Head-to-Head: iTunes Match versus Amazon Cloud Player

The advent of digital distribution has changed a lot of things about the way we acquire music. Along with the convenience of being able to download the music you want from multimillion-track libraries almost instantly, there's been one critical shift: portability. The idea that you’d have to move to a specific room and feed your music into a single piece of equipment now seems archaic. The new norm is taking your music with you and, increasingly, having the ability to access every piece of music you own even if it can’t fit on your music player or mobile phone. The means for this miracle of “music in the ether” is cloud delivery.

Two key participants in this area are Apple with its iTunes Match and Amazon with its Cloud Player. Each has its advantages, but how do they compare? Let’s find out.

iTunes Match

iTunes Match is a $25-per-year service. That fee gives you access to up to 25,000 tracks that you own (audiobooks and podcasts aren’t supported). Once you’ve paid for iTunes Match, you switch on the feature (by choosing Store > Turn On iTunes Match). iTunes sends a list of your tracks to Apple, which then compares them with tracks already existing in iTunes’ catalog. Your tracks must be in a format iTunes recognizes: AAC, MP3, AIFF, WAV, or Apple Lossless.

The tracks that match catalog items become available to you from any device that supports iTunes Match (computers running a copy of iTunes, iOS devices, and Apple TV). Any tracks that aren’t in iTunes’ catalog (or are, but whose metadata is so confused that iTunes fails to recognize them) upload to Apple's servers, where they become part of your cloud-based music collection. Tracks that you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store don’t count against the 25,000-track limit.

iTunes Match viewed from within iTunes

You can stream tracks through iTunes, iOS devices, and your Apple TV. iPhones and compatible iPads support streaming over both Wi-Fi and cellular connections. Additionally you can download songs to a computer running iTunes, or to an iOS device. (Current Apple TVs—which don’t have hard drives—don’t support downloading and therefore only stream tracks.) If you choose to download tracks from iTunes Match, the service delivers matched tracks as 256-kbps AAC files. Generally this is a good thing, as it gives you access to tracks that sound better than your originals—tracks you ripped at a lower bit rate (128-kbps MP3, for example). Unmatched tracks that you upload will come across in their original format and bit rate unless they started as Apple Lossless or uncompressed AIFF or WAV tracks; in such cases, they too download as 256-kbps AAC files.

If you choose to discontinue your iTunes Match subscription after your year is up, you’re welcome to keep any tracks you’ve downloaded (even if they’re the higher-quality versions). However, once you pull the plug, you can no longer access your tracks in the cloud.

The result of a too-large iTunes library

The knock against iTunes Match is that its 25,000-track limit is too low for people with very large music libraries. Regrettably, iTunes doesn’t offer you the option to choose a subset or playlist of tracks: If your music library exceeds the limit, iTunes merely declares that you can’t use iTunes Match. And Apple offers you no option to purchase additional space for iTunes Match. If you have such a massive library, it’s up to you to cull it, and this task requires some trickery—you must either create a new iTunes library with fewer tracks or mark some tracks as podcasts or audiobooks so that iTunes doesn't count them among your music tracks.

And glitches remain. It’s not unusual to encounter duplicate entries, missing artwork, and missing tracks that are indeed in iTunes’ catalog.

Amazon Cloud Player

What made iTunes Match unique upon its release was its matching ability: If iTunes determines that the Store has copies of the tracks in your iTunes library, you needn’t upload your copies, since the Store simply delivers those it already has. This approach saves both time and bandwidth.

When Amazon Cloud Player launched, it didn’t offer matching. Although you could stream and download the tracks you purchased from Amazon MP3, you had to upload any tracks that you had obtained elsewhere. The latest version of Amazon Cloud Player changes that. As with iTunes Match, if Amazon recognizes tracks in your music library (iTunes, WIndows Media Player, or a selected folder) as being part of its catalog, it will match those tracks. And, also like iTunes Match, the service allows you to upload those tracks that aren’t available from Amazon.

So, what are the differences? First of all, unlike iTunes Match, Amazon Cloud Player has a free version. That version gives you access to any eligible tracks you’ve purchased from Amazon MP3 (meaning those that the music labels allow to be part of the service); it also lets you match or upload up to 250 tracks from your computer’s music library.

Accessing Amazon Cloud Player via Web browser

If you subscribe to Cloud Player Premium (at the same $25-a-year rate as iTunes Match) you have access to up to 250,000 tracks—10 times the maximum number on iTunes Match. (Note that Amazon also offers Cloud Player Premium with file-storage plans that cost more than $25 per year.)

Amazon Cloud Player is more generous in regard to the types of files it can match. In addition to matching tracks in the AAC, MP3, AIFF, WAV, and Apple Lossless formats, Cloud Player recognizes WMA, OGG, and FLAC files. Note, however, that it can upload only AAC and MP3 files; you’ll need to convert other files to one of those types before uploading. As with iTunes Match, unmatched files download in their original format. Matched tracks download as 256-kbps MP3 files.

Like iTunes Match, Amazon Cloud Player lets you stream and download music over Wi-Fi as well as over a cellular network. Amazon Cloud Player will neither match nor upload DRM-protected files (such as those music files you may have purchased before Apple removed copy protection from its iTunes Store offerings). And it won’t import files larger than 100MB, nor will it accept ringtones, podcasts, or audiobooks. As with iTunes Match, any matched music you download is yours to keep, even after you’ve allowed your plan to expire.

Amazon Cloud Player provides broader device support than iTunes Match does. In addition to streaming and downloading songs to iOS devices (via the Amazon Cloud Player app), you can play and download music with any computer Web browser; stream music from the iOS version of Safari; download and play music on a Kindle Fire, Android, or BlackBerry device; and stream Cloud Player content on a Sonos multiroom music system. Support for Roku players is coming soon.

Amazon Cloud Player in the Amazon MP3 Android app

If much of your world is built upon Apple technology, Amazon Cloud Player is a less elegant option than iTunes Match for a few reasons. First, you'll find no version of the Cloud Player app designed specifically for the iPad. The version made for the iPhone and the iPod touch is a little ungainly and doesn’t make use of the iPad’s more expansive screen. Second, as mentioned above, if you have DRM-protected tracks purchased from the iTunes Store, Amazon Cloud Player can’t match or play them. Third, to play Cloud Player content on your computer, you must use a Web browser and Amazon’s somewhat clumsy interface. Finally, as with iTunes Match, you'll encounter missing or mismatched artwork, duplicate tracks, and tracks that should have matched but didn’t.

Matching and uploading tracks from your computer is more of a bother with Amazon Cloud Player than it is with iTunes Match. Since iTunes Match is built into iTunes, you can begin the process simply by choosing a command. In contrast, to match and upload your tracks to Amazon Cloud Player, you must go to the Cloud Player webpage, log in with your Amazon account, click the Import Your Music button, and wait while the Amazon Music Importer application (an Adobe AIR application) downloads to your computer. After you install the application and launch it, you can start matching (and uploading the songs that don't match) by clicking the Start Scan button. The application then scans your iTunes or Windows Media Player libraries for compatible music files. (Alternatively you can click Browse Manually and choose a directory that contains your music.) The process isn't terribly onerous—particularly considering that you have to use the application only when you’re adding new music—but it’s certainly more complicated than using iTunes.

One or the other

Apple may have introduced matching almost a year before Amazon did, but now that the feature has come to Cloud Player, Amazon’s service is tempting. If you own a music library that has swollen to more than 25,000 tracks and you want access to it anywhere, Cloud Player is the obvious choice. And if you don’t live entirely in Apple’s world and you use a Kindle Fire, an Android device, or a BlackBerry, or if you want to stream music to a Sonos system or (eventually) a Roku box, Cloud Player provides the means. Plus, if you sign up for a premium plan, Amazon gives you (at the very least) 50GB of cloud storage to do with as you please.

iTunes Match, however, is no slouch. Its integration into iTunes, the iOS Music app, and the Apple TV put it within easy reach for a lot of people—it’s more pleasurable to use on those devices than is Amazon Cloud Player. It’s also easier to set up than Cloud Player, as you can invoke it with a single menu command. And some people claim that an AAC file encoded at 256 kbps sounds better than an MP3 file at the same bit rate (but those without golden ears will be hard-pressed to tell the difference).

Which service wins? Having your music available from just about anywhere—regardless of the service that delivers it—is miraculous. For more music and greater device compatibility, Amazon Cloud Player is the right choice. For a better experience on iOS, iTunes is your match.

Updated at 6:23 a.m. PT to correct an error in the chart comparing the two services.

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