Today is a big day for music downloaders, because iTunes is finally offering DRM-free music for your listening pleasure. To sweeten the deal, each also has a lighter AAC compression applied to it, 256kbps instead of iTunes' customary 128kbps.
Called iTunes Plus, it's available now, and all it asks is an extra 30 cents per song ($1.29 for each instead of $.99 for iTunes songs). Is there a big difference in sound quality between those 128kbps iTunes files and these 256kbps iTunes Plus songs? Let's dig into iTunes Plus, grab a few files and compare them to the old-style locked-up tunes.To access the iTunes Plus songs, a limited selection with only EMI artists thus far, first you must upgrade your iTiunes software to version 188.8.131.52. Then, you simply tell iTunes you'd like for it to offer you iTunes Plus songs whenever they're available.
Then it offers (for thirty cents each) to convert any 128kbps tunes you already have into iTunes Plus files, if they are available that way. This was easier said than done. Our collection here only had five songs that qualified. We're still not sure why, but we got an error message on four of the five songs. Could it be that we had already stripped the DRM from those songs? Could be, could be.
We downloaded two more iTunes songs to see what would happen, and the same thing occurred. Errors (see graphic below). Throughout the day, we experienced numerous timeouts with the new iTunes Plus store, a situation we're thinking (hoping) is because of the intense interest in unchaining libraries of music held captive for the past few years. By the way, don't get too eager to spread those songs around, because there's still user info embedded in each "DRM free" file you download.
Moving beyond those little hitches, after lots of attempts we found a few songs we wanted to download in the iTunes Plus section, snagged those and then painstakingly changed our preferences to download the 128kbps versions of those same songs for comparison. Among a few others, we listened to Cold Play, and some complicated Salsa by Juan Luis Guerra to compare the quality of one compression rate to the other.
Comparing these two compression rates was tough, even when using a pair of state-of-the-art Ultrasone headphones. In our decidedly unscientific comparison, we listened to all the tunes at both compression rates in A/B comparisons with those phones, with iPod stock earbuds, on our kick-ass car stereo, and on our reference Dolby 5.1 home theater system.
The difference between the the two compression rates types was subtle. Listening to a variety of songs, each encoded in 128kbps and then 256kbps, showed very little difference between the two, if any. Frankly, neither sounded as good as it could have to these trained musician's ears, but to discern the difference would take a professionally-trained audiophile's ears and perhaps a permanently-embedded oscilloscope in the brain.
Anyone who swears he or she can tell the difference, I would say have someone give you a double blind test and see if you can correctly guess more than 50% of the examples. Sure, you'll be able to spot a 64kbps file, but comparing 128 to 256 is more challenging. Good luck, golden ears. Even if you can tell the slight difference, it's not a big enough diff to start celebrating anything. Suffice to say that both sounded good enough to enjoy the music, if that's what you're after. For high fidelity, I'd suggest you abandon compression altogether and listen to vinyl. Better yet, go to a live concert.
The real jewel here is the lack of DRM, letting you play your music wherever you want. Hallelujah! Play them on a PSP, or on any music player that can handle AAC-encoded files. Play them here or there, play them anywhere. You can even abandon iTunes altogether if you want, well, with those limited songs that are available thus far, that is. The point is, for an extra $.30, you now own the rights to listen to your music wherever you want. And that is a joy that we should have had all along. Let's hope this is just the beginning.