Sat, 03 May 2003

Competition Is A Wonderful, Wonderful Thing

I've been an Emusic subscriber since 2000, shortly after they switched to their "all you can eat" pricing model. Despite some occasional problems (namely with their screwy search engine, which, in its own way, is more endearing than annoying), I think their monthly service, at $9.99 (US) has been (and remains) one of the best deals in existence for the music fan who wants access to music by a huge quantity of good (if not necessarily well-known) artists. Frankly, without Emusic, it would be almost impossible for me to host Freeform Goodness, since the steady flow of new music I get from the service is one of my secret weapons as far as keeping the stream fresh. That the music is supplied as completely unencumbered MP3 files is a wonderful bonus. It means that I can stream them without awkward runarounds, burn them onto CD even with my jury-rigged setup (my only CD-burner is strapped onto a Mac OS 9 machine for reasons too convoluted and boring to go into), and share the occasional (emphasis added) sample track with a friend without busting out the heavy warez artillery. The relative obscurity of the service's catalog has always been more feature than bug to me, though I recognize that I'm in a serious minority on that score. The other substantive problem with Emusic was the sonic quality of the files. 128K CBR files (some apparently even encoded with the [gak] Xing encoder) are never going to be anyone's definition of CD-quality, and occasionally you'd download a real stinker.

Frankly, before this week, no other legal online music service was even in the ballpark. Pressplay and MusicNet are a joke -- the terms of use are so restrictive as to render them very nearly useless. The new iTunes Music Store is the first service outside of Emusic's that's had any real appeal to me at all. The 128K AAC files are audibly superior to Emusic's old 128K MP3s, and the DRM is measurably less draconian than the Pressplay/Musicnet approaches.

Emusic responded to the competitive threat by switching to the wonderful LAME MP3 encoder and 192K VBR encoding as their default. Woohoo! LAME's 192kbps VBR encoding is what I've been using for the past year as my default. I don't claim to be an audiophile (I've been to far too many loud shows and raves to ever be able to claim perfect hearing again) but I do know that LAME's 192k VBRs are indistinguishable from the source CDs to my ears in almost all circumstances. For as long as I've been a member (nearly 3 years), Emusic's been talking about doing this, but in the end I suspect competitive pressures are what led them to pull the trigger on higher bitrates.

:: 01:17
:: /entertainment/music | [+]
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