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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.


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