There’s been so much music-biz news to think about recently: CD sales decline, Mark Cuban predicted the death of the CD in a post that correctly prefigured the demise of DRM; but be careful, as Paul Kedrosky points out, we geeks need to do a way better job of explaining DRM to civilians.

First of all, I have a question: is that 256kbps AAC really “indistinguishable from the original” as Apple claims? CD is 44.1K 16-bit PCM samples per second per channel, for a gross bandwidth of 1.4mbps or so if the back of my envelope is right. Now, intelligent lossless compression can take you a long way, but reduction by a factor of over five? I’d be happy to hear that I’ve missed something obvious.

I really hope those guys are wrong about the demise of the CD. It’s such a great way to buy music; portable, reliable, excellent sound quality when produced and mastered competently, unencumbered; and usually comes with a helpful little leaflet full of background.

Finally, I remain astonished that the subscription model hasn’t caught on; it seems like awfully low-hanging fruit. There are any number of artists I’d subscribe to for ten or twenty bucks a year in exchange for an irregular flow of new material; live cuts, studio work, collaborations, whatsoever, along with discounts and front-of-the-line access to their regular output. Which is ten or twenty bucks a year more than they’re getting out of me now. The technology wouldn’t be hard to set up, either.


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From: Thomas Passin (Apr 07 2007, at 23:32)

I think that data rate would work well. I convert MP3s from my own CDs at a variable rate encoding of at least 192 kb/sec, and they sound very good (when played back through my Marantz amplifier, anyway). That usually turns out to be around a 8:1 compression. I can't stand the usual lower data rate conversions you hear so often. If Apple's conversion is at least comparable to mp3, that rate should be good enough.


From: Matthew (Apr 08 2007, at 01:03)

On the 256kbps quality issue:

I dbout it is techincally indistinguishable, but I couldn't give you a definitive answer, because I don't have good, reference quality gear - and neither do most people. To Most People it *probably* sounds better than 128kbps, so Apple (and EMI) can get away with the 30% price loading, but indistinguishable from CD? Most People bought CDs for the reasons you mentioned, but with excellent sound quality as a the lowest priority (audiophiles excluded, of course).

On the subscription model:

this has (kind of) been around already: official fan clubs. I remember the U2 fan club released a special remix of various singles, and I'm sure other artists' clubs did similar things. Why hasn't this moved to the online/web distribution model in a big way? I'm as mystified as you are - but the barrier to entry is so low that once one does, and is successful, other will follow very quickly. Perhaps there are there contractural obligations at play?


From: David (Apr 08 2007, at 03:43)

With regard to explaining DRM - I usually just point out that "if you buy it from iTunes, you can never play it on anything Apple doesn't want you to. If you buy the CD and rip it, you can play it on anything you like, ever". Which has done the trick for my girlfriend and her family.

WRT 256kbps .. well, it's close. In blind listening tests on a good setup, almost no-one will be able to pick it, apart from fussy audio nerds.

Many years ago a friend and I prepared a test disc (obscenely high dynamic ranges, parts with limited frequencies and full spectrum tracks, etc) and encoded it in varying quality levels - and then ran blind tests against eachother. The things audio nerds will do for fun :)

Even some KRK V4's we were very able to notice even 192kbps mp3s. I don't remember if we tried 256kbps, if we did, I would bet he could pick them and I couldn't.

When trying to tell if a track is an mp3 or not there are two things to look for:

- slow transient response in the high frequencies. If the hats are mushy or have strange metallic flavours .. vote mp3.

- floppy bass. If the bass sounds like it could feel "stronger" or "more focussed" .. vote mp3.

But at 256kbps .. you're losing "something", but it won't be much. And on the headphones most people use, you'll never pick it. In a home studio .. maybe.


From: dave (Apr 08 2007, at 05:31)

Well the psychoacoustic encoding experts and enthusiasts over at seem to think that a listening test bet ween 256kbps AAC and the original would be rather pointless because so many people had difficulty discerning 128Kbps.

They discuss the news here and (I think) point to various previous ABX tests

For me the issue is conversion, so I'd like to see lossless. iTunes may not be ready for this next step but if EMI is selling through various stores then maybe someone will see a gap in the market.


From: Mike Kozlowski (Apr 08 2007, at 06:45)

Lossless compression gets you about a 2:1 compression. Beyond that is lossy, but if you're a person and not an oscilloscope, it's unlikely to matter. When I tried an ABX test with 192kbps LAME-encoded MP3 vs. lossless FLAC (through my rather upscale headphone rig), I was purely guessing. I don't think there's any evidence of anyone having ever passed a blind test on a 256kbps file compressed with a modern encoder.

As for the subscription stuff, the problem is the DRM. I subscribed to Yahoo Unlimited a few years ago, and it was absolutely wonderful, as it gives you access to this enormous variety of music, all of which is available for free. It's like how Napster was in the '90s, only actually legal. But there were two stumbling blocks:

1. The DRM implementation (PlaysForSure) was far from seamless. I had lots and lots of troubles syncing up to my device, and licensing woes and what-not. Too painful for a normal person to deal with, and my position at the time was that Microsoft needed to tighten up the compliance testing when licensing PFS. But then...

2. ... PFS isn't really a going concern any more. I mean, it is, obviously; people still make PFS-compliant players and there are still PFS-compliant services. But Microsoft's Zune service and device aren't PFS-compliant, so it's clear where their priorities are. And without an "open," licensable DRM standard, this is much less useful. Plus, of course, the most popular MP3 player in the world, the iPod, has always been defiantly incompatible with any subscription service, so most people just can't even consider it.

All in all, it's a very frustrating situation, because subscription music is a wonderful idea that's as freeing and game-changing as always-on broadband Internet access was to dial-up people; but the DRM stuff isn't ready for primetime, so the practical utility of the subscription services is severely limited.


From: Juan de Dios Santander Vela (Apr 08 2007, at 10:21)

I think the pros for a subscription model is that you get to hear as much music as you wish for as long as you pay… but in that way it works more as <em>a la carte</em> radio. Then, it seems a service like Pandora, that can actually search for music that you might like could provide an encrypted stream that you can listen to only while you're a subscriber.

On the other hand, what you propose is a "focused subscription"… and I think musicians would be better off if they tried something like John Gruber has made: provide content for free, extra perks for a fee, and what you close is the easy, early access. You pay a low yearly fee, and you "subscribe" to Gruber content… that's mostly available for free, only not that easily.

A Paypal donation button, together with quarterly calls for donations, might be better for a band than having their music available through a DRMed subscription mechanism.


From: Tim (Apr 08 2007, at 13:51)

I think the subscription model hasn't caught on because a large number - probably a majority but I don't have statistics so I won't try to claim it as fact - of people are not interested in good artists or good music, but in what is "popular". Maybe they've been conditioned that way by the indutry, or maybe it's innate, but what else explains why millions upon millions of copies of N'Sync albums sell while Loudon Wainwright III, NRBQ, Pam Laws, or Marcus Roberts sell comparatively few?

I'm wondering if a different process would work: one where artists initially release some music for free, then fans encourage new work by contributing money to an escrow account from which the artist can get paid when he/she/the band produce "an album's" worth of music; the cycle would then repeat.

In that system both the artists and the fan get a say: the artists can hold out for more money before producing something, the fans could pay more or less depending upon how they value the artists' material. The artist can of course take a small amount of money right away, and produce crap for it, but if they do then the fans won't be as likely to put money into encouraging the next outing. If the artist has to take a small amount immediately (to eat, perhaps) but produces quality work, the fans will be back and maybe next time the artist can hold out for more money.

I'm no expert, but I think it might result in a "marketplace" that set a fair value for good quality music.


From: Ben Lings (Apr 08 2007, at 14:08)

Would you believe that a photo, 14.1 MB as an uncompressed TIFF, is practically indistinguishable from a 2-3 MB JPEG? That's an even bigger ratio (5:1-7:1) ... (although maybe having 2 dimensions to play with makes a difference??).


From: Allan Haggett (Apr 08 2007, at 15:17)

From my perspective, the thing about CDs are that they are toxic waste. From a an environmental standpoint, the manufacture of Compact Discs is hazardous and unnecessary given the alternative means of distribution at this point in history. To be taking issue with sound quality is, in my opinion, somewhat selfish given the quagmire that we find ourselves in. We should be doing our best to convert to safe, benign forms of distribution.


From: register Sam's brain (Apr 09 2007, at 04:09)

It's funny about where the music industry is going. is it going towards cheap downloaded music or hi quality 96kHZ sample rate.

the thing is a lot of artists go to great lengths to record in hi sample rates only to be cut down by the simple MP3 or worse. well I think it's simple. sell the fast downloading MP3 and also give the option to get a hi-rez version that you can use. that will take care of the problem of quality. all media is looking at moving towards a Hard drive type of storage. being able to take all your music and movies on a device small as an iPod. No more DVD's HD-DVD's Blue Ray. it's the future. the problem is that the music industry likes the current system and they want to keep it that way. but I think the music business is changing and it make them freak out. It may sound bad but it's really a bright future. and a better future for the artist.


From: Robin (Apr 09 2007, at 12:34)

Two questions I've always wondered:

1. Does the iTunes music store obtain their inventory by ripping from CDs, just like I would at home? (as opposed to ripping from the studio's master tapes?)

2. Assuming the answer is YES, wouldn't ripping from the master tapes produce better results? After all, the CD is a low resolution copy of the master tapes. So ripping from a CD is like making a copy of a copy. Maybe 256kps AAC derived directly from the master tapes would sound even better than CD.

If Apple and the Record Companies marketed downloadable music as "Digital Remastered directly to AAC for superior quality compared to CD" then, for me, that would make me seriously consider iTunes over CDs.


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Apr 09 2007, at 20:06)

> the thing is a lot of artists go to great lengths to record in hi sample rates only to be cut down by the simple MP3 or worse

Do they really? Well, some do, of course…


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Apr 09 2007, at 20:24)

Wait, actually, the point I remembered is not in the article I linked, but in the follow-up to it.


From: Christopher (Apr 11 2007, at 10:26)

David says:


I usually just point out that "if you buy it from iTunes, you can never play it on anything Apple doesn't want you to. If you buy the CD and rip it, you can play it on anything you like, ever". Which has done the trick for my girlfriend and her family.


If I buy from itunes I just burn it to a CD and then do whatever I like with it. I haven't seen a problem with this so far. It's a great backup and I don't see how they can get the CD's back from me!


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