Apple iTunes - iTunes Music Store Review

Just as the Apple iPod is the most popular MP3 player on the market, the Apple iTunes Music Store is the most popular Internet music vendor. iTunes is, after all, bundled with the iPod, so it's normal that most iPod users will take the path of least resistance and use the supplied software to organize their music collection and buy new songs.

iTunes does both these functions. It can be used to rip CDs, convert them to AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) format, and transfer them to the iPod. It is also the front end to the iTunes Music Store - Apple's highly successful music vending service that lists more than 2 million songs in its catalog. Individual songs or whole albums can be bought. Videos, podcasts and audio books are also available.

The iTunes software is well designed and easy to use. The search function allows you to narrow down choices by artist, album, song or genre, and the first 30 seconds of all songs can be previewed for free.

The playlist function allows you to organize your music collection manually or automatically according to music style. The software will recommend other songs similar to your current selection - a great way to explore new artists.

All of the songs from the iTunes Music Store are in AAC format. This is a compression format that discards certain parts of the audio spectrum to reduce file sizes. AAC also has a form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) that restricts how files can be used. This includes a limit on the number of times songs can be burned to CD and the number of computers the songs can be transferred to.

The Apple iPod is one of the few portable music players that support AAC format, so if you use another brand, you are pretty well out of luck. Apple does not seem to mind - they appear to be looking for market domination in both music sales and hardware sales, and have succeeded on both counts.

What is the downside to Apple iTunes.

On the surface, there's nothing really 'wrong' with iTunes - it offers lots of choice and is easy to use. Consumers seem to have accepted the idea of online music sales, and iTunes and other online vendors have the blessing of the music industry.

The main thing that is wrong with online music distribution is sound quality. AAC, MP3 and WMA files are all compressed, and they are compressed by removing part of the audio spectrum. Sure, Apple and the other online vendors will tell you that their songs are 'CD quality' but compare them side-by-side with the original CD and you will soon hear the difference.

Compressed audio files lack presence and the stereo field has been reduced. Some of the subtle audio clues that add to the atmosphere of a good recording are lost.

Not only the audio quality, but the audio conception of a complete album is lost by selling songs individually. Even if you buy a complete album from the iTunes Music Store, the songs are in individual files. This means that there will be a pause between tracks that was not present on the original CD. This may not be a big deal for generic pop music, but albums that have been carefully structured will lose the original organization and placement of tracks.

Of course, iTunes is not to blame for this situation. Apple is simply following the trend and capitalizing on the latest marketing methods. Given the size and clout of the iTunes Music Store, however, it could be a major force in changing this second-class way of distributing music.

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