What are the differences (and overlaps) between iTunes Match, Apple Music and iCloud Music Library? And which is the best Apple music service for me to use?

We've come a long way since portable music was a whirring tape constantly in threat of being eaten by a brick-sized cassette player. And having long since blazed past Apple's original iPod that could "put 1000 songs in your pocket", many people now want all of their music everywhere, at any point, regardless of the device they're using at the time.

Apple provides two means of accessing such collections: Apple Music and iTunes Match, both of which (confusingly) make use of iCloud Music Library, but in subtly different ways. Each service offers specific features and limitations, and they can even be used simultaneously. This article aims to help unpick what each does, and the best choice for you.

See also: Apple Music vs Spotify comparison and How iTunes Match and Apple Music work together

What is iCloud Music Library?

Simply, iCloud Music Library is Apple's name for where you store music files in iCloud. Regardless of the Apple service you sign up to, iCloud Music Library is where your uploads live, tied to the Apple ID used to pay for said service. It's also how playlists are synchronised across devices.

Initially, Apple let you store up to 25,000 songs in iCloud Music Library, but this limit has since been raised to 100,000. Once all relevant music files have uploaded (which, note, can take a very long time), they (and your playlists) are accessible on any device logged into the relevant Apple ID.

If you have an unlimited, reasonably fast and stable web connection, you can benefit from iCloud Music Library by streaming your music on demand. If your connection is slower or you want to download some files for offline playback, you can tap the usual download icon (a cloud with a downward-facing arrow) to add an album or individual track to a device's local library.

What is iTunes Match?

Apple's older music service began life in November 2011, initially only in the USA. It has since been made available in over 100 countries, and in the UK costs £21.99 annually.

To start the process of signing up to iTunes Match, go to Store > iTunes Match in iTunes. If you've already signed up to Apple Music, Apple 'hides' the iTunes Match option, but you can still sign up by clicking the subscribe link on Apple's website. Once iTunes Match is activated, iTunes scans your music library and attempts to match it to content on the iTunes Store.

Tracks Apple successfully matches become available to your devices as 256 kbps AAC downloads, even if your original copy was of a lower quality. These files can be accessed from any device. Should you delete an original file from iTunes, the matched one can be downloaded. Unmatched files are uploaded from iTunes to iCloud Music Library, and can also later be downloaded should you need to, although they won't get an 'upgrade' in audio quality.

In theory, iTunes Match can match a large range of file formats (AAC, MP3, AIF, WAV, and more) at a range of qualities. In reality, the service is scattergun in its effectiveness. It's not uncommon for iTunes Match to successfully match all but one track from an album, or, for that matter, only one track on an album. This is because iTunes Match doesn't just use meta-data to match songs, but also their waveforms, which vary depending on the quality of the file and even the mastering used on the original source.

If you allow your iTunes Match subscription to lapse, your music library (tracks and playlists alike) will no longer automatically sync between devices. However, you retain local downloads indefinitely.

Note that iTunes Match originally provided access to iTunes Radio, but that feature was discontinued in early 2016. Anyone wanting stations based around genres or artists must now use Apple Music.

What are the differences (and overlaps) between Apple Music and iTunes Match?

You can sign up to Apple Music by going to Store > Apple Music in iTunes or (clicking the 'Try' link) on Apple's website. The biggest differences between Apple Music and iTunes Match are the range of music you get access to and pricing. Apple Music is more expensive than iTunes Match, at £9.99 per month (versus £21.99 per year), but you gain access to everything on the iTunes Store.

Apple Music used to be at a disadvantage to ITunes Match in the way it matched local tracks with an online catalogue. If an Apple Music user had tracks in their existing iTunes library, when the software tried to match that already paid for track to its Apple Music equivalent, the results were often less than pleasing. 

In July 2016, Apple started to roll-out an improvement to this matching system that uses the same audio fingerprint technology as iTunes Match to match users to their correct songs. Previously, Apple Music’s matching tech was based on a more primitive metadata version of iTunes Match. The audio fingerprint method is far more accurate, which is why it’s great that it is slowly being introduced to all Apple Music users.

Put simply, if you accidentally delete a song from your personal iTunes library, you can still download it like before from iCloud – now though, it will not be copyright protected unlike your original download, a process referred to as DRM (digital rights management). It’s a subtle change, but means that the track you downloaded before is exactly the same this time. The new download to replace your old one would be sonically identical, but your personal rights associated with its ownership were not.

It won’t affect too many users, but it’s good to see Apple acknowledging a flaw (and one so subtle most people don’t know about it) in its system and changing it for the benefit of its users.

Remember though, this doesn’t mean you get to keep your Apple Music tracks if you cancel your subscription to the service. The matching system has been updated to better pull in your physical collection from iCloud.

Cancel your Apple Music membership and files you download, even if they were matched from a CD you ripped and you subsequently deleted your original files, will no longer play in the app. As we note in the next section, keeping at least one copy of your original local files is therefore very important when it comes to Apple Music.

It's also worth noting that you can use Apple Music without iCloud Music Library, although in doing so you lose the ability to add albums and playlists to your collection for easier access.

Read next: Complete guide to Apple Music's features

Can I delete my local library with either service?

In theory, yes, but we do not recommend this. In fact, we strongly recommend you make a full backup of your entire music library before subscribing to either Apple music service. We've heard too many reports of iCloud Music Library demolishing people's music libraries to consider it fully reliable. (We had no major issues during testing, although matches were sometimes for the wrong version of songs, and album artwork was occasionally incorrect.)

Even if you do find yourself with a perfect music library after signing up to iTunes Match or Apple Music, be mindful of the usual argument regarding data: anything you consider important should be stored in at least two locations. iCloud Music Library could be considered one of them, but you should have another back-up elsewhere. Note that this needn't necessarily be on your Mac. If you need to free up space, back up your iTunes music library to an external drive before removing local files from iTunes.

Should I use iTunes Match, Apple Music, or both?

Apple Music and iTunes Match are not directly comparable products, and the best choice will depend on your specific needs.

iTunes Match should be considered if you want access to your existing music collection across a range of devices, but nothing more. For £21.99 per year, we'd say this offers reasonable value for money, and should only be avoided if your collection is so huge it won't fit into Apple’s generous 100,000-track per-user locker. We did find during testing that matching was hit-and-miss, but assuming you’ve a reasonably fast internet connection and a bit of patience, your entire collection will sooner or later be available to you.

A mooted alternative reason to use iTunes Match is as a one-off 'lazy' upgrade option for existing digital collections. If you once ripped many hundreds of CDs to iTunes and used a lowish bit-rate, you might dread the thought of doing all that again at a higher quality. In theory, iTunes Match should be able to match most of them, and you can then create a smart playlist to include tracks with an iCloud Status of Matched and bit-rates below Apple's 256 kbps default. You can then delete the local versions, download the superior iTunes Match files, and cancel your iTunes Match subscription before the year is up.

'Upgraded' tracks will remain on your Mac, but you may find not enough of your collection is matched for this to be worthwhile. Either way, we strongly recommend making a full backup of your local files before trying this.

Apple Music is a good bet if you want access to your music collection along with everything else on the iTunes Store. It also provides access to Apple's genre- and artist-based ad-free radio stations, along with a decent range of interesting playlists that might help you discover new music. The For You feature is especially nifty, gradually learning your listening habits and then serving up new albums and singles you’ll enjoy.

Regarding your existing collection, we’ve noted Apple Music works in much the same way as iTunes Match, meaning you can get at your music on all of your devices. However, the big difference is DRM being added to downloaded files. This means if you lose the originals and download replacements from iCloud Music Library, they won’t play if you cancel your Apple Music subscription.

Apple Music is therefore a better bet if you're the kind of person happy to splash out on a monthly subscription to access your collection and the tens of millions of tracks on the iTunes Store, with no intention of ever cancelling it. It also has the advantage of working on Android, if you have devices without an Apple logo stamped on them.

Subscribing to both iTunes Match and Apple Music is an option if you want the best of both worlds - access to the iTunes Store’s massive music collection, and the option of DRM-free downloads or quality ‘upgrades’ of old rips. However, during testing we discovered a long-standing bug was still quite prevalent where Apple Music files would incorrectly download instead of iTunes Match files. We also found on one account that iTunes Match fared very poorly on a system where Apple Music was already active, matching only a third of the local library.

On that basis, if you want to upgrade an existing collection, you should probably sign up to iTunes Match first, upgrade your files, ensure you have a full back-up of your library, and only then subscribe to Apple Music.

Avoiding iCloud Music Library entirely is a final option, and there are alternative services out there. None have strong integration with Apple's ecosystem, but if that doesn't bother you, and you primarily want access to millions of tracks, your £9.99 will get you a subscription to Spotify. That service is far more mature than Apple's, with some great mobile apps. Integration with existing collections is iffy on desktop and non-existent on mobile, however.

Google Play Music is an option for people who want a digital online locker for existing collections. It allows you to upload 50,000 tracks, and at no cost. With an 'All Access' pass (£9.99 per month), you get unlimited access to a catalogue that's essentially identical to Apple’s, along with personalised radio stations similar to those in Apple Music.

One thing that is worth keeping an eye on regarding Google is YouTube Red. For now, this is only available in the USA, but it gives you ad-free YouTube videos and offline playback, along with bundling All Access. Should this arrive in the UK, chances are the pricing will also be £9.99 per month, thereby offering a compelling alternative to both Apple Music and Spotify.

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