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Amazon MP3 vs. Apple iTunes: Where Should You Shop?

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Amazon (AMZN) has just announced that the beta version of its MP3 download store is live. The company claims it has 2 million DRM free songs, each priced from 89 cents to 99 cents. More than 1 million of the 2 million songs are priced at 89 cents. The top 100 best-selling songs are 89 cents, unless marked otherwise. Most albums are priced from $5.99 to $9.99. OK. Time to try this out and see if Amazon can make me switch from Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes store. Hypebot has a great post about what the store is, and what it isn’t. And that is why I am going to just stick to a head-to-head, hands-on comparison, which follows below the fold.

Find some obscure music test:

Given that Amazon has most of the popular albums, I decided to run a test on obscure music and do a head-to-head using albums/tracks that are sitting in my shopping cart on the iTunes store, just to see if I can actually get a better DRM deal on the Amazon MP3 store.

Hotel Costes X: Not available on Amazon MP3 store

Dimitri From Paris’ Cocktail Disco: Not available on Amazon MP3 store

Breathing Under Water by Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale: Yes, for $8.99

Federico Aubele, Panamericana: Yes, for $8.99

Keren Ann, La Biographie De Luka Philipse: Yes, for $8.99, $11.99 on iTunes

Dorfmeister & Madrid De Los Austrias, Grand Slam: Yes for $6.23, vs $7.99 on iTunes

Dust Galaxy, Singles: Yes, 99 cents each, same as iTunes

Night Over Rio, Various Artists: Not available on Amazon MP3 store

Bitter:Sweet: The Remix Game: Yes, $8.99

I bought four albums, and saved $8, which works out to about $45 in lost revenues for Apple. In short, I will be checking in with the Amazon MP3 store before spending the dollars with Apple. I give Amazon a 7 out of 10 for this part of the test.

Discovery & Search:

Amazon beats Apple hands down on search, but discovery of music is still a work in progress. I bet as we buy more from them, the recommendation system will make discovery of “like music easier.” This is Apple’s Achilles heel. I give Amazon a 4 out of 10 here.

User Interface:

The Amazon MP3 store is a mess. There, I said it! Sure there are navigation options and ways of finding music, but compared to the iTunes store, it takes forever to find music you really want. There are way too many options to click and sometimes that can be distracting. However if you get past that, then the click-and-download part is fairly simple, and as easy to use as the iTunes store. I give Amazon a 4 out of 10 here.

Download Process:

You need a special downloader (both Mac and PC are supported) in order to download files. You click and a file with extension .amz is downloaded to your computer. Double-click and the album/single starts to download using the Amazon downloader. It is a process eMusic fans are quite used to, though for iTunes people, it is an unnecessary extra step. Amazon getsa 3 out of 10 here. iTunes is brain-dead simple.

Music Quality:

256 kbps and DRM free. Need we say more. 8 out of 10 for Amazon.

Bottom line: 26 out of 50. I am not ready to write Amazon off just yet. We might have a worthy competitor, willing to lose a lot of money to attract customers. The Mp3 format files are awesome, and I think it makes sense for everyone to browse the Amazon store before hitting the “buy” button on iTunes.

78 Responses to “Amazon MP3 vs. Apple iTunes: Where Should You Shop?”

  1. Problem with Amazon’s store is that they chose the antiquated MP3 format and not the better quality, smaller file size format of the success to MP3, AAC. They should have chosen AAC – and no, it’s not an Apple format, it’s an open standard, the success to MP3. It’s better sounding. It’s smaller in file size. It’s less cpu intensive in its encoding/decoding. MP3 SUCKS.

  2. @Neil: “Why doesn’t Apple have these same songs available in non-DRM iTunes Plus format? How did Amazon beat Apple to the punch in unrestricted files?”

    Because “Proprietary” is Apple’s middle name.

    @Timmy: “You can skip the install and download the music directly to your file system if you chose. You do lose the synching function.”

    One solution (although I’m sure it will get bashed quickly) is to use Windows Media Player as your music library for the songs you downloaded from Amazon and then use it to sync to whatever device you have. I haven’t personally used the sync feature of WMP, but I use the sync feature of the Zune software constantly and I would assume the 2 are very similar.

  3. How come Apple couldn’t secure as much DRM-free content? One would think after Steve Jobs’ desperate open-letter to the industry, record labels would be interested in dealing with Apple… I predict Apple isn’t as serious about DRM-free as they’re trying to lead customers to believe. They’re clearly more interested in expanding their over-saturated iPod market than fulfilling the consumer’s best interests.

  4. “””System Requirements

    * PC: Windows XP or Vista
    * Mac: Mac OS X 10.4 or higher

    If you use Linux, you can currently buy individual songs. A Linux version of the Amazon MP3 Downloader is under development, and when released will allow entire album purchases.””””

    thanks Amazon !

    SO are all those songs only from EMI & independant ?

  5. The problem with this theory is that Universal is pulling the strings here, not Amazon. No offense, but you are a fool if you think Universal has your best interests at heart. Universal can pull all its music from Amazon in six months, as well as the DRM free music. It didn’t give the DMR Free music to Apple for a reason. If you recall, it was Apple that called for DRM free music, while Universal called the idea preposterous. Amazon didn’t say anything.

    Apple forced Universal’s hand, by offering DRM free music from EMI. Apple makes less then a nickel on each song downloaded, so you can bet Universal is giving Amazon better rates. This is for a reason. Universal doesn’t want competition, it wants control at your expense.

    Do not help the bad guys win by buying music from Amazon.

    . . . . . This a fairly bold move by an innovative retailer who is saying “I don’t want to sell something that only some people can use some of the time. I want to sell them something they can enjoy whenever, wherever and however thy want.” That attitude needs to be applauded – and no I’m not on Amazon’s payroll. . . . . .

  6. Look Universal is giving now to kill you later. It wants iTunes to fail, so it can later really screw you on pricing and DRM. How does it succeed? Build a competitor by giving it better pricing temporarily. The DRM deal only last six months, then Universal can kill it. If it feels Amazon is doing well, it could pull all its music from iTunes, effectively killing it. From there you will get higher priced music perhaps only in the Microsoft Media format.

  7. James Phillips

    Ok, so you rank it only a 26/50, but does this mean Itunes gets 50/50? It seems to be a misleading grade unless you are doing a comparison and giving Itunes a grade as well.

  8. Thanks for the kind words and link above for Hypebot.

    I think you have to look at this as a first step. If Amazon is not as good as iTunes in you’re book give it some time and know that in many ways their hands are tied by the labels.

    This a fairly bold move by an innovative retailer who is saying “I don’t want to sell something that only some people can use some of the time. I want to sell them something they can enjoy whenever, wherever and however thy want.” That attitude needs to be applauded – and no I’m not on Amazon’s payroll.

  9. This actually sounds like a good service (as opposed to iTunes Store, which I would NEVER use).

    I won’t be buying anything from them though, because I am completely boycotting the music-industry until they start behaving like decent human beings. Which means no more lawsuits against filesharers, and no more DRM at all. In the meantime, the current situation works for me. It is after all completely free, and I’ve downloaded hundreds of gigabytes in both lossy and lossless formats. And the selection is better than any store can offer.

    mmaestro: There is no such thing as AAC lossless. If you were thinking of ALAC, that is a filthy and proprietary format. Go for WavPack or FLAC.

  10. I just tried it out and I have to say it is a different experience from iTunes…but very, very consistent with any purchase. They managed to make their download store fit very well with their physical delivery stores.

    And as for the downloader – well it took me approx 15 seconds to install that compared to probably over 10 minutes to get each new version of iTunes…Amazon wins there. And the tracks just appear in iTunes auto-magically ready to be synced to my iPod. I didn’t do anything to make that happen it just did…

    So I like this store a lot…and will like it a lot more once there are a lot more purchases and the comments start building up.

  11. So let me get this straight….Amazon is actually charging LESS for the top 100 and more for the less popular songs? Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what the record labels have been running around whining and crying that Apple wouldn’t let them do?

    This is the big plan to try and break Apple’s hold on the digital music biz?

    Steve Job’s HAS to be laughing his a$$ of at them today!

    I’m no Apple fanboy but these record execs are f’ing morons…

  12. What are the downsides for iTunes customers going with Amazon? Does album art work? Perhaps Apple will at some point in the future let customers re-download all of their music in better quality?

    It looks like a no-brainer. However, if Apple even made some tiny promises about things it might offer existing customers in the future, it would completely short-circuit the Amazon offering.

  13. Bruno Dexter

    I’m confused. The record companies have been consistently saying that they want the power to charge more for certain releases and thay they are concerned about piracy…(see Vivendi/Universal).
    So, here we have another service that “seems” to be customer friendly but would seem to not address the record companies issues.
    This store is in BETA – but lets say its becomes a giant success…what’s stopping the labels from jacking the prices or creating restrictions like they are doing/ attempting to do with iTunes?
    Everyone seems so quick to hate on iTunes but the issues people have with iTunes stem from the record labels who want to squeeze every last penny out of us. After all, just 2 days ago vivendi whined that the 70% plus cut it got from Apple was way too low. So, if Amazon charges less, then the labels are sure to make less (unless you think they will make up the differential in volume). So I fail to see how this is the remedy we’ve been seeking.
    The truth of the matter is this:
    The labels are using Amazon as leverage against iTunes. Don’t forget that Universal has threatened to pull its catalog from iTunes if it cannot charge more for certain tracks. (99c) So, if they are not happy at 99c then I doubt they’ll be satisfied at less than that.
    So, the reality is that this Amazon price scale is a teaser rate desgined to pull you in and erode itunes supposed dominance…(although if you really beleive iTunes is dominant than you must enjoy drinking record label kool aid).
    Once the teaser has done its job, Amazon will roll immedately over and jack the prices to whatever the labels want. That is the reality of the situation.

    • I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. I came here to try to decide where to buy from (even from others than itunes/amazon) based entirely on the profit artists make. However, none of what you said made sense. I know for sure iTunes gives the worst cut (%) to artists…Vivendi complaining that they only get 70%…that just doesn’t mesh. I’m just going to torrent and mail the band $5.

  14. I’m still disappointed by their format choices of 1. If I buy a music file, I want it to be of the same sound quality as a CD, if not better. That means lossless formats, a choice of 256kbps mp3, wma lossless, aac lossless, and variable bitrate mp3s would be nice. Then again, that might confuse most consumers.

  15. You don’t need the downloader application to buy the mp3s. You can skip the install and download the music directly to your file system if you chose. You do lose the synching function. This makes it the first real big time music store that serves the Linux community, although you can do this with Windows or MacOS as well. You buy an MP3 and download it, no strings. No proprietary aps, nothing. Just a fresh un-DRM’d mp3 file. Awesome. iTunes will have to match this experience. Amazon will effectively de-couple iPods from iTunes if they get more labels on board. Killer.

    • I imagine for a 10/10 you’d need to be like Trent Reznor and NIN: that is, offer all downloads in Lossless, WAV, and MP3 formats. Of course, it would be unfeasible to do that now in 2009, but in a few years when terabyte drives are cheap, I expect that this will become more common as a way of competition.

  16. “You need a special downloader (both Mac and PC are supported) in order to download files. (snip) It is a process eMusic fans are quite used to, though for iTunes people, it is an unnecessary extra step.”

    Hmmm, it seems to me that to download from the iTunes store you have to install a sluggish 35MB Application (everyone seems to forget this) vs a nice lightweight app from emusic and Amazon. I agree that iTunes is chimp simple to use, but let’s not forget that to browse the store itself, we are forced to use iTunes. eMusic and Amazon’s downloader do one thing and do it well.

    Thanks for the review, enjoyed your perspectives.

  17. Om, I have to say, you have kickass taste in obscure music.

    I agree that emusic seems like it would be a better apples/apples comparison because it sells MP3s even though it has a subscription model instead of a pay-per-track model.

  18. Are they tagging the MP3’s with your personal information? At least with iTunes I know that other people are looking for the tokens to remove.m and have the appropriate tools to erase that information.

    Also, I’m in Canada.

  19. Another service like the iTunes Store completely worthless to the majority of Internet users…i.e. those outside the United States. is the only worthwhile one I’ve come across not completely neutered by geographical restrictions.

    If the music industry wants to stop the withering, they’re going to have to wake up to the fact that USA is a dwindling portion of the worldwide web audience.