Play and display

Streaming audio has changed the way we listen to music, but how do the user experiences stack up? Alasdair Scott compares leading devices and services

In the last 32 years since the CD appeared as a mass-market consumer format, the digitalization of music has delivered an unprecedented increase in the availability, quality, portability and diversity of music.
We’ve seen the formats shrink; the artwork move from cardboard to screen; access to content spread across a plethora of new devices; and a series of new brands take over in a turbulent marketplace.

Now, there are two more key trends to address: The rise of streaming music as a ‘purchase mechanic’ and the availability of ‘smart hi-fi’ at home.


Streaming Music Services

There’s a plethora of streaming music platforms to choose from (and Apple is still working on the new version of whatever Beats Music will turn into) but let’s look at three players which come from very different backgrounds: Spotify, Deezer and Rdio. All of these services offer a pretty similar feature set – a monthly or yearly subscription, a huge song library (upwards of 18 million tracks), availability on all popular operating systems and ability to personalise collections – so from a user perspective the service differentiation is all about the UI/UX and (perhaps most importantly) how they assist in discovery (both search and recommendation) of music you’ll like.

Spotify

Spotify has recently undergone a major visual overhaul, toning down the brand’s green gradient hues in favour of something greyer, flatter and better at evidencing the album artwork – it’s like a Scandi-Noir version of the latest iTunes release.

Looking at the user’s common ‘need states’ – finding, organising, playing, discovering and sharing – the Spotify app does its very best to keep the top level functions available at all times, along with the currently playing track. So there can be times when it feels like there’s way too much information and multiple distractions from the task at hand.

Spotify’s dedicated Browse section provides a series of Genres and Moods. Like much of the interface, it’s not clear how these are sorted – they’re not ordered alphabetically, they’re not ordered by type. While this is not necessarily an issue, it would be great to understand why this is the case – and similarly, why Tracks from Artists are ranked as ‘Popular’ and yet not ordered by the number of Plays (perhaps it’s Total Plays This Week vs Total Plays Ever … in which case, the labels should evidence this). When playing a particular track one can view this full-screen – and like many users, I’m terrifically pleased that the cover artwork is front and centre – and there’s quick access to a range of functions you’d want to use (Add/Remove from Playlist, Share, Build a ‘Station’ from this Track, etc).

My feeling is the new Spotify user experience is a significant improvement over the previous iteration and is well-polished (particularly on Retina devices) although some of the user journey seems overly complex.

Deezer

Deezer feels significantly more old skool in terms of overall UI/UX with iconography used primarily for navigation and control functions, and the musical genres represented by photography and typography. I can’t help feeling my age here – as a 40-something bloke I’m pretty sure I know what a generic Rock album looks like, so for me Deezer is spot on here. However, a ‘screenager’ might well approach this very differently.

Unlike Spotify, which has developed a set of visual elements that are leveraged across desktop, tablet and mobile, Deezer presents a significantly different UI/UX across multiple devices and I’m sure users would prefer closer alignment between these different platforms. For instance, the act of simply sharing a Track to Facebook feels like a very different experience between web, desktop app and tablet.

Leaving aside specific design choices, it is clear that the Deezer content team has looked pretty closely at how searching works and the ranking of results is clearly provided, ordered by Artist, Album and Track with few Discovery elements getting in the way of a specific Search task.

Rdio

Rdio is the new kid on the block and as such has the advantage of coming to its audience with a fresh take on what a modern UI/UX should feel like.
Experiencing Rdio for the first time, I’m struck by two key design decisions.

Firstly, Rdio is highly ‘modal’ – meaning it’s clearly focused on the specific task at hand. So if you’re browsing for a genre of music the vast majority of the screen real-estate is devoted to this task while other top-level distractions are relegated to a sidebar or Options button.

Secondly, this interface is beautifully minimalist and tailored specifically for each platform. Thus, the web browser experience on a laptop feels just like the app experience on the laptop, while the tablet and smartphone versions inherit much of the common Rdio visual language but optimised for touch.

To me this feels like the future. It’s a UI/UX that tries to anticipate the few things the user might actually want to do right now and yet provides quick access to the plethora of wider functions via a single tap or click. It gloriously embraces Retina displays and evidences the best-looking Discovery options via Trending, New Releases and Recommendations.


Smart HiFi

So no we’ve chosen our favourite source for music, be it the traditional Store approach (iTunes, Google Play, Amazon etc) or Streaming service (Spotify, Deezer, Rdio etc) we can now look at how to listen to all this good stuff.

In the old days it was a case of taking your favourite playback device and plugging it in to a speaker/dock/AV receiver. But with ubiquitous access to Wi-Fi at home and at work, the concept of plugging a mini-jack into your iPhone or MacBook just seems very wrong.

Which leads on to the new sector of smart hi-fi products. There’s an ever-increasing range of wireless speaker systems available today – these range from simple BlueTooth/AirPlay speakers (just pair your playback device and off you go) to fully intelligent, multi-room setups with their own storage, processors and independent streaming ability. For now, we’re going to focus on the UI/UX delivered by top-end systems from Sonos, Linn and Naim.

Sonos is regarded as one of the pioneers of smart hi-fi and has a wide range of hardware which delivers streaming audio to multi-room setups either via your chosen playback device (phone, tablet, PC) or directly through the system’s Connect unit (via streaming service or networked storage).

Both Linn and Naim are highly respected brands within the audiophile world and have been producing high-end amplifiers and speaker systems for 40 years, so their entry into the smart hi-fi arena is certain to provide the highest quality audio reproduction.

Linn has a range of Network Music Players (Kiko, Majik, Akurate and Klimax) and they use the optional Kinsky playback software and Konfig utility to setup and update the systems. These Apps run on MacOS, Windows, iOS and Android.
Naim has a number of wireless speaker solutions with the mu-so system being their latest offering.

The system is controlled by the mu-so App which is available for iOS and Android. Given their high-end nature, Linn and Naim systems provide multi-room, high-resolution playback from a wide variety of input sources, including direct network input from some (but not all) popular streaming music sources. While the on-screen experience from apps like Spotify and Rdio are gorgeous, the industrial design of the hardware itself is equally stunning – which is just as well given some of the price points here are easily in Mac Pro territory.

Oddly enough there’s an inverse relationship between how lush the hardware looks and the corresponding quality of UI/UX in their dedicated apps. The Linn hardware is wonderful but their apps really don’t feel like they deliver a similar polished quality. Naim’s on-screen design fares better (and their hardware form-factor is super hip retro-chic) whereas Sonos – who have the simplest amp/speaker design – have a rather lovely new UI/UX on their controller app.

What the apps from Sonos, Linn and Naim do extremely well is to facilitate the initial set-up of the system – tasks like setting up your streaming music accounts, loading external music libraries, specifying speaker placement – which is what one would expect them to do. And unless you’re moving house frequently, this inital set-up process is something you do once – when you unbox the system – and then don’t do again for years.

However, once the Sonos, Linn or Naim system has been configured, there’s a major choice for the user to make. Do you control these systems via their custom-developed apps or does one simply use the regular Spotify, Deezer or Rdio Apps instead?

And this is where Apple’s AirPlay technology comes into its own. AirPlay is a system-level technology that allows the playback device (MacOS or iOS) to choose which set of speakers to use, no matter what App you’re running. It’s so natural and simple that anything else just seems like hard work. This approach gives the best of both worlds – configure the smart hi-fi system via the manufacturer’s custom app, but control day-to-day playback via your favourite music app using AirPlay. 1

Alasdair Scott is co-founder of Connected Cloud Communications, c3uk.com

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