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I left Spotify to find the limits of Sony Music Unlimited, and I’m ready to run back

There are so many competing music streaming services around today that it can be tricky to find the right one for you. There’s Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, Beats Music, Slacker Radio, Play Music All Access, Deezer, Rhapsody, and the list goes on and on. I’ve tried most of them out at one time or another, but I always returned to Spotify because it seems to offer the best mix of features and functionality.

Then it was time for a real experiment.

I recently cancelled my Spotify subscription, and for the last few weeks I’ve been using Sony Music Unlimited instead. This is how I got on.

Hello Sony, my old friend

I’ve always been a big fan of Sony hardware, software not so much, but I was interested to give Music Unlimited a try. There’s a standard free 30-day trial after which you have the option of the Access Plan at $5 per month, or the Premium Plan for $10 per month.

Sony-Music-Unlimited-ecosystem

The Access Plan limits you to streaming music on your PlayStation 4 or 3, and your PC or Mac. Premium adds support for Android and iOS (though there’s no dedicated iPad version), as well as Bravia TVs and Blu-ray players. There are also a few special extras for Xperia smartphone or tablet owners, but we’ll get to that later.

With over 30 million tracks, no adverts, and unlimited skips, the Music Unlimited service measures up pretty well on paper. But, what’s it like in the real world?

The high notes

There are definitely some things to admire about Music Unlimited, starting with the comprehensive library of tracks. There was nothing I could listen to on Spotify that I couldn’t find on Music Unlimited, so far. Obviously there are a few notable omissions to both services because of the way licensing works. Probably the biggest remaining holdout for streaming services is The Beatles; you won’t find any of their albums on Spotify, but Sony’s service does at least have the early album A Hard Day’s Night.

It sounds great to me, but I’m no audiophile.

Music streaming software usually limits quality to balance with the strength of your connection. You take a lower bitrate, but you’re eating less data that way and the stream is more stable. If you dig into the settings of your Music Unlimited or Walkman app, you’ll find the option to turn high-quality audio on. It sets the bitrate to 320 Kbps, which is supposed to be indistinguishable from CD quality. It sounds great to me, but I’m no audiophile. Some competing services offer this (Spotify, Beats, Play Music), but not all.

At the other end of the scale the service seems to downscale skillfully when you’re out and about. Turning the high quality off and streaming through 3G, I found it to be smooth with none of the buffering pauses you encounter with other services.

The apps

The Music Unlimited app, which I tested on my Nexus 7, Xperia Z2, and PlayStation 3, is very accessible and easy to use. It has a clean layout with lots of white space. The home page shows new releases, your recently updated playlists, popular songs, and suggestions. The menu lets you choose channels, browse by genre, or dip into your own library of music and playlists.

But it’s certainly not perfect. It feels a bit barebones, and it takes a few seconds to load every time you start it up. The delay is irritating on Android, but it’s worse on the PS3. You won’t want to use the PlayStation apps for actually searching or organizing your music because they’re clunky, but you can set things up on another device. It’s nice to be able to play music while gaming, and it offers some people a conduit for playing music through the TV.

The apps don’t have Chromecast support built in, but you can choose to Cast Screen on your Android device in the Chromecast app (it’s in the Quick Settings menu for Nexus devices) and play tunes from Music Unlimited on your big TV that way as well.

Sony has gone with a browser-based version for the PC or Mac, and it has a similar sparse interface to the Android app. It doesn’t look very good, it feels dated, and it’s not a great user experience. It times out and prompts you to log in again if it’s inactive for a while. A standalone client like Spotify’s that’s a bit more robust would be preferable.

It also doesn’t handle switches well. When I stop listening on my phone and fire it up on the PC, it throws up a warning message that I’m using it elsewhere, but I’ve actually stopped and closed the app already. Testing it the other way round there’s an ominous red triangle with an error message on my phone, but the browser is shut already. It’s all lacking a bit of polish.

Discovering music

The home page will recommend music you might be interested in based on what you’ve been listening to, but I wasn’t impressed by its suggestions. After two weeks it should know that I would never listen to Celine Dion or Robbie Williams. To add insult to injury, the Android app offers no way to tell it to that I don’t like Celine Dion and remove her from the “You might like” section. At least the browser app lets you like or dislike tracks (though not without playing them).

The search function works well when you get used to it, but the Android app is the weak link again.

Channels are where you’re most likely to discover new tracks — there are all kinds of them available to match moods, eras, genres, bands, and even specific games. There are also curated playlists available in the PlayStation app, the iOS app, and through the browser client on your PC or Mac, but disappointingly (and inexplicably) they’re missing from the Android app.

In terms of music discovery and recommendations, Music Unlimited is definitely lagging behind some of the competition.  Its list of suggestions for me was horrible. After listening to the likes of Johnny Cash, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Simon and Garfunkel, it had George Michael’s Careless Whisper as a suggestion. How is that happening?

The search function works well when you get used to it, but the Android app is the weak link again. There are three tabs to sort by: song, album, or artist. The glaringly bad design decision here is that tracks are listed by popularity, but there’s no accounting for duplicates. Instead of Spotify’s tidy list of the five most popular tracks by your searched artist, you search for Nirvana and get six different versions of Smells Like Teen Spirit listed at the top. The Walkman app is slightly better (it just lists three versions).

Offline mode

You can select any of the tracks or playlists you create in Music Unlimited for offline listening, which is an essential option for a decent music-streaming service. But Sony limits you to three devices and 4,000 tracks on the PlayStation Vita, Android, and iOS devices, and you can’t download tracks on PC or Mac.

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You can also set the quality for downloaded tracks to high in the Music Unlimited app for iOS and the Walkman app, but not the Music Unlimited Android app.

Xperia exclusives

Because I own an Xperia Z2, I can also use the Walkman app, which assimilates Music Unlimited. It does feature the curated playlists that are missing from the Android app. It also offers charts, can act as a media server to share music with other devices, and there’s an option to see what your friends are listening to through Facebook and share your own musical tastes.  You can also download unlimited tracks for offline mode through the Walkman app.

The other nice thing about the Walkman app is that it seamlessly blends your existing music collection, so whatever you have on your phone or tablet’s SD card or internal storage will appear here. That enables you to fill in any gaps you do find in the Music Unlimited catalogue.

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It even looks and feels a lot more stylish than the basic app. In fact, it makes Music Unlimited look positively dumbed down.  If Sony is serious about conquering the music streaming market, then it should be offering the Walkman app as its standard Android app.

You can understand the attempt to leverage exclusives for its hardware range, but it would gain far more traction with Android users by allowing them to download Walkman in the Play Store. In the short term, Sony should at least update the Android Music Unlimited app to match the PlayStation and iOS versions.

Troubled waters

The first big disappointment with Music Unlimited was the discovery that I can’t import or export playlists. It’s probably unfair to attack Sony’s service for this, because it’s a problem across most of them. Music streaming services understandably don’t make it easy to take your carefully crafted creations with you, because they don’t want you to leave. The popularity of Spotify, though, does mean there are a few third-party options for importing and exporting playlists that Music Unlimited doesn’t have.

Another feature that I really miss from Spotify is gapless playback.

I also encountered a problem trying to stream to my Sonos speaker. Sony’s Music Unlimited is not listed as a supported service in the Sonos app, so I was surprised to see it listed in the Throw menu of the Walkman app. Throw is a feature that uses DLNA and Bluetooth to stream to compatible devices. I excitedly tapped on it and it appeared to connect successfully, but when I pressed play on the song, ironically “The Sound the Silence,” nothing came out of the speaker.

Another feature that I really miss from Spotify is gapless playback. Its omission was instantly apparent on the new Pink Floyd album, where that little unintended skip between tracks is really jarring. It’s going to bother classical music fans, too.

The verdict

Despite the name, Sony Music Unlimited definitely has its limitations, but the severity depends on exactly what you’re looking for from a music service.

If you’re starting from scratch, own an Xperia device and a PS4, then I have no hesitation in recommending it. The music selection is vast, the quality is good, the streaming is robust, and you’ll be able to get the best value out of your subscription.

For people with a big collection of owned music they want to merge with a streaming service, Sony Unlimited is also a good choice. If you’re happy to search and listen to specific tracks you know you like, then Music Unlimited won’t disappoint.

The main thing that’s lacking here is the music discovery. The recommendations seem flawed to me, the curation is limited, and there isn’t as much opportunity to share music and follow what friends are listening to. If that’s important to you, then this isn’t the one.

Coming from Spotify, I’m definitely disappointed. It’s mostly little things, but they add up. The lack of gapless playback, the poor search functionality, and the clunky and ugly apps are all off-putting, but the lack of Sonos support is an absolute killer for me. I’ve seen similar complaints and requests in the Sony forums. The company needs to listen if it really wants to compete in this space. Releasing the Walkman app on Android would be a good start.

If Sony addresses these issues I’ll be back, in the meantime I’m off to try Deezer.