From High-Tech Gadget, Lower-Quality Music

By Randall Stross

Customers are led to believe that they are getting a CD in all respects except the trouble of going to the mall. The iTunes store does not warn about the permanence of its method of compression; Once freeze-dried, there is no way to reconstitute the music into CD quality for playing through a good stereo.

The human genome must contain instructions that make building personal music collections a primal biological need. If you find yourself guiltily spending US$2,000 a week at the iTunes Music Store from Apple Computer, you are not alone, historically speaking. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that is what the early adopter in 1890 was spending yes, weekly on phonograph records.

Today, Apple’s ingenious combination of the iPod, a marvel of design, and its iTunes store makes collecting and playing music ridiculously easy, impeccably legal and impossible to resist.

Love the iPod, but do not jump too hastily to fill it with thousands of dollars of iTunes. The tracks are not carbon copies of the CD originals, but compressed versions: The smaller files are handy for speedy downloads, space saving for storage and perfectly serviceable for listening through ear buds when riding on the subway. They are not what you will want, however, when your desktop computer becomes the home jukebox and wirelessly sends these simulacra to the entertainment center in the living room.

An Awfully Small File
Consumers find downloading instantly gratifying, but the company uses an extreme form of compression that takes a sample of the sound at intervals. The less information collected, the smaller the resulting file size and the greater the loss of fidelity to the original. Apple has elected to use a compression standard that, to put the best face on it, creates an awfully small file.

This music “lite” is a response to the data transfer problems entailed in downloading the music that resides on anyone’s collection of CDs. With about 10 megabytes needed to store one minute of music, albums eat up space quickly on a hard drive. Credit Apple for Step One: persuading the major music labels to make individual tracks available inexpensively, a la carte. By buying only the hit tracks and ignoring the rest of the album, storage needs drop by 90 percent.

Apple has yet to put into effect the second part of the ideal solution: distributing music that is compressed only temporarily, a process called lossless data compression. Before saving a digital song to the hard drive, software can shrink it in size by 50 percent just by using a shorthand notation that takes up a little less space for any repetitive patterns in the 0s and 1s. When the song is played, the software has all the information that it needs to restore it perfectly.

Freeze-Dried Audio?
With this, “you’ll get the full quality of uncompressed CD audio using about half the storage space.” The phrasing is from Apple’s own Web site, but, unfortunately, the company does not offer “true CD audio,” as it calls this, when you download music from the iTunes Music Store. It is available only when you traipse to the mall, buy the CD, and return home to copy it to your home computer with Apple software.

The company offers no explanation why “lossless” storage is desirable for tracks received through one source but not the other.

Customers are led to believe that they are getting a CD in all respects except the trouble of going to the mall. The iTunes store does not warn about the permanence of its method of compression; Once freeze-dried, there is no way to reconstitute the music into CD quality for playing through a good stereo.

Ah, for simpler times, when we never had reason to look up the bit rate at which music is digitally sampled for CDs: 1,378 kilobits per second. The bit rate for iTunes, 128, is so low that when played side by side against the original, the difference is audible not only to audio enthusiasts, but also to mortals with ordinary hearing.

The New Eight-Track
Wes Phillips, contributing editor at Stereophile, said that “128 is like an eight-track,” and he described the combination of iPod and iTunes as “buying a 21st-century device to live in the 1970s.”

Defending the company’s decision to encode its music at the low end of the bit-rate range, an Apple spokesman, Derick Mains, said that 128 provided good sound quality, “especially when used in iPods.”

“The majority of people,” Mains said, “have absolutely no idea what a bit rate is.” He reasoned that if Apple offered music encoded at a bit rate higher than 128, customers would select it without realizing that it would fill up their hard drive and portable player quickly. But here, as anywhere, it is difficult to argue that offering customers a choice is hurtful.

Apple’s online rivals have an elastic vocabulary to describe the quality of their downloads. The Web site for Wal-Mart Stores, for example, defines the “CD quality” of its online offerings as being “of similar quality as those you would get on a physical CD.” That sounds good, until you read that they are only available permanently compressed at 128. On one Web page, Musicmatch declares “CD quality” as encoding at 128, and, on another, mentions that its downloads are encoded at 160.

Why No Option for True CD Quality?
At RealRhapsody, you can directly compare apples to Apple, as the two companies use the same software standard for compression, and Rhapsody beats Apple hands down: 192 to 128. But Rhapsody’s higher quality is available for a la carte downloads only, and those cannot be played on the Apple iPod. With a subscription service like RealRhapsody, one saves personal tastes in the form of playlists that replace actual music collections, providing access to favorites no matter what storage format comes out “in the next five or 10 or 20 years,” said Richard Wolpert, chief strategy officer of RealNetworks, the parent of RealRhapsody.

Buying the same music over and over is painful, but the same argument turns against subscription services: Who wants to lease instead of own music through endless monthly payments? Even if owning digital music confers restricted rights, it still meets the biological imperative to collect music.

Yes, we should be looking out five years, or even 50 years, and that’s why, when we are building collections from scratch today, we should have the option to collect with true CD quality.

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