alan little's weblog

3rd October 2003 permanent link

I was a music download virgin until today. I installed a beta version of napster once but it didn't work; a little while ago I had a look at what was available from Apple, but I was unimpressed with the selection, and in any case I can't buy anything from them because I'm not in the USA. But then I noticed somebody on arstechnica recommending eMusic, and thought I'd have a look.

Not bad. Free trial downloads. No DRM. No big-name, big-label artists, but several indie-label artists that I'm interested in and didn't find on iTMS: Badmarsh, Blue Planet, Asian Dub Foundation …

And their classical offerings? Not all that impressive at first sight. Fairly small selection. But wait. They have the Janacek and Bartok string quartets, recorded by unknown East European quartets. Weren't the Kodaly Quartet an unknown East European quartet until they produced their superb Haydn recordings for Naxos? Maybe these guys are brilliant too. Certainly worth downloading them to find out. And they have four recordings of Beethoven piano sonatas by Alfred Brendel - those have to be worth a listen.

I think the selection is too limited for eMusic be a real competitor to iTMS if the latter ever actually appears outside the USA, assuming Apple get their indie label deals sorted out and actually have some of the stuff I want to hear. eMusic is cheaper if you can find more than ten interesting tracks a month in their catalog - which I suspect would be easy for the first few months but might get harder thereafter - but it feels more like an interesting bargain bin than a potential prime source of music.

Apple may have also much better sound quality than eMusic, if their codec is as much better than mp3 as some people seem to think.

The big unanswered question for me with eMusic is whether mp3s are actually good enough to have as your only copy of something worth listening to, or just a way of auditioning things that you're going to want to buy on CD (or iTMS) anyway if you find you like them. Which I'm not going to find out for a few days, because it's a holiday weekend in Germany and I seem to have left my headphones in the office. Oops. At some point I'll also download something from eMusic that I already have on CD so that i can do a direct sound quality comparison on my proper stereo (which, for those who care about such things, is a cheap-but-decent rig consisting of bottom of the range NAD amplifier and Kef speakers). I'll also be interested to see what stereophile magazine has to say about the iPod when their October issue comes online, particularly if they listened to AAC and mp3.

I thought I'd try a tabular comparison, but it probably overstates the advantages of eMusic:




availability worldwide US only eMusic
price $9.99 / month $0.99 / track eMusic if used heavily
selection very few big names, but some interesting indie stuff had hardly any of the things I looked for, but probably getting better fast eMusic, but probably not for long
Mac user interface ok very good iTMS
non-Mac availability Windows, Linux Windows coming some time, maybe eMusic, but not relevant to me
DRM none limited, reasonable eMusic
sound quality mp3 reputedly better than mp3 iTMS by reputation, but will reserve judgement until I've heard both
supported sound format widely used but inferior de facto standard superior but only supported by apple products depends how listenable I find mp3s
free trial 45 tracks no eMusic
minimum purchase 3 months @ 14.99/month 1 track @ $0.99 iTMS

related entries: Music Mac

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