Apple’s New Spatial Audio

When it comes to jazz music and listening to jazz music, I have opinions. That’s why when Apple first announced spatial audio and their intent to apply the spatial audio algorithm to existing music, I decided to wait and listen before commenting.

I had some concerns with how much Apple would mess with existing recorded material and whether or not they would be able to add perceived depth while not detracting from the original recording.

Spatial audio is a very Apple-y sounding word for Dolby Atmos. Dolby Atmos is a way to add 3D audio through encoding for headphones (or speakers). Apple has been working with studios to include this data in their existing music and high-definition versions of movies. Apple’s application of Dolby Atmos comes via building “sound assets” into their products.

When I first heard about this, my fear was that it would be gimmicky, and Apple would go overboard, making it feel like the hi-hat was 3 inches from my left ear or the trumpet was in the next room. Thankfully, spatial audio is nothing like that. It comes through as different, and it is most definitely noticeable. However, it is also subtle, and in the case of some of my favorite older jazz tunes, it feels like a really good remaster. Luckily, everything came through sounding like it did before but in 3D instead of 2D. In short, I’m sold, and I want more.

A few playlists I would recommend if you want to give this a try are Apple’s Jazz in Spatial Audio playlist. Art Blakey’s “Hipsippy Blues” feels like one of the most improved tracks. I expect that’s because so many of Art Blakey’s albums were recorded live in clubs that this treatment feels natural. Another album worth checking out is the L.A. Philharmonic’s Celebrating John Williams album, which also got the Dolby Atmos treatment.

Checking in with Apple Music

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Apple Music is now bigger than Spotify with 28 million subscribers. If that’s true, it doesn’t surprise me. Apple has a considerable advantage in that it is baked into iOS, works with Siri, and just more convenient for iPhone owners.

I thought it would be a good time to check in on Apple Music since I haven’t written much about it since it initially launched. We’ve enjoyed a family subscription ($15/month) since launch. Everyone in my family loves music and, oddly, we all listen to different kinds of music. As a result, we have downloaded a lot more music than we would have if we were paying for tracks and we are getting our money’s worth on Apple Music.

I haven’t used Spotify, but I know its users are big fans of the recommendations. I don’t feel the same rabid love for Apple Music recommendations that my Spotify-wielding friends profess. Still, the suggestions are good. No longer does it throw artists at me from my kids’ playlists. (Sorry Hannah Montana.) The recommended playlists are a good assortment of artists I already love, artists I’d like to hear more, and artists I’ve never heard of before but are nevertheless in my wheelhouse. I like Apple’s recommended playlists and their A-Lists, where I’ve found several new interesting artists. I also like the easy ability to share tracks, as I’ve often done here.

While the user interface has improved over the years, there is still room for improvement. For instance, the buttons across the bottom of the music app are too opinionated. I’ve never listened to Beats 1 and don’t use radio stations. Nonetheless, some of the most valuable real estate in the user interface is taken up with a Radio button. Those buttons should be customizable.

Radio button .. why are you there?

Radio button .. why are you there?

By far, my favorite Apple Music feature is the depth of the catalog. I’ll frequently think of some obscure album and, more often than not, have it playing in minutes. Just a few weeks ago I woke up with an old Chuck Mangione song, Carousel, in my head. The song was recorded in 1975 and the last time I heard it had to be in the 70’s. Nevertheless, Apple Music had Carousel playing throughout my house in minutes.

The Yule Apple Music Playlist


The holidays are here and I’ve been doing more work on my “Yule” playlist. I’ve made lots of new additions this year including this gem from Joey Alexander. If you’ve got an Apple Music subscription, go ahead and subscribe and enjoy. The playlist is very heavily jazz but with a few other delightful holiday songs from other artists, including this one where Jack Johnston takes Santa to task for the way they were treating Rudolph just because he has a red nose.

Anyway, here’s the link:

MacSparky’s Yule Playlist

Sonos and Apple Music

Sonos is a great speaker system. After much badgering from Mac Power Users listeners, I started investing in them several years ago, and now I have a collection of them throughout my house. However, where Sonos failed to keep up was voice control. As Amazon, Google, and now Apple all start releasing their speaker-in-a-can products with voice assistants built-in, consumers are finding it easier to use their voice to play their music rather than fiddle with an application on the phone.

I have several friends who swear by playing music through their Amazon Echo devices because it’s so easy. That has never been me. I love the sound of my Sonos system, and I can’t imagine playing Miles Davis through the crappy little speaker of my Amazon Echo. Actually, I did try it once while I was making waffles. It was terrible, so I washed my hands and played it properly through the Sonos system. I’m picky about these things. I’m not even sure the Apple HomePod is going to be Miles-worthy.

Nevertheless, the rest of the world is moving forward with voice-based audio systems, and Sonos is behind in the game. This past week they attempted to solve that problem in a few ways.

First, they partnered with Amazon to build the Amazon Echo into the new Sonos One speaker. This gives you the convenience of the Amazon Echo combined with the quality of the Sonos speakers. Moreover, just having one of these in your Sonos system should let you drive everything using your voice.

I have received a lot of emails asking if I’m going to buy one of these. I’m not. While I have an Amazon Echo in my house, I’m increasingly pushing toward Siri with HomeKit devices, and I would ideally like to have just one ecosystem.

The real sticking point for me is that I’m a happy Apple Music subscriber. My entire family, including the non-geeks, has a complete understanding of how to find and play music on Apple Music and they love it. I’ve got some killer playlists, and I like the integration with Siri. Since I am all in with Apple gear, using their music streaming service makes a lot of sense.

Whether the issue is Apple or Amazon (or both), I don’t know, but for whatever reason, Apple Music does not play through the Amazon Echo. To have a streaming service on your Amazon Echo, you need either Spotify or Amazon’s music streaming service. So even though Alexa can now talk to my Sonos, Alexa doesn’t have my Apple Music library, which in hindsight is one of the primary reasons I’m not so keen on adding more Echoes to my home.

That is, however, not the end of the story for Apple Music subscribers. Sonos also announced they’re going to be incorporating AirPlay 2 next year. This is a new technology announced by Apple back in June at WWDC. This next iteration of AirPlay should allow you to easily drive your audio to any compatible speaker system. It is, however, a lot more than that. It also allows you to cache music and control sending the music via Siri. Dave Hamilton wrote an extensive piece on the uses of AirPlay 2 over at the Mac Observer.

It is my sincere hope that when all of this gets sorted out, I will be able to control my Sonos system with my voice through Siri, playing my Apple Music playlists. In theory, this wouldn’t require me to buy any new speakers either. However, at this point, it is not an actual feature but instead a promise of a future feature. I hope Apple and Sonos can make that happen. In the meantime, if I want I want to play some music on my Sonos system, I have to take my phone out of my pocket and tap a few buttons, like an animal.

Apple Music Recommendations. Not “For Me”

Apple Music has been great for our family. We all love music and we all listen to different kinds of music. Thanks to Apple Music we are listening to more music than ever and spending less money doing so. I know this shouldn’t be news for anybody that’s been in the subscription music game for any amount of time, but with the $15 a month family price point, it’s really been great for us.

All of that said, I really hate Apple Music recommendations. Below is my “for you” recommendations earlier today.

With the exception of a single Miles Davis album none of those are “for me”. I suspect the reason I get so many pop recommendations is because my family shared a single iTunes account for many years. However, we are now all on separate family sharing accounts and I can assure you that I’ve never favorited a Beyoncé album. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

My favorite music largely includes obscure living jazz artists and less obscure dead jazz artists. I’ve wasted hours favoriting albums and marking other “recommended” playlists as ones I don’t like. Nevertheless, I open iTunes nearly every day as I work at my iMac and get the same Selina Gomez album thrown at me in place of Thelonkous Monk.

Maybe if I started a new iTunes account from scratch I would be in better shape. But that would require me to walk away from thousands of dollars of music, movies, and apps I purchased from iTunes in the past. I’m in a cage of Apple’s creation and I believe they should figure a way out of it. At the very least, if I tell Apple Music I don’t like the One Direction playlist (again, not that there is anything wrong with that), Apple Music should not throw it at me again … every day … for the rest of my life. How does the algorithm not take into account when the user specifically says, “please don’t show me this again”?

The net result of all of this is that I am unable to use Apple Music recommendations. I guess that’s okay because I know other ways to find new and interesting music but it also just kind of sucks.

Apple Music Early Report Card

Every time Apple releases a new cloud-based service, technology journalists and early adopters sit around with bated breath. Apple seriously damaged its reputation a few years back with the MobileMe rollout and it still is accepted wisdom that Apple is lousy at cloud services.

While I’d prefer to not open that particular can of worms today, I would like to report in on my experiences with Apple Music now that we’ve all been using it for awhile. 

My family music library was approaching 25,000 tracks. When Apple Music released, I switched my wife and two daughters over to Family Sharing and signed up for the trial period of the Apple Music family plan.

Setting up Family Sharing was easy. Because we previously used a shared account for iTunes purchases, my account still connects to that shared account for purchases and my personal iCloud account for calendars, email, contacts, and similar data. My wife and daughters now use their personal iCloud accounts for both purchases and data. In some ways, their set up is easier than mine. However, we still need that legacy account attached in order for them to get access to all that music, television, and movies we’ve purchased over the years.

The last time I attempted Family Sharing, things went poorly. I chronicled all the problems at the time but in summary, Family Sharing broke app updates and lost data and generally had my family sharpening knives for me. With this new attempt things have been working without complaint. The list of sins in my above linked post seem to be largely resolved.

That’s not to say that Family Sharing isn’t still a pain at times. When my wife and daughters want to download something from the other family accounts they need to go to the “Purchased” button and then switch to the appropriate user and find the media from there. This should be easier. Once everyone understood how to get at each other’s data, however, everything worked. 

One interesting bit in relation to music is the convenience of downloading with Apple Music. When we first started this journey, I put all of our iTunes library music on a portable hard drive and explained to my wife and daughters they could copy any files they wanted from our legacy library into their own accounts from the hard drive. Interestingly, after weeks, nobody has taken me up on this. I looked at their iTunes libraries a few days ago and it appears that rather than copy files from the drive, they’ve just re-downloaded much of their music from Apple Music.

They haven’t just stopped at music that was already in my library. My entire family has built out their libraries with a lot of music we don’t own. I’m no different in this regard. I went on a Dexter Gordon binge yesterday that would have cost hundreds of dollars. Conservatively, we’ve downloaded over 2,000 tracks that we didn’t previously have in our library before Apple Music arrived.

One advantage that Apple Music has is it’s integration with they prior library. I’m constantly rating music that is interesting and have built a series of smart playlists around those ratings. With Apple Music I can continue to rate the tracks I’ve added to my library and tie them into existing playlists. I’ve been an iTunes guy for so long that integration with my existing library and smart playlists is a big feature for me. Competing services can’t do that.

I was a Beats subscriber for over a year before the big integration and I enjoy the service now more than ever because it works with my iTunes library. (Beats on the Mac up until last month was a mess. It required a Flash enabled browser. Yuck.)

I know there have been problems but at the Sparks house, Apple Music has been a huge hit. Based on our aggressive downloading of tracks, I expect the $15/month will be a no-brainer.

Apple Music, iTunes Match, and DRM

I’ve been neck deep in Apple Music this week as we prepare for a Mac Power Users episode devoted to the topic. One issue, that is worth sharing right now are the evolving questions about digital rights management (DRM). DRM has been largely missing from iTunes tracks for several years now. With Apple Music (a subscription service), it’s back. That makes sense. The music industry doesn’t expect you to be able to download and keep the entire iTunes music library for a single month’s subscription. When you stop paying the subscription fee, you lose the rights.

The problem arises when you first set up iCloud Music Library and it overlaps with your prior iTunes Match tracks (that you presumably purchased and should be DRM free). Early tests, including this one from Kirk McElhearn, are indicating some of your iTunes Match tracks are getting DRM applied to them when they shouldn’t.

The point of this post is that I want you to download and save copies of all your music on a spare drive before diving in with Apple Music. This may get all sorted out but I think having your own DRM-free copy of the music you’ve purchased is a good idea on most days (and an outstanding idea today).