Overview

I purchase my music legally. My collection—over 4,200 songs—has been laboriously obtained over many years through legitimate music retailers, and I allow myself a monthly budget of about $20 for buying music (sometimes more, sometimes less depending on my other, more important financial obligations). I am, needless to say, a music lover. Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Aerosmith, Matchbox Twenty, Yo-Yo Ma, the Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder, Chicago, Maroon 5, Eminem, Metallica, John Denver, the Eagles, and Vladamir Horowitz are just a few of the names in my collection—I have fairly eclectic and wide-ranging taste.

When Apple started the iTunes Music Store in April 2003, it changed how I bought my music. Before then, it had mostly been CDs bought through Amazon.com or ‘brick-and-mortar’ retailers in the real world. I still made Amazon.com purchases of physical CDs periodically after iTunes because certain bands (I’m talking to you, Beatles) weren’t—and still aren’t—available electronically, but most of my music budget went to Apple. They got my 99¢/song or [normally] $9.99/album on a fairly constant basis.

The ala-carte purchasing system in iTunes has been a godsend. Bands and musicians that produce worthwhile albums still got an albums’-worth of my money, while bands that have isolated moments of genius buried on albums of filler (the Goo Goo Dolls with “Iris”, for example) no longer leech $10 for $1-2 worth of good music. This has freed me up to purchase a greater variety and volume of good music for the same money.

While many Apple competitors have come and gone since 2003 with their own music store offerings—Napster, Buy.com, Real Networks, Microsoft, Sony, and more—none made any headway with me (nor, apparently, with the other music buyers out there). Their stores didn’t work on Macs, and their songs were sold in Microsoft’s or Sony’s audio formats with copy-protection schemes that didn’t work with either Macs or iPods. News-flash for the aforementioned companies: People won’t buy songs that don’t play on their computers or their music players.

While Macs are a small (but growing) percentage of computers out there, most Windows users are using iPods and most discerning users on both platforms are using Apple’s superior (and free!) iTunes software to organize and play their music. Of course, encrypted iTunes songs can’t be played at all in Linux or on any non-Apple portable music player, but Apple holds a strong majority of the portable player market with the iPod and full-time Linux users are few-and-far-between, so it’s not a reason for most people to avoid iTunes. That said, on principle, no company should be locking any music-buyer into any particular software or any particular portable player.

Regardless, the electronic music retail world changed again in September when Amazon.com launched the beta Amazon MP3 music store. It works on Macs and Windows, music is sold as unencrypted MP3s that can be used in iTunes, Windows Media Player, or any number of other software jukeboxes, and—perhaps most importantly—the songs work on iPods and almost any other portable music player. For the first time, Apple has some serious competition for my electronic music purchases.

And Apple knows it. Before Amazon MP3, Apple offered ‘iTunes Plus': certain songs were available as higher-quality 256bit AAC tracks (normal iTunes tracks are 128bit) without any ‘Digital Rights Management’ (DRM) copy protection. But these tracks were sold for $1.29, compared to 99¢ for regular iTunes songs and 89-99¢ for most of Amazon’s 256bit MP3 tracks. Shortly after Amazon MP3’s launch, Apple reduced iTunes Plus prices to the same 99¢ iTunes standard tracks sell for. Competition is good.

Having now made purchases using both stores, what follows is my comparison between the two. Both have positives and negatives, but most importantly it is good to finally have some real competition in the music download area. This competition is already having positive benefits for consumers like myself. Read on for comparisons of sound quality, DRM methods used, breadth of music selection, price, and user friendliness between the two music retailers.

I did my testing on Mac OS X 10.4 using iTunes 7.4 and Amazon MP3 Downloader 1.0. Both iTunes and the Amazon MP3 Downloader are available for Windows and Mac. Amazon says it is developing a Linux version of its downloader that has not yet been released. The iTunes software is required for any song or album purchase from the iTunes Store. The Amazon MP3 Downloader is only required for album purchases from the Amazon MP3 Store; individual songs can be purchased and downloaded from Amazon on any platform with just a web browser.

Sound Quality

Some have complained that music downloads offer lower quality music than CDs. The two stores offer tracks in three formats:

  • iTunes standard tracks are sold as 128bit AAC-encoded files, which—in my non-scientific testing—sound just as good as 192bit MP3s and use less disk space. In very careful listening you can tell there is some quality loss from uncompressed CD music, but not enough to matter to me.
  • iTunes Plus tracks are sold as 256bit AAC-encoded files, which are essentially indiscernible from uncompressed CD music.
  • Amazon MP3 tracks are sold as 256bit MP3-encoded files. These are higher quality than iTunes standard tracks, but MP3 is a worse audio compression format than AAC so iTunes Plus tracks are [nominally] better. Some audiophiles insist there is some quality loss from uncompressed CD music even at 256bit with the MP3 format, but I don’t buy it.

I listen to my music on a mid-range Logitech 2.1 (two speakers, one subwoofer) sound system at home, my iPod headphones at work or elsewhere, and my car speakers in the car. For these uses, I am perfectly happy with the standard 128bit AAC-encoded files from iTunes. Thus, either iTunes Plus or Amazon MP3 offer higher quality than I really need. In fact, when I purchase iTunes Plus or Amazon MP3 tracks, I re-encode them to 128bit AAC to cut the file sizes (roughly) in half with very little loss in quality.

If you are an audiophile with a much nicer sound system than I, you may find the quality of iTunes Plus or Amazon MP3 worth the cost in disk space. That’s a personal decision. iTunes Plus definitely offers the highest available quality, followed by Amazon MP3, followed by iTunes standard. So (all else being equal) I recommend buying the highest quality version of a song available, backing up the original files to CD or other media, and then (if desired) re-encoding down to 128bit AAC. If you prefer to keep your music in the MP3 format, I recommend encoding to 192bit or higher. Either conversion can be done in iTunes (set your format in ‘Preferences > Advanced > Importing’, then select the songs and click ‘Advanced > Convert Selection to [AAC/MP3]‘).

Please note that iTunes standard tracks, which are encrypted using Apple’s FairPlay DRM technology, cannot be directly re-encoded without circumventing the DRM. This issue is covered in-depth in the next section.

But Amazon MP3 wins on sound quality because all tracks are offered in the same 256bit MP3 format and you don’t need to worry about whether you’re getting a higher-quality 256bit or lower-quality 128bit file like you do with iTunes. That said, I think 128bit AAC quality is fine . . . so iTunes doesn’t lose by much.

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Despite my overall positive experiences with iTunes since 2003, Digital Rights Management (DRM)—a copy protection mechanism—has been an annoyance. I despise being tied-in to a particular company’s ecosystem—even if the company is one I like as much as I like Apple. Almost all of my personal data, including documents, images, financial data, and more, is stored in product-agnostic, cross-platform formats. If I switched tomorrow from my Mac to a Windows or Linux machine, I would have no problem accessing my information using software available on my new platform. Why should my music be any different?

I have no problem with Apple using the AAC audio format, which is an open standard superior to MP3 that some non-Apple portable music players can play and many non-iTunes jukebox programs can work with (including Linux programs like Rhythmbox). I do, however, have a problem with the FairPlay DRM system that encrypts otherwise-open AAC files from iTunes so that they can only be played on up-to five iTunes installations, and only after the program has been ‘activated’ with the account the songs were purchased with. This is a hassle, and it is a violation of my fair use rights to copy legally-purchased music to any device I choose and listen to it there. If I share those songs with people (using file sharing systems or by burning CD copies), I am violating copyright. If I want to play a song on my Linux computers, however, I am not.

I know that these DRM mechanisms were included at the behest of paranoid music industry execs, so I am hesitant to place too much blame on Apple. In fact, Apple was first to market DRM-free music (through iTunes Plus) from a major record company (EMI), although initially at a higher price than the same songs with DRM-‘protection’. For a guy like me, who buys his music legally but prefers it unfettered by draconian restrictions that benefit the record industry at my expense, this gives Amazon MP3 a strong leg-up. No Amazon MP3 songs are sold with DRM. Even with iTunes Plus tracks now priced the same as their iTunes standard brethren, only a small subset of iTunes tracks (those from EMI and some independent labels) are available DRM-free at this time. It is my hope that iTunes will go entirely DRM-free in the future.

Before the availability of Amazon MP3 and the price reductions on iTunes Plus, most of my music was purchased with DRM protection through iTunes standard. After the music is purchased, downloaded, and backed-up, I use QTFairUse6 to remove the DRM protection so that I can move my music as I desire (per my fair use rights) between my various bits of audio equipment, whether approved by Apple or not. This is a hassle—in large part because QTFairUse6 is Windows-only, takes some time to decrypt files, and is a bit quirky—but it makes me ‘future proof’ in that I will never be locked out of my legally-purchased music.

If you’re not concerned about DRM, you should be. If Apple goes out of business, or if some great new jukebox program comes along that’s better than iTunes, why should you be prevented from moving your music and using it somewhere else? Many of us have bought the same songs multiple times—vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs—why should you have to go through that same cycle now that everything is digital? Once you’ve bought a song in a digital format once (CD or electronically), you should never have to buy it again. You own it. It’s yours. You should be able to move it to future computers, future software, future music players, and whatever else we don’t see coming yet in the future of technology and music.

As an aside, please note that despite the ridiculous claims of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), I am perfectly within my rights to remove DRM from my iTunes tracks for the purpose of listening to them on Linux computers or non-Apple media players—especially since the songs in question were legally purchased, are not shared through file sharing, and are used only for personal use. In case you question the legality, here’s some backing information:

  • In Sony v. Universal Studios 464 U.S. 417 (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that copying video for personal, noncommercial use is protected under copyright law’s fair use provisions. The case primarily dealt with ‘time-shifting’, or recording a broadcast TV show to watch it later.
  • In RIAA v. Diamond Multimedia, 180 F.3d 1072, 1079 (1999), the U.S. 9th Circuit Court ruled that ‘space-shifting’ for personal, noncommercial use has the same fair use protection as ‘time-shifting’, and clarified that both apply to audio recordings the same as they apply to video recordings as determined under Sony v. Universal Studios. Since iTunes standard tracks cannot be played on Linux computers without circumventing Apple’s FairPlay DRM, I am permitted to circumvent said DRM for the purposes of space-shifting the audio recordings to a Linux computer. Of course, once I’ve space-shifted the recordings to my Linux server, I have every right to space-shift the now-unencumbered files right back to my Mac.
  • The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), an ill-advised law that prohibits circumventing DRM technology in most situations, specifically states in Title 1, Section 1201(c) that, “Nothing in this section shall affect rights, remedies, limitations, or defenses to copyright infringement, including fair use, under this title.” Thus, DMCA does not override my established fair use rights spelled-out in Sony v. Universal Studios and RIAA v. Diamond Multimedia.

So, in short, I haven’t done anything illegal. I certainly hope I don’t get sued over exercising my fair use space-shifting rights—and if any RIAA lackeys are reading, let me reiterate that all 4,200 songs in my collection have been legally purchased, and I can produce a physical CD, iTunes receipt, or Amazon MP3 receipt for each song if need-be—but, having said that, it’s about time that somebody put the some of the DMCA’s questionable provisions on ice. Maybe a good court case is what we need to protect consumers’ fair use rights. I just don’t want to have to fill out all that paperwork (and I think the RIAA would prefer to avoid establishing a pro-consumer precedent anyway ;-)).

All-in-all, DRM-free solutions are the better choices for buying your music. DRM-encumbered files from iTunes standard can be unencumbered using QTFairUse6 (Windows only for now), but this is more hassle than it should be, especially for a non-techie. Thus, Amazon MP3 wins on DRM—hands-down. No song sold in the Amazon MP3 store comes with DRM, so you know exactly what you’re getting, while iTunes currently offers a confusing mix of DRM and non-DRM songs.

Music Selection

When the iTunes store launched in 2003, its music catalog was relatively limited. This was swiftly remedied over the first two years, and now—minus a few idiotic holdouts who don’t sell their music online anywhere, like the Beatles—most of the music I want to buy is available in iTunes. Having to resort to buying a physical CD still happens, but it happens rarely—and more and more rarely as the iTunes catalog keeps growing.

Today, the Amazon MP3 store looks a lot like iTunes did in 2003. Its music catalog is relatively limited. Of about five albums I had sitting in my iTunes cart, only two were available on Amazon MP3. Amazon, however, is aided by its mind-boggling catalog of physical CDs—a search for an album missing from the MP3 store seamlessly results in links to buy the physical CD instead. Nice, but no substitute for having the MP3s available. Electronic music buyers want instant gratification!

I have no doubt that, like iTunes before it, Amazon MP3’s catalog will grow by leaps and bounds in the first year or two. In the mean time, iTunes wins by a landslide on the breadth of its music selection.

Price

Price, however, is another story. Amazon MP3 might be entering the download market more than four years after Apple’s iTunes, but they’re already shaking things up. Many Amazon MP3 tracks sell for as little as 89¢, and many albums for as little as $7.99, compared to iTunes’ standard prices of 99¢ and $9.99.

On both services, album prices vary quite a bit. But in almost every case where I found an album offered in both stores, Amazon MP3 had either the same or—more often—a lower price than iTunes. iTunes’ offerings never deviate from the standard 99¢ for individual songs, except for some tracks offered as ‘Album Only’, while Amazon MP3 offers a range of prices. In my browsing, the vast majority of Amazon MP3 songs are offered (as advertised) between 89 and 99¢—equaling or beating iTunes. Most exceptions are longer songs like Pink Floyd’s 17-minute-long “Dogs”, offered for $2.90 on Amazon MP3 and as an ‘Album Only’ track not available at all for individual download on iTunes.

Amazon MP3 is the clear winner on price. I was hard-pressed to find a single example of an individual song or album that was more expensive on Amazon MP3 than on iTunes.

User-Friendliness

iTunes made a big splash when it first came out in 2003, in part because it was the first online music store that didn’t treat its customers like criminals, but more so because it made buying music so easy! You just fire up your iTunes (which lots of people already used for managing their music and iPods), click ‘Store’, enter some basic information up-front (like credit card info), and from then-on all you had to do was go to the store, search for what you wanted, and click ‘buy’. A few minutes later and you had new music seamlessly plopped into your music collection.

It was dangerously simple and incredibly user-friendly. Well, user-friendly, but not budget-friendly. Click around in iTunes for a few minutes and you could easily spend $500 on music if you aren’t careful (which is why I disabled 1-click buying, choosing instead to use an old-fashioned ‘Shopping Cart’ that I had to review before clicking a final ‘Buy’ button).

Amazon MP3 is at a significant disadvantage here—iTunes [the store] is built right in to . . . well . . . iTunes [the software]. You can’t beat that kind of product placement. In the iTunes universe, you can buy music, listen to music, organize music, and put music on your iPod all in one slick, easy package.

That said, Amazon did a great job of making the MP3 store easy. You enter the store through a web browser, and you have to install the Amazon MP3 Downloader on your computer up-front, but from there on it’s not all that different from the iTunes store. Once everything is set up, buying music is as easy as clicking the ‘buy’ button next to the song or album you want. It bounces seamlessly over to the Amazon MP3 Downloader, which automatically downloads the songs and plops them into your iTunes (or Windows Media Player, if for some reason you prefer it to iTunes on the Windows side). All-in-all, it’s a little bit more up-front hassle, but once you get past the setup steps its about the same as iTunes for ongoing music buying.

I have, however, a handful of problems with the Amazon MP3 store. First, it’s more oriented toward single-song buying than album buying. Doing a search for Pink Floyd, for example, puts too much emphasis on individual songs and not enough on the albums. iTunes does this too, but strikes a slightly better balance by showing me six or more albums at the top with the song list underneath. More annoyingly, I could not find a way to disable one-click buying in the Amazon MP3 store and switch to a shopping-cart model. I’d rather gather a few albums or a bunch of songs together and click ‘buy’ once at the end. Not a deal-breaker, but annoying.

When it comes to user-friendliness, iTunes has the clear lead. Amazon MP3 is young and apt to improve quickly as it grows out of ‘beta’ status. While they won’t be able to top the iTunes Store being built right into iTunes, they are on the right track with the easy Amazon MP3 Downloader software and its slick automatic adding of songs to iTunes. Just work on the web interface a bit ;-).

Conclusion

Amazon MP3 is the newcomer, and while it scores a few big wins—being DRM-free and sporting lower prices—it still shows its youthful imperfections. iTunes, the juggernaut that has owned the legal music download biz since 2003, likewise shows its maturity. When you add it all up though, Amazon MP3 surprises with the win.

Though iTunes offers 256bit, DRM-free downloads through iTunes Plus, it only covers a small percentage of the store’s vast library of downloadable music. Amazon MP3’s biggest weakness is its relatively small catalog of songs, but does not offer a single DRM-encumbered song, and the music in Amazon’s catalog is usually less expensive than the same songs and albums in iTunes.

The good news for consumers though is that the two stores are not mutually exclusive, and the competition between the two (and potentially other newcomers) will be a benefit for all music shoppers. Amazon MP3 will be my first stop for now, with iTunes serving as backup when the song or album I want isn’t available in Amazon. But iTunes could easily close the gap by extending iTunes Plus to the entire collection and dropping song prices to be more competitive with Amazon. Then Amazon could easily catch up by continuing to expand its catalog. It’s a great time to buy music online, and with DRM dying a slow, overdue death and online music competition finally springing up, it will only get better from here.