Like streaming music? Beats is hard to beat

Like streaming music? Beats is hard to beat.
Like streaming music? Beats is hard to beat.
Posted: February 14, 2014

SOME SAY it with flowers, candy or heart-shaped jewelry. If Gizmo Guy was looking for a last-minute Valentine's Day present, I'd go with a $10-a-month gift-card (at Target) subscription to Beats Music, the brand-new streaming-music service that lets you profess your love 20 million ways. And keeps pushing the passion to your mobile phone, tablet, computer or Sonos music-streaming system - with customized music selections befitting your tastes and events of the day.

Today, you'll find the "Highlights" section of the Beats Music app packed with romantic bon bons, including love-tune playlists curated by the likes of Demi Lovato and Ellen DeGeneres. Or, enter the name of a favorite romantic balladeer - say a Babyface, Blige or Buble - and Beats Music can serve up every tune and album they've ever recorded.

Match that, Whitman's Sampler.

A cut apart

Streaming music services have been making quite a noise, with Pandora and Spotify the most widely used and now iTunes Radio booming in "freemium" form with commercials and severe limits on content selections.

Beats Music, backed by the same music-industry heavies (producer/artist Dr. Dre, Universal Records exec Jimmy Iovine) who scored big time with Beats Headphones - doesn't offer a free option. The message here is that unbridled access to all the world's music, with user customization and expert music mentoring, is the better way and worth paying for. Better still, this is content you can store on your mobile, play anytime, anywhere, for as long as you keep the subscription going.

First a Complaint: As a major music man, it does tick me off that the Beats Music app doesn't open with a lengthy posting of available new album and singles releases, as you find on other subscription services like Rhapsody, Sony's Music Unlimited and Xbox Music.

Instead, Beats spotlights just a couple of the week's debuts in their "Highlights" section. Ostensibly, that's because they're culling just "the best" for you. But four weeks into the service's existence (anyone can start with a free trial), their definition of "best" seems more like "most mass appeal."

That's appropriate for the big bulge of casual listeners that Beats hopes to lure into the fold with commercials on the Super Bowl and Olympics, co-sponsored by AT&T Mobility - Beats' partner in a $15-a-month family-music subscription plan that spreads the musical love among five users and 10 devices. (On a multi-room Sonos system, with the $10 Beats subscription, I've enjoyed as many as 5 different music streams running at the same time.)

Also exciting is the operation's on-the-beat music-magazine attitude. The morning after the Grammys, every big winner was available on that highlights page, with a specially enduring nod given to country comer Kacey Musgraves (opening for Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss June 12 at the Mann.)

Within a few hours of Pete Seeger's death, you could tap a button to hear his most important, original Folkways and Decca recordings. The playlist showed respect, felt like a private mourners service.

Then on Wednesday, after snowboard superstar Shaun White finally hit the Olympics skids, Beats posted White's personal mix of tunes that done him wrong this time.

Personal to you: As originally executed by Pandora, Beats Music also uses a computer-weighted music-analysis system to suss what you like (from prior selections and thumbs-up/thumbs-down votes), then serve more "affinity" artists. But there's also a human aspect to Beats' fine-tuning intended to eliminate, say, those crappy karaoke versions that tarnish other services. Beats' extra-robust data streaming rate - 320 kilobits per second - likewise shows an extra level of respect for your sensitive ears.

When first signing on, you tap word balloons to define favorite genres and artists. Cute 'n' easy. The alt-rock, folk and jazz recommendations have proven terrific. And, thanks in part to Iovine, I'm thinking, Beats has all the riches of the ECM jazz label that rival subscription services have yet to nab.

Beats Music is still a work in progress, though. After "liking" Manu DiBango, an African jazz saxophonist who took up residence in Paris, the Beats "brain" has suggested several French pop artists, like Serge Gainsbourg, but nobody else really comparable to DiBango, like Hugh Masekela or Abdullah Ibrahim (a/k/a Dollar Brand).

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