Thursday, Jul 24, 2014Thursday, Jul 24, 2014
Digital Life
 
Spotlight

Let the music play

The influx of music streaming apps for mobile phones amps up the listening pleasure of users here

Published on Apr 28, 2014 5:06 AM
 

Imagine having instant access to millions of songs on your mobile phone. Search for the song you want to listen to now and stream it almost instantaneously through your phone. Make a playlist of your favourite selections for running or for a romantic evening and then let the music play.

Two years ago, SingTel's Amped service was the only player in town, and it was limited only to SingTel mobile customers. Its library of songs was weak.

Fast forward to the present day and the entire scene has changed. Sweden's Spotify, France's Deezer and Taiwan's KKBox have all opened up music streaming services in Singapore this year, bringing tens of millions of Asian and Western songs to our fingertips.

SingTel has since improved its Amped service and the basic streaming-only service is now free for all mobile phone users here. Pay a monthly $10 subscription and you can download the songs for offline listening. StarHub has partnered KKBox to offer a free trial for all mobile phone users for two months. Only M1 has stayed quiet, for now.

Unlike pay-per-download services, such as iTunes, music streaming services are based on a subscription model. As long as you continue to fork out $10 each month, you can listen to all the songs you want, online and offline.

But you still have to pay for data access and this can come to quite a lot as each song sucks up about 2 to 3MB of data to stream or download.

Digital music is driving the recovery of the flagging music industry and music streaming services are the new poster boys. According to the Digital Music Report 2013 by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the global recorded music industry earned

0.3 per cent more in revenue last year. The US$16.5 billion (S$20 billion) represents the first growth since 1999 and it is being driven by digital music sales.

While subscription music services accounted for only 10 per cent of all digital music sales last year, it is the fastest growing segment, with the number of subscribers worldwide leaping 44 per cent to 20 million.

ginlee@sph.com.sg



Spotify

Price: $9.99 a month (free 30-day trial)

Platforms: iOS, Android

Library: Over 20 million songs

Bit-rate: 96, 160, 320kbps

Plus: 

  • Stable software
  • Internet Radio based on playlists
  • Intuitive user interface

Minus:

  • Too many songs of major artists missing
  • No apps for mobile version

This Swedish music service is the global leader of the pack and is the best known brand.

The user interface is clean and smooth and it has a huge following around the world. I have been using it for more than two years and have been paying for a Spotify Premium account for some time.

At first, I had to use a VPN service to sign up for Spotify USA, but when a local version was officially launched a few months ago, I switched.

The Singapore version has a significantly better library of Cantonese and Mandarin songs than the US version but the selection in English is rather disappointing.

I could not find any original albums by Andy Gibb or Bruno Mars. The omission of Andy Gibb's I Just Want To Be Your Everything is too hard to accept. There is one album by Jason Mraz and it excludes his hit song I'm Yours. Michael Buble is also represented by just one album.

There was no choice before but to use Spotify. However, with the arrival of Deezer, KKBox and the improved Amped service, Spotify needs to take a hard look at its music library for this region.

I would not rule out the market leader yet. Plenty of my friends are on Spotify and I do get notifications on what they are listening to, which piques my curiosity and I end up listening to their playlists.

I am also very fond of the Radio service, which lets you get your own radio channel going. It is based on the songs you have added to a certain playlist. Mine includes about 30 songs and the recommended tracks from Spotify are a good fit for what I want to listen to.

Spotify's software is very stable, and it is able to stream music smoothly over the 3G network even when I am driving. An adjustable bit-rate also means you can switch between saving data access costs and enjoying high-fidelity music.

Another big deal about Spotify on the PC version is that it has third-party apps which sit on top of the Spotify service. TuneWiki, for instance, lets you look at the lyrics of the song that is being played, but apps are unfortunately still missing from the mobile version. Thankfully, Spotify is integrated into SoundHound and TrackID mobile apps, so you can use them to identify the song playing on air and stream it using Spotify immediately.

  • The Spotify brand is synonymous with music streaming but it needs to take a serious look at its limited song library for Singapore if it still wants to be in the game.

Deezer 

Price: $9.90 per month (free 15-day trial.)

Platforms: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry

Library: Over 25 million songs (global list)

Bit-rate: 128, 320kbps

Plus:

  • Strong library of songs
  • Useful third-party apps
  • Supports all mobile phone platforms

Minus:

  • Software erratic at times
  • Weak user interface

Deezer is probably the strongest global competitor to Spotify right now. This French company launched its music service here almost a year ago, but its weak initial publicity meant that few users knew about it until this year.

It has a significantly better library of English songs than Spotify and I found all my favourite English and Cantonese songs on it.

Like Spotify, Deezer has a desktop app and is also linked to music discovery apps such as TrackID and Stream That Song. Deezer appears to me to be taking a bigger interest in the local market than Spotify.

In addition to having a strong music library, Deezer is also the only service here with third-party apps running on top of it. But integration between these third-party apps and Deezer is weak.

To get the lyrics of a song that is being played requires the user to play the song and then switch back to the main menu and launch Tune Wiki, unlike with KKBox, which offers integrated lyrics.

Deezer's music service is free to use but it plays only 30sec of a song. To get the full song, you need to be a paying Premium subscriber.

Deezer also supports all major phone platforms, including the less popular Windows Phone and BlackBerry. Also of interest is that the company hires music editors to figure out local tastes of users and come up with their individual top picks for each country.

This makes it easy for music fans to find new local artists or new releases from the veterans.

Despite its many strengths, Deezer suffers from erratic software. On too many occasions, my Cantonese songs simply did not stream.

At times, the service would cut out after playing a song for 30sec, something which a paying Premium customer should not be facing.

I double-checked my user account to make sure it recognises me as a Premium customer but the problem still persists.

The user interface could be better as the home screen looks very plain.

  • A lot of potential with its strong music library and global branding, but it needs to fix its erratic software.

   

KKBox

Price: $9.90 per month (free 7-day trial). Two months free if you sign up through StarHub's Music Anywhere service.

Platforms: iOS, Android

Library: Over 10 million songs

Bit-rate: 128 to 320kbps

Plus:

  • Strong library of Asian songs
  • Good Chinese search engine
  • Built-in lyrics

Minus:

  • No integration with music discovery apps
  • Lack of integrated search

KKBox originates from Taiwan and is reputedly very strong in Asian content. I tested it only for Mandarin and Cantonese songs and was very impressed with the song libraries.

When I searched for Jacky Cheung and Jay Chou, dozens of albums are listed and it seems as if every song these superstars have ever produced is there. KKBox also came out tops in our shoot-out test on current Mandarin hits.

The best thing about KKBox is that it has lyrics built into the app. So you do not need a third-party app such as TuneWiki.

If you enjoy singing along, this is the best music streaming service for you. I was also very impressed with the overall user interface, which is smooth and fast. Songs that you search for are automatically added to your music library.

As with the other services, it also supports downloads for offline listening.

The search engine requires you to search by song title, artist or album and would have been better off using an integrated search. But searching for Mandarin songs was a breeze, unlike with the Amped service, which often required me to search for a song by looking for it under the singer's discography instead of doing a direct search.

I was expecting KKBox to be weak with English songs because of its Asian roots, but I was pleasantly surprised that it came up with every song title I asked for.

It seemed, based on my tests, that everything I could find on Amped and Deezer was also here.

KKBox beats Spotify hands down with its selection of songs in English. Andy Gibb, Michael Buble, Bruno Mars and Jason Mraz were all well represented. It even had music videos of popular numbers, such as Katy Perry's Roar and Ariana Grande's Almost Is Never Enough.

The service comes with a free seven-day trial but if you sign up for it via StarHub's Music Anywhere service (www.starhub.com/music), or the Music Anywhere app, you can get two months' worth free.

StarHub mobile users get the first two months free. Other users must pay for the first month but then get the second and third months free.

This was my favourite music service. Though I used it only for a week, I was very impressed.

Its only real weakness is the lack of integration with major discovery apps. So the Editor's Choice is Amped because it is free. Otherwise, KKBox may well have been my pick.

  • My favourite app of the lot. If only it were free.

SingTel Amped

Price: Free (streaming only, for all users); Premium (with downloads) 10 cents for first month, $9.90 per month thereafter (SingTel post-paid customers); $12.48 - $12.98 per month (non-SingTel users)

Platforms: iOS, Android, Windows Phone

Library: About 5 million songs

Bit-rate: 128kbps

Plus:

  • The only free streaming music service on mobile
  • Built-in music discovery app
  • No data charge for SingTel users on Premium
  • Forward caching for continuous streaming

Minus:

  • No high bit-rate option
  • Requires repeat log-ins
  • No desktop version

I switched my mobile phone account to SingTel a few years ago because I wanted to use its Amped streaming music service. But I was put off by the weak song library and horrendous user interface at the time and soon found a way to get Spotify USA on my phone by using virtual private network (VPN) software so that Spotify would think I was in the United States.

When I tried Amped again last week, I was pleasantly surprised with the huge improvements SingTel has made to the app. The biggest deal about Amped is that it is free and no longer exclusive to SingTel users.

Any mobile user here can use it. But as with all other streaming music services, you must pay for data access. This can add up to quite a fair bit as each song typically eats up 2MB to 3MB of your mobile data.

If you are a SingTel post-paid subscriber, going for the Premium service is definitely worth it as SingTel waives access fees for Amped users who are Premium subscribers.

This may explain why more than 40 per cent of about 200,000 Amped customers are on the Premium Plan. This lets you download the music for offline listening, a useful facility when in flight, for instance.

Its 5 million songs makes it the smallest song library here on paper, so I was expecting Amped to be crushed by its foreign competitors. But I was pleasantly surprised that Amped held its ground against the competition for the test on the latest English and Chinese hits and I could find all of my personal 50-plus favourites.

My music mainly comes from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, spanning Cantopop songs by Jackie Cheung, Grasshopper and Alan Tam as well as plenty of rock music from bands such as Journey, Scorpions and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I also like easy listening from Olivia Ong and Kenny G as well as old-time favourites from Abba, Bee Gees, Carpenters and the Osmonds.

Another great feature is something called forward caching, which caches your next song while the first one is still streaming, to deliver a seamless listening experience. This service is available only on iOS devices for now.

SingTel has also licensed the music discovery technology from SoundHound and made it into a built-in feature of Amped. The name, Whamped, sounds terrible, but like other music discovery apps, you only need to hit a button for the app to start listening to a song that is playing and within seconds, it will tell you the title and let you add it to your Amped playlist immediately.

This is a big deal because other discovery apps, such as Shazam, do not automatically link you to the music streaming app.

Amped can still do with some improvement. It should, for example, offer a desktop version of the app.

The user interface still feels clunky and being required to log in periodically with an SMS PIN is both cumbersome and irritating.

Service can be slow and there have been times when it has taken more than 5sec to start streaming a song.

Audiophiles might not be happy with the absence of a higher fidelity bit-rate but my non-audiophile ears really cannot tell the difference.

  • Far from perfect but it is good enough with a capable song library and a built-in music discovery app. Most importantly, it is the only free music streaming service for mobile devices here. You cannot beat free.

All reviews by Oo Gin Lee

Related Links