I’ve been writing a lot more about audio than I ever thought I would – including a story in this week’s Times about MP3 players. In the process, I’ve put a lot of thought into how we listen to music in this crazy digital world of ours, and I’d like to share a few tips.
First, there is no grand, unified system for digital music – at least not yet. No one format has it all. Here's the breakdown:
- MP3 (or AAC or WMA) is easy to get onto a portable player, and buying music online (sometimes) means you only have to pay for the tracks you like. But the sound quality is so-so. And of course, there’s the whole Apple-vs.-the-rest-of-the-world issue. If you buy music from the iTunes store, you’re stuck buying iPods for the rest of your life.
- CDs sound much better, and you can rip them to MP3, but they are often a rip-off. CD prices are high – especially if you like only a few songs on an album.
- And the real audiophiles say that even CDs don’t cut it. They either listen to vinyl (which has plenty of problems we all know about) or they invest in “high definition” recordings: Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio. Of course, they have their own problems. You need a “universal” player that handles both formats, and there just aren’t that many titles available (a problem I reported on in the Times a few months ago).
But given this imperfect world, I think I’ve found a strategy that works pretty well. (Other suggestions welcome! That’s why blogs have a comment function.)
1) For portable music, stick
I have to confess to really liking iPods. I have tried some other players, and I have spoken with people who have tried a lot of other players. And the consensus is that the iPod and iTunes are as good as it gets. But it might get better in the future, and “IT” might not be a product from Apple. So I am reluctant to spend a lot of money on downloads from the iTunes store – downloads that will only play on iPods. And given my current affection for iPods, I’m even less inclined to go with the Microsoft WMA music format. That’s why I like MP3s. They play on everything. So, how to get them?
- eMusic is one of those rare companies that I wax sentimental about. It sells downloads in the good ol’ MP3 format (192 kbps, variable bit rate) at a subscription rate of $10 for 40 downloads a month. None of the big labels participate, but eMusic is hardly small. It has “750,000 tracks from more than 70,000 titles from more than 3700 record labels,” so the CEO told me. Lots of great indie music here: New Pornographers, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, Interpol, plus early stuff from now big-time artists like Green Day and Coldplay. They also have great vintage stuff – like tons of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash.
- Bleep.com also has MP3s – nowhere near as big a collection, and the prices per track are higher, but now and then you might find a bargain. I picked up the Franz Ferdinand eponymous album for $9.99.
- Then there’s iTunes. What, iTunes? For MP3s? Well yeah, if you combine it with a program called JHymn that cracks the copy protection and can convert Apple’s AAC format to MP3. Is this legal? Probably not. Is it ethical? Depends on how you use it. If it’s just to listen to your own music, which you paid for, then it’s no different than buying legal MP3 downloads from eMusic.
- Finally, there’s theft. We all know the places to get pirated music. I personally don’t go for this. I do think the music industry is a cartel that holds prices artificially high. But I don’t think that entitles me to steal. I’m from the old school that believes civil disobedience is for important things, like stopping a war.
2. For compact discs, buy cheap
If you’re a real audiophile, you wouldn’t even consider online music. Your minimum is a CD. I’m not there yet. I mostly buy CDs for artists I can’t get on eMusic. Now we all know CDs are pricey, but there are a few places to get them cheaper than usual:
- halfoff.com – (part of eBay) spotty selection, but low prices
- eBay – you may have to wait a week or two after an album comes out to get a really good price
- gemm.com – for rare, out of print CDs, and vinyl!
- squidco.com – “sells avant-garde unusual, experimental, improvisational music CDs, magazines and books. Free shipping for all US orders.”
- aquariusrecords.org - indie, electronic, and import
- theendrecords.com - metal
- willowtip.com - metal
(Thanks Sean Cooper, Jay Hedblade, Polina Grinbaum, Stephanie Weaver, Stephanie Provines, and Andrew Peters for the great tips!)
3. For hi-def audio, stay flexible
There is a lot of contention on this issue. Some music lovers say stereo is just fine; others say 5.1 surround is nirvana. But it’s indisputable that SACD and DVD-A contain more audio data than CDs and thus have the potential to sound better, with the right equipment. It’s also very likely that high-def audio will go the way of Betamax – a great technology that nobody (or not enough bodies) cared about. Unless you’re a real sound fanatic, it’s probably not a good idea to get stuck with a pile of expensive discs that only play in your cool home theater and that have onerous copy controls that prevent you from easily ripping then to MP3. The one glimmer of hope is DualDisc – a two-sided disc format that, in many cases has DVD-A on one side, and good old CD on the other. So you can use it like a regular CD, but also get the high-def experience when the setting is right. Here are some sites to check out:
- highfidelityreview.com – for nearly every bit of news and background on high-def audio
- dualdisc.com – for the latest on this new format and the available offerings
- cduniverse.com – reasonable prices on high-def discs (also sells CDs, DVD movies, and games).
4. For any music, try before you buy
I have discovered so much music, at little cost, through streaming services. I personally like Rhapsody ($10 per month), but I must admit that Yahoo Music is quite a deal ($5 per month). They each have about a million songs that you can listen to, as much as you want, as long as you continue to subscribe. So now, if people tell me about some new artists they like, I just type in the name and give it a listen. Sometimes, that’s enough for me. If not, I go out and buy a copy.
Hope all this helps. Rock on!