Finding a few new beats, good and bad, with Nokia Music and Music+ [Review]

Nokia Music is frequently mentioned as a major selling point by Nokia, and rightly so. Music offers unlimited, ad-free, radio-mix-style music, much like other radio streaming services such as Pandora. Nokia, being Nokia, knew this wasn’t enough; Music also gives you the option to download entire offline mixes for listening without a data connection, shows you local music events, and has a nice user interface to boot. On top of that, you really can’t argue with free.

Last month, however, Nokia brought out Music+, which, for $3.99 a month, gives you higher-quality streaming, unlimited track skips, unlimited offline mixes, song lyrics, and access to the mix radio from a web browser on your computer at home. So, are these features worth the extra price, or should you keep your money, even if it is a fairly paltry sum?

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Those who have at least heard of Nokia Music already know what’s up when it comes to the basics; for those who aren’t up to speed, Music is free for unlimited use on all of Nokia’s Lumia devices. You create custom radio stations based on up to three artists and listen to all the music you like with an Internet connection. On top of that, you can select pre-curated mixes based on genre or sub-genre, as well as purchase individual songs and albums from Nokia’s MP3 Store.

The most glorified feature is the offline listening capability; users can download mixes to a Lumia device for listening without a data connection. There is also the Gigs feature, which displays local concerts and events, gives you directions, and links to ticket sellers.

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So, before we jump into Music+, let’s review the details of what you get out of the free service. This is what I can gather from several hours of listening; Nokia Music streams music at a fairly standard (or sub-standard, depending on where you’re coming from) 64kbps AAC or 128kbps MP3 (Either one sounds very similar to the other). For on-the-go listening and devices with small storage limits, that’s a boon; a music file of that size takes up about 1 megabyte per minute. For folks who listen to higher-quality tracks with good audio gear from the get-go, however, that’s a bit of a let-down. More on that later.

When it comes to variety, Music doesn’t seem to have it. Be it the pre-curated mix radio stations, a custom station, or any offline mix, every single station seems to have a limit of 25-35 songs. This is pretty disappointing, since I know that switching between a few stations of similar genres produces more music than I would have enjoyed in one single station. The variety is somewhere, but you certainly won’t find it without already having a broad taste in music, unlike me, and start listening to several stations at one time.

Compared to Pandora, the biggest competitor in radio-style music streaming, the hand-curated mixes of Nokia Music simply don’t add up to the elemental “tagging” and complete blending of tracks on Pandora’s service. I would imply a very strong YMMV here, in the meantime, as if you already have a Lumia device and are on the fence about the Music+ pluses, you can get a sense of variety for yourself since you have access to the service already. For me, however, it just doesn’t seem like enough.

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The other features are more nifty than just plain useful, and they are, don’t worry. I myself just don’t go off to concerts. Ever. From what I can tell, anyhow, the Gigs feature is as functional as it can be. You can easily get to ticket sellers from the info page, get directions in Nokia Maps, then via Drive+ Beta, know where and when the concert is, and even see what other events are upcoming at a venue. You can also use Music as your primary music store, and with a library of over 17 million songs, there’s going to be something you’ll want.

You get all of this for free on a Lumia phone. It’s an OK deal, I’d say. Though it doesn’t have the variety I’m looking for, some others might prefer the limited tracklists and eventually just decide to try new mix stations frequently. The offline mixes, since they are the same size and quality of the main stations, have great potential utility, and you know if you’re the guy that needs that kind of feature. The other features are also handy for the frequent concert-goer and music-purchasers out there.

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Let’s now throw in the upgrade; Music+ gives a higher bitrate for music, unlimited offline downloads and skips, and more. It’s $4 per month, and that’s exactly the same price for Pandora One, which also ups the bitrate, as well as removes the hourly listening limit of the free service, but doesn’t offer unlimited skips, offline mixes, Gigs, a native music store, or even a native Windows Phone application. Pandora, in the meantime, does offer that extra variety that I personally demand, and since my data plan is plenty forgiving, plus I’m also a premium Spotify user, I have my offline listening covered.

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The fresh bitrate for both services is 192kbps MP3, which is definitely acceptable for any casual listener. In fact, 128kbps is fine for the most casual circumstances, such as writing this review; I’ve been switching between Music and MetroRadio for the last couple hours, and since I haven’t been in a quiet place with nobody else in the house, I just don’t care. It kind-of makes it easier to concentrate on my work, I would say.

On the other hand, the higher bitrate is definitely noticeable when you are focusing on the tunes. For someone like me, whose investment in head gear runs any higher than Apple earbuds (such as the Brainwavz M2 IEMs and Fiio E11 amp pictured above), it starts to get to the point where even 192kbps isn’t good enough. You know who you are, though; if you’re the kinda person that just buys new earbuds because your last set broke, it isn’t even worth talking about bitrate mumbo-jumbo and it shouldn’t be a selling point for you for either premium service.

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Unlimited offline downloads? You’re limited to four with unpaid use, so that’s a significant difference. I imagine if you had a lot of genres, at least a gigabyte of storage to burn, and lots of musical tastes, you could take advantage of this feature. I have very few genres that I regularly listen to, if not just one, and only once before have I hit the download limit, let alone the fact that I very rarely listen to the offline mixes. Unlimited skipping also has its obvious benefits.

Song lyrics? I don’t understand why this must be a paid feature. Once again, my limited, electronica-oriented tastes don’t give me much opportunity to try it out, but it does work, even on some DnB tracks where lyrics are more prominent than most. You can also get the lyrics for songs in your music library, as long as the metadata for the tracks are correct.

And finally, Nokia advertises web-app access to the service from other web-capable devices, such as tablets, computers, and “smart” TVs. Umm… But where? I will update this review as soon as possible, but at this point in time, I am still waiting for a response from tier 2 support at Nokia (it has only been 24 hours and the chat support was excellent, no problems there) about How to actually get there.

Either of two scenarios is likely; the first is that Music.Nokia.com reveals a button that grants access to the service, and I never caught it. The other is that Nokia has not made the web application available in the United States where I reside. Either way, I’m a bit let down that I wasn’t able to try accessing Music from my PC, either because of my own blunder or because the option was never there in the first place.

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Buy, Try, or Cry?

In my opinion, Both the standard Music and subscription Music+ are worth a try, but I definitely had less than enough excitement over some of the cool features and enough to complain about otherwise. Music is already available on all Lumia devices, so if you are still considering using Music+ as your primary music service, a free 7-day trial is available in-app with no commitment. The variety is not up to the Pandora par, but the feature set blows the competition away and, at least, gives phone users that much more reason to “Make the Switch.”

One small note: I was not able to try out the “music profile” feature as I literally stream all music via the web in one way or another.  Apologies.


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