Digital Music Stores Review

Are you as confused as I am about the various online music stores? Well, BBSpot has taken the plunge and reviewed seven different stores, including iTunes Music Store, Napster, MusicMatch, Rhapsody, Wal Mart, BuyMusic, and EMusic. Unfortunately, their conclusion was that no one service was “perfect,” although I guess that would be way too easy. I’ve only tried iTunes so far, and although I really like its interface, I feel that an online store should let me buy unrestricted digital files (preferably higher-quality MP3s), something that EMusic apparently offers, albeit with a more limited selection. However, I’ve gotten around the MP3 limitation of iTunes by simply burning a CD and then re-ripping tracks as MP3s, a technique that will work with any of the stores that let you burn a CD, but still an annoying extra step.

I still think that around $1 a track is too much to pay, though, especially considering that the end product is a compressed, lossy digital file rather than the perfect version you’d get on a CD. Granted, if a track is encoded properly into MP3 or other formats, then the difference is difficult to hear. However, iTunes at least is only encoding into 128kbps AAC files, and at that quality you can actually start to hear the difference in some instances. If I’m paying for a music track, then I expect as close to the original as possible, and I’m not sure that any of these services are delivering that yet. eMusic may be an exception, since the review points out that downloads are available as 128-320kbps VBR MP3 files, a very good alternative. I may need to investigate eMusic further…

I doubt I’ll ever buy a digital version of an entire album any time soon online. Besides the issues of compression and loss of quality, for less than the $10 these services typically charge per album I can easily buy a used version of the album that comes with a jewel case, liner notes, and cover artwork. In most cases, this is the best solution, although there are many instances where I only want one single. So far, that’s the only time I’ve ventured onto iTunes for anything…

I guess it may be worth experimenting with some of the other digital music stores to see whether they better meet my needs, although after reading the review I suspect I’ll come to a similar conclusion – that a combination of several will be the only “perfect” solution, and those quotes are definitely an understatement.

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