Let's get one thing out of the way: Nobody buys a gaming console for music. Yes, modern consoles increasingly run all kinds of non-game apps — especially the entertainment kind — as the manufacturers of just about every type of consumer electronics aim to be the primary interface between people and their favorites 1s and 0s.
These are gaming machines, but they are also music machines, a fact that takes on a heightened importance because not every gamer has decided between Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4. Similar third-party games are available on each platform, and in fact, the hardware contained by each is so similar as to be considered standardised from the point of view of game developers (although differences exist).
The idea of playing music on these systems might not make sense to non-gamers. But these consoles are often connected to powerful stereo or, even better surround sound speaker systems — besides, both offer the ability to play your music alongside your games, rather than enduring the usual nu-metal (or whatever) jams that occupy gaming soundtracks. Finally, to a gamer, picking up that controller (or their smartphone) in order to queue up music on their console is not foreign. Many of these people are going to be watching television on their consoles too.
It's only natural to play music on these consoles, and both Sony and Microsoft offer bespoke music subscription services, plus other ways to play music on these machines — although not as many as perhaps they should have. Let's see how the PS4 and Xbox One stack up against each other music-wise.
Let's start with the coolest feature for music fans: the possibility of listening to your own music as you play a game. Both companies have the potential to let you play the music of your choice inside games, instead of offending your refined musical palate with whatever nu-metal anthems the developers have included in their games. The PS4 has the clear edge on this one.
If you subscribe to Sony Music Unlimited, you can play any of its 22 million tracks in your games, instead of the game's own background music, as part of a £59.99/annum music subscription, which also puts music on your computer and smartphone. This is huge, and it also lets you keep the sound effects of the game if you want. (This feature might require a system upgrade, depending on when you buy your PS4.)
"The number one thing that [gamers we surveyed] asked for was they wanted to just listen and play at the same time," Sony vice president and general manager, global digital video and music services Mike Aragon told Evolver.fm at a demo in Manhattan. "Because it's integrated at the system level, you don't have to keep hopping out of the application. I just hit the PS button, and [he cranks up the volume] and I go right back to playing my game."
But do you get the sound effects from the game, even though your own music is playing?
"You can," replied Aragon. "You can adjust that." He then demonstrated how the volume level of the game sound effects can be tweaked against the volume level of whatever music you are playing from Sony Music Unlimited.
In the future, Sony might even expand this feature by putting the music into games algorithmically, in addition to letting the user choose.
"If you're driving a car in a game, why not have your own playlist — and the game [would be] just pulling your playlist in the background, and using its own algorithms to say, 'Okay, you're driving through the Italian countryside, let's give you that kind of music.' You have 22 million tracks to choose from, instead of this finite number. [It could also work with] dance games — those types of integrations are all things that we can do because [Sony Music Unlimited] is integrated at the system level."
Microsoft offers a "snap" feature that makes it easy to toggle back and forth between your games and apps, including Xbox Music. It's nicely branded, but it doesn't do what the PS4 does, which is play the music of your choice in a game without killing the game's sound effects.
"On Xbox One you will be able to play music during other activities, including gameplay, using the Snap feature," confirmed Microsoft Xbox One spokeswoman Amanda Barry by email. "While you will need to choose between listening to the game sounds and soundtrack or your music, in-game chat will work with both."
So there you have it: If you want to achieve the gaming music fan dream of putting your own music into games, PS4 is the better choice today, and could get even more interesting tomorrow. However, if you go with the Xbox One for other reasons, you'll at least be able to play your own music while playing, but without the game's sound effects.
Both boxes have optical audio outputs. That means that, with a single wire, you can get glorious, uncompressed stereo or surround sound out of the console and into your relatively modern sound system — or, if you're a serious audiophile, into your standalone DAC (we like this one because it's also a portable music player). It also means that neither will work with your ancient sound system (i.e. one that lacks an optical input).
Even if you're not an audiophile, the optical output is nice, because it only needs a single thin cable to deliver any number of stereo or surround channels. However, it's not quite as simple as it sounds, due to variation in each system's support for surround sound. (If all you want is stereo sound, there is no difference between the two systems here.)
The Sony PlayStation 4 supports Dolby Digital 5.1, among other formats, through its digital optical output.
The Microsoft Xbox One does not support Dolby Digital 5.1, unless you have an open HDMI input in your sound system, and it won't work with most surround-sound gaming headphones.
"The only thing coming out [of the Xbox One's digital optical input] is Dolby DTS," said Jesse Johansen, videogame developer and former videogame-crazed roommate of the author. "So if your receiver only does Dolby 5.1, it outputs in stereo. HDMI does surround, but your receiver has to support HDMI. Also, all 5.1 headsets use Dolby Digital through optical, so none of them work — well, they work, but they only get stereo."
This isn't the end of the world from a music perspective, but it's worth knowing from a gaming perspective — and if you're looking to use your gaming console for surround-sound music formats in the future — for instance live music, like this Xbox app for watching concerts — it's a bigger deal.
Sony includes a 30-day free trial to Sony Music Unlimited, a Spotify-like music subscription; after that trial period, like Spotify, it costs £7.99 per month. It runs on PS4, iOS, Android, and the web,and looks like this:
Microsoft includes 15 free song plays on Xbox Music, also a Spotify-like service that puts music on your PS4, iOS, Android, Windows, and the web. After that, it costs £8.99 per month, and looks like this:
Both of these consoles fall down flat right out of the gate when it comes to giving you access to your own music downloads, in addition to the music on their subscriptions services. Both companies reportedly hope to remedy this situation, but here's how things stand now:
- Both machines come with a 500GB hard drive that you won't want to use for music, because that's where your games go, and they take up a lot of room. Neither supports an external hard drive today, either.
- As of today, neither manufacturer lets you store your MP3s or any other downloaded/ripped music on that hard drive.
- Neither machine lets you connect a USB stick to it in order to play music (come on!).
- Both devices are somewhat hobbled a lack of wireless connectivity for music. Both manufacturers dropped full support for DLNA — the handy wireless standard that lets you zap music from PCs, smartphones, and tablets to the Xbox — although with the Xbox One, you can actually use another device to push music via DLNA, rather than browsing your music with the gaming console and deciding what to play, the way you could with Xbox 360. Gamers are up in arms about this (as well as about the lack of MP3 support), so we expect software fixes on both platforms soon. However, don't expect either one to add support for Apple AirPlay (as nice as that would be for both iOSand Android users).
The most basic way to deal with music on a gaming console is with the gaming control, but that's not the only way to play music on these consoles.
The PlayStation App for iOS or Android functions as a second screen for the PS4, which comes in handy when searching for artists, songs, or albums, because you don't have to type in the names with a cursor on the TV screen. (Note that the PS4 doesn't support the Blu-ray remote that worked with PlayStation 3.)
You can use your voice to control Xbox One, but it it's a bit clumsy to use, so you're probably better off using the controller or SmartGlass app (for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Windows 8.1) to control your music, if you'd prefer not to use the controller. As with the PS4′s app, use of SmartGlass makes searching for artists and songs much easier.
For now, SmartGlass acts as a remote control for music and other media playback. Eventually, we suspect it could contain "companion" material for music, the way it already does for movies and games, such as biographies and the other users who are listening to that artists.
There's really almost nothing to speak of here, so for now, if you want to play music on one of these consoles, you'll need to run their official apps on your console, rather than, say, Spotify or Rdio. Both have app platforms (PS4 apps | Xbox One apps), where third-party music apps could ultimately appear.
More on each platform:
Evolver.fm observes, tracks and analyses the music apps scene, with the belief that it's crucial to how humans experience music, and how that experience is evolving.
Image courtesy of Flickr/LEOL30