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July 6, 2004

Via Kevin, this NYT article reveals the shocking truth that downloads from iTunes are lossy compressed audio, just like most downloads from legit sources or illicit P2P: From a High-Tech System, Low-Fi Music

Love the iPod, but don't jump too hastily to fill it with thousands of dollars of iTunes. The tracks are not carbon copies of the CD originals, but compressed versions. The smaller files are handy for speedy downloads, space-saving for storage and perfectly serviceable for listening through ear buds when riding on the subway. Not what you will want, however, when your desktop computer becomes the home jukebox and wirelessly sends these simulacra to the entertainment center in the living room.
Audio fidelity is not the only compromise exchanged for the ease and convenience of downloading: files with DRM are more limited than those without.

While Stross does compare the bit rate of the various services, he neglects to compare the compression technology. Without knowing what codec is used, bit rate alone does not provide a useful guide to comparing the sound of compressed files.

At 128kbps, AAC sounds significantly better than 128 kbps MP3. Likewise, the WMA codecs used by Napster, MusicMatch and other Windows download services sounds better at 128kbps than MP3 at the same bit rate. The Slashdot discussion scrapes the surface of codec geekery: Are iTMS's 128kbps Songs Worth Collecting?

For the audio purists, some niche download sites offer music in lossless format. Live Phish offers just that, in the lossless FLAC format, for Phish fans willing to commit the extra disc space and pay $12.95 per recorded show, rather than the $9.95 for MP3's. More than 14,000 concert recordings are available for free download in lossless SHN and FLAC formats from the Internet Archive Live Music Archive.

In October, I compiled a comparison of many various legit download services, which is now out-dated. Since then, all the services have added to their catalog-- Apple now offers more than 700,000 tracks and has served nearly 100 million downloads. Wal-Mart, Sony and others have launched their own download services. For a more current list of many of the legit sites, CD Baby lists the many download sites with which it has partnered for its digital distribution program.

Thanks to CD Baby, it is easy for nearly any recording artist to sell tracks through a legit download service. For example, Havin' Fun, Soundin' Good is now available on iTunes. Nifty.

Update (July 8): Two more responses:
Scott Rosenberg: Stop, hey, what's that sound?: " The record labels are selling lossy versions of songs online because they still distrust the new medium, even when it is being used legally and when people are paying for their product. They're more interested in propping up their sagging CD business than in quickly exploiting a new marketplace"

Steven Berlin Johnson: Does The iPod Play Eight-Track Tapes? "There is, as far as I know, pretty much universal consensus that AAC files sound better at lower bit rates than MP3s. I've done a number of side-by-side comparisons, and to my ears, a 128-bit AAC sounds as good as a 192-bit MP3."

Posted by Andrew Raff at July 6, 2004 07:01 PM
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