Hi-Fi, DRM-Free iTunes Audio: Our Thoughts, and Yours

Hi-Fi, DRM-Free iTunes Audio: Our Thoughts, and Yours 1

This morning, Apple and major music label EMI announced that the iTunes Store will in May start to sell high-quality (256kbps), digital rights management (DRM)-less audio files from EMI’s catalog for $1.29 per track. These new “premium” music downloads will play on any digital music player with AAC support, and sit alongside the iTunes Store’s existing 99-cent, lower-quality, DRM-locked tracks. We asked our editors two questions: will your music buying habits change? If so, or if not, why?

Below, you’ll find our answers. Please add your thoughts to the comments section at the bottom of the page.

Hi-Fi, DRM-Free iTunes Audio: Our Thoughts, and Yours 2Jesse Hollington, Contributing Editor, Canada: “For me the short answer to this question is no. I am already a dedicated iTunes Store customer, so my buying habits won’t change because of this. The 128kbps bit rate doesn’t matter to me at all, and the DRM has been unobtrusive enough for me to grudgingly live with. However, I am both excited and encouraged by this announcement, and am certainly far happier to be buying music that won’t be encumbered by DRM. On principle alone, I plan to upgrade portions of my music library to the premium quality content. I think this announcement is groundbreaking and spells a much brighter future for online content sales.”

Hi-Fi, DRM-Free iTunes Audio: Our Thoughts, and Yours 3Jerrod H., Contributing Editor, United States:Between the DRM removal and higher quality audio, I’m most excited about the latter, as DRM has only rarely been a noticeable annoyance in how I use my audio. Additional audio quality will be an nice bonus to the individual-track impulse purchases I make from the iTunes Store – they may earn my $0.30 there. Where this offering will make the most profound difference for me, however, is in full albums. Lately, I’ve bought albums I’m truly interested in on physical CDs to get the best audio quality possible. With 256 kbps encoding without DRM or full-album price hikes, I may be able to justify online purchasing for full albums I would have otherwise bought in-store. Sure, I’d love to see individual premium tracks offered at the standard $0.99 price, and I’d love to see many more labels offer them, but this announcement is a great step in the right direction. I can’t wait.”

Hi-Fi, DRM-Free iTunes Audio: Our Thoughts, and Yours 4Dennis Lloyd, Publisher, United States: “It’s good news and a move in the right direction. Not only did Steve Jobs preach it in his recent article on DRM, but now he’s helping to make it happen. I only hope other labels will take notice and follow suit. Personally, I was never too concerned about purchasing 128kbps AAC-format, copy protected music on the iTunes Store. I know I will buy 256kbps AAC songs, because I import my CDs at 192 or 256 kbps AAC. EMI also has many of the artists I like, including The Chemical Brothers, Air, Röyksopp, and Massive Attack. I don’t mind paying $1.29 per song for higher quality and I’m hoping the artists actually see an increase in their bottom lines.

Hi-Fi, DRM-Free iTunes Audio: Our Thoughts, and Yours 5Bob Levens, Contributing Editor, United Kingdom:While I welcome the move away from DRM music, I doubt if this will change my buying habits to any great degree. I have purchased albums from iTS but mainly specialized ones that are not readily available in my local record store. I still like to have the physical presence of a CD and when I can get the actual CD for around the same price as the downloadable version I’ll go with the CD. Having a higher bitrate available might make me wonder if cluttering up more shelves with CDs, that I might only look at now and again, is worthwhile. I really hope this makes the advocates of DRM realize they are on the losing team and drop the whole idea.”

Hi-Fi, DRM-Free iTunes Audio: Our Thoughts, and Yours 6Charles Starrett, Contributing Editor, United States: “In the battle against restrictive DRM, this is great news. However, I already am an iTunes Store customer, buying quite a few albums simply for the convenience. To me, the ability to upgrade my current EMI tracks to a higher-quality DRM-free format for 30 cents is great news as well. It is the first time I can remember that consumers have been able to upgrade the quality of past media purchases without having to pay full price all over again, a problem currently plaguing next-gen DVD formats.”

Hi-Fi, DRM-Free iTunes Audio: Our Thoughts, and Yours 7LC Angell, Senior Editor, United States: “Today’s announcement of DRM-free EMI music won’t have any impact on my buying habits on the iTunes Store. I’m not sure how many EMI artists and bands are among my favorites, but until I can hop over to iTunes and buy any song without DRM, I’ll continue to buy most of my music on CD and rip the tracks myself. Plus, I’ve never been too keen on AAC—I’ve always encoded in MP3 format, which is much more universally playable. I would have much rather seen Apple move to an unprotected MP3 format for this initiative. Though doubtful, it may just give other online music stores an advantage if they end up selling DRM-free music from EMI and other labels in MP3 format. I know I’d buy from them instead of having AAC forced on me by iTunes.”

Hi-Fi, DRM-Free iTunes Audio: Our Thoughts, and Yours 8Jeremy Horwitz, Editor-in-Chief, United States:Steve Jobs and Eric Nicoli just signed a death warrant for CDs. Some people were holding out for better quality, others objecting to the DRM, and with this announcement, both issues have been resolved at a reasonable price. I really haven’t bought much music from the iTunes Store in the past, because of quality concerns, but I’m pretty sure Apple’s about to change my music buying habits, especially if other labels come on board. From here on out, I’ll actually consider downloading a viable option if I really like an EMI artist’s single, or the prices of premium iTunes Store albums are competitive with or better than what I could pay for aggressively-priced CDs. They should be, given that EMI is no longer paying for the disc or the packaging.

A couple of other points to note are that this announcement paves the way for EMI (and Apple) to offer The Beatles’ collection at a bit rate that will satisfy picky listeners – an issue noted in this prior editorial – and finally enables Apple to publicly justify larger capacity iPods, superior iPod audio features, and the like. Few people apparently need the ability to carry 20,000 so-so-quality songs in their pockets, but lots of people will want the ability to carry high-quality music around. Some predicted that the iPhone meant the death of the iPod; if anything, this announcement increases the need for hard disk iPods or higher-than-iPhone-capacity flash iPods.

You’ve heard our thoughts – what do you think? Your comments and thoughts are appreciated below.



  1. I probably will not change my buying habits neither DRM nor quality were the determining factors when I buy music. I like to have a physical copy of an album with the artist’s intended artwork. I like collecting CDs even if I rip the immediately upon receipt and put them on my iPod. When I want just a single, I’m fine with 128 kbps with DRM because I don’t ever intend to switch away from iTunes/iPod.

    Having said all that, I think it’s a wonderful change in policy, and I hope the mindset infiltrates the rest of the RIAA and further into the MPAA.

  2. Larry’s comments:

    “I would have much rather seen Apple move to an unprotected MP3 format for this initiative”

    are a bit silly. AAC is unprotected. Remember neither of the A’s stand for Apple – it is Advanced Audio Codec originated by a number of companies including Dolby, Sony etc. It is MP4 if you like – a replacement for 16 year old technology that is MP3 (that maybe unprotected as well, but involves high licensing costs as Microsoft has just found out). It is like asking Apple to put 5 1/4″ floppy disks back in computers. This will encourage vendors to offer support for the newer technology.

  3. I plan to vote with my wallet and support this move. At 256k and no DRM, the files are of sufficient quality that if I need to transcode them to mp3 I could without much loss in quality and without breaking the law.

    This is all we’ve ever asked for – decent quality files that don’t make us criminals when we want to use them in different devices in our homes and cars.

  4. Im totally for this move and plan to upgrade all of my tracks, more for the quality then the drm. My question is, what about the movies and tv? will those lose drm too?

  5. There are two barriers that prevent me from buying more than the occasional full album on iTunes: sound quality and access to the artwork and liner notes.

    Thanks to visionary leadership at EMI, barrier #1 is coming down.

    Now it is up to Steve Jobs and company to overcome the second barrier.

    DRM? Eh, nice, but no big deal.

  6. I agree with lintonmac. Plus, iTunes can convert files from AAC to MP3 if you really prefer the latter.

    Remember, Apple chose AAC because of its higher quality and smaller size at equivalent bit rates vis-a-vis MP3. You can debate the quality, but the file size advantage is a fact.

    When the hardware companies refresh their portable music players, they’ll add AAC support at which point MP3 will no longer have a significant advantage in terms of interoperability.

    I should point out that I rip my CDs into Apple Lossless, but I use iTunes to buy singles. I hope to eventually convert my 500 or so iTunes songs into the higher-quality DRM-free format, which I guess will cost me about $150. Ouch.

  7. lintonmac — LC Angell doesn’t prefer MP3 over AAC because it’s unprotected (as you point out, they can *both* be unprotected), but because, as he says, it’s “more universally playable.”

    There are far more devices that will play unprotected MP3 files than will play unprotected AAC files. When I rip files from my CDs, I choose the MP3 format for the same reason.

    As for me, I’ve been happy with iTunes’ 128K files, but will happily give up the extra hard drive space for superior 256K files. And while I’ve never bumped into Apple’s DRM in the past (all my use easily fits under their terms), it’ll be refreshing to know that I won’t have any future conflicts either.

    I plan to support this move by voting with my wallet, and upgrading my EMI purchases. Thank you, EMI, for letting Steve Jobs talk you into doing the right thing.

  8. My money will definitely be hungry for the higher quality AAC tracks, considering I rip my CD’s at 192kbps AAC. ALTHOUGH, I buy a lot of CD’s that are mixed and are gapless between track changes. There is no feature on iTunes to burn a mixed album while retaining the gapless playback between tracks. Burning one track for an hour long CD is the worst. Track separation to me is totally necessary for skipping around. Hopefully someone in the near future will figure out how to burn CD’s the way the source CD from the factory was originally burned.

  9. This is great news. I haven’t bought a single song on iTunes because of DRM and bitrate concerns. Now I’ll definitely be getting songs off iTunes. My first purchase will be a few Queen albums (an EMI band) that I was going to buy on Amazon.

  10. I don’t buy a lot of music, and I am not sure that will change. But the music I do buy is DRM free, mostly on CD’s. There are a few albums I have wanted to buy, and I will probably buy them from iTunes in the upgraded DRM free format.

    Everybody knows how to convert DRM’ed AAC files to MP3. Most people don’t because it’s wrong, and there are a heck of a lot of people who still know the difference between right and wrong.

    But I still listen to music I bought more than a decade ago, and I will listen to the music I buy now for a long time to come. That is why I will buy unprotected music.

  11. Gimme Lossless…
    I think it’s great that EMI tracks will be available at higher fidelity and a shame that it’s not lossless. I rip everything ALE and rerip to lower fi (usually 192 kbps MP3 VBR); tracks cascade into suites of smart playlists that are identical except for fidelity. I would buy more tracks from the iTunes store if they were available in ALE — and I would pay more: $1.49 per track seems right for a combimation ALE/no DRM. Of the 12,000 tracks in my library, about 400 are iTunes Store purchases. That ratio would definitely change if I had access to lossless legal music.

  12. In an earlier comment, I said: “Thank you, EMI, for letting Steve Jobs talk you into doing the right thing.”

    From the reports I’ve read, it sounds like this was EMI’s idea, and Steve Jobs just gave them an outlet for it. But either way, I’m thanking both EMI and Apple!

  13. I’m a big fan of my iPod and iTunes set-up, but have never bought anything from the store. I have never agreed with the idea that for my money I’m buying an inferior product (less than CD qualty) with limitations on its use (DRM).

    So I am glad to see these first steps toward a DRM-free world, but I was reading this blog article from The Sydney Morning Herald which raises some very good points:

    “What the pair is really doing is charging an US30c premium on every track, for something that, in an ideal world, should be free.

    Consumers should, by rights, be able to play music they have legally purchased on any device they own. Regular CDs have allowed this for years.

    Instead, EMI Music and Apple want us to pay for this “privilege”. They want to charge for removing the restrictive and ineffective digital rights management (DRM) locks that they lumbered us with in the first place.

    Of course, EMI and Apple disguise the move by saying the DRM-free tracks will also offer better sound quality.”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    The article is at http://blogs.smh.com.au/mashup/archives//010660.html

  14. Is AAC @ 256k really that much better than AAC @ 128k? Is Lossless that much better than AAC @ 256? Since I can’t do it myself, are there any double blind test results available for these various formats played back on a 5G iPod with reasonably priced earphones? What I’m trying to determine before I re-rip thousands of songs is where the point of diminishing returns starts? If blind tests show that I will not likely hear any difference above AAC @ 256 on my iPod unless I upgrade from my ER6is to Grado Signatures I will return to buying from iTunes and gladly play the extra 30 cents.

  15. Adding to Elcoholic’s comment above, I also wonder if AAC @ 256 is really that much better than AAC @ 128. I did many tests with various formats over the years and finally settled on AAC 128 because of it’s excellent sound quality and file size. I didn’t think there was truly a discernable difference between 128 and 256 even though logic would tell you there should be. I guess in the end the more the better, but this cuts your memory in half, and therefore is it really worth it? If anyone has thoughts on this or has done a good analysis, it would be good to know. I would hate to yet again re-rip my whole library if it is a nominal difference. It is also important to note that if your library consists of purchased AAC 128 files, in the end you will have drastically varying bitrates in your library which could get very annoying when listening in shuffle mode (hearing varying bitrates).

  16. I’m still a physical collector, although I applaud this move. I was hoping for Lossless, however.

    I understand Larry’s point of view but AAC has an important advantage over MP3: AAC offers many more tagging options such as copyright, important for the iTunes store. Also, I can rip CDs or MP3s as AAC and use the Dougscript “Make Bookmarkable” to convert them into audiobooks. You can’t do this with MP3. I love the tagging flexibility AAC offers.

  17. spaceways, I also have done some testing. Admittedly, it was tailored to my ears and I guess, inadvertently to specific earphones, but I have settled on 192kbps. I don’t think it sounds noticeably clearer or better, but the increase in bass response is discernible with in-ear earphones and on my stereo. It’s not that much more size-wise compared to 128kbps. Also, I’ve got 600Gb of storage in my computer and an 80Gb iPod, so I can afford to be a little generous with file sizes.

  18. Further on lossless…

    We analog humans sometimes find it challenging to stay firmly rooted in the present re digital technology or, to be more precise, the cost of technology. Consider this: a 1TB Buffalo TeraStation is available for about $550, street. In RAID 5 configuration with one parity drive, the capacity is 750GB — actual capacity approximately 680GB. Allowing for 10% freeboard to enable periodic defragmentation, this drive will store 612GB; the cost per GB is 90 cents. I examined a 3:14 track ripped ALE (681kbps/15.9MB) and re-ripped MPEG3 @ 192kbps VBR (206kbps [effective]/4.8MB): the storage delta is 11.1MB; the cost of this storage delta is ONE CENT for this track. My thesis: since I do my own ripping and ripping takes time — WHY NOT RIP ALE or FLAC (lossless) AND NEVER HAVE TO SECOND GUESS YOUR DECISION! You can always bulk decompress your music files to CD quality and “never have to say you’re sorry”.

    I would pay, see my prior entry, above, a reasonable premium to download lossless. In the context of Steve’s no-DRM deal with EMI — I say, why not??? The only reasonable rejoinder is the cost of beefing up Apple’s iTunes Store music server infrastructure, to which I say, if it costs me 1 cent per song more, it costs Apple a lot less — and since I’m prepared to pay, say, 20 cents per track more, there’s margin in it for the company I imagine.


  19. I thought I was pretty fastidious about my music library, but having read Pioneer’s earlier posting, I’m more of a novice than I thought. Starting off, either you had a background in IT or the properties of digital music to identify how best to approach creating a music library that would meet your longer-term needs, or you invested a good deal of time researching the topic. I suspect for many (including me) most decisions were not conscious and depended on the software you used on entry point. Actually getting my G3 iPod to work with the MusicMatch software supplied was a good enough goal. For convenience, I accepted that my music library would be far substandard to the quality available on the CDs, from which most of my library was derived. However, I think that the quality improvement afforded by the higher bit rate was the marketing sweetener seen to provide added impetuous for users to invest in DRM-free downloads, or, in the case of upgrading, to reinvest. Practically, what started as an interest turned into a hobby, but re-ripping my library would turn it more into work. Ideally, I’d like to have the highest quality digital music library, impervious to technological advancements and flexible to meet transportable needs; Pioneer’s ideas are the closest to that ideal that I’ve seen, but given the investment of time and money, accepting second best, knowing that I’ve got recourse to the CDs (themselves a mere facsimile over their analogue processors), and realizing that it’s not possible to be impervious to technological advancements, I’m making a conscious decision to do nothing!

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