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Digital Watch: Apple’s Beats 1 Radio Is Safe as Milk

Yesterday I shared my initial impressions of Apple’s Beats 1 Radio, and why I think it’s decidedly global orientation is its most interesting quality. Now I turn a critical ear to the actual programming and sound quality.

Originally I planned to write a review of Apple Music for today’s feature. But after spending additional time with Beats 1, I felt like I needed to write a follow-up examining how even if it is interesting, it’s not otherwise all that great. For all the excitement about Apple Music, at heart it really is just another streaming music service that doesn’t differ very much from all of its competitors. Beats 1 is receiving more attention, in part because this offering actually does differentiate Apple’s music services from most of its competitors. So I think it deserves a deeper dissection.

Here’s the thing: even if Beats 1 were on the broadcast dial near me I would still find it interesting, but not at all outstanding. That’s because for all the hype and somewhat wider playlist, it only seems a bit exceptional when compared against the intensely poor-to-mediocre state of American commercial pop radio.

Beats 1 Radio: Safe as Milk

For all the celebrities, and all the hype, Beats 1 still hews to a very conservative framework that emphasizes the mainstream and heavy rotation. On its launch day the station aired promos making a big deal about debuting a new single from Pharrell Williams, which included sound bytes of the multi-talented artist gushing about how thrilled he was to receive the backing of Beats 1.

Someone with absolutely no knowledge of the last five years of popular music might be forgiven for assuming that Pharrell is some new, up-and-coming artist, giddy from the excitement of having his star chosen to shine. Of course, the reality is that he’s a proven 11-time Grammy-award winning singer, songwriter and producer. Talented as he may be, Beats 1 promoting Pharrell’s new single on launch day is–to steal a phrase from Captain Beefheart–safe as milk.

While I enjoyed the variety of genres and sounds that exceeds that of typical American radio, over the course of about four hours of listening the station’s heavy rotation reared its ugly head, and became annoying. By the time I heard songs like The Weeknd’s new single “Can’t Feel My Face” four times before I got tired of the repetition and turned it off. Sure, that’s no worse than your typical CHR stations–but it sure ain’t better enough, either.

Cynical Censorship

During DJ Zane Lowe’s introductory set he enthused over playing a track from Dr. Dre’s seminal G-Funk album “The Chronic.” He complained about the record being markedly absent from streaming music services up to now as he talked over the unmistakeable opening beats of “Let It Ride.” Dr. Dre, of course, is a co-founder of Beats Music, which Apple acquired to create Apple Music, and is now an Apple employee. Consequently, “The Chronic” is now an Apple Music exclusive, though other online radio stations are free to play any song on the album, provided its not on-demand.

I was a little disappointed, however, when I realized I was hearing the heavily edited radio single. At one level I understand how Apple probably wants to keep Beats 1 as family friendly as possible. However, given the lyrical content of most pop music–including this track–this is an extremely flimsy and translucent fig leaf. Bleeping the f-word in “Let It Ride” is like watching a television edit of Pulp Fiction that dubs in “freaking” and “crud” but leaves all the violence intact (and I’ve seen that version).

There’s nothing particularly “family friendly” about that approach either. It only barely meets the already flimsy version of non-indecent required of FCC licensees. But, Beats 1 isn’t broadcast, and doesn’t have any obligation to meet that standard. If “decency” is a sincere concern, then one might argue that it entails more than just some f-words. Instead, I’ll offer that apparently adhering to the FCC standard of decency is cynical and unnecessary. If there’s a fan of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” who hasn’t heard the album in all its profanity-laden glory I’d like to meet her and offer her a pair of magical golden Beats by Dre headphones that filter out every naughty utterance known to humanity.

Nothing New

Even if Beats 1 Radio as a whole isn’t cynical, it does fall far short of revolutionary, or even exceptional. SiriusXM subscribers have had access to multiple stations full of Beats 1 style music for over a decade–most without any useless broadcast-style language editing. Satellite radio has been featuring celebrity DJs across all genres the entire time, even offering many–like Bob Dylan–their own channels.

Slacker Radio is another service that is built on curation, again with many popular music artists and celebrities invited to program stations and programs. In fact, looking across the streaming music service landscape you’ll be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t offer some of the features of Beats 1, even if not all in one live streaming station.

Any argument for Beats 1 exceptionalism pretty much falls apart when you look at the wider world of online radio. There are dozens upon dozens of stations that offer carefully curated variety, live hosts and even celebrity DJs all day long. Just looking at the US, I can name some outstanding non-commercial stations with strong online presences that qualify: KEXP, KCRW, WFMU, and The Current. Sure maybe their celebrities are a little smaller and genre-specific, but they matter to these stations’ listeners. And then there’s online-only operations like the recently launched Dash Radio, helmed by well-known DJ Skee, with stations curated by artists like Snoop Dogg and Odd Future, along with the resurrected East Village Radio.

Low Fidelity

If I was disappointed by Beats 1 choosing to censor songs, I was even more disappointed by the sound quality. Listening to the station on my iPhone 5 using both earbuds and speakers I found the fidelity to be about a match for most commercial pop stations on iHeartRadio–that’s not a compliment. The dynamic range is highly compressed, and I heard lots of artifacting in the high end giving too many tracks a shimmery sound that generally indicates lower bitrates, or several stages of compressions wherein an MP3 gets played and then recompressed to another MP3 or AAC stream. It made me wonder if the DJs are using a full uncompressed CD-quality source (or even actual CDs) or compressed tracks from the iTunes store.

Now, I’ve certainly heard worse sounding internet radio, but there’s no way I would call Beats 1 high fidelity. That’s somewhat ironic, given that Apple has always touted sound quality as a virtue of its music offerings, and Beats by Dre headphones are supposed to offer enhanced fidelity. Using a pair of Beats, or any decent headphone, to listen to Beats 1 would be a disappointing experience.

As a control I listened on Apple Music to some tracks I heard on Beats 1, including “Let It Ride” and “Can’t Feel My Face.” Hands down, the Apple Music tracks sounded tremendously better, with no glaring compression artifacts or high end distortion. Even though these were all pop songs with already compressed dynamics, it was a much more pleasant listening experience on Apple Music.

My conclusion is that Beats 1 suffers from two constraints. First, it’s clear that the station uses the kind of heavy-handed processing used by most big pop stations, which makes the station jump out when scanning the dial, but is fatiguing to listen to for hours at a time. Second, I’m pretty sure Beats 1 streams at a pretty low bitrate, adding to the distortion and degrading sound quality. This is probably to save bandwidth and costs, since Apple is streaming the station out worldwide. Nevertheless, it’s still a disappointment.

Not Much of a Threat

Even with the backing of Apple, it’s hard to see Beats 1 Radio as much more than a curiosity. I doubt it will become a serious to rival Pandora. Instead, after the newness wears off, I suspect interest in Beats 1 will subside. As I said yesterday, the service isn’t much of a threat to any truly independent internet radio, though it does pose a reasonable alternative to listening to any US CHR station online through a platform like iHeartRadio or CBS’s Radio.com. However, for the moment those platforms are girded by offering a wider variety of formats.

On the one hand I kind of wish Beats 1 were more audacious and boundary-pushing. On the other, I’m kind of glad it isn’t, since the service already benefits from Apple’s market power to put it on millions of mobile devices by fiat. While I do use Apple products in my work, I’m not a fanboy, cheering on the company’s dominance over every arena it enters. I prefer diversity and a media landscape that isn’t consolidated into an oligopoly.

On the bright side, perhaps Beats 1 will function as a kick in the pants to the otherwise moribund state of American commercial radio online.

And maybe Snoop Dogg will give up the chronic.


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One Response to Digital Watch: Apple’s Beats 1 Radio Is Safe as Milk

  1. M Noivad July 19, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

    I whole-heartedly agree that most online streaming’s audio quality is pathetic and virtually unlistenable for more than a brief period. I myself can only stomach about 30–45 minutes of music. So, while I understand the significant bandwidth difference between serving 128Kbps MP3 vs. much better 256kbps AAC, the fidelity is worth it IMO, but sadly most people aren’t nearly as discerning, and thus online radio will always suffer from the lowest quality they can get away with among a wide audience of most being quality blind listeners.

    If I could change that I would — especially since the type of music I play compresses very poorly. Some is very noise heavy industrial/electro, and as you know the closer a signal is to random noise, the worse it compresses —but at least I’m playing mainly lossless and only going through one distortion cycle…

    Also, given the plethora of mainstream media outlets, I wonder why Apple or anyone can’t understand that they can only trade shares of the pie rather than making their own pie by playing good music that isn’t on a lot of people’s radar. Considering Apple has a huge digital catalog, it would be child’s play to hire a staff of hardcore music fans each focusing on one or more specific sub-genre’s and roll out something their deep pockets could truly change how music is propagated and consumed. So sad: so much potential, but so little actual vision nor iconoclastic risk-taking Apple once excelled at.

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