As the resident geek, my part-time job is providing computer tech support to family, friends and neighbors. One of the most common questions they ask me is:
“What’s the difference between digital songs that cost $1.29 on iTunes and $0.99 on Amazon.com?”
And being the smartass that I am, my stock answer is:
The Bottom Line
Here’s the real answer if you’re the impatient type:
- If price is your top priority, then buy digital music from Amazon.com.
- If simplicity or integration with your iPhone is your top priority, then buy digital music from iTunes.com.
- Both iTunes and Amazon songs are NOT copy protected, which means you can play purchased songs on all of your computers and devices without hassle.
- All digital music players can play Amazon songs. Most new digital music players can play iTunes songs.
- iTunes songs are higher quality than Amazon, but most people won’t notice much of a difference.
- For some people, the iTunes purchase and download experience and integration with iTunes software is much simpler than Amazon.
Amazon.com vs. iTunes.com
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MP3 vs. M4A
MP3 and M4A are digital audio encoding formats, in other words, a way to store analog music on digital devices.
MP3 is short for “MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3” and is part of the MPEG-1 standard established in 1991. MP3 is a lossy compression algorithm, meaning that some data is lost to greatly reduce the file size but still sound close to the original audio for most listeners. Nearly every digital music device on the planet can play MP3 audio.
M4A is an Apple advanced audio codec (AAC). AAC is an ISO standard and part of the MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 specifications. M4A is also lossy compression but generally achieves better sound quality than MP3 at similar bit rates. However, listeners aren’t likely to notice much of a difference between Amazon and iTunes songs on a computer or mobile device. Most newer digital music devices can play M4A songs.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Amazon and iTunes is the purchase and download experience. Like most Apple products, buying music from iTunes is simple and it just works. If you own an iPhone or run iTunes software on your Mac or Windows PC, then it’s probably worth an extra 30 cents per song to ensure a fast and trouble-free purchase and download experience.
Amazon.com provides an Amazon Downloader that automatically downloads your purchased music and will even insert songs into your iTunes library, if desired. But some of my family and friends who are novice computer users have struggled with the Amazon downloading process, and they often end up calling me for help.
Copy Protection (DRM)
Big surprise: music customers hate digital rights management. DRM is a failed attempt by record companies to prevent music piracy. Apple used to sell its digital music copy-protected in M4P format (M4P = bad, versus the above M4A = good). This meant that iTunes customers had to authorize computers and devices to play music that they legally purchased. It also meant that iTunes music could play only on authorized computers and Apple iPods, but not on Microsoft Zune, other portable MP3 players, or in your car stereo without burning it to a CD. So DRM had the opposite effect of penalizing honest customers with draconian restrictions. This likely created more pirates than it prevented, as customers quickly learned that free pirated music is not only cheaper but much easier to play across our wide range of digital devices.
Amazon.com has never sold copy-protected music and in January 2008 became the first major music store to legally sell music without DRM. Fortunately, Apple came to its senses, and as of March 2009, all iTunes music is DRM-free. Unfortunately, all of your iTunes music purchased before 2009 is still copy-protected, and Apple wants 30 cents per song to upgrade to the DRM-free format.
My Final Answer Is…
I’m an iTunes user, and so I buy most of my music through iTunes. However, lately I’ve noticed that a majority of the songs I want on iTunes are selling for 30 cents more than Amazon, so I’ve been buying a lot more digital music from Amazon.com these days.
Updated: to show M4A as part of the lossy AAC standard
Article published on July 7, 2010
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