Buyer Beware

It may be a crazy download world, but buyers still need to be diligent and know what it is they are buying. Last week, I wrote about all the various mainstream services selling music downloads. Competition is fierce, and the latest fallout is the Yahoo! Music Online Store, which will discontinue operations on September 30.

One of the problems with these services is the proprietary nature of the content. For instance, songs and albums that were purchased through the Yahoo! Store are protected by a digital rights management (DRM) system. The music files require a valid license key before you can play the songs on any computer. Since Yahoo will no longer support that key once the store closes, you run the risk of loosing the ability to play the songs you already purchased. So, before the store closes, you need to back up the music tracks on CD because the files themselves will become useless.

This business model, created by Apple for the iTunes Store, has been under fire for some time. Purchased content should be yours for all time, and you should be able to do whatever you want with it. How Apple handled the DRM issue is that songs purchased at the iTunes Store can only be played through the iTunes software or loaded onto an iPod. You can't even convert them to a different file format and back them up to CD.

The whole issue of intellectual property and royalties has been a stumbling block for the recording industry since the emergence of downloadable media. Of course, the artist's work has to be protected. However, artists seem to be far more hip, and they recognize the shift that is already happening. Ultimately, they want fans to get their music, no matter the medium. Many offer a free song or two when promoting a new album. Hopefully, people like it enough to purchase the CD or download it from one of the music services.

Major record labels are scrambling because artists don't need them as much anymore. Back in the day, the label was responsible for recording, mastering, and distributing albums. They often fronted the cash to record the artist's first album, then paid themselves back with the proceeds. Unless the band released a bona fide hit, they often never saw a penny from the sale of their album. Today, artists are in more control, creating their own labels, covering the costs of recording, and developing their own distribution.

If pop music is your thing, the mainstream music services are, in essence, the new distribution points for the major labels. So it's not surprising there are restrictions in place to protect everyone's interests. Still, the music you purchase and download should be your own to enjoy in whatever way you like, so support DRM-free music. Pay a little more and retain control of your music files. You wouldn't expect your CDs to become useless just because the music store you bought them from went out of business. We'd all be in a lot of trouble now that Tower Records and The Wherehouse are distant memories.

What Are Lossless Files?

An interesting question came up this week. Are Apple's AAC (.m4p) files lossless?

AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) is a format developed by the MPEG group, which includes Dolby, Fraunhofer (FhG), AT&T, Sony, and Nokia. AAC is part of the MPEG-4 standard and was designed for greater efficiency in distributing sound files over moderate-bandwidth connections. For instance, the files you purchase from Apple are special AAC protected files with a data rate of 128kbps. While the fidelity is greater than MP3, it is still a pretty seriously compressed file. The low data rate allows customers to download the files via slow Internet connections.

Lossless doesn't mean there is no compression—quite the contrary. All lossless files are created using some kind of compression scheme. The more important question to ask when examining a particular audio codec is whether it uses lossy or lossless compression. Lossy compression loses some of the file's data during the encoding process, resulting in sometimes audible degradation of the music. Yes, file sizes are smaller, but the loss of audio resolution is often immediately apparent. On the other hand, even a lossy compression scheme can sound pretty good if the date rate is high. However, once you start losing any resolution, it ceases to be a faithful reproduction of the original music track.

Lossless compression schemes such as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) retain all the data of the original music file. This type of compression typically reduces the file size by 40-60% without losing audio quality. Still, the file sizes are considerably larger than anything you can download from most mainstream sites.

So, in answer to the original question, Apple's AAC protected files use a lossy compression scheme, but ALAC files are lossless. Both, however, are exclusive to the iTunes/iPod world.

DRM-free or not, what you get from mainstream music services is encoded with lossy compression to keep the file sizes small. Consider that an original CD WAV file is encoded at a bit rate of 1411kbps. Even Apple's iTunes Plus files (DRM-free) are only 256kbps with AAC encoding. Amazon's DRM-free files are 256kbps with MP3 encoding. The file sizes are the same, but AAC is part of the newer MPEG-4 standard, so technically, it should sound better.

Some might be compelled to write and tell me this is a pretty simplified explanation, and they would be correct. File-compression technology is not only complex, but it can be a pretty passionate topic. Just suffice to say that compression, in and of itself, is not evil. Some types of compression degrade audio fidelity more than others.

If you really want to get into the nuts and bolts of the various compression schemes, here are some great links for your research. These sites provide some explanations and technical specifications for various digital formats including ACC, ALAC, AIFF, FLAC, WAV, WMA, and many more.

Digital Preservation

dB Power Amp

Take a look at the official FLAC website. After immersing yourself in these highly detailed pages, you'll be a bona fide expert.

For a comparison of the various codecs, check out these sources:

Audio Codec Comparisons

Audio Codec Chart

I look forward to your comments and questions on this subject. It's my desire to create an open and respectful discussion. For some, this is like a new language. Getting into the numbers and all the technical specs can be educational and an interesting topic of conversation. But of greater importance is that we don’t lose sight of the goal—to enjoy downloadable media at the highest possible quality. Convenience is wonderful but not at the expense of the hard work and effort that goes into a musician's original creations.

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Scott's picture

FYI, your description of the iTunes DRM restrictions is not entirely correct. Directly from Apple Support: "iTunes DRM-protected music includes audio with a bit rate of 128 kbps and allows users to transfer songs and videos to up to five computers, burn seven copies of the same playlist to CD, and sync to an unlimited number of iPods." This means you can play your purchased music via your computer, Apple TV, iPod and CDs. Note you can burn more than 7 CDs by modifying the playlist. Doing so gets you 7 more burns, per playlist modification. Also note you can re-import the burned CD to iTunes, or other music software, as long as you selected the standard audio CD format for burning. This allows you to convert on re-import to other formats like MP3. Apple does offer some music without DRM, at 256 KBPS. Also, Apple has publicly challenged the music industry to allow all music to be DRM free. The DRM restrictions are from the music industry, not Apple, per se, and they are loath to support Apple further

Colin Robertson's picture

Since Apple no longer charges extra for 256kbps DRM-free music, I'm not entirely sure why they haven't converted their whole catalog over to the 256 bit rate... Something tells me it has to do with how many songs they can claim fit onto any given ipod... It would also be extremely important to note, that if you burn a CD from compressed music, such as music purchased through iTunes, and re-import it onto your computer, the process strips the DRM off of the songs yes, but unless the songs are ripped in a lossless, or uncompressed format, audible artifacts can creep up. Ripping at a lossless or uncompressed format will at this point, of course, cause the music to take up much more space on your hard drive that it did in its original form, and it will still be missing that information that was previously missing from the compression!

Stephen - Ontario's picture

Colin, It's not Apple, its the music companies. So far, to the best of my knowledge, only EMI allow songs to be sold on iTunes at 256kbps DRM-free. In fact, I have heard that now that Apple is the biggest retailer of music in the U.S. (the world?), the music companies other than EMI are reluctant to let Apple sell DRM-free music. They did allow Amazon, however, but this is mostly aimed at trying to find competition for Apple. Ironic, since it was Apple that showed the music companies how its done in the internet era - and probably allowing them to survive in some form and not go under.

ender21's picture

This is definitely confusing. If it's the music companies, then why does Amazon (or some other music sites) offer nearly the same catalog without DRM and at higher bitrate?

Kim Wilson's picture

It makes sense that the music labels are dictating whether a file is DRM or not. if you think about it, why would Apple or any other service chose to add DRM unless they were being directed to do so. However, I like Stephen's theory and it has some validity. There is this underlying distain in America for any company that 'corners the market'. I suspect It goes way back in our history where government attempting to curtail monopolies. Ironic or not, it would not surprise me one bit if the music labels conspired with Amazon, or anyone else, in an attempt to undermine Apple's dominance. It's sort of the American way, :-) On a more serious note, you do bring up some good points and I will do some research on this. When I get some answers I'll let you all know. And Scott, thanks for the additional information on iTunes.

Colin Robertson's picture

Stephen, I was referring specifically to the bit-rate, not the lack of DRM. As much as I would like to see DRM go away, I would be much more apt to download music from itunes if it were all available in a higher bit-rate, even with DRM. Ideally, they would give us options between compressed and lossless files. Ender21, it's important to note, that from a sound quality perspective Amazon's 256kbps mp3's sound about as good as Apple's 128kbps AAC files, maybe even less that that. Mp3 files tend to sound really brassy and shrill in the top end, and are, in general, far less musical than AAC files. However, I am glad they are using 256 mp3s over 128 mp3s!

stephen - Ontario's picture

Colin, I too would prefer Apple offer higher bit rates, even with DRM. However, I believe that, the same contracts between Apple and the music companies that dictates DRM also limits to 128 - to the music companies, at least, these issues are tied together. Anyone else have further info on this? Ironically, Apples iTunes and iPod got me buying CDs again. This way I can import the at the bit rate I want. I picked 320 - I have too many CDs for lossless, I'm at 23,451 songs and still another half of my collection to go! Also, the type of listening I do with iTunes or an iPod is usually casual. I can always go to the CD for critical listening. If Blu-ray provides the new next gen sound, then i would like to see the music companies take a queue from the movie studios: include a Digital Copy of the music for use with iTunes - high bit rate of course!

Gregor Samsa's picture

This story illustrates perfectly why I and a lot of other people have had it with businesses that make you pay exorbitant fees to download files infected with DRM and lossy compression. I will still buy high quality vinyl, SACDs and CDs directly from artists that have forsaken the big 4 to sell direct to the public. For the rest, I use bittorrent (I was beginning to wonder if we were going to have a blog on downloading music that pretended this didn't exist). There's also loads of wonderful stuff here that no one is ever going to try to sell, so no one loses any money. I also scratch my head at people like stephen who use lossy so they can cram weeks of music on an iPod. Like they were going to set off around the world on Kon-Tiki and not see a computer for a year. I have one of the late, lamented IRiver IHP-120s fitted with Rockbox. It supports many lossless codecs and gives me a digital out that I don't have to pay Wadia $370 for. Mounts as any other USB drive and I change out the 20 GB

Gregor Samsa's picture

Ran out of characters. I swap out songs on the IRiver every couple of months. Works great. NB Kim's link to dB Power Amp, the Swiss Army Knife of computer audio tools. Also Google Foobar, EAC, ASIO and Kernel Streaming. Invaluable for getting the best out of music stored on any kind of hard drive. Rockbox works on many generations of iPods too. Nothing wrong with ALAC, but this could save you hours of file conversions.

Stephen - Ontario's picture

Gregor, its not the iPod, its the computer hard drive capacity that has me using 320. I expect my collection would be over a TB in size if I used lossless. Couple this with not wanting to split my iTunes library, backup issues, etc. and I realized I needed to sacrifice for space constraints. For casual listening (e.g., walking around the house, over meals, etc.) 320 is fine for me (I made comparisons between the various bit rates, and lossless). For critical listening, as I mentioned, I use the source CDs, and I also have many DVD-Audio's, and SACDs (to be truthful, I hear more of a difference between DVD-Audio's and SACDs compared to CDs, than CDs to iTunes tracks at 320).

Gregor Samsa's picture

Stephen, You're as bad a music hoarder as I am! I bit the bullet and bought the extra HD space. 1.5 TB and counting. I like hi-rez digital too - especially DSD, and lament its poor fate in the marketplace. Hi-rez PCM in significant amounts may be in the offing. If you think lossless compression of Redbook files takes up a lot of HD space, these are multiples of their size.

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