New Classical Music Experience on macOS

Baoshan Sheng
Published in
8 min readJul 12


According to Luminate, classical and jazz lovers are more receptive to digital downloads. Compared to streaming services, the advantages of a local music collection include the following:

  • More degree of freedom. Digital downloads and CD/SACD rips cover most classical music recordings. If you have some bootlegs, feel free to add them to your local music collection. Because you can edit embedded tags freely, you also have higher autonomy regarding music metadata.
  • Audiophile playback. Local “audiophile” players usually have better control over playback: some support Hi-Res, some support bit-accurate playback, and some support direct DSD playback without converting to PCM. If you need EQ, upsampling, volume dithering, room correction, etc., you also have more choices within local players.
  • No lock-in. Streaming apps have built-in charts, radios, editor’s picks, and algorithm-based recommendations, but these cannot replace traditional channels such as print media, podcasts, websites, forums, and live experiences. Streaming apps may slowly kill one’s spontaneity.
  • Lean and lightweight. Local players’ familiar and snappy experience encourages you to accomplish your task quickly and focus more on the music. Streaming apps are usually less responsive and more distracting.
  • Predictable sound quality. Remember the blurry image when an Apple TV+ or Netflix show starts? Streaming apps use adaptive quality to avoid frequent buffering during playback under certain conditions. By contrast, local playback is more predictable.
  • Longer “half-life.” Young idols of 10 years ago may have disappeared, but Gould’s Goldberg from nearly 70 years ago will still be reissued.

Building a classical music collection, at its essence, is building your répertoire and challenges your curation thinking. It would be best to have a tool that understands collection building, not only an audio player.

Build a Classical Music Collection on Mac

Tonal is an audiophile player for macOS.

I’ve been playing with the new Tonal app for several weeks to build a mini collection of dozens of albums. Does Tonal support classical music well? Let’s take a look.

The Visual Design

Compared to cross-platform audiophile players, Tonal’s visual design is anonymized, minimal, and authentic — in line with users’ expectations for a native macOS app. You must find Tonal familiar if you are familiar with Apple’s first-party apps such as Finder, Music, etc.

Tonal is also consistent with the Music app in using shortcut keys.

The Sidebar

Like Finder, Tonal’s sidebar provides navigation entries. From top to bottom, the sidebar is divided into three sections: Library, Browse, and Audio Devices.

Tonal’s sidebar.

Library Section

Entries in the Library section group and sort albums by Release Years, Collection Years, Last Played Years, and Audio Formats.

Take Release Years as an example: the middle column profiles the years and decades in which your albums were released; the grid view will also be grouped and sorted according to an album’s release year or decade.

Browse albums by release years.

When Audio Formats is selected, the middle column profiles the audio formats of your collection.

Tonal supports high-res PCM up to 768 kHz and DSD 256.

Entries in the Library section are uncommon in streaming apps because streaming apps index millions of albums. I less often use these entries, but knowing what you’ve collected or listened to 10 years ago is a beautiful experience.

Global Search

You can search for combinations of keywords such as Prokofiev Concerto using the global search field in the upper left corner.

Global search and other features play nicely together. Search for Prokofiev Concerto with Release Years selected in the sidebar, and you can see the grid view is grouped and sorted according to an album’s release year or decade.

My newest Prokofiev concerto album was released in 2014.

I believe apps should be designed with a “minimal and mutually orthogonal” feature set to serve the open needs of users through “collaborations” — a tribute to the Unix philosophy:

Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together.

We will see more examples of global search later.

Artists and Groups

The Browse section provides six domain-specific entries that I use more often. Artists and Groups apply to all music genres: The Beatles will appear in Groups, and Tori Amos will appear in Artists. You can browse artists or groups alphabetically, by releases, or by search.

Browse artists.

Composers and Conductors

Composers and Conductors are for classical music. Like Artists and Groups, these two entries serve similar purposes, but here are some details that may impress you:

  • If you know who Mussorgsky-Ravel or Bach-Busoni is, Tonal’s notation of the original composer and the arranger/orchestrator is accurate:
Mussorgsky’s picture at an exhibition orchestrated by Ravel.
  • Tonal understands that some pianists are also conductors. You can browse albums of Mikhail Pletnev as a pianist or a conductor:
Tonal understands that some pianists are also conductors.
  • Find Brahms in Composers, find Karajan in Conductors, but what if you want to listen to “Karajan conducts Brahms”? Just search for “Karajan Brahms” in the global search field. Tonal lists all the albums and suggests that you could choose between “BPO” or “VPO”:
Tonal suggests that you could choose between “BPO” or “VPO” when searching for “Karajan Brahms”.

Genres and Labels

The last two entries in the Browse section are music genres and record labels. Here are some interesting details:

  • An album can belong to multiple genres, such as J-Pop and Anison.
  • Sub-genres (such as Classical > Opera) are well supported, as shown in this figure:
Sub-genres are supported.
  • Series of releases (such as Deutsche Grammophon > Originals) are well supported, as shown in this figure:
Release series of record labels are supported.

A Homage to the Tradition

In the 2nd half of this article, we use an album (Prokofiev’s 2nd and Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concertos performed by Yujia Wang) as an example to see how Apple Music Classical and Tonal present the same information differently.

We will reference the typography design done by the record label (Deutsche Grammophon here). Record labels’ in-house designers have long been familiar with such design requirements. The information shape in the figure below is believed to be familiar to many:

Tracklists in classical albums share a similar shape.

Here is how Apple Music Classical layouts the content of the album (red numbers correspond to the notes below):

A classical album presented in Apple Music Classical.
  1. The album title takes five lines and is still incomplete — mainly due to the inclusion of recording information.
  2. The ordering of artists does not comply with the industry’s best practice — for concertos, it is usually arranged in the order of soloist, orchestra, and conductor.
  3. Due to the space limit, only the composers’ surnames are shown ( different forms, Rachmaninov and S. Prokofiev, are used).
  4. Recording information is repeated for all tracks.
  5. Inconsistent artists of tracks are displayed; roles (piano and conductor) are missing.
  6. Although the information density is high, displaying the album’s content still takes three screens.

Some issues can be fixed by editing the tags, so let’s focus on design-related problems here. The below figure shows how Tonal renders the same content (red numbers correspond to the notes below):

The same album when presented in Tonal.
  1. Full composer names (Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev) are shown.
  2. Opus numbers (Op. 30 and Op. 16) are de-emphasized.
  3. Roman numerals are right-aligned so that movement titles are left-aligned.
  4. Conventional ordering of artists is adopted, and roles (piano and conductor) are included (both without redundancy).
  5. Recording information is included without redundancy.
  6. Information density is relatively low, so there is more whitespace.

Objectively speaking, Tonal does not have too much ingenuity here — only paying homage to the tradition. Luckily, the result “just works.

Play on Demand

Take Pletnev’s Live at Carnegie Hall as another example. What if you only want to listen to the four Scherzos? Most players require many (pointer or keyboard) interactions. In Tonal, press the ▶ button in front of Chopin — after these four tracks have been played, Tonal will stop automatically.

In the same way, you can also play tracks that belong to a specific disc, composer, multi-movement work, or act (of an opera).

Want to play all the Scherzos? Tap the button in front of Chopin.

Before You Start

Tonal is a misfit in many waysit does not fit everyone’s needs, and for those who choose Tonal, Tonal won’t be their only player:

  • Due to the always-bit-accurate strategy, you can neither listen to 192 kHz albums on your Mac’s built-in speakers nor play a DSD album on a PCM-only D/A converter.
  • Tonal collects albums into its managed directory, which contains packed lossless audio data in a uniform encoding (but no music metadata). If you cannot make an extra, standalone space for Tonal, whether internal or external, on a NAS or an SD card, there may be a better time for you to experience Tonal.
By 2030, a $50 SSD can store over 30,000 CD-quality albums. Source: Wikibon
  • Tonal accepts lossless and complete discs only. CD-quality discs must also be AccurateRip verified (Tonal uses CUETools to repair broken rips automatically).

You can download Tonal for free from the Mac App Store if such limitations are acceptable. At only 25 MB, Tonal is lightweight. The free version has no restrictions on features or usage. You can add up to 20 (CD-quality or high-res) discs to build a mini collection of your favorite artists.

A one-time (non-subscription) in-app purchase, priced at $99.99 for the introductory period, is offered to remove the limit. There is an even better way to unlock — if you have reviewed Tonal, please contact me for a free coupon; if you have conducted an in-depth review, an additional coupon will be provided to share with your best friend.

Please read the complete User’s Guide before downloading.

Listen Different

A homage to Apple’s “Think Different” slogan.

This article explains why Tonal’s support for classical music is in the details. This may not be the most interesting one in the series of articles on Tonal:



Baoshan Sheng
Editor for

Founder of International Classical Music Database