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Amazon.com is setting its sites on iTunes with the release of its new DRM-free music download service

Amazon.com is expanding its digital offerings with a new music store, Amazon MP3.  The store is considered highly anticipated, due to Amazon's high profile, despite the cluttered nature of the online music market.

The early version of the store launched this week, with an initial catalog of over 2 million songs.  The store is expected to directly compete with iTunes for online music dominance.

Singles on the new service are cheaper than iTunes -- sometimes.  Songs run from 89 cents to 99 cents, an Amazon claims in a statement that more than half of the 2 million songs priced at 89 cents.  The company guarantees that its top 100 best sellers will remain at 89 cents.

Amazon signed deals with Vivendi owned Universal Music Group, the largest record company in the world, and EMI, another major record label.  Altogether, Amazon claims it secured more than 20,000 record labels.

Users can download tracks from the new service in 256 kilobit per second VBR MP3 format without any copy protection: all music can be readily played on just about any MP3 player, including Apple's iPod family.  This move marks a departure from DRM-protected iTunes and recently launched ad-supported download service SpiralFrog. 

Universal Music Group is not happy in its relationship with Apple and voice its anger today in the headlines.  With its new deals with Amazon and SpiralFrog, UMG appears ready to jump ship from iTunes.  There may be no time like the present; NBC Universal pulled all of its iTunes offerings earlier this month specifically to move to Amazon.

Apple recently announced its three-billionth download since its debut four years ago; Amazon is the fifth largest audio CD vendor even without digital music downloads.

However, Amazon might not be the only DRM-free service in town for long.  Earlier this year Steve Jobs pledged to reduce DRM on its high-quality audio tracks.  These tracks cost more than Amazon's offerings ($1.29 versus $0.89), but if Apple is any indicator, eventual winner of this arms-race will be the merchant with the best labels, not the one with the least DRM.


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DRM and Music
By mmntech on 9/25/2007 1:06:43 PM , Rating: 1
I consider myself an Apple fan but I've never like iPod or iTunes Store. DRM being the one thing that has kept me away from buying either. It's nothing more than a tool to artificially inflate sales by requiring people to purchase the same item in different formats and licenses for each media device they own.

Sigh. I think we need to bring back analogue audio formats like LPs and cassettes. They just worked, DRM free, and the RIAA wouldn't drag you into court for making mix tapes.

I'm intrigued by Amazon offering DRM-free music, yet skeptical. Sure the prices are lower than iTunes but how long will that last. I'd rather buy from DRM free LPs and CDs and then rip them myself at a higher bit rate. $0.89 per song isn't really that cheap for 128kbps.




RE: DRM and Music
By grampaw on 9/25/2007 1:14:09 PM , Rating: 5
The article failed to mention that the Amazon standard is 256 VBR mp3s without DRM, not the usual 128 CBR mp3 compression, which is noticeably lower quality, that you get from other on-line stores.

I generally buy used CDs to rip my own mp3s at 256 VBR - this new Amazon service may be another legal alternative.


RE: DRM and Music
By TomZ on 9/25/2007 1:25:31 PM , Rating: 3
You're right - Amazon is 256kbps. And that's pretty good quality. And DRM-free!

Once thing that's nice about Amazon is that you can buy MP3's and physical CDs from the same store.

Seems like a nice offering Amazon has put together.


RE: DRM and Music
By omnicronx on 9/25/2007 1:37:53 PM , Rating: 2
Is itunes really 128CBR? i always thought they were 196 VBR.
128kb bitrate really messes with the highs and lows, most of which are non existent after conversion. 196CBR is in my mind the minimum it should be, as it is the closest to CD quality with at the same time having the trade off of having a small file size.

I just can't believe nobody has ever made a stink about this, I refuse to even add 128kbps mp3s to my music collection, they are all 196CBR or higher, as thats been the group release standard since 2000.


RE: DRM and Music
By Anonymous Freak on 9/25/2007 3:19:59 PM , Rating: 3
iTunes is 128 CBR AAC. AAC does a better job at lower bitrates, so 128 Kb/s in AAC is somewhere around the quality of 192-256 Kb/s MP3.

iTunes Plus (the new DRM-free files,) are 256 CBR AAC, which are better than 256 Kb/s VBR MP3.


RE: DRM and Music
By TomZ on 9/25/2007 3:29:05 PM , Rating: 2
It's nice that Amazon is offering MP3 instead of AAC. While I understand that AAC may be technically superior, nearly every player on the planet support MP3, while very few support AAC.

And no, I don't want to even think about transcoding between two lossy formats. Don't get me started...


RE: DRM and Music
By Samus on 9/26/2007 6:15:18 AM , Rating: 3
I downloaded a bunch of Amazon music already, they're encoded with LAME MPx 2.03 in VBR 256kbps joint-stereo, have basic ID3 info, and frankly the software (or lack there-of) is pretty simple. Everything is web-based in what appears to be activex (although it works in firefox, too.)

For 89 cents each, I'm happy.


RE: DRM and Music
By ddahlstrom on 9/25/2007 3:30:04 PM , Rating: 2
I don't know. Eliminating DRM is a huge factor for me, but as long as lossy compression is still being used, we're still a step back from even CD quality sound. Until Amazon/iTunes starts offering DRMless and lossless music (like Chandos does now http://www.theclassicalshop.net/searchresMP306.asp... I'm still not buying.


RE: DRM and Music
By novacthall on 9/25/2007 3:39:51 PM , Rating: 2
That's actually the question I was looking to have answered in the article. Not finding it there, I am glad you touched on it, and have confirmed it at Amazon's site.

I have some questions for you, though, if I may have a moment of your time.

In the past, whenever I've ripped a CD, not knowing much about audio quality and having nearly unlimited space to work with, I've generally just taken the MP3 quality slider all the way up as far as it will go. This usually results in huge audio files (which I don't mind, because I don't share), and sounds to my ear indiscernible in audio fidelity compared to the CD. I recognize that audio equipment may very well be my bottleneck, but barring that:
1) Am I gaining anything by ripping at 320kbps over something lower, say 256kbps?
2) How does the quality of VBR compare to CBR? I've only ever used CBR in the past.

About my only experiments with MP3 files were with <128kbps, 128kbps, 192kbps, and 320kbps. Everything 128kbps and under causes instant and profuse bleeding of the auditory canal. 192kbps was all right, but I think I fell down the slippery slope of "well if you're going to take it over 128kbps, why not go for broke?" I am open to the possibility that this stance is flawed.


RE: DRM and Music
By TomZ on 9/25/2007 4:09:58 PM , Rating: 2
VBR is generally better than CBR since it dynamically adjusts the bitrate according to the music. This optimizes file size and quality. The only drawback I'm aware of with VBR is that some older MP3 players might not support VBR. But I think those are pretty rare now.

I think your approach of doing a test using your equipment is pretty smart, in my view. That way you can make the tradeoffs for yourself.

I currently have all my CDs encoded at 320kb VBR. I noticed loss of quality below 256kb VBR, and the file sizes between 256 and 320 are not too large, so I decided to max it out, especially since disk space is so cheap.

I also have all the original WAV files from my CD rips. I can very easily re-encode my entire CD library with a different setting or file format as needed. I figured this way I would never have to rip my CDs again - once is enough for me.


RE: DRM and Music
By mmntech on 9/25/2007 11:21:27 PM , Rating: 2
Encoding at the highest possible makes sense to me. It all depends on the transparency rate of the codec in use, the quality of the hardware (DACs, headphones), and how good your hearing is. I encode a lot of music from analogue sources. I usually encode them to 24-bit wave, with 96khz sampling, then convert them to OGG for playback on my laptop or AAC for my PSP at the highest bitrate possible. Both devices have limited storage so I usually don't use lossless for them.

As I see it, even 256kbps isn't worth the price since CDs are 16-bit lossless. Given an average of 12 tracks per CD, it would cost $10.68 to buy that many off Amazon, where only a couple bucks more gets you lossless quality. (It's worth noting that buying those 12, 256kbps, DRM free tracks off iTunes cost more than most CDs) The obvious advantage for buying tracks online is you can buy singles, rather than the entire album. However, for it to be worth it for me, they would have to be sold at the same price per track as CDs in a lossless, easy to transcode format.


RE: DRM and Music
By kelmon on 9/26/2007 3:00:59 AM , Rating: 2
I consider myself an Apple fan but in contrast do like the iPod and iTunes Store. However, I am very interested in Amazon's service (at least when they get around to releasing it in Europe) and could switch to using it rather than the iTunes Store. As best as I can see, based on the reviews, Amazon seems to have got most things right. The product and price is good (although apparently not all tracks are 256kbps), they provide a download client that will get your tracks into iTunes automatically ON A MAC (honestly, I'm shocked by that) and you can play them on your iPod so no need to buy a new MP3 player. Add some more tracks and improve the interface a bit (hey, it's beta so that's expected) and I think that Amazon has a winner here.

A lot of people have complained about the iTunes Store but this is the first serious competition to arrive and I applaud Amazon for doing it right. This seems to be the general reaction even from the Mac community. The next few years will no doubt be very interesting.


Good
By michael2k on 9/25/2007 12:57:15 PM , Rating: 2
Now we shall see if the iPod's sales "stand on their own" or if they are propped by iTunes sales, as many people submit.

Or if Amazon flops, I suppose.




RE: Good
By randomlinh on 9/25/2007 1:01:52 PM , Rating: 2
wasn't it the other way around? iPod sales didn't/don't need iTS.


RE: Good
By SilthDraeth on 9/25/2007 1:39:40 PM , Rating: 2
Amazon can't possibly flop. They are very successful already. Adding an additional product to their portfolio will not make them flop.

That is like saying Wal Mart might flop if they decide to start selling automotive parts in excess if what they already carry.


RE: Good
By Oregonian2 on 9/25/2007 1:45:02 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Now we shall see if the iPod's sales "stand on their own" or if they are propped by iTunes sales, as many people submit


Of course it is. Even Apple themselves say the purpose of iTunes is to support the sales of iPods. What good is an iPod with massive gigabytes of storage space if there isn't an easy way to fill it with songs? If ripping CD's and transferring them manually were the only way they'd sell diddly-squat numbers of players. It's like "how many TV's would XXX sell if there was no progamming to watch other than home made movies?". Not much.

Now then, there's "iTunes" the PC/Mac software, and there's iTunes' online store. Two different but related things. Wife an I have had a iPod each (and I've had another brand's MP3 player previously) and iTunes the software has been quite good as an organizer and an easy way to transfer my CD's to the iPod. As to the online store, I've only used iTunes the store to get free podcasts, something it does very well as well. Are there alternatives? Yes there are, but iTunes the software seems to work pretty well for me, although I'll admit podcasts is what I had used it for most of the time (it "disappeared" so I'm watching the Touch and one of the Sansa's).

But in any case, having an easy source of music or podcasts that can be organized on one's PC and transferred to one's MP3 player is a near essential thing to have. Any service, including Amazon's, will promote sales of those players that it integrates "neatly" with. The integration works positively for both the service and the player.


RE: Good
By h0kiez on 9/25/2007 2:22:16 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
What good is an iPod with massive gigabytes of storage space if there isn't an easy way to fill it with songs?


I'm not sure the ITMS is an easy to way "fill it". Say you've got a 30GB iPod...and a song is 5MB (round numbers)...$6,000 to fill your iPod sucks. And that's why, as Jobs has said and numbers back up that a tiny fracion of what is on iPods was actually purchased there.


RE: Good
By Oregonian2 on 9/27/2007 2:23:06 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, a lot of music is spendy, but you don't have to fill it all at once. I don't know the count of my CD collection but it's probably something over 400. But I didn't buy them all yesterday to fill an iPod, I've been buying them since I got my Sony CDP-101 CD player back when CD's first started (what's that been, 25 years?). True, not every track is a winner, but even still. Also when one has a "big" iPod one has room to spend, and can convert CD's with a very high bitrates and not worry about it. In any case I use iTunes to download massive quantities of free podcasts. Easy, automatic, and nicely organized. :-)

Note I'm not an Apple'ite. I'm pure Microsoft back to DOS 3.3 or so. I do like the iPods though.


RE: Good
By RjBass on 9/25/2007 2:25:24 PM , Rating: 2
And that right there is one of the many reasons why I wont purchase an iPod. I bought a 4 gig video mp3 player from Creative that cost me much less then a comparable iPod and I don't need some stupid iTunes to fill the catalog. I just plug it in via the USB cable and my computer treats it like a simple flash memory stick.

Now I don't even use the MP3 player as my cell phone does all of that now. And with the Blue Tooth stereo headset I now have one less thing in my pocket. My 2 gig micro sd card is more then enough for what I normally need as well.


RE: Good
By kelmon on 9/26/2007 3:06:54 AM , Rating: 2
Not to be an iPod apologist or anything but iPods work like that as well. I bought an 80GB iPod last year and use it as an emergency back-up drive since it appears to the computer as an external USB 2.0 hard drive. I can't ever see myself filling the space with music (seriously, who's going to have 80GB of good music?) but video takes up a lot of space along with my documents.


RE: Good
By mindless1 on 10/18/2007 6:27:47 PM , Rating: 2
iPod sales couldn't possibly continue to stand on their own, not because of iTunes or lack thereof, but because the iPod was just a momentary trend like parachute pants. Apple made a lot of money and popularized the personal digital audio player market but their feature-set:price ratio was terrible. I mean features universally held as important, lots of us don't play videos on our MP3 players and wouldn't want to carry around a device large enough to make that reasonable.


So, let me get this straight...
By Anonymous Freak on 9/25/2007 2:49:58 PM , Rating: 2
Vivendi/Universal Media Group complains that Apple has inflexible pricing and at $0.99 per track, Vivendi isn't getting enough money.

So they make their music available on Amazon. Which charges a flat $0.89 per track.

Uh.......




RE: So, let me get this straight...
By bhieb on 9/25/2007 3:37:48 PM , Rating: 2
They complain that their take is too low (about 70 cents). It could be that Amazon wants a smaller cut. Hell if I were them I would do it for a nickel give the other 84 cents to the studio. The only real cost to them is storage and programming. They already have the site and marketing in place so other than some storage the cost of doing this is not 5 cents per track, so it is probably a no brainer to offer the studios a better deal.

That is the problem these studios have with Apple, they are too greedy (I know pot calling the kettle black and all). The studios know that it does not cost Apple near 19 cents a track to sell their music. It is the same old Apple mentality, they feel they have a superior product and they price the hell out of it. Now that works fine on the average Joe Blow that doesn't realize his iPod is a comparitive rip off, but you cannot have that same attitude with your business partners. Well you can but they will tell you to take a hike and find one of your competitors willing to undercut your inflated margin.


By Blight AC on 9/26/2007 1:08:55 PM , Rating: 2
Your forgetting a few things...

Bandwidth - Amazon has to pay the "delivery" costs as well.
Marketing - Let the people know!
Support - For those issues that prop up.

And I'm sure there's more.


By elgoliath on 9/25/2007 4:04:27 PM , Rating: 2
I was thinking the same thing- Must have missed something somewhere.......


Name
By acer905 on 9/25/2007 2:28:05 PM , Rating: 3
Totally off subject of the article... but most of Apples naming makes sense to me, but can someone explain where the name iPod comes from. why pod? what does a pod have to do with music? hadn't ever really thought if it till a couple days ago.

other than that all i have to say is go Amazon. I'm happy to see another service added to their system




RE: Name
By GaryJohnson on 9/25/2007 5:17:55 PM , Rating: 2
I think 'pod' can be a synonym for 'container'. And the little 'i' I would take to stand for 'information'. So iPod could be read as 'information container'. Though, I don't think this is Apple's official stance on the name.

Another definition of POD I found was as an acronym for 'Prince of Darkness'.


This is the right direction
By Polynikes on 9/26/2007 8:23:40 AM , Rating: 2
iTunes' days are numbered, at least in their current form.




Fixed vs Variable Pricing
By jeromekwok on 9/26/2007 12:52:05 PM , Rating: 2
I have some views on fixed pricing (Apple) and variable pricing (Amazon).

There are some reasons Apple to stay on fixed pricing. If the music world is fixed priced, customers don't have to go bargain hunting to see which store offers the best bundles. Customers don't have to worry that the price of the songs they buy today may drop tomorrow; or wait for the price to drop before buying. Save time to listen to more previews and buy more good songs.

Fixed pricing would push music producers to make better songs. There is no pricing advantage for craps.

Variable pricing in my opinion benefits the labels more than customers. Customers have to pay more for popular tracks. Also, customers may buy more songs due to bundles or offers, which some songs may turn out they don't like that much. Labels can sell craps at lower price, so bad singers can survive.

I would like to see labels to sell songs from both kinds of retailers. There is no problem to sell $1.29 on iTunes while selling <=$1.29 at Amazon.

I am not sure how good is the mp3 encoding, I guess 256k vbr mp3 is comparable to 128k cbr AAC. DRM-free is definitely good for all people.




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