Apple's restriction-free music downloads create pause

When Apple Inc. announced in January that it would sell restriction-free music files, that was supposed to mean consumers could buy songs and play them on the portable gadget of their choice.

Finally, music buyers would have in digital music what they had with vinyl, 8-track and CDs: interoperability, meaning the music could play on any device. If your record or CD player broke, you'd buy a new one.

Well, that's not the case with digital music. If your iPod breaks, replacing it with a Creative Zen may not work for you if you want to hear all your music.

There have been strides to improve this interoperability issue, and Apple's move to sell digital-rights-free music was a big step in the right direction.

But those "unprotected" songs from iTunes, dubbed iTunes Plus, won't play on every music player. That's because there are different types of unprotected music files.

Let me illustrate with the albums I downloaded recently from three online sellers of digital music - eMusic, Amazon and iTunes - using software from iTunes and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media Player and Zune.

From eMusic: I downloaded new albums from A.C. Newman, Andrew Bird and Wee Hairy Beasties. I was able to move the files into the music-playing software from Windows Media, Zune and iTunes with little trouble.

I then burned CDs of those three albums. When I tried to rip them into iTunes software on a different computer, song titles from two albums did not appear. (Few things are more tedious than keying in song titles.)

From Amazon: I downloaded an album from hip-hop band The Knux and a classic recording by Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. The Knux easily went into iTunes without prompting, but Monk did not. But both albums moved successfully into Windows Media Player and the Zune software.

From iTunes: I bought Charlie Haden's "Rambling Boy." I was able to move the album into the Zune software, but not Windows Media. That means I can't play the Haden album on the nifty Zen X-Fi music player I used for this test.

One would think that album would play on both Microsoft products.

Well, the problem is that Apple's "unprotected files" are in the AAC format, which Windows Media player does not support. But the Zune software does. Unprotected AAC files are not the same as unprotected MP3 files, which eMusic pointed out when it retracted a statement applauding Apple's decision to sell music without digital-rights-management software.

Unprotected MP3 files, sold by Amazon and eMusic, will play on any music software or any portable device. But not all software plays unprotected AAC files.

It would be easy to overlook this fact if you read what Apple says on its Web site:

"With iTunes Plus, you get high-quality, 256 Kbps AAC encoding. All free of burn limits and digital rights management. So iTunes Plus music will play on iPod, Apple TV, all Mac and Windows computers, and many other digital music players."

Yes, iTunes Plus songs play on Windows computers, just not with Windows Media software. Which music players work with iTunes Plus and which don't? Apple won't say.

Does this really matter? Yes, if you want options.

There are a lot of fine music players that cost less than similar size iPods.

As much as I like iPods, I'm also fond of the Zune (the 16GB model is $45 less than the 16GB iPod Nano). And there's a lot to like about the 16GB Creative Zen X-Fi ($170 at Amazon, $30 less than the Nano.) Another fine player is the 4GB Sansa Clip, spotted recently for $50 at Best Buy. A 1GB iPod Shuffle sells for $50.

When I test music players from Creative, Sansa and others, I use Windows Media to put music, videos and photos onto those devices.

The important software provides choice by allowing any gadgetmaker to produce a music player. So it's pretty frustrating that an album I buy at iTunes can't play using Windows Media.

Does this really matter?

The Charlie Haden album I bought at iTunes includes a bonus track. If I want to hear the bonus song, I need the right combination of software and player.

Not even the CD will help. Does that matter to you?


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User comments

Feb 11, 2009
heck yes. i paid for it, i need to be able to play what i paid for on any player and any software.

Feb 11, 2009
The author clearly does not have enough working knowledge to make a sound argument.

I have numerous AAC / MP4 (they are the same thing), and guess what opens them by default? WMP! How does this work, you ask -- in amazement? Well, I have installed Haali Media Splitter, as well as ffdshow tryouts. When I open the MP4 file with WMP, it will load Haali and FFDShow Audio decoder (really a bunch of codecs, AAC being one of them). And, voila, it plays.

You can also get AAC working with WinAmp. And of course, you could burn a CD Image with Nero (or your favorite CD burning software) of the AAC files, and then mount the image with Daemon Tools, then rip it. You lose quality doing this -- but not more than if you perform an AAC->MP3 conversion.

AAC is newer than MP3. It isn't brand new, of course, and it should be supported by most players. But, it does require a different chip to decode AAC files than a simple MP3 decoder. This is why some players cannot play AAC, just MP3. But the PC can convert between these formats with ease, so it really is only a few extra steps.

What Apple should do is offer delivery in AAC or MP3 format. Then you can choose your pick -- better quality or more compatible.

Feb 11, 2009
I'm sorry, you can't deal with AAC formatted music? Then maybe, just maybe you're to stupid to be downloading music. It's pathetically easy to convert audio files from any one type to another. ESPECIALLY if they're not DRM encoded.

Author: You know that tricksy iTunes that you use, that's uses it's proprietary AAC format? Well turns out, if you ask it nicely, it will convert AAC to MP3! Wow! It's as easy as one, two, three!

Please... this so-called science/tech forum gets worse every day.

Feb 11, 2009
While disagreeing with the delivery above, the message is true. It's easy to fix the problem you describe.

Feb 11, 2009
bmcghie, but when you let itunes convert them to mp3, do you lose quality? I think the authors problem with converting was loss of quality from AAC to MP3. Is there any?

Thanks, I really do want to know.

Feb 11, 2009
There is a loss of quality. But then, digital music isn't exactly the epitome of quality, so going from AAC to MP3 is nothing like CD to AAC /or/ MP3.

Feb 11, 2009
Yes, perhaps I came down a bit harsh. I think I was hungry. I apologize for my rudely worded message.

Feb 25, 2009
""With iTunes Plus, you get high-quality, 256 Kbps AAC encoding. All free of burn limits and digital rights management. "

High quality??? Are you effin-effin kidding me?

The young folks of today have NO IDEA how good analog can sound. This MP3 and CD garbage has confused them so much--they have NO IDEA what they are missing.

Lowlife marketeers have sucked the life out of one of the essential human functions---music.. with all this garbage digital low bit junk.

To equal the BASIC capacity of the human hearing system for simple stereoscopic imaging.. you a need 225khz sample rate with a 20 bit word length,per channel (2 channels) and if it is PERFECT..and there is no jitter.

There is only one format to this day that comes close..and that is Sony's DSD formats, as in SACD. that is the only decent analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog that is out there, besides 192khz/24bit systems.

That's the minimum.

We've been going BACKWARDS..for 30 years..due to human greed.

May 07, 2009
Do you all not realize that everyone is not as techie as you are???? Some people just get frustrated with all the different formats and gadgets. So lets not be rude about it, ok?

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