If you’re thinking about buying a smartwatch, you might also be thinking about how well it’ll serve you when it comes to music playback — will it just act as a remote control for whatever’s on your phone, or will it actually stream and sync songs so you can listen to them anywhere (and leave your phone at home)? The answer is more complicated than you might have realised.
With so many different music apps and different smartwatch platforms currently available, getting your choice of music service running with your choice of hardware might not be possible. In fact, the best offline music playback support isn’t even from smartwatches developed by Apple and Google, as we’ll explain below.
If you want to know how capable each smartwatch platform is at playing music from your phone and playing music independently, here’s what you need to know.
As the market leader in smartwatches, it’s no surprise that the Apple Watch gives you the most options for listening to music and other audio. Apple Music is the obvious default choice: You can control music playing on your phone from your wrist, or stream the tunes straight to the Apple Watch and listen through Bluetooth headphones. If you subscribe to Apple Music, you can stream anything from the catalogue; if not, you can listen to anything you’ve purchased digitally and imported.
Music can be streamed directly to an Apple Watch over Wi-Fi or LTE (if the watch supports it). If you’re going to be away from a connection and want to leave your phone at home, you can sync songs to your Apple Watch in advance — to do this, go to My Watch in the Apple Watch app on your phone, then tap Music and Add Music. Syncing will only work while the Apple Watch is charging.
Spotify has a dedicated app for the Apple Watch, and like the default Apple Music player, you can use it to stream songs straight to your wrist (to listen to over Bluetooth headphones) or to control playback on another device, such as your phone. Thanks to a recent update, this now works over cellular networks as well as wifi, so you can finally head out without your phone. A strong data connection from your watch is still required though — as yet you can’t sync playlists to the watch for listening to offline.
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There’s an official YouTube Music app for Apple Watch, but it’s only for browsing your collection and controlling playback on your other devices (still, more than Wear OS has got from YouTube Music at this point) — a remote control on your wrist, basically. You’ll find the same level of functionality from the Deezer app for Apple Watch. If you want to actually leave your phone behind, it has to be Apple Music or Spotify.
Google Wear OS
Google’s smartwatch platform has yet to roll out full syncing support for YouTube Music, and there’s been no word on when it’ll happen — which is very strange considering Google Play Music has now been killed off. However, you can use Wear OS to control YouTube Music (play, pause, skip and so on) on your phone.
It’s the same story for almost every music service out there: No dedicated Wear OS app, so no playlist syncing. Playback controls will pop up on your wrist whenever your Android phone is playing media (whether it’s through Apple Music or your podcast player), but you can’t do much beyond start and stop playback, and you’re still going to have to take your phone out with you.
The only major music service to have a dedicated Wear OS app is Spotify, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of functionality besides what you would get through Android’s standard integration with Wear OS anyway. You can add songs to your library from your wrist, and switch between playback devices, but you can’t stream music direct to the watch and you can’t sync tracks for offline listening.
If you want to be able to play songs on a Wear OS smartwatch without carrying your phone around with you as well, then the best option we’ve found is NavMusic ($US1 ($1.40) after a 30-day trial). It’s a competent little app, but it does rely on transferring local files to your watch, so you’ll need to have the music you want in digital form.
Fitbit, Samsung, and Garmin
Every Fitbit smartwatch bar the Versa Lite can control music as it plays on your connected phone, through whatever app you choose to use. On watches except for the Versa Lite and the new Sense and Versa 3 — which seem to be shifting more towards cloud services — you can sync digital tracks you’ve purchased to your wearable through the Fitbit Connect app (full step-by-step instructions are here).
There is a dedicated Spotify app for Fitbit smartwatches, but again it only controls playback on other devices — you can’t sync playlists to the watch. The apps you can do that with, on every device except the Versa Lite, are Deezer and Pandora, so if you want to listen to your tunes on your Fitbit and leave your phone at home you need to use one of those streaming services (or copy your digital music files over, as explained above).
When it comes to the Samsung Galaxy Watch series, open up the Music app and you’ll see you can switch between controlling music playback on your phone and on the watch itself (tap the device icon to switch). For offline music listening, you can sync digital tracks across from your phone (see here for details), or fire up the dedicated Spotify app: Unlike the Apple Watch and Wear OS devices, Samsung smartwatches support offline playback on the wearables themselves for Spotify Premium subscribers, no phones required.
Finally, Garmin’s wide range of smartwatches come with similar music playback options as the Samsung ones. You can use these watches to control playback from most music apps on your phone, or to play digital tracks you’ve synced over from a computer (via Garmin Connect), which will let you leave your phone behind. The only music service supported with a native app on the wearables themselves is Spotify, and as on Samsung devices, Spotify Premium subscribers can sync playlists to a Garmin device for listening anywhere (just don’t forget your Bluetooth headphones).