If you need your music everywhere, Apple Music’s “voice plan” isn’t for you

Streaming video, meal packs, curated clothes — there’s a subscription service for just about everything nowadays. And it usually doesn’t take long for those recurring costs to pile up, either. So when the opportunity to save a little money arrives — especially for something as elementally gripping as music — it’s almost worthy of consideration by default.

For $4.99 a month, or about half of what any other comparable music service will cost you, Apple promises access to the full 90 million songs in its library.

To some, that might sound like agony. Even though it beat Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant to market by years, many regard Apple’s once-groundbreaking virtual concierge as kind of a laughingstock by comparison.

But in some ways, Apple’s voice assistant is clearly better than it was. It sounds more natural than it did a few years ago, and on some newer iPhones — namely the XS and newer — Siri can work without an Internet connection. That’s good for speeding up some interactions, and for privacy. So, honestly: how bad could using it to queue up music be?

To find out, I used nothing but the Apple Music voice plan to listen to music while traveling cross-country for the holidays, which might actually have been the worst way to use it. Here’s how Apple’s budget streaming music service works, and how it held up for every leg of my journey.

The basics
Like many of its rivals, Apple Music offers ad-free access to a sizable music library for $9.99 a month. Subscribers can thumb through all that content, build playlists, download tunes for later and more, all through the music app built into nearly every Apple product with a screen.

To save money with the Apple Music voice plan, you have to kiss goodbye all the features I just mentioned. That’s because you won’t really be using that music app much, if at all.

Let’s say you want to listen to a specific song or album — you can’t search for it and tap to play it. You specifically have to ask Siri to play it for you, and hope that it understood you correctly. There are some things you can control by hand, though. You can fire up some of Apple’s many themed playlists, for example, or jump between tracks with a few taps on your phone screen.

Discounts for subscription services aren’t all that uncommon; Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and YouTube Music all offer $4.99 a month plans for students, and Amazon Prime subscribers get a $2 monthly discount on the company’s Music Unlimited service. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

And while the idea of a discounted streaming service you have to talk to may seem a little odd, even that isn’t all that weird. Two years ago, Amazon launched a cheaper version of Music Unlimited that only runs on Echo speakers, and Apple Music’s voice plan seemed tailor made to compete with it on affordable smart speakers like HomePod minis. And if the promise of cheaper music access gets more people talking to Siri, that could mean more training data Apple could use to improve its voice assistant’s performance down the road.

On foot
Upon clearing security at San Francisco International Airport, I did what I always do: I popped in some ear buds and tried to feel like I was anywhere else. This time, that involved loudly and clearly asking Siri to play some music while waiting for some chowder.

For some people, that won’t be an issue. But this plan is not for those who care about remaining discreet. And take it from me: it’s hard not to feel a little silly sitting near someone and asking your phone to “play something chill.” It’s not just awkward; it’s potentially annoying for the people around you.

Using Siri in situations like this is made trickier because it still — after all these years! — can’t consistently figure out what I’m saying. “Hey Siri, play Vulfpeck” prompted the voice assistant to play Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect.” The first time I asked Siri to “play Lawrence,” it sat there thinking for a while before seemingly giving up on it. And the second time I asked? Siri took me on a musical tour of 80s glam band Warrant. (As it turns out, “Cherry Pie” was just the tip of the iceberg.)

In fairness, Siri understood me more frequently than it goofed, and my ever-present mask probably didn’t help matters. Still, I was starting to get the occasional weird look from other people hovering around the gate. Oh well: I spent the entire boarding period relying on near-theatrical enunciation to make sure Siri heard me correctly.

In the air
About 10 minutes after wheels-up, the streaming plan’s biggest limitation became all too clear. Unlike the standard, $9.99 a month tier, there is no way to download or save music for offline listening with the Apple Music voice plan. That means you need a constant, reasonably reliable Internet connection to actually listen to anything. And those are, shall we say, far from a given at 35,000 feet.

I didn’t try streaming any music over the in-flight WiFi for fear of hogging too much bandwidth, which was just as well: chatting with Siri from the middle seat of a packed flight didn’t sound like much fun anyway.

The service didn’t give out entirely, though. My phone had managed to save two tracks from a playlist I was listening to pre-takeoff, and played them over and over while it waited for Internet access. Eventually, I gave up and stared at the seat back in front of me for an hour and a half until we landed, before repeating the process on a connecting flight.

Behind the wheel
It was only after slipping into a rental car that Apple Music’s voice plan started to make some sense. Features like CarPlay — which lets you interact with a connected phone by way of center-mounted screen — might come standard in most new cars, but they still require you to divert some of your attention away from the road.

If you need to control your music while driving, using your voice is perhaps the safest way to go, and Apple Music’s voice plan is well-suited for the task.

Since I was both maskless and completely alone, Siri had a much easier time understanding me than in the airport. That’s not to say it was perfect, though: it would still fumble the occasional request. (When I asked once again to hear music by Lawrence, it instead played a song by someone called Børns). But at least I wasn’t lacking for control: I could, for example, use the controls built into the steering wheel to whip through new tracks without wearing out my voice.

Because the voice plan’s limitations dovetail with the limitations of using a phone behind the wheel anyway, Apple Music’s voice plan might be best suited for people who spend long stretches in cars. In fact, there’s only one scenario I can think of where this discount streaming plan makes more sense.

At “home”
For a few days, “home” was a hotel in central New Jersey, where I sequestered myself with snacks and a pair of coronavirus tests before driving down to meet my family. And in those days, I used the Apple Music voice plan a lot on a HomePod mini I had packed.

The thing about listening to music in a car — especially for long stretches or on familiar roads — is that the music is often there to make the act of driving less tedious. Whether we admit it or not, the music becomes the focus, not the road.

But at home, it feels like the opposite is often true: music fades into the background while we take care of other things. In a situation like this, where exercising control over the music is less important than just hearing something, telling Siri to play something and letting it run for a while makes a lot of sense. And that’s what this cheap streaming plan is perfect for: filling dead air.

While that makes sense for some people — say, anyone who just got a HomePod mini for Christmas — the voice plan is too limited to serve as someone’s sole, all-around music plan. In fact, outside of the home or car, it functions awkwardly enough to make the $9.99 a month for full Apple Music service look awfully palatable, which might have been the plan all along. If you really care about music, do yourself a favor: shell out for Apple’s proper streaming music plan, or sign up with one of its similarly priced rivals.

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