelin catalogue.
Using it over the course of a few days, we didn’t find too many artists absent from the library. There’s no Goo Goo Dolls or Beck, but most users will likely discover at least a couple gaps in any given streaming music service.
As far as audio quality, Sony offers playback at 320kpbs, so music sounds full and crisp.
The Walkman App
While Sony’s music library is on par with Spotify or most any other major streaming service, the Walkman app leaves a lot to be desired. For this review, we tried out Music Unlimited through the Sony Walkman app on an Xperia Tablet Z running Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean.
The first thing you’ll notice when launching the Walkman app is that it doesn’t look very good. Don’t worry if you don’t like the background color – it changes periodically for some reason. The UI is outdated and uninspired. A photo of someone digging through a stack of vinyl records is the icon for “new releases”; a picture of some number blocks represents “charts.” Furthermore, locally stored music isn’t clearly delineated from cloud content – you need to look for the Music Unlimited logo. This might be confusing to some users that are accustomed to dedicated menus for local versus cloud playback.
If you’re in landscape mode, you’ll likely spend some time trying to press a button labeled “search and discover” before realizing it isn’t actually a button. This becomes particularly frustrating since the app’s home screen only makes it easy to find top hits and best-selling albums. To actually search and discover, you need to look for a much smaller button on the opposite side of the screen – a looking-glass icon – that does what the “search and discover” non-button should do.
Unfortunately, burying the search function seems to be a conscious choice on the company’s part rather than an oversight. Sony believes users shouldn’t have to search for music. Instead, apps should study our habits and deliver the songs we want before we even know we want them.
"Listeners have been trained to search for music - it is the most obvious way to look for songs. But I would argue in my position as an industry thinker, it means that we messed up," said Anu Kirk, directory of music services at Sony in an interview with Techradar. "It is one thing if you are a brand new user because we don't know anything about you. But if you have used it for a short while then we should be finding the music for you.”
That sounds great in theory, but you need look no further than your smartphone’s autocorrect feature for a case study in the limitations of machine learning and predictive algorithms. AI will be nice when someone figures it out, but in the meantime, I like to input my taste manually, thank you.
Once you finally figure out how to search for music, you’ll probably want to download some to use in Offline Mode, but this is also far from intuitive. To download a track, you’ll first need to add it to a playlist, which you’ll also need to create. Once the song is added, you can then navigate to the playlist and hit the toggle switch for Auto Download. Why Sony?
Sony’s Music Unlimited library is large and comprehensive, with enough content to rival the likes of Spotify and Pandora. If you’re already using a lot of Sony hardware, it will integrate nicely.
To compete in the mobile streaming space, however, Sony needs to overhaul its Walkman app to reflect not just contemporary design language, but consumer habits. This isn’t the way I listen to music.
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