Reality Bytes: iTunes Plus - More Plush?

The iPhone has been stealing all the media buzz lately, but what about Apple's other radical offering, iTunes Plus? As I wrote in my July/August column (also available at soundandvisionmag.com), Apple and EMI have decided to sell music without any Digital Rights Management. They're charging extra for those downloads ($1.29 each vs. 99¢ for the DRM-protected version), but to sweeten the deal, they've upped the bit rate from 128 to 256 kbps. Enquiring audiophiles instantly wanted to know: Do these iTunes Plus tracks sound better?

I wanted to know, too, so I upgraded to iTunes 7.2 (required for getting Plus cuts), bought some 128k and 256k songs, and listened carefully on Bose headphones. Hours later, I'd heard a few differences, but they were subtle. Some examples:

Paul McCartney: "Maybe I'm Amazed." The old tape hiss was less objectionable on the Plus version. The fuzz and grunge in the guitar solo were less harsh, and bass was fuller.

David Bowie: "Changes." Again, the tape hiss was smoother on the Plus version. High-end extension on the vocal reverb was cleaner.

Pink Floyd: "Wish You Were Here."

The Plus version had more air and high-end clarity - and specifically, more detail on the guitar solo.

Corinne Bailey Rae: "Put Your Rec­ords On." Overall, the Plus version had a more dynamic feel. Bass was more defined.

Lily Allen: "Smile." On the complex intro, the detail in the wash of keyboards was sharper on the Plus version. Bass was more rounded.

So, yes, iTunes Plus does sound better. Very slightly. And under everyday conditions (with crappy earbuds), most people won't hear any difference. So, except for your absolute favorite tunes, the sonic improvement of a Plus download probably isn't worth the premium. If you don't want the entanglements of DRM, however, that might be worth your 30¢. And if you intend to recode the AAC file to MP3 or WMA, I'd advise starting with the Plus version. Cascading codecs can significantly degrade fidelity, so it's important to start with the highest-possible file quality, providing the highest "coding margin."

We now return 100% media coverage to the iPhone ... and Paris Hilton ... and Lindsay Lohan.

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