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

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. Well put,Mr.Paul Woodward – Both these services are useless outside the USA.I don’t know when these guys will make it to India.Whenever i need some albums i bother my friends or family who stay in the US.IT’S A REAL PAIN!!

  2. Rodney Vask

    “256 kbps and DRM free. Need we say more”

    CAREFUL here!! Amazon’s tracks are encoded with VBR or Joint Stereo Modes (both of which may save space, but I particularly dislike because they affect dynamic range and can cut subtleties in the music. Plus the MP3 encoder may be universal but not close in quality to an AAC encoder.

    Apple keeps consistency with what they sell and that is the biggest difference between these two stores. Apple sells in the AAC format (hopefully soon DRM-FREE) at 128kbps (256kbps EMI) in normal stereo mode and codified with iTunes/Quicktime encoder. I don’t know what Amazon uses, I think Lame, but sometimes you can’t tell.

    Buy from iTunes until Amazon gets things straight. And if you re worried about the price, buy an iTunes gift card, they have great deals on eBay

  3. Details in my rant posted above ( but my highlighted points are:
    This is a good thing for people who want to save some money.
    Amazon is the king of online retailers and will bring a lot to the table including buying history, integrating other’s reviews, better search engines, etc.
    Anyone that wants to start slinging business ethics charges at Apple and Microsoft should really consider the real history of the music business.
    Buying high-fidelity versions of vinyl records and SACD’s were on my list – I always had a “stylus” and CD player capable of playing them. The standard Apple files are incomparable. This is better but I want more.
    iTunes store was never designed to be a huge revenue generator, it was designed to sell iPods – this will do that too.
    Apple has always been proprietary in regards to its OS only working on Apple machines.
    Apple controls things to make sure the user experience is consistent and a true pleasure. Its what we expect from them. Its what the iTunes store was all about. And we all “pay more” for this. Sacrificing “open” for this is a good thing; its a far cry from the opposite which is exercising market dominance by offering cheep prices/free goods for Monopolistic dominance. That’s why Wallmart dominates the small towns now, that’s why there is only MS Word and not Wordstar, Wordperfect, etc.
    but then again, is iLife and iWork a move to do the same thing? Capitalism – its what makes it all possible, but we must be savvy consumers.

  4. As a musician and independant recording artist who has three CDs available on the iTunes music store, I will say the following: Itunes is not the music business. The DRM was something they had to agree to get the record labels on board. Also, I am sure that everyone at Apple realizes just how easy their DRM is to bypass (Although you will never hear them say it). Itunes pays the record label their share and it is up to the record labels to pay the artists fairly. Since I am independant and don’t deal with a label that money is paid to me. Itunes created the first online music store that actually worked (previous attempts by other companies where failures). It is a fun interactive store to use but it is not for everyone. When Apple became a huge success a few years ago, the record labels immeadiately wanted to start raising prices. Apple resisted and prices where kept at 99 cents. I do not know if the Amazon store is a come on by the labels to raise prices or not, but competition is good. If Amazon starts raising prices then go back to Apple. But competition is good. I would like to see prices tiered based on quality of download. Consumers who aren’t as concerned with bit rate and quality could pay a lot less for lo fi files and those who are bigger audiophiles could pay more for higer bit rate files.

  5. For another source of Non-DRM tracks (where you can find basically ANYTHING you are searching for), there is a website that searches over 6,000,000 of them (not including AmazonMP3, which it says its adding soon) all at once – With the addition of AmazonMP3, it’ll be a pretty incredible search engine, and THE place to figure out where to purchase non-DRM music on the internet.

  6. Well, i did not read all comments, but those who have enough technical savvy to load up itunes and load an ipod can work this out. my bottom line would be that to just check here first and then itunes, kinda like buying books at borders. you can find the book there, and then go on amazon and buy it used for 1/4th the price right in border’s cafe area online.. . As for what is stopping the music labels from raising their prices? competition – and this music store will serve to that end. Amazon, and in particular Walmart are able to negotiate the heck out of their sources, and can limit access to markets big time. This battle will continue but I for one am pleased that there is an avenue here that is reasonably easy and available.

  7. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned – it’s going to be a lot easier to link to specific albums and songs in Amazon vs. iTunes. No pop-up window to ask if you have iTunes installed, no delay while iTunes opens up, by which time you’ll have moved on to something else.

    And if Amazon is smart, and releases a blog-embeddable widget specifically for the music store? One-click purchase directly from your blog (with affiliate earnings) to my hard drive.

  8. @Fernando: “LMAO! And Windows Media Player and Zune player you mention in your post are NOT proprietary?? LOL. Don’t bash Apple just for the sake of bashing.”

    I never said that. M$ has it’s own issues with being proprietary that annoy me, but my Zune will play multiple music formats (namely MP3) without having to convert something first. In that regard it’s less proprietary than the ipod.

    But what I was trying to say is that historically Apple has been more proprietary than M$. Apple likes to make products that are virtually impossible for the consumer to update, repair or customize themselves. It doesn’t mean M$ doesn’t do the same at times (DRM-MS format in media center for example), just that Apple is worse about that sort of thing.

  9. I’m happy to see Amazon offering DRM-free downloads at a superior bitrate to iTunes. I do wish they offered them in a lossless format though (FLAC!)… I highly recommend for lossless downloads – and they recently started offering some of their selections DRM-free! Once they offer all their tracks DRM-free, MusicGiants would be the only way to go!

  10. Michael Levinson

    Aaron – a 10 out of 10 would be the availability of a lossless format. I have never purchased a song from iTunes, and will not do so until I can buy the actual recording, not a hacked-to-pieces 256kbps version.

    I still can’t understand why Apple doesn’t sell Apple Lossless songs – I would gladly pay a premium for this.

  11. insta-update: looks like Amazon’s using a combination of Constant Bit Rate and Variable Bit Rate technologies. I guess my “Dummy” is CBR — hence the larger file size than my earlier VBR tracks.

  12. Just downloaded Portishead’s Dummy — which, it turns out, I already had in 320 from an alternative source :-P Anyway, sound quality is terrific, but file size is actually larger than the 320 files I previously had (2nd generation rip on the original files?). Deleting the 320 (the Amazon tracks sound better) and feeling a lot better about this store as an eventual CD alternative.

    And Togrim — it’s not a boycott if you’re stealing the product you’re boycotting. It’s just criminal behavior masquerading as nobility.

  13. @tnwake: Because “Proprietary” is Apple’s middle name.

    LMAO! And Windows Media Player and Zune player you mention in your post are NOT proprietary?? LOL. Don’t bash Apple just for the sake of bashing.

  14. A lot of great points being made here, particularly on Amazon’s BETA or introductory pricing, which HAS to go up in order for Amazon and the labels to make money.

    But the one point I keep failing to understand, concerns the comparison of Amazon’s MP3 downloader to iTunes. These apps are entirely different creatures. iTunes – aside from downloading music – is a media library management system. It also rips music, re-encodes files, plays videos, streams audio content, slices, dices and cubes. The MP3 downloader is just that – a downloader. It’s one trick is the direct import to either iTunes or Window Media Player.

    Now if the point is that apple should release a simple one trick pony to just download music, okay. But the two products cannot be compared.

    That being said…I’m enjoying the Amazon experience. Low-prices are a good thing.