Jul 07

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:

“30 cents”

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

Of course the devil is in the details.  Let’s compare the digital music sold on Amazon and iTunes:

Amazon.com iTunes.com
Song Format MP3 M4A
Bit Rate 256KB 256KB variable
Sample Rate 44,100 KHz 44,100 KHz
Compression lossy lossy
Copy Protected no no
ISO Open Standard yes yes
Typical Price $0.99 $0.99-$1.29


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.

Purchase Experience

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

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Article published on July 7, 2010

16 Responses to “iTunes vs. Amazon.com Digital Music – $1.29 vs. $0.99 – M4A vs. MP3”

  1. Tweets that mention iTunes vs. Amazon.com Digital Music – $1.29 vs. $0.99 – M4A vs. MP3 -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Matt Says:

    You apparently do not understand lossy vs lossless. M4A *can* be lossless but the songs you’re buying through the iTunes store are most certainly compressed with a lossy algorithm. If they used lossless compression the files would be 2-5 times larger (if we’re using CD quality as our reference quality).

  3. Matt Says:

    As I stated, M4A is a container and it *can* be lossless but the songs you buy through iTunes are *not* encoded using Apple’s Lossless codec.

    An uncompressed 3 minute CD track is approximately 30-40mb. If you achieve a 50% compression on a 30mb file you end up with a 15mb file. How many of the 3 minute songs you’ve purchased through iTunes were >= 10mb?

    Songs purchased through iTunes are compressed using AAC, not ALAC.

    Here’s Apple’s announcement stating they use AAC, a lossy algorithm.


  4. timm Says:

    Matt, you da man, thanks! Updated the article to show lossy AAC

  5. Matt Says:

    Thanks. If either Amazon or iTunes used a lossless codec they would easily be my preference. I do listen to my music on a decent home stereo and not just on headphones so quality counts. 🙂

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  9. timm Says:

    If you really want high-fidelity, buy the CD. Or as my audiophile friends tell me, if you really-really want high-fidelity, but the vinyl LP, if available. 🙂

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  11. George Says:

    “[AAC] is also lossy compression but generally achieves better sound quality than MP3 at similar bit rates.”

    That’s only generally true at smaller bit rates. At smaller bit rates, AAC provides better compression than MP3. At higher bit rates (such as 256kbps) they are essentially equal in terms of quality.

  12. Delusions, Illusions, and the True Costs of Digital Publishing « The Scholarly Kitchen Says:

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  13. Pat Says:

    I have a song in .flac and I want to know if it is “really” lossless or if it was converted from a lossy format. Most sofwares say it looks like CD-DA 99%. Why not 100%? If it came from iTunes I assume it is a fake lossless, right?

  14. adt observation Says:

    Hands down, Apple’s app store wins by a mile. It’s a huge selection of all sorts of apps vs a rather sad selection of a handful for Zune. Microsoft has plans, especially in the realm of games, but I’m not sure I’d want to bet on the future if this aspect is important to you. The iPod is a much better choice in that case.

  15. Uncleg Says:

    iTune’s acc means f-cking quality.mp3 is much better.

  16. Pam T Says:

    adt observation: Maybe I’m not understanding you; my apologies if not. This discussion is not about apps — it’s about Itunes vs. Amazon music quality and prices. MUSIC. As a musician, I don’t want my mp3 player to have apps — I want a large selection of music that I can manipulate tempo, pitch, speed, etc. to learn riffs or straight out just enjoy the sound. There really is no difference between the quality of sound coming from an Ipod or a Zune. The original quality of the source is the difference. What do apps have to do with downloading music via Apple or Amazon?

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