Thursday, November 11, 2004

Getting the best out of your iPod

Gary Marshall just gave me a heart attack with his post on the poor quality of the tracks available on the iTunes Music Store. Not poor as in "no indy music", poor as in "don't sound good". This is just great news for me: I've become slightly addicted to iTMS since it opened in the UK, and have already downloaded 154 songs (including the freebies). According to Gary, the 128Kbps encoding rate of the music on iTMS, while undoubtedly superior to 128Kbps MP3s due to the superiority of Apple's AAC encoding format, is still pretty crap.

Is he right? Why didn't I notice this myself, you cry? Well, I have only used the Apple earbuds that came with my iPod to listen to music downloaded from iTMS (apart from a decidedly non-audiophile Cambridge Soundworks speaker rig connected to my Powerbook) and it's becoming increasingly clear that to get audiophile-quality sound from your iPod you need better earphones. The best are apparently made by Etymotic, but can cost as much as the iPod itself; there are also more reasonable alternatives, that are also inserted into the ear canal like the Etymotics. All apparently give much better sound quality than the buds. So it's entirely possible that with better earphones I too would hear the crapness of iTMS.

Still, I've done a bit of googling on the issue, and there is certainly evidence to support what Gary says. Take this chap in Holland, for example: after an extensive investigation of the issues, his recommendation is to rip your CDs into iTunes using the 224kbps setting, for acceptable quality. Clearly he isn't going to approve of iTMS.

Among the interesting information to be gleaned from Marc's page is the fact that iTunes uses Quicktime's AAC encoder when it rips CDs. Now it seems that if you give in to Apple's nagging and shell out the money for the Quicktime Pro upgrade, you get to use Quicktime to do your audio extraction duties. Why bother, if iTunes uses Quicktime anyway? Well, Quicktime Pro lets you set the quality of the extraction. Some believe that this gives better quality than using iTunes alone, although Marc disagrees, and apparently has Apple's head AAC techie on his side.

What does all this mean? Although I obviously intend to make my own tests when I upgrade my earphones, in the interim I'm calling a halt on iTMS purchases, and in fact picked up a few CDs at Morrisons during my lunchbreak (The Verve, Blondie, The Stones). I'll probably rip them at 224Kbps just to be on the safe side.

The obvious question is why Apple doesn't offer a choice of encoding bitrates for downloading. Presumably they want to keep the files small for easy downloading, but for those of us who would be prepared to suffer longer download times to secure better quality, offering the option would seem to make sense.

Two problems immediately spring to mind. Firstly, it would increase the complexity of iTMS: another step after clicking the Buy Now button, or perhaps more than one button. Apple are justly proud of the simple and intuitive iTMS interface, so messing with it is not to be undertaken lightly.

Secondly, explaining the differences between bitrates to the less technically sophisticated could become difficult. Using words like "lower quality" would be almost certain to cause some people to download the larger file even if they would, objectively speaking, be quite happy with the standard one. If everyone suddenly started downloading the "audiophile" files, Apple's bandwidth costs would skyrocket.

It's obviously a complex issue. I hope Apple find a way to resolve it. In the meantime, I am listening to my last iTMS purchase as I type this: Leftism by Leftfield. I really like it: kind of a more ethnic/reggae/dub version of William Orbit's Strange Cargo series (if that isn't too crude). I only hope it's still listenable on my Really Serious Earphones...


Blogger Gary said...

To be fair, my argument isn't that ITMS - or any other legal - tracks are of *unacceptable quality*; they're good enough for most things but to my ears, they don't sound as good as CD rips or the high bitrate stuff you get on less legitimate services. That wouldn't bug me if the music was a lot cheaper than it was on CD, but in many cases it isn't. When you add in copy protection, that means you're paying roughly the same money you'd pay in the shops but the sound quality is inferior and there are more restrictions on what you can and can't do with it (eg play Napster tracks on an iPod, or iTMS tracks on a Creative). That doesn't seem like value for money to me...

Although to do such a thing would be illegal, it's an interesting exercise to compare an iTMS track with a 200kbps-plus MP3 of the same track from one of the file sharing nets. I can definitely hear the difference between the two.

That said, most people don't care - as I've mentioned on the blog, the headphones that come with many music players are god-awful and people don't seem to mind. So if the sound quality is good enough for you, then shop away. I'll hang on until higher bitrates become available - not least because you can bet your bottom dollar that when they do, you won't be able to upgrade previously purchased tracks for free.

Cynical? Me? ;-)

8:46 am  
Blogger Stephen said...

Good point about the value for money angle. Let me qualify my "heart attack" line by saying that I used to suffer from perfectionism regarding music (back in the day I used to return records time and again for scratches etc that only my turntable seemed to pick up), and although I used to rip music at up to 320kbps before iTunes came out, for some reason I didn't give the quality issue on iTMS much thought before I read your post. Now the old perfectionism threatens to return with a vengeance!

11:33 am  
Blogger Gary said...

320Kbps? Now you're talking :-)

I can't remember the URL but if MP3's your thing, you can get a plugin for iTunes that uses the LAME encoder rather than iTunes' one. It's well worth tracking down.

9:42 am  
Blogger Stephen said...

Well, now, that's a whole 'nother issue, MP3s v AAC. I believe it's reasonably clear that AAC sounds better than MP3 at the same bitrate, so using it makes better use of your iPod drivespace, but MP3 is more versatile: my car CD player can also play MP3s (on a CDR) but obviously not AAC files. But then there are iPod car kits...

9:24 am  

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