SHIFT: iTunes Plus — higher fidelity or just higher profits?

I'm pissed, and feel more than a little ripped off. I made an assumption, and we all know what happens when you assume. Back in April, I wrote about EMI working with Apple's iTunes to make the EMI catalog of songs available for download without DRM and at a higher bit rate — at a higher price. I made a big deal about the potential sonic improvements that the new iTunes Plus songs, encoded at 256 kbps, had over regular, 128-kbps iTunes songs. Excuse me for a second while I extricate my size 7 Crocs out of my mouth, because, like Apple, I'm changing my tune. Why? Read on.

The Setup
I was thrilled when I heard that Apple would be offering downloads encoded in a higher bit rate. After all, having more bits means more of the sonic fidelity of the original recordings would be preserved. Would I be willing to pay more for them? Heck, yeah! I boldly assumed that if you listened carefully, you would hear the difference. Well, I boldly assumed wrong….

I just downloaded identical songs and did my own listening test. (I had done some early listening tests on music tracks years ago comparing these same bit rates, and the differences were more obvious, but this was with early versions of AAC — the codec that Apple uses for all songs on iTunes.) I work in a recording studio so setting up a side-by-side comparison of the tracks was very easy for me. I wish hearing the differences between the tracks had been as easy.

I used the main monitors in the studio as well as a pair of high-end headphones. I downloaded about 20 songs, some new, some old, and tried to hear differences in the files. I spent hours listening, switching from 128 to 256 and back, straining to hear something — anything — different about the tracks. My critical listening skills are pretty good, but this was pushing the limit. To be fair, there were differences, but they were subtle. For example, on David Bowie's "Space Oddity," the high-end clarity was a bit more pronounced on the 256-kbps version, and on KT Tunstell's "Other Side of The World," the guitars were slightly more detailed. It would've been extremely hard to distinguish had I not been switching instantly from one format to the other.

The Sting
So why am I pissed? First, because I had to pay 30 cents extra for those iTunes Plus 256-kbps songs. Second, because I bought into the idea that the difference would be drastic, or at least noticeable. Finally, I'm having serious doubts about the whole DRM-free idea — regular iTunes songs are copy protected (with Digital Rights Management) but iTunes Plus songs are freely copyable and convertable to other file formats with no strings attached. But if you have an iPod, that doesn't really matter because even with DRM, you can transfer songs between computers and iPods. The only downsides to Apple's DRM is you can't play the tracks on MP3 players made by other companies, and you can't share songs over a network. You can convert the files from Apple's AAC file format to MP3, but you have to do a little hacking. I have an iPod, I'll probably always have an iPod product, and so being able to transfer my music to other players isn't really an issue for me.

I think iTunes Plus is just another clever way for Apple to make more money. One incriminating piece of evidence: Once you switch your iTunes Music Store preferences to show you iTunes Plus songs when available, it no longer shows you the regular 99-cent songs. Apple is getting more of my money, and I can barely hear the difference. The sound quality bump isn't worth 30 cents. I support the removal of DRM, but if you're listening on an iPod anyway, that's not worth 30 cents either.

The Wrap
Is iTunes Plus just a scam to make more money for Apple and EMI? In my opinion, yes. Providing tracks at a higher bit rate and adding the iTunes Plus section to the iTunes Store doesn't cost them much of anything. And how much revenue will they lose because the songs don't have DRM and can be copied? I'm pretty sure they're not losing money on the deal. I was excited about iTunes Plus when it was announced. Well, I'm not so excited anymore. After we all complained for so long and so loudly about low bit rates and DRM, it turns out it's not a bad way to get music after all. At least I knew what I was paying for.