Apple’s iTunes Plus is here, featuring higher-res files and no DRM. CDM reader Ryan Pollack points us to Slashdot, where readers are abuzz about a Maximum PC taste test shootout:

“Maximum PC did double-blind testing with ten listeners in order to determine whether or not normal people could discern the quality difference between the new 256kbps iTunes Plus files and the old, DRM-laden 128kbps tracks.

But wait, there’s more! To add an extra twist, they also tested Apple’s default iPod earbuds vs. an expensive pair of Shure buds to see how much of an impact earbud quality had on the detection rate.”

The result is, not surprisingly, better headphones are better than poorer headphones, more bits are better than fewer, and both is better than one or the other, but bits are more noticeable if the headphones are worse. If you want to spoil the results of the Maximum PC shootout, read that sentence nine or ten times until it makes sense.

Apple Takes a Bite out of DRM [256 kbps versus 128 kbps bitrate, at Maximum PC]

So, who here has given the iTunes Plus store a try? (Old news to many of you; see our previous stories, As Other Music, Others Embrace Downloads, is Big, DRM-Laden Online Music Out? and Where Do You Get Your DRM-Free Music?)

I expect you are truly discerning listeners, of course. Get someone to help you with the blindfold. Slapping your forehead against an Apple Cinema Display hurts bad.

  • Just a heads up: Though these tracks are DRM-free, that doesn't mean you're free to share them like crazy. People have found that some account information is inserted into the tracks.

    More info here:

  • I haven't purchased new tunes yet, but I plan on buying a lot more through iTunes once the stuff I really want becomes available. I'm hoping that more labels jump on the non-DRM bandwagon. And at 256kbps it is close enough to CD (for my ears) that I'll probably start buying this way over hard-copy CDs…

  • Mike

    The low bit-rate was what always put me off iTunes. I would never rip a CD at 128, so why would I buy so low? But having said that I did find myself buying the occasional single on iTunes, because I'd rather buy than steal. And I will be upgrading all of these purchases as and when they become available.

  • Bocca

    Would like to hear how it sounds compared to a 256k (and 320) mp3.

  • Tim Thompson

    I wonder what kind of music they used in the tests. I would imagine that something like Mahler 2 or Das Lied (high dynamic range and vocal parts where the very high frequency formants are so integral to the sound) would have a more perceptible difference than compressed-for-radio pop music.

  • they sound better…. but they won't download at all sometimes!!!

    the store's network is screwed right now.

    also, i'm having an issue with putting in my password everytime itunes is launched & some eligible for upgrade albums (in my case siamese dream) not showing an update possibility.

    thankfully, i'm not the only one.

  • it's surprising that people could tell the difference of the quality of the files on worse headphones, isn't it?

    not that i was going to count on a magazine's test of ten people i don't know.

    the higher quality is one hurdle to make me considering getting a pay-per-track/album digital music download service. if they made it so you could redownload your files in case you accidently delete yours (for at least a period of several years), then there would be a real benefit to buying mp3s instead of CDs. but for now, i'd rather buy a CD and rip it than download an album and burn a backup CD-R.

  • te2rx

    gah, not this article again.

    First off their testing methodology was flawed. It shouldn't be about expressing your "preference" for the lossy or lossless samples — it needs to be about whether you can consistently pick apart the lossy from the lossless, e.g.
    And secondly they had too few participants to produce accurate results.

    Concerning iPod earbuds… The thing about audio compression is it throws out frequencies that the listener can't hear (frequency masking), and ideally those algorithms are tuned to "reference" gear with an even freq. response, in the same sense that we (usually) mix and master music on reference monitors and not iPod earbuds. It's not surprising that iPod earbuds with their wildly uneven frequency response will make certain compression artifacts more apparent than usual, in the same sense that a display with wildly uneven gamma may make certain subtle "banding" artifacts in image/video compression more apparent than usual.

  • hmurchison

    I found it quite interesting that they made the extra cost of the DRM free tracks sound like it was outlandish or something. 256k files are insurance over 128k. Sounding good over ear buds isn't the thing that worries me it's listening to a great track on great speakers. This is where you begin to hear the "room" and how the reverb interacts with the music. This is where MP3/AAC encoders begin to strip what is perceived to be inaudible. $1.29 is nothing…you can't even get a decent coffee from Starbucks for that.

  • Adrian Anders

    256k is close enough that I may buy a couple of tracks off of EMI (hopefully astralwerks) albums which I don't like enough to buy the whole CD… Still doesn't make any sense to buy 256k compressed music DRM or not for the same if not more money than the uncompressed CD equivalent. Hard to believe that they didn't bump the quality to 512k which is close enough to CD for all but the most finicky of tastes (such as myself 😉 )


  • te2rx

    Adrian Anders: if you're willing to go as far as 512k, you may as well go lossless (FLAC, APE). For iTunes ~256k sounds practical, considering their target is iPod users. Anything more than that will tax smaller iPods too much in terms of space, and larger HDD-based iPods too much in terms of batt. life (more bitrate –> more disk access)

  • @te2rx: right, that's why I didn't find the "cheap earbuds make bad compression sound worse" revelation to be surprising.

    I mostly post this because I'm curious what CDMers think of iTunes Plus in general. We could put together a more extensive double-blind test, but … uh … well, this feels like holding a drag race between a car doing 120 mph and another doing 60 mph, with identical acceleration. Not … a whole lot of surprise.

    Double-blind between lossless, 320 kbps MP3, 256 kbps AAC — now that's more interesting. But you would definitely need a solid methodology then.

  • regarding methodology:

    I was and I am also right now involved in some very critical listening tests within the EBU framework. Usually we use either MUSHRA (MUlti Stimulus test with Hidden Reference and Anchors) test or BS.1116 for very critical tests.

    Using 320kb mpegI-LayerIII does not really make sense, as layerIII seems not not improve over 256kb/s. Please keep in mind that every codec is designed for a certain "target" bit rate, so increasing bit rate does NOT automatically improve quality in a linear fashion. Also, AAC at 320kb/s does not sound much better then at 256kb/s. Target bit rate for LayerIII seems to be 192kb/s where bitrate versus quality is very good, for AAC (Low Complexity, keep in mind there are different profiles) it is between 128 and 256kb/s.

    If you google for "EBU Listening Test" you will find a lot of material, at the moment we conduct a series of tests regarding multichannel codecs (in the context of audio for HDTV).

    Feel free to ask for more in-depth information, and, btw: thank you for the good work on CDM!

  • Looking forward to upgrading my purchased EMI tracks for an additional 30¢ each.

  • anon

    At the risk of starting a new flamewar I feel the need to comment here again…

    DRM = Digital Restrictions Management.

    Inserting user-specific data into music means restricting privacy.

    These are NOT DRM FREE!!

    And seriously when are we going to get our tunes in the original recorded format (perhaps losslessly compressed)? It's not like bandwidth is an issue in the days of ADSL2+.

  • Well, wait a minute, anon … inserting user-specific data into a file is not DRM. It could be a privacy concern, but if that data isn't getting used, it's not DRM. (The use of the file isn't restricted.) And you have private user data in all sorts of other things, like Word files. I don't see that data being of any risk unless you're uploading those files to file sharing services, etc., unless there's something I don't know about it.

    Bandwidth is a cost issue, so 256kbps AAC, 320kbps MP3 as is being offered may be just fine. I could see a lossless store in the future, though, and it'd be interesting to do a *real* double-blind test.

  • anon

    What about selling the music?

  • anon

    As for double-blind testing… How many of you can hear those teen ringtones? I'm 29, I was played one and I even told them what frequency it was at. Not all ears are made the same…. My Mum can't tell the difference between tape and 24/192 WAV.

    Never mind if people can hear the difference, just worry about whether there is one.

  • James Katt

    Inserting user data into the music file is not DRM, and is not restricting privacy.

    The user has no right to share the music in the first place.

    One cannot lose their personal information unless they do something illegal with the music file – such as giving the file to a file sharing service.

    The personal information is also very limited – name and email address. Thus even if the music fle was stolen, the information has limited value.

    Buying DRM-free music from Apple is like buying a book with one's name engraved on the inside cover. There is no restriction on its use except for illegal uses.

  • @James: I agree. I mean, it'd be another story if Apple used your social security number, or your credit card, or something like that. 🙂

  • anon

    Did you guys miss the part about selling the music? Maybe it's not legal where you are, but here, you can sell music you've bought if you don't keep a copy.

  • anon

    Insert tumbleweeds here while everyone realises they were wrong 😉

  • It's not clear whether it's legal to resell here, no. It's certainly not if Apple removes that from the license agreement. But that's licensing, not DRM … and if you sell it to a person, they already know your *name*, presumably, hence, no DRM for now — so far, the name embedded isn't getting used to determine whether or not a song can be played.

    I still like CDs. 😉

    And iTunes Plus does not have the rich selection a lot of the indie stores do.

  • anon

    "I still like CDs. 😉

    And iTunes Plus does not have the rich selection a lot of the indie stores do. "

    Amen dude 🙂