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Audiophiles and Apple’s iTunes Music Store September 28, 2006

Posted by Michael in Opinion.

I downloaded the new iTunes 7 last week, and then got to thinking: What a wonderful marketing model that Apple has developed to get people to alter their illegal downloading habits and actually feel cool plunking down 99 cents for a song! Then I considered a few of the pros and cons of iTunes:

Pros: enormous song selection, elegant and simple purchasing interface, quick download, legitimacy, royalties to the artist

Cons: flat pricing, regardless of whether the song is “Her Majesty” by the Beatles (17 seconds) or “Stairway to Heaven”  by Led Zeppelin (8 minutes), AAC files compressed up to 90% from original audio files

The last point in the “Cons” is what bothers me, and is the reason why, despite their brilliant marketing campaign, phenomenal song search engine and luscious store, I have only purchased eleven songs from the Music Store. It seems like the music industry in general, and Apple in particular, in an (admittedly admirable) effort to shift the habits of the music buying public toward legal downloads, has pulled the rug over the heads of their very biggest fans, taking their money and leaving them with song files that are in essence, at 128 kpbs, like grainy versions of the original. This bothers me because, while the average teenager or young adult will listen to that music on tinny iPod headphones, or blaring out his car stereo via a cheap cassette adapter, and not really care about the sound quality, there is a segment of the market which will be cheated out of their purchase by a compromised file which really sounds lousy to a reasonably trained ear when played back on a decent stereo system. I, for instance, do not really want to grow my music collection of hundreds of CDs by investing in compressed files which, when I play them alongside CDs on my stereo, sound like tinny AM radio broadcasts.

What I am getting at is that buying 128 kpbs AAC files on iTunes is a terrific alternative to buying music on cheap, low-quality cassettes, but is no substitute for the crystal-clear quality of a CD or DVD-Audio, and this is something that I think Apple and the other music download services need to address so their biggest customers do not feel cheated out of their money in the long run. Perhaps they could create a premium service for audiophiles so that, for a higher price, they could get a perfect copy of a song, complete with digital rights management.

Of course, one could still go to a store and purchase a CD, but then the brilliance and convenience of the legal download model is lost.

Any further thoughts on this issue? I’d love to hear others’ opinions.



1. vsvander - September 28, 2006

My main concern with downloading songs on an individual basis is that it takes away from the experience of listening to a complete work of art — after all, musicians and producers painstakingly put the songs on albums together in certain orders with specific transitions in order to create a unique mood. In essence, each album is like a novel — you wouldn’t just read one chapter without reading the entire book. While each chapter can be brilliant on its own, it certainly derives more meaning when taken in context. However, having said that, if all one really want to listen to is a pop hit or two off of an album in order to create a kind of jukebox on his/her iPod, then I’m not sure the quality of the recording would carry as much importance.

2. Celso - September 29, 2006


Looks like you’ve identified a great niche business opportunity. Once legal downloading and the online distribution of music method is all figured out (if ever), it would make total sense to offer pricier downloads for people interested in higher quality, high fidelity, high whatever else digital songs. Until then, we must enjoy Apple’s self imposed 99 cent model, gift wrapped in its iTunes and iPods new colors.

3. Jared Weidenbaum - September 30, 2006

The digital recordings often snip off the high ends of cymbals and other idiophones. It’s ironic that some artists now try to recapture the older “analog sound” by deliberately altering the digital recording (see No Doubt’s first album for a track titled Trapped in a Box for a dated but great example).
Michael, you have defintitely identified an opportunity here though. Is there a niche market for a premium product that offers enhanced sound quality at higher price?
I like Vanessa’s comments about concept albums. What artists that are currently releasing projects are throwbacks to the older concept-driven bands like Pink Flolyd and Genesis? I can’t imagine listening to Dark Side of the Moon or the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway chopped into disjunct little snippets. Its all about the context…

4. Michael - October 1, 2006

Jared and Vanessa, your comments on the demise of concept albums indeed strike a chord (if may use that pun in this music discussion!). The digital download model does not, as far as I have seen, bode well for the album format – as a matter of fact, albums as an art form have been in demise for some time now and the digital market is only accelerating its death.

So perhaps a further benefit of a premium download model would be to sell albums such as DSOTM or LLDOB with restrictions on how the consumer purchases those albums, such as having to buy the entire album at once, or at least the songs which are connected conceptually or with crossfades, such as Side 2 of Abbey Road.

Furthermore, while the original case for MP3/AAC compression was simply to save download time and hard drive space, with the spread of broadband and downloadable movies (Apple’s newest offering), file size is no longer an issue re: music. Additionally, iTunes itself, not to mention other audio encoders, have an option for encoding in “Lossless”, which preserves 100% of the original audio data while cutting the file size roughly in half.

5. fellow pepper MBA - October 3, 2006

You’re experiencing a clear case of RTFM – Read The Fine Manual. iTunes allows you to burn a CD and enjoy your download anywhere you want. As to your concern about the quality of your recording – please read this article – http://www.kenrockwell.com/apple/itunes.htm

Have fun and read the fine manual.

6. Matt - October 5, 2006

There is no mention of DRM in this discussion.

Does iTunes “allows you to burn a CD and enjoy your download anywhere you want”?

I think it may allow you to burn a purchased song 5 times and forget transfering the file to another computer.

Who’s to say how I use a song once I download it. Right now I have two iPods, a laptop and a desktop (a little overloaded yes), at the extreme DRM wants to force me to buy a song four times so that I can listen to it on each device. Is that fair?

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