What the hell is Kanye's Stem Player, and should you buy one?

8GB of storage space, a Kanye album and a rather disturbing texture – the Stem Player is an odd one, alright

Stem Player on green background
(Image credit: kanyewest.com)

If you've already taken a side on the merits of Kanye West level of genius, his latest musical wheeze probably won’t change your mind: the Stem Player is a digital music player that sits somewhere on the spectrum between interesting and indulgent, great and gimmicky. 

But the big news is that if you want to listen to his latest album, Donda 2, and you want to do it legally, then you’ll need to shell out for the Stem Player. It's the only official place that that the new music will be released (so far).

So what the hell is it, and is there any chance it's actually a good product? Well…

The only music player with an "unpleasant fleshy texture"

The Stem Player is a $200 music player that according to PC Magazine (opens in new tab) has an “unpleasant fleshy texture”. We’ll let you think about that for a moment. 

It looks like a cross between a hockey puck, a handheld Simon game and a really big Cadbury’s Button, and there’s no display: you use it rather like an iPod shuffle, stroking the aforementioned “unpleasant fleshy texture” to adjust the volume or change tracks.

In addition to the preloaded Kanye album, you can play all kinds of audio formats including lossless audio, and you can also paste in YouTube links when you're connected to a PC. However, be away that the internal storage is only 8GB, which is pretty meagre in today's music world – especially if you do have lossless music to play.

There’s a small internal speaker but it’s best used with headphones – there's a headphone jack for wired headphones, or you can use Bluetooth headphones.

What are stems, and why should you play with them?

Stems are the component parts of a recorded song, and you use them in mixing or remixing – so if you were to record a song and want me to remix it, you’d send me the stems. There’d be a stem for the drum track, one for the bass, another for the vocal and so on. I could then add effects to or loop some of the stems and generally mess about with them to create my own version of your song.

That’s what the Stem Player does with the tunes you give it. It breaks the song down into four stems, for example drums, bass, synths and the vocal track, and you can then loop them or isolate them or turn them up and down. So you might create a rap-free version for your own freestyling, or an a cappella version to play your own beats alongside.

There’s lots of fun stuff here including pitch shifting, backwards playback, cutting and looping, but the learning curve is pretty steep because of the gesture-based interface. As some reviewers have noted, it’s theoretically possible to combine different songs – but so far they haven’t worked out how. 

It also has the ability to save and share your mixes, but users have noted that this is hidden and awkward – pulling out a WAV file involves a wired connection and a bunch of clicking.

So should you buy it? Well, no, unless you the new album is worth $200 to you: as fun as the Stem Player appears to be, it appears to be a toy rather than a musical device you’re going to come back to again and again. And you can get all kinds of great music toys (and more powerful tools) on phones and tablets.

And also, and we cannot stress this enough, it is "fleshy".

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written thirteen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote another seven books and a Radio 2 documentary series. When she’s not scribbling, she’s the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR (havrmusic.com (opens in new tab)).