There are a lot of people out there who aren’t exactly satisfied by iTunes 11, the release that overhauled Apple’s flagship jukebox last year and was built on with this year’s iTunes Radio release. For a lot of people — myself included, occasionally — the app is overly complicated and doesn’t easily do what it needs to: Let me play my music.
With that in mind, Vox aims to create a simpler interface that’ makes navigating and playing your music easier. It’s a free app, but is it worth making it a real personal part of your life? Let’s take a look.
Vox’s design is minimal and easy to use — exactly how it’s sold. Unlike iTunes, the app is very dark striking. It reminds me of some of my other favourite Mac apps, which go against the operating system’s bright colour stream, but end up becoming very striking.
As music plays, the scrub bar indicating how much time in the track has elapsed changes colour gradient. It’s actually pretty cool. A tab on the left side of the app, beneath the album artwork (which will expand if you click on it), reveals the tray of songs and albums in your library. I actually wish the tab wasn’t an option; I’d rather click the track title to bring up the playlist tray. I understand visual cues are nice, but in an app striving for minimalism, its dependence on buttons seems contrarian.
Moving your mouse over the song artist reveals the album title information as well. There’s no resizing the window — this is a little similar to a darker version of iTunes’s Mini Player.
While your playing track is highlighted in a dark yellow, the Repeat and Shuffle buttons don’t get the same treatment. It’s a little problematic, simply because it’s hard to tell whether or not your playlist or song is going to repeat or shuffle. The colour is either a very dark grey, if unselected, or a bright grey if Repeat or Shuffle is selected. The colours don’t stand out, and it’s confusing.
While, the controls are available in the Menu Bar at all time, what I dislike is that there’s no way to use the standard audio controls on the Mac keyboard to play your music. The play/pause button and skip buttons on the keyboard don’t do anything. If you want any keyboard functionality, you can set up keys yourself, but I find this counterintuitive. The fact that other apps, like Rdio, allow you to use the audio controls on the keyboard makes me feel like this should certainly be supported.
The app is nice to look at, but the little details that are off — like the colours — are odd. Hopefully this is fixed in a future update.
Vox as an Independent Music Player
Let’s first say that Vox integrates with everything you’d expect iTunes to. I’ve got a pair of Audioengine A2 speakers (once recommended on The Wirecutter if you happen to be in the market for speakers) connected to an Airport Express for Airplay. Vox supports that without a problem. In fact, Vox is particularly robust: It can play music to Airplay speakers even if the system is still using internal speakers. The best part is how clear and easy it is to set up.
As a music player, Vox is capable of reading just about every format imaginable (with the exception of DRM-loaded iTunes formats from an older era). This includes FLAC and WAV. If you want, you can set it as the default player for all non-iTunes files and let iTunes handle the rest. You can click and drag any file into the player, and easily create your own playlists and save them anywhere on the system.
For an in-app purchase of $2.99, you can also unlock the radio. Vox describes it as $3 for “thousands of high-quality online radio channels,” and while I don’t doubt that, I don’t listen to the radio much and didn’t try it. It does strike me as odd that they’re charging for the radio, of all things. It might have been more worthwhile to charge for the app’s Last.fm integration, which allows you to “scrobble” tracks instantly. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Vox might be the best Last.fm client available for the Mac.
Vox for iTunes: The Integration Problem
Of course, the app also integrates with iTunes. This doesn’t require any setup, and is as easy as selecting iTunes as if it were a playlist. From there, the app is easiest to use with the search function. Just tap Command + F and instantly get to the search bar, and searching will bring up just about any result you’re looking for.
The problem with this set up is simple: Why bother? I’ve compared the iTunes Mini Player and Vox pretty extensively. The iTunes Mini Player is everything most people will want if they need a minimalistic jukebox. The controls fade away when you’re not hovering over the album art with your mouse, leaving the album art as the only indication that you’re listening to anything at all. And the Mini Player can be resized so that it can become even smaller than Vox, making the difference in screen space a moot point (and perhaps even a point for the iTunes side).
Finally, using Vox as your iTunes jukebox means you aren’t able to edit any of your iTunes playlists (although you can play them from the app). For iTunes diehards, Vox just doesn’t make an acceptable second skin. Not surprisingly, I can’t access the radio stations in iTunes on Vox. I’m presuming that, when iTunes Radio does roll out to Canada, I won’t be able to access it in Vox either.
Who Is Vox For?
Well, let’s get this out of the way: Vox is not for fans of iTunes. It can’t be used as an appropriate second skin. For people that like the layers of organization behind iTunes, there’s nothing here that will take them away.
That being said, Vox’s market is more niche, but more important. The jukebox player is mostly well-designed (although I do think that there’s room for improvement), and I think it offers a great way for audio aficionados to listen to high-resolution music files like FLAC, while iTunes simply can’t. Particularly useful is a badge in the display revealing every audio file’s actual bit rate. For those people, Vox is going to be attractive enough to make it worth getting — especially at such a low (read: non-existent) price point. Although it’s not becoming my default for all files, it’s becoming my default for high-quality files. Vox is recommended.