Fourth Annual iOS Music Player Showcase

Cs Music's iOS app icon Cs Music

Image of Cs Music's light theme album-view Image of Cs Music's light theme full-player
Image of Cs Music's dark theme album-view Image of Cs Music's dark theme full-player

Few general-purpose players changed as radically as Cs Music over the past half decade. Cs Music endured a rebranding1, a failed redesign2, a successful redesign, and plenty of smaller hills and valleys in-between. However, despite its many hurtles, Mike Clay’s unyielding dedication to the app helped it continue to mature and flourish over the years into one of the best general-purpose players on the market.

Cs Music wears its influences on its sleeve. Much like prior to the iOS 8 redesign, Cs Music features a stock menu bar whose contents can be rearranged (the only modern player aside from Power Player and Mixtapes that support this ability). You have your choice of:

  • Activity (a new discovery tab introduced this year, similar to other player’s “Home” pages)
  • Albums
  • Artists
  • Composers
  • Genres
  • Playlists
  • Settings
  • Songs

However, unlike and Power Player, search is promoted from a tab bar item into a permanent top bar button, so search is always available without needing to sacrifice a menu bar slot.

Each page’s presentation style is comfortably adjustable, allowing you to select between “Grid”, “List”, or “Hybrid” layout options. While the “Grid” and “List” options are self-explanatory, the more unscrupulous “Hybrid” option is mostly the same as the “List” option but instead renders your pinned items as a grid. Additionally, each page supports a generous suite of sorting options, both in standard and reverse order:

  • Alphabetical
  • Year
  • Last Played
  • Date Added
  • Play Count
  • Duration
  • Rating

This pleasing degree of customization carries through into the new “Activity” page, which allows you to rearrange the following discovery collections:

  • Loved
  • Pinned
  • Recently Added
  • Recently Played
  • Recently Updated
  • Top Rated

While that alone isn’t noteworthy (Power Player added a similar “Home” page last year), Cs Music went the extra mile by allowing many of those discovery collections to target either songs, albums, artists, composers, or genres. The simple ability for listeners to decide what kind of entity to display in a given discovery collection makes Cs Music’s “Activity” page much more widely useful since it is far more likely to support your listening and browsing preferences. Compared to its most direct equivalent of Power Player’s comparatively restrictive “Home” page, Cs Music’s “Activity” page provides a much more flexible and inherently personal experience.

Image of page 1 of my Cs Music Activity page in light mode Image of page 2 of my Cs Music Activity page in light mode Image of page 1 of my Cs Music Activity page in dark mode Image of page 2 of my Cs Music Activity page in dark mode
Your “Activity” page might look totally different. For example, there’s nothing stopping you from configuring “Recently Played” to display songs, “Recently Added” to display artists, etc.

Unlike Plum and Power Player, Cs Music’s visual design is mostly utilitarian. There’s no fancy artist pages, dynamic entity or album view themes, or anything of the sort. The design is elegant and tastefully executed, but purposefully doesn’t stray much farther from that. With Cs Music, its feet are firmly on function over form. It’s full-player, however, is the sole exception.

Image of the album view in light mode with a predominantly red record Image of the album view in light mode with a predominantly green record Image of the album view in light mode with a predominantly blue record Image of the album view in dark mode with a predominantly red record Image of the album view in dark mode with a predominantly green record Image of the album view in dark mode with a predominantly blue record
The effect is boldly colored and blur-free like Power Player, but far more subtle in comparison.

The first thing you’ll notice in Cs Music’s full-player is its massive, grippable progress and volume bars, followed by the only dynamic album art theming found anywhere in the app. Like Power Player, Cs Music takes primary and secondary colors from the album art to color the various controls, but unlike Power Player it lightly colors the background color based on the album art. This approach rarely yields results that are particularly noteworthy (a boon for reading accessibility) but as a result are overwhelmingly dull in comparison to Power Player’s equivalents. For listeners that prioritize usability and readability but would still prefer just a spot of whimsy in their full-player, there are few other players than Cs Music’s that perfectly fit that bill.

Through many years of ups and downs, Cs Music distilled itself down from its quirky original form into what I’d consider to be the ideal “simple” general-purpose player. With its generous use of lightly touched stock components, traditional interface, and relative lack of customization, it firmly feels like a native iOS app. While such an approach runs the risk of feeling lifeless like Dot Music, Cs Music gracefully avoids this with a dash of colorful whimsy in its full-player, consistent but inoffensive light-blue branding, new “Activity” page, and more. If you prefer a bit more personality in your general-purpose player at the risk of visual simplicity and visual cohesion with stock iOS apps, others like Power Player are more likely to satisfy. Alternatively, if you prioritize stock components and brutalist interface design to the detriment of the player’s visual and functional potential, you’re sure to love Dot Music. However, for those that prefer a bit of both, Cs Music teeters right in the center in delicate balance.

iPad Experience

Cs Music does indeed support the iPad and follows an entirely functional but arguably lazy “scale to fit” approach in its implementation. As far as I can tell, there’s no special accommodations or interface optimizations taking advantage of the iPad’s larger screen; take whatever view you see on the iPhone, scale up, and you know exactly what the equivalent view on iPad looks like. This becomes especially disappointing when browsing through pages like “Artists” in landscape mode, which yields a massive swath of whitespace which could have been more appropriately utilized with multiple columns like in Apple’s Files app.

The full-player suffers the most from a lack of iPad-specific attention. While I’m quite fond of the full-player in portrait mode (I actually prefer the scaling here since I love massive album art in full-players), the landscape experience is a different story. In landscape, instead of reflowing the album art and controls to sensibly leverage the new dimensions, the full-player horizontally squishes and stretches as-is to fill the screen. It recalls memories of the “squat” third generation iPod Nano, which is not a good thing at all.

With all that said, the iPad experience is entirely usable and fully featured with no noticeable performance issues or drawbacks aside from its lack of screen size optimizations. Coming from other apps like Plum and Musens which suffer show-stopping performance issues on iPad, or the plethora of others that don’t even bother supporting the iPad at all, Cs Music at least providing a reasonably functional and performant option is appreciated. However, if you want a true iPad-optimized experience, you’re best served looking elsewhere.


At this time, Cs Music does not provide widget support.

New This Year

Right off the heels of a long-awaited redesign in 2020, Mike Clay kept pace this past year with some appreciated UI refinements and brand-new features. Specifically of note:

  • The volume slider is now always visible in the full-player (previously, it required a “tap to expand” or a “tap and slide” to adjust like a Touch Bar slider).
  • A new “Activity” page may now be added to the menu bar, featuring a handful of common discovery collections like “Recently Added”.
  • All entities other than Songs may now be “Pinned” to be displayed both as a scrollable “pin reel” at the top of their respective pages and in the “Pinned” discovery collection in the new “Activity” page.

The new “Activity” page is a brilliant addition and finally addresses my long-held gripe about a lack of discovery features in Cs Music. Listeners that prefer to only display traditional pages like “Songs” or “Albums” may of course continue to do so, but for those that are willing to sacrifice a tab bar slot for discovery purposes, this capability is a welcome addition. This page contains a static list of discovery collections that—while they may be rearranged—may not be manually hidden or removed. The discovery collections currently offered are:

  • Loved
  • Pinned
  • Recently Added
  • Recently Played
  • Recently Updated
  • Top Rated

Thankfully, as you might assume, discovery collections with no contents (e.g. the “Pinned” collection if you don’t yet have any pinned entities) are automatically hidden from view. Incredibly, “Recently Added” and “Recently Played” may be configured via a button in their headers to populate using any one of the following entities:

  • Songs
  • Albums
  • Artists
  • Composers
  • Genres

Coming from Power Player’s restrictive “Home” page (which locks you into “Recently Added” only displaying albums and “Recently Played” only displaying songs), it’s fantastic to see Cs Music embrace the accessibility benefits gained from allowing this to be listener configurable; it doesn’t matter what your particular tastes are with regards to “recent” content, you can easily adjust Cs Music to meet your needs. While decisions like this must of course be made with care to ensure Cs Music’s renowned simplicity doesn’t tarnish, Cs Music rarely yields to customization options like this, so the few times the scales tipped the other direction haven’t yet been enough to warrant any concern.

The new pinning feature was yet another pleasant surprise to see come to Cs Music this year. It tastefully stays out of sight for listeners that don’t care to use it or just want the “simple player” experience without any frills. However, for the more engaged or curious listener, the ability to pin items is just a “tap and hold” context menu away on practically every browser in the app3. Once you’ve pinned your first item, a new “Pinned” collection will automatically appear in the “Activity” page and at the top of that browsing page. Like with Plum’s “Pinned” feature this year, it’s genuinely handy to be able to prominently display a particular album, artist, or other entity. These could perhaps be all-time favorites, or something that’s currently in heavy rotation you’d like the quickest access to, or maybe even to serve as a reminder to check something out later when you’ve got more time. Regardless of the pinning reason, it’s a simple but deceptively flexible system that I’m now finding harder and harder to live without in other players.

Coming from last year’s redesign, I frankly wasn’t expecting much movement on Cs Music other than some minor UI refinements. Given Cs Music’s healthy but modest historical release cadence, the fact we received a brand new discovery-focused “Activity” page along with a new app-wide pinning feature so quickly and artfully after a major redesign is a surprise, but a welcome one. There’s not much smoke hinting at where Cs Music will go next, but after two years of heavy maintenance it’s clear it’s on the move.

Personal Assessment

:heavy_check_mark: Lyrics support

Cs Music’s lyrics support is the now “old school” approach of hiding the album art with a translucent scrollable lyrics view, but the feature exists and works well enough.

:heavy_check_mark: Light & dark themes
:heavy_check_mark: iPad support

Its iPad version performs just as well as its iPhone counterpart, and the lack of screen size optimizations only yield minor cosmetic and usability annoyances and nothing show-stopping like on MPX EQ’s iPad version. It’s not great, but I’m still happy it exists.

:heavy_check_mark: Discovery features

The introduction of the “Activity” page this year was an outstanding achievement, and fully caught up Cs Music’s discovery capabilities to its peers.

:heavy_check_mark: Beautiful or visually engaging full-player

The extremely understated full-player dynamic theme is not fully to my taste, but there’s no denying its light hand helps it yield much more consistently pleasing results than other players with more inconsistent results like Mixtapes.

:heavy_check_mark: Album-focused features

The lack of support for my preferred album sorting method (Artist > Chronological) in the “Albums” page continues to be a disappointment, but the ability to customize the new discovery collections in the “Activity” page to display albums and the existing ability to browse albums with a grid helps make up for it.

:x: Apple Music integration

Table of Contents

  1. “Cs Music” was formally “Cesium”, changed in January 2019↩︎

  2. This “failed redesign” was a radical departure loved by some (such as myself) but reviled by others. Feelings were so strong towards the redesign Mike ended up spinning it off into its own app entirely (SongOwl), allowing himself a second pass at a more modest and traditional Cs Music redesign to please as much of the user base as possible. ↩︎

  3. The only entities that cannot yet be pinned are individual songs. ↩︎