Apple downloads ring sour note

/ Source:

All hail Apple’s iTunes Music Store. It’s very well thought out, and beautifully executed. If only as much thought had gone into the sound quality, which is far from beautiful.

InsertArt(1890459)THE INTERNET is nearly the perfect medium for downloading music, video and more, as anyone who has ever played with Napster or other file-sharing services knows. But with the music industry up in arms about stolen royalties, something had to be done to give them and the musicians their share of the pie, and companies have been struggling to find ways to do it. You have to give Apple a lot of credit for figuring out a really neat way to tap into this huge market for downloads — and for getting lots of publicity for its launch.

Overall, Apple’s music store is a pleasure to use. It’s easy, fast and efficient. It’s so easy — and mindless — I can see users (assuming they have both a Mac and OS X) spending lots of money downloading music.

The premise is simple. First, you need Apple’s latest digital music player software, iTunes 4, and the latest version of QuickTime (6.2). In addition to letting you burn CDs and sync song lists with your iPod, iTunes now also has a special button that takes you to the online store.

Once there, you can hear 30-second previews of songs before you buy them. Single cuts go for 99 cents, albums usually for around $9.99. Once you’ve set up your account and given Apple a credit card number, you press one button and the material is automatically downloaded to another new iTunes button: Purchased Music. It’s that simple.

After downloading the music, it’s yours — sort of. You can burn the cuts onto a CD as many times as you’d like. You can stream them through your home via some clever Apple software (Rendezvous) and you can store them on up to three computers. Apple figures that should be enough to share your downloaded music with friends and family while not giving you free rein to trade it with many other people.

Overall, the experience is a lot better than anything that previously existed. The using and buying experience gets an A-plus.

Of course, the service only works on Apple computers right now, leaving more than 90 percent of its potential users out in the cold. And while sales were high in its first week, that’s typical of most Apple products: demand is high at the beginning, then sales taper off rapidly once the built-in Apple audience buys its fill. Apple is going to need to break that cycle, or risk its store going the way of other cool, but short-lived, designs.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC My biggest problem, however, is with the quality of the downloads.

Apple has chosen AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) compression for the music. (AAC is actually Dolby’s version of the MPEG-4 audio codec.) Apple says AAC is more efficient than older formats like MP3 and that “expert listeners have judged AAC audio files compressed at 128 kbps (stereo) to be virtually indistinguishable from the uncompressed audio source.”

I’d love to meet those experts.

Last night, I downloaded the latest album by The Wallflowers to hear what Apple’s downloads sound like compared to the “real” CD, which I own. After my one-click download, I burned a CD of the cuts. The CD played on the Apple computer, on my PC and in my two standalone DVD players. (Any device that can play a DVD can play burned copies of Apple’s AAC-compressed songs.)

The burned disc did NOT play in any of my CD players. Not in the ones hooked up to my stereo, my portable players, or even in an old laptop without DVD capabilities. Nor did they play on either of my older MP3 players.

(May 15 update: It turned out the blank CD I was using was bad. I used other discs and was able to play them on my CD players.)

It’s true: Apple’s AAC cuts sound great with the tiny little speakers that come with computers. And they sound pretty good on an original (but AAC upgraded) iPod through the stock headphones. But listen through good headphones and what you’ll hear is dull-sounding bass, slightly sibilant voice quality and a lack of three-dimensionality.

When I moved up to the DVD player connected to my stereo, the difference was huge. The AAC cuts had a complete lack of air around the singer and instruments in the band. The sound quality was somewhat dynamic, but dull sounding. When I compared the downloaded songs to the real CD it was no contest. The uncompressed CD .AIFF files sounded much, much, much better.

This might not matter to most people, but consider this: The Wallflowers CD cost me $11.99 when I bought it. I can make as many legal copies as I like for my personal use — and those copies all sound great and play on any device I can think of. I can also rip the songs onto my MP3 players and the iPod. The Wallflowers download from iTunes cost me $9.99, is limited in where I can play and store it — and the sound is inferior.

Even if you think AAC cuts are good enough for your listening needs, you’re paying way too much for this near-CD quality when a few cents more per cut can get you the real thing. Apple should consider slashing the price of their music to reflect the ultimate quality of its offerings. For now, I’ll stick with CDs.