Wednesday, January 07, 2009

iTunes Goes DRM Free

I never found Apple's DRM (digital rights management) on iTunes downloads overly restrictive, and in retrospect it was essential in getting the major labels to commit to legal downloads. I've yet to bump up against the DRM copy protection ceiling. Nevertheless, DRM always bugged me, and I'm glad to see it go the way of the dodo.

But DRM aside, there is more good news in Apple's recent announcement of upcoming changes to their iTunes store.

First, in addition to being stripped of DRM, all songs on iTunes will now be AAC encoded at 256kps. Previously, some songs were available without DRM and at 256kps (designated as iTunes+), but until now the only major label that had agreed to sell their music in this format was EMI. By the end of March, everything on iTunes will be available exclusively in this higher bit rate format and much of their catalog has already been upgraded.

Many audiophiles would probably argue this point, but in my experience, digital files ripped using AAC encoding at 256kps sound very good (nearly indistinguishable from uncompressed CD-resolution files). Files that have been encoded using lossy compression algorithms like AAC or MP3 are not the same as uncompressed files (information has been lost) but they do have the potential to sound very good if the sampling rate is sufficiently high. In my experience with AAC encoding, 256kps is high enough to sound excellent in most cases, while 128kps (the previous iTunes standard) is generally not.

iTunes users will be able to upgrade their library of previously purchased music at the cost of 30 cents per song or 30% of the original purchase price. Many will (justifiably) complain about having to pay for this upgrade. It is particularly irksome that you cannot choose which songs you want to upgrade individually (it's all or nothing). If you've downloaded a lot of music from iTunes, this could end up being a costly upgrade and not worth the expense. Welcome to the real world where it rarely pays to be an early adopter.

The second change at first glance also appears to be a mixed bag for the consumer. Apple plans to introduce variable pricing, something the music industry has been requesting demanding for a long time. Downloads of individual songs will now cost either 69 cents, 99 cents or $1.29. On the whole I think this is both a smart move for Apple, and on balance will be good for consumers as well: the most sought after tracks will be priced a little higher, while most songs will end up costing less. Honestly, it never made much sense to price the latest single by Rihanna the same as "Apes-Ma," the 39 second track from Captain Beefheart's Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (even though I would personally prefer the later to the former).

These changes make purchasing music from iTunes a much more compelling option moving forward. The iTunes store remains the gold-standard in terms of ease of use, but it had been losing ground to the competition in terms of sound quality and pricing. These changes reverse that trend and will force other music download providers to improve their services or go the way of DRM.


badmanners said...

Early adopter? Maybe six years ago, but not today. Still, good they are giving up DRM and give something closer to good quality...

Pete Bilderback said...

I guess what I meant in my comment about early adopters wasn't entirely clear.

Obviously it's not appropriate to call someone who started using the iTunes store two weeks ago an "early adopter." My point here is that those who have built up sizable libraries full of DRM'd 128kps AAC files are most likely early adopters who started using the iTunes store years ago. Those early adopters are the ones who would likely be looking at spending a small fortune to upgrade their libraries.

Footdraggers and luddites like myself who have downloaded a relatively small amount of music from iTunes aren't faced with quite such an expensive dilemma. Of course, I haven't downloaded a lot of music for a reason--I didn't think it was close enough to being a mature technology to invest much money in it. That, and sound quality actually matters to me.

Of course most of my music purchases are still on LP, so my definition of "early adopter" might be kind of skewed anyway.

Doug said...

I must admit that for me, when I ripped my CD collection I went with 128 kps because I was just trying to get something good enough to listen to through earbuds, and years ago having files twice as big was something that could fill up a hard drive fast. So 128 was not so much a concern for me these days.

In my younger days, back when I used to still play LPs, the sound quality was something I concerned myself with, but I admit the convenience of portability has grown on me.

But I have gotten better headphones than those godawful ones that come with the iPod. (Egad those are hideous.) I do still have some standards.

On the DRM topic, I am glad they've ditched it. I do think iTunes is easier to use but I hated having to get around it by burning a CD and then re-ripping it down. It still won't be as inexpensive per track as eMusic, but 69 cents may make me more likely to get something from iTunes if it's not available there.

Thanks for pretending any of that was interesting.

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Doug,

I've had a similar experience. When I first got my iPod I ripped my CDs using AAC at 128kps (which was the default setting). But now I go with AAC at 256kps. Ripping at 128 strips the music of nearly all its high frequencies, which is no big deal (and maybe even a blessing) if you are listening through crummy headphones. But 256 offers much better high frequency response and fewer compression artifacts. With decent headphones the difference is very easy to hear.

So now I find myself re-ripping a lot of CDs at 256. Now that I have a 1TB hard drive, I've got room for them.

Just glad I wasn't one of those people who ripped all their CDs at 128kps, then sold them all. (Of course if I had done that I probably would not have been someone who cared about sound quality at all anyway).