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iTunes Music Store revisited

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I’ve received thousands of e-mails in the past week on the subject of Apple’s new iTunes Music Store. Many wrote to say they couldn’t hear the sound quality differences I spoke about, others said I should have been more clear that the problems with compressed music go beyond Apple’s format. And, of course, there were the usual e-mails from people who think Bill Gates dictates every word I write. Below is a sampling of the more printable reader reaction, along with my responses.

InsertArt(1900800)FIRST, AN ADMISSION: I wrote that while I was able to play a CD burned from iTunes on my PC, it wouldn’t play in my CD players. Many of you had definite ideas as to why, and it turns out, that a few of you were right: the media I used was bad. There was a problem with a blank Memorex Black CD.

I tried burning a CD again a few times and the new discs work everywhere. How they sound is a different matter.

And you can take my comments about AAC sound quality and apply them to ALL compressed music formats. MP3, WMA, Ogg Vorbis: You name it, they’re not as good as uncompressed sound. Period.

I don’t care how close you think their quality comes to that of a “Red Book”-standard CD. To use a recommendation from one reader: You can’t fit everything contained in a pound of music into a half-pound bag.

Fortunately, many readers agreed:

PF: “Your article is not so much about the Apple music store as it is about all mp3/AAC files vs. a CD.”

J: “Since when do MP3s or AACs sound good? Is it news to you that compressed audio or image files are not as good as uncompressed files?”

CN: “I’m a long-time Apple loyalist, but even I can’t ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ with Steve and declare 128kbps AAC the equivalent of CD sound quality. Hell, it’s not even as good as the 192kbps mp3 coding that I usually use and I can hear that on my iPod with Koss PortaPro ‘phones. A CD vs. AAC comparison on a serious audio system is a joke. But until I read your article, I felt like I was the only one hearing it.”

A number of readers told me of their personal experiments with iTunes.

XY: “Most normal, non-anal retentive people can’t tell the difference between a CD and the AAC files. I know this because I’ve played the music to various people and not a single one has said - woah! that doesn’t sound like a CD! Please turn it off, it’s awful! Hmmm, come to think of it - CD is crap - if you want better sound, shouldn’t your benchmark be a Super CD or live performance perhaps??”

Exactly my point, although not the way I’d write it.

In a world where music reproduction standards are on the rise (with SACDs and DVD-Audio discs) aside from the increased portability, why would anyone settle for near-CD quality music? Especially for the price Apple is charging.

It’s the same reason people buy 4 or 5-megapixel digital cameras instead of 1-megapixel cameras. Yes, you can fit more small resolution pictures on similar storage disks in the lower resolution camera (or any camera at lower settings), but you’re also getting a less-superior image. It comes down to how much quality really matters to you.

Speaking of price, LR asks: “Why do you compare a $11.99 album, when most CD albums list for $15 or higher. Secondly, the iTunes online store doesn’t charge sales tax. Now, do the math.”

Well, some small stores and large chains charge $12 or $13 for CDs when they run sales. Here in New York City there are stores that sell brand-new discs for $9.99. Why would you pay the same price for compressed, limited-use copies of the same music? Even at $15, you’re getting more for your money.

But some readers see iTunes Music Store more as an adjunct to their local shop rather than a replacement:

EA: “I would agree with you about 128 AAC files not being as good a deal as CDs themselves (for a similar price). Depending how important a particular work is to me, I may download it from Apple, or I might take the extra effort to pick it up at the store. It is good to have a choice. Hopefully, Apple will lower their prices, and make the iTunes store more competitive (price vs. quality).”

VR: “In my opinion the point of Apple’s music service, is that this service (besides being an attempt at generating revenue) is intended to curtail piracy. Someone who was perfectly content to find music via one of the P2P networks isn’t going to care about sound quality. If they can get some of those people to legitimately obtain their music, I think they’ll have succeeded. ... For anyone that really cares about “total sound” they will still buy the real thing when they can. For my rock collection it doesn’t matter, but I buy movie scores and classical music, and for now I will still only buy CDs for those.”

Lastly, many of you apparently think I write my columns to suit some agenda of Microsoft’s:

DG: ”Where is the journalistic integrity in not at least reminding readers that Apple and Microsoft (for whom you wrote this article) are competitors? Where is the journalistic integrity in not at least comparing your results and experience with someone else who tried the service, in case you are just a moron...?”

SF from Australia: “And what an impartial, unbiased article it is. More bull—— “grassroots” marketing spin from MS. ... By the way, AAC sounds fine to me on my $750 Sennheiser headphones ... and through the $15,000 monitors at my studio. Not perfect, of course, but better than mp3 and of course much, much better than your monopoly employer’s proprietary .wma?”

Much of the e-mail along this lines was apparently sparked by an unsigned article on a Macintosh fan site that said I wrote my original piece solely because I work for Microsoft and had to toe some company line against Apple.

I’ll make it easy to understand for everyone who echoed his feelings:

I work for, a Microsoft and NBC jointly-owned company. Journalistically, I have to answer to NBC News. If I’m being paid to write nice things about every Microsoft product then someone is stealing the checks before I get them.

To get back to things that matter, I maintain that the overriding problem of iTunes still exists.

Burning CDs off iTunes takes compressed AAC files and expands them into a disc of “near-CD” .AIFF files. The sound quality on a good system is breathtakingly disappointing.

The last, and possibly scariest word on the subject of sound quality goes to one of the many music professionals who wrote: “As a musician I feel that the sound quality is exceptional. CD quality? Close enough.”

I really wonder about the sound quality at his live performances.