There are many ways to listen to music on your iPhone, and you don’t have to rely on iTunes and the built-in Music app. If you’re sick of wrestling with the basic built-in option, why not choose something else?
Whether you want to continue using iTunes and the iOS music library, want an alternative way of transferring and storing files, want to use the cloud to store your media, or you’d rather get your music fix via a subscription model, there are many options.
Here’s the music lover’s guide to iOS.
How Does Music Work on iOS?
Apple’s famous “walled garden” approach pushes a specific and rather outdated approach to media management. Assuming you’re using your own files, you’ll first need to import your music into an iTunes music library on either a Mac or Windows PC.
Then, with your files indexed and your iPhone paired with the same computer, you’ll need to sync music with your device (which can be done wirelessly, but is much faster over a USB connection).
Once you’ve transferred your music to your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, it is stored in your device’s music library and accessed directly via the Music app. Unfortunately, you can’t just point the Safari browser at an MP3 or other music file and expect to be able to download and keep it in your library, you’ll need to add new media via iTunes if you want it to show up in your device’s music library. However, Safari will play MP3s and other natively supported media files (like WAV or MP4).
A centralized music library does have its perks, though. As the operating system handles media playback, any application can essentially function as a media player. That’s why many fitness apps (like lounge workout FitStar) can play music that’s already on your device, and why you can use your music as an alarm. Apps that go their own way in terms of media management forego this inter-app operability.
Most apps that support media playback of some sort can take advantage of media controls found in Control Center, accessed by swiping up from the bottom of your screen.
A Word About Apple Music
Apple Music is still relatively new, having launched about a year ago at the time of this writing. That means not all iOS music apps integrate nicely with it, though the majority of simple players do. Things may be progressing, since Apple has started to allow third party apps a little more autonomy in terms of Apple Music.
One example is a recent change to the Shazam iOS app which allows the music identification service to add songs to playlists straight after you’ve identified them. Unfortunately, apps like djay, which allow you to mix music and apply effects, still don’t have the necessary access to Apple Music (citing Apple’s DRM as the main barrier).
It seems like apps that require a little more than simple playback (i.e., apps that want to process the audio) are still unable to use Apple Music. Many simple players are also unsuitable for browsing the Apple Music catalog, so you might need to build the bulk of your collection within the basic iOS Music app. Today we’ll be focusing on players that integrate with Apple Music, at least in terms of playback.
iOS Music Alternatives
The following apps use your iOS music library, iCloud Music Library, or iTunes Match to provide you access to your music in a slightly different way from the basic Music app. Most are free, and all are compatible with Apple Music (some even work with Spotify and YouTube).
Best for: Users who want an app that takes play counts and last played data into account.
Ecoute is a simple app, with a focus on providing a clean interface that prominently displays album artwork. It also features an enhanced shuffle feature including shuffle by albums, and uses metadata like play counts and last played dates to better serve up tunes.
AirPlay support is present, and you can filter your library by composers, audiobooks, and so on to finetune your selection. There’s even podcast support and social elements including Facebook, Twitter, and audio scrobbling via Last.fm (you can even scrobble tracks in the background). A night mode tops off an impressive feature list, perfect for drivers or anyone who likes to listen to music in bed.
Best for: Gesture-controls.
Listen is a breath of fresh air in terms of navigating your music collection. The app uses lively gesture-based controls and artwork-heavy menus, and it’s basic functionality as a music player is completely free. If you want access to local and online radio stations, you’ll need to upgrade to a subscription-based model that starts at $2.99 per month.
You can browse by albums, artists, playlists and the aforementioned radio stations, and there’s a familiar pull-to-search feature too. The now playing screen is where things get really interesting though, and you’ll have to drag the Now Playing music artwork around the screen to do things like skip tracks, share something, or return to your collection.
Best for: Apple Music, Spotify, and Deezer users looking for a social listening experience.
SoundShare is a collaborative app that connects many different services together, including Apple Music, Spotify, and Deezer. It’s an actual social network you’ll need to sign up for, and anyone you want to collaborate with will have to do the same. The app allows you to like, comment on, and share music as well as build collaborative playlists with other users.
SoundShare isn’t really much fun if you’re using it on your own, and you’ll really need to share a streaming service with other users to get the most out of it. For that reason it’s not for everyone, but it’s free and bound to tick the boxes if you can convince your friends to sign up too.
Best for: One-handed playback.
Stezza advertises itself as a music player for drivers, providing all the controls users need in a bold interface. Music appears in a grid with artwork featuring prominently, and the interface adapts based on what you’re listening to. The app also includes support for video files, but we wouldn’t recommend you watch anything while driving.
Drivers with an AppRadio-compatible car stereo from Pioneer can pair the app, and for everyone else, AirPlay, Bluetooth audio, or a simple stereo cable will do the trick. The simple and oversized interface may suit more than just drivers, so check it out if you’re looking for one-handed music control.
Best for: Finding lyrics so you can sing along.
Want to sing along to your music collection? Musixmatch lets you do just that. The app works with songs already synced with your device, and also allows you to connect Apple Music and Spotify too. The app will show you the lyrics in time with the music, and developers claim to have the world’s largest lyrics catalogue (though I’m not sure how they can prove that).
A powerful search engine allows you to look up lyrics for any song, even if it’s not in your library. If you can’t remember the name, you can search for the lyrics instead, and Musixmatch will help you identify the song. There’s even Shazam-like support built in for finding lyrics to the songs playing around you.
Best for: Users yearning for a classic Apple Music app experience.
When Apple Music arrived, the iOS Music app was updated to support it. This resulted in a set of new tabs appearing along the bottom — For You, New, Radio and so on. Cesium seeks to reverse those changes, providing a simple and utilitarian experience and maintaining compatibility with Apple Music, iTunes Match, and locally synced files.
The app is heavily customizable too, allowing you to manage your tabs, tag your music with multiple genres, reorder, and queue up music. It includes gesture controls and allows you to do neat things like play all songs in a collection (e.g., an artist or genre) with a swipe and a tap. You can’t browse Apple Music or create playlists (yet), but if you’re looking for a simple app, then Cesium is $2 well spent.
Ditch The Music Library
iOS stores your music in a centralized music library, whether that’s locally on your device or pushed to all of your devices using iCloud. If you want to use iTunes Match or Apple Music, you’ll need to stick to the iTunes method, but if you’d rather just use a file-based approach, then your best option is to use an app that stores your music as files.
If you’re a Linux user, you’ll have to use one of these options if you want to sync your local music with your iPhone, as Apple doesn’t build a version of iTunes for Linux. Though there are a lot of apps on the App Store that offer this functionality, the following are all free.
Best for: All things “local media” on your iOS device.
VLC should be your number one choice if you’re planning to go it alone and ditch iTunes on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Not only does it play most music and video files (including unsupported formats like FLAC), it has support for multiple audio tracks and subtitle files too.
You can transfer music through a standard browser via Wi-Fi, iTunes File Share, and cloud services like Dropbox and Google Drive. The app supports file sharing over SMB, FTP, UPnP, and PLEX, and even comes with an Apple Watch app for controlling media on the go. VLC doesn’t need to be open to play media, allowing you to listen to music in the background while doing other things.
Best for: Users looking for a music-focused app for local media playback.
If for some reason VLC isn’t cutting it for you, FLAC Player+ should do the trick. The app supports FLAC, MP3, AAC, WMA and RealMedia formats among others, allowing you to listen in the background while doing other things. The app takes a music-first approach, allowing you to group songs by playlist, album, artist, and so on.
The app resembles more of a music player than VLC, so it doesn’t work for video. Just like VLC, you can transfer your music via Wi-Fi, removing the need to use iTunes at all. The interface could do with a bit of work, but it’s easy to use, completely free, and works like a charm.
Cloud & Streaming Solutions
Streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, and Deezer offer another way of listening to your tunes on the go, but they come with a few drawbacks. You’ll need an active subscription for starters, and if you’re not blessed with a large iOS device on which to store your music locally, you’ll need to stream your music, which may require a generous data plan.
Apple Music / Spotify / Deezer
You can pay for a subscription to one of the big music streaming services and use them, but be mindful of data usage, and available space on your device.
SoundCloud has always been its own kind of music streaming service, offering a place for anyone to upload their music, remixes, podcasts, or live sessions. The service still provides a place for regular users and emerging artists to share their work, but now it also offers an extended catalog that more closely resembles Spotify or Apple Music called SoundCloud Go for $10 per month.
In addition to providing offline compatibility, the service provides a larger catalog from a range of labels and artists but still cannot match what the big players provide. Still, even if you just use SoundCloud to follow your favorite labels, emerging artists, and a few podcasts, it’s still worth having on your iPhone.
Google Play Music allows you to sync 50,000 songs with your Google Account for free, then take them with you on the go. The app features a “uniquely Google” interface with a few neat features, including suggestions for what to listen to and recommendations based on your tastes. The free version uses an ad-based model, so you won’t be able to listen uninterrupted.
You can also sync the music you’ve uploaded to your device for offline listening if you’re a subscriber. You’ll also get access to a much larger catalog of music, YouTube Red (in the US), and no ads. Google Play Music has been on Android for a while, where it’s earned its reputation as the go-to music app.
Groove is essentially the same as Google Play Music, except it uses Microsoft OneDrive. You can even choose to subscribe to opt-out of ads and use Microsoft’s catalog of music. Unfortunately, the app hasn’t been that well-received, so unless you’ve got a load of free OneDrive space hanging around, you’re probably better off going for Play Music instead.
If you truly want ad-free listening from a cloud-storage provider, VLC ticks the box again. You can connect to Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, OneDrive and of course iCloud to stream or download media for local playback.
What Do You Use?
With iOS 10 just around the corner, Apple may make some changes to the way the basic music app works. Personally I’d welcome a less clunky Apple Music experience and more customizable interface, and hopefully Apple will loosen the leash and let developers do more with their streaming service also.
Along with the music apps we have covered for you above, you might want to check out the best podcast apps for iOS.