First Look: iTunes Plus

A month ago, Apple and EMI announced that the record label would offer its entire catalog sans digital rights management protection at the iTunes Store sometime in May. With just a full day left in the month, Apple made good on the promise, adding these unprotected tracks—termed iTunes Plus—to its online digital media store Wednesday. As expected, individual unprotected tracks are available for $1.29 per track while albums are offered at the same price as the protected version. Individual protected tracks continue to be priced at 99-cents per track.

I’ve spent the better part of the morning cruising the Store’s aisles to see just how iTunes Plus works. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Updated iTunes

In order to purchase iTunes Plus tracks you must upgrade to iTunes 7.2. Although an iTunes Plus link appears in the Quick Links area of earlier versions of iTunes, when you click it, you’re instructed that you must upgrade to iTunes 7.2 to view iTunes Plus music.

Once you’ve installed iTunes 7.2, that link takes you to the iTunes Plus page, which holds What’s Hot and Featured Albums boxes similar to those on the Store’s main page as well as Top Albums and Top Songs columns that list pretty much what their titles suggest. The page also contains a Genre pop-up menu, from which you can choose Alternative, Blues, Children’s Music, Classical, Comedy, Country, Dance, Electronic, Folk, Hip-Hop/Rap, Holiday, Christian & Gospel, Jazz, New Age, Opera, Pop, R&B/Soul, Reggae, Rock, Soundtrack, Spoken Word, Vocal, World, and iTunes Latino genres. Choose a genre and the contents of the What’s Hot and Featured Albums boxes changes to reflect popular and featured albums within that genre.

itunes plus main

Shortly after iTunes Plus became available I looked through some of the categories and they show some growing pains. For example, much as I like Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon and The Residents' Third Reich ‘n’ Roll I’m not sure they belong among the Store’s featured classical albums.

iTunes Plus if you prefer

When you click on an album on the iTunes Plus page, you’re asked if you’d like to set your iTunes Plus preference. If you click the iTunes Plus button at the bottom of the dialog box, you’ll always be shown the iTunes Plus version of a music track or music video if one is available. Click Cancel and you’ll continue to be offered protected tracks, though you’ll be told that an album is also available in an iTunes Plus version (accompanied by a Learn More link that, once again, offers you the opportunity to enable the iTunes Plus preference).

iTunes plus preferences
If you choose to enable that preference you can switch it off only from your iTunes Store account page where you access the option via a Manage iTunes Plus button. Regrettably, with iTunes Plus preferences enabled you’re not shown the less-expensive protected version of the track. Likewise, with iTunes Plus disabled, you’re not provided with links to the DRM-free tracks unless you click that Learn More link and, in the subsequent window, click the iTunes Plus button to enable the iTunes Plus preference.

Rolling Stones screen in iTunes

Among the few glitches I encountered shortly after the launch of iTunes Plus was an error dialog box that appeared whenever I attempted to change my iTunes Plus preferences. Fortunately, the error is in error. When I either enabled or disabled the preference, the new preference stuck, despite the error suggesting that there was a problem.

Getting the goods

Downloading an iTunes Plus track or album works almost exactly as does downloading protected tracks—the one thing you can’t currently do is gift unprotected music as you can with the Store’s protected music. A small iTunes Plus caption appears just above the Buy Album button on an album’s page and a Plus icon followed by the $1.29 price sits to the left of each track’s Buy Song button. Click one of these buttons and, by default, you’re prompted for your ID and password, and your media downloads to your computer. The resulting files are encoded at a bit rate of 256kbps and are tagged with a .m4a extension. (This is the extension for unprotected AAC files, versus the .m4p extension appended to the Store’s protected AAC files.) A four-minute track weighs in at just over 8MB.

When signed into the Store, click the iTunes Plus link and you should see an Upgrade My Library area in the upper right corner of the resulting iTunes Plus windows. (I say should because, early in my testing, this disappeared from time to time.) This area was designed to make it easy to upgrade compatible contents of your iTunes Library to an unprotected form. Albums can be upgraded for 30-percent of the current album price, upgrades to individual music tracks cost 30 cents per track, and upgrading music videos costs 60 cents per video.

So, for example, if you have a copy of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in the old protected format, you can upgrade to the unprotected version for 30-percent of the current $7.99 album price. Under the Upgrade My Library heading you’ll view a See Details button as well as the total number of songs and albums you can upgrade along with the price for doing so.

Unfortunately, you can’t upgrade individual tracks or albums—this is an all-or-nothing option for your entire compatible library. However, you’re not forced to upgrade an entire album if you’ve purchased only a few tracks on it. In this case, you have to upgrade only those tracks you’ve purchased.

iTunes Plus Upgrade button
Click the See Details button, and you’re taken to a page that lists all the albums and tracks that can be upgraded. Click the Buy button and everything is upgraded to the iTunes Plus version. Before iTunes begins downloading the tracks, you’re told that the old versions will be removed from your iTunes library. You have the option to direct iTunes to toss those tracks in the Trash or move them to your Desktop. In both cases, the tracks will appear in an Original iTunes Purchases folder, organized by Artist and Album folders. So, for example, within the Original iTunes Purchases folder, you’ll find an Al Green folder that contains a folder for the Reverend’s I Can’t Stop album.

Upgrade Library screen

With a tiny measure of luck, the upgraded versions of the tracks will download to your computer. I mention luck because, early in iTunes Plus’ short life, this was a hit-or-miss affair for me. Of the 48 tracks I attempted to upgrade, 14 failed with an unknown (504) error. These were tracks from the aforementioned Al Green album and Brian Eno and J. Peter Schwalm’s Drawn From Life . Subsequent attempts to download the tracks failed as well. I had no problems upgrading the Rolling Stones’ Jump Back and the Berlin Philharmonic’s recording of Brahms’ A German Requiem . The total price of all this upgrading: $13.46.

iTunes Plus error message

The sound

As I mentioned, non-protected tracks are encoded at 256kbps—that’s twice the 128kbps bit-rate that protected songs are encoded at. Using iTunes I burned both protected and the new unprotected versions of The Stones’ Jump Back and Brahms’ Requiem to CD to see how they sounded through the Denon amplifier, Sony CD player, and B&W speakers in my living room. I wish I could say that the difference between the two versions was like night and day, but it wasn’t. Bearing in mind that everyone’s hearing is different and therefore my conclusions are purely subjective, in comparison to the protected versions, the DRM-free versions of the recordings sounded like a thin layer of film was washed away from them.

In the Requiem , for example, you could more easily hear the bows’ rosin and the distinct overtones of the timpani rather than their less-distinct thump in the protected version. And passages where the choir and orchestra are going at full force, the unprotected version sounds less confused—you can more easily pick out voices and instruments rather than being overwhelmed with waves of sound.

Given that the Stones produce some of the dirtiest recordings in the business, I understand that using their music—some of it recorded decades ago—is an odd way to test the quality of a recording. Yet comparing the two versions of “Angie,” I could more distinctly hear the tap on the cymbal’s bell and closed high-hat and the 12-string guitar rings a bit more clearly. And, as with the Requiem , the various parts are a touch easier to discern.

Will you hear a difference, and is that difference worth an extra 30-cents-per-track? It depends on the gear you use to listen to your music and the keenness of your hearing. Given that the earbuds bundled with the iPod are hardly audiophile quality, you’re unlikely to get your money’s worth listening to unprotected tracks with this kind of setup. On higher-end gear—good headphones or quality stereo speakers—you might find these tracks more to your liking.

Again, the difference between protected and unprotected versions is anything but startling, but if you’ve stayed away from the Store in the past because you’re unhappy with the quality of its tracks, you may find those offered in unprotected form more pleasing.

More to come

I’ll continue monitoring iTunes Plus and, with my company’s gracious permission, download and scrutinize a variety of iTunes’ unprotected tracks and music videos. Look for subsequent reports here on Playlist as well as in our forums.

[ Senior editor Christopher Breen is the author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, second edition (Peachpit Press, 2007). ]

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