Thursday 25 June 2009

Why are music download stores so useless? (If you're a Mac/iPod user)

[Update - 2012-03-26: Please note that the landscape has significantly changed since I wrote this piece and it is now outdated. My survey of classical download stores, written in March 2012, can be found here.]

[Update - 2010-02-19: Please note, since this article was written, Chandos have updated their online store addressing the major complaint I had. It is now a good and recommendable service. See here for my revised review of their service.]

The music industry, we are told daily, is dying. High street shops are vanishing and custom is moving online; the future will, apparently, be all downloading. Well, I don't think the future is quite ready yet.

Of course, we all know that there have been problems due to the fact that the music industry took so long to realise that people wanted to download, and then did everything they could to cripple early efforts with DRM (or digital rights management) that made it harder to use certain downloads on certain players, or remix and burn CDs. However, DRM is absent from every site I will consider in this post. None offers an entirely satisfactory user experience. It's worth noting that for those who do not demand CD quality or better, that is not true.

Let us start with the big beast of online downloads, Apple and their iTunes store. This being Apple, everything is easy and works. Search works fairly well and typing, for example "Ravel Abbado" will bring back Abbado's recordings of Ravel (not the case on all sites). Often you are not allowed to download every individual track, but since I'm only interested in complete classical works this restriction doesn't bother me. Buying is simple and the download goes straight into your iTunes library (and then straight onto your iPod when you plug it in). True, it wasn't always DRM free, but it is now. It's simple. It is perfect, it's exactly what music downloading should be. Why would you want to buy anywhere else? The answer, of course, is that there is a but, a very big but: sound quality. 256kbps AAC is not really good enough (especially when using the Amazon marketplace it is often possible to source the CD cheaper). With the exception of a live Mackerras concert from Sydney (where there was no way to get the music losslessly) or for some Radio 4 comedy, I have therefore never used it, and will not until they address this. It is a shame, because with every other download site, once the music is on your computer, you then have the extra step of importing it into iTunes. Verdict: iTunes FAIL (due to sound quality). I would note that this verdict applies to any store I haven't tried but that doesn't offer lossless CD quality downloads.

The lossless factor rules out various other sites too. I have used the Philharmonia Orchestra's online shop, which offers 320kbps MP3, and it's decent enough (but again, only for recordings there's no other way to get). It's worth pointing out that when I bought a Wagner overture, conducted by Mackerras, they were very quick to address the fact that it was at less than the stated bitrate. Good service then. However, Verdict: Philharmonia Fail (decent sound quality but still worse than CD).

I have also used eMusic which for £10 a month gives me 40 downloads at 192kbps MP3. Not good quality, but if you're buying symphonies, especially, say, Mahler, it's very cost effective (so long as you make sure you use all your downloads; it's very easy to forget about them). I do find it good for buying things I'm curious about but am unwilling to pay full price for (Vanska's Beethoven cycle being a good example) but I refuse to use it for anything I really want and am going to listen to a lot. Their search is pretty useless, there's no easy way to see everything involving, say, John Barbirolli, and a compound search such as "Barbirolli Sibelius" is useless. Emusic also will not (unless you use their own software, and why would I want to) allow you to download a whole disc in one click, instead you must laboriously download each track one at a time. In fact, it's worse than that because the way they have it set up, my browser opens the track in a window rather than downloading it. Verdict: eMusic FAIL (sound quality again, poor value if you don't remember to use your downloads, and poor user experience).

But, you may well be crying, there are download sites that offer lossless downloads. Indeed there are, but they have their problems. Take first Chandos, or rather, their classical download store. Obviously it's mainly Chandos discs, but other labels such as Signum can also be found there (see here for a full list). At first this seems perfect, you can download an MP3 (at 192kbps) if you so wish, or you can download losslessly. I first played with them last Christmas to get this disc of rather nice, yet slightly different, carol arrangements. Less than £5, bargain. There's plenty of choice of format (windows WMA, AIFF, FLAC and WAV). There's just one problem: actually getting the music from the store onto your computer once you've paid for it takes ages and is frustratingly akin to banging your head against a brick wall. Yes, there exists an option to tick everything and download it as one handy file but this only applies for WMA or MP3: message, if you're a Mac user and want lossless downloads you can get stuffed, we don't care.

Of course, you can still download AIFFs (which will import fine into iTunes and onto the iPod) but you have to click each track, then a little window pops up with a link for you to right click and save. Then it tells you to wait until this is finished before moving onto the next (actually, you don't need to do this, and can speed things up by telling it you're down and moving onto the next - still, my browser won't allow more than 8 concurrent downloads). Bafflingly, each time you close the small window, the download list page reloads, taking longer still. It is a profoundly unpleasant user experience. It might be okay with a super-fast internet connection, but otherwise you need to be able to click once and leave the computer to download everything while you get on with more interesting things. My father, a Mac user and prolific buyer of CDs, flat out states he will never use the site again. This should worry Chandos. I had a similar reaction at Christmas. I had forgotten, though, by the time I decided to buy a two disc set of Louis Lortie playing Ravel from them this morning (with over 30 tracks to download the experience was excruciatingly and not worth the couple of pounds saved over CDs - my time is worth more to me than that). Verdict: Chandos FAIL for Mac users. (However, they have only to streamline their downloading process, which surely is very simple to do, and it would be a good site and one I'd use and recommend. Chandos, if you're reading this, take note. Note also that if you are happy with MP3 at 192kbps or are a PC user, Chandos is a good site.) [Update 2010-02-19 As noted above, this recommendation is no longer current, see here.]

I will make one final point: I take a dim view of Chandos's customer service. I e-mailed them over Christmas politely pointing out these flaws and that they might wish to address them. I have never received a reply. [Update 26/6/09: an e-mail response from Chandos is reproduced at the bottom of this post.]

What then, of Passionato. It claims to offer 320kbps MP3 and lossless FLAC, Mac and PC compatibility and a wide range of record labels. It should therefore be ideal. It isn't. Firstly, quite a lot of stuff, especially from Universal, is not lossless. Certainly buying is much less painful than with Chandos (at first). Their search is okay, though it has an annoying bias towards compilations in its results. Purchasing too is straightforward and all three tracks from the Marwood/Ades/COE recording of Ades' violin concerto were on my desktop as one zip file nice and neatly. Then there's compatibility, and everything falls apart. Their site claims:

You can use a PC or Mac with a broadband connection and any of the following browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari or Opera.

Now, I suppose this is technically true. After all, I was able to download the tracks. The trouble is they use the FLAC format. It's an open source (and by all accounts, very fine) format. There's just one problem: Apple don't like it, and if you try to import them into iTunes, nothing happens. Of course, there are other media players that you can use (such as Videolan) which will play the files without issue. However, I just don't care: I, like a huge number of other people, use iTunes. I have nearly three months worth of music in there, it talks to my iPod and iPhone and I have no desire to use anything else. That means that if the FLAC files won't get into iTunes, I'm going to be very cross and Passionato are going to get a stiffly worded e-mail demanding a refund. Of course, in these days of high technology it should be doable, and with my degree in engineering, I'm a pretty tech savvy guy I should be able to do it.

And, I can indeed report that it is doable. It just isn't easy (or at least, finding a way that's reasonably easy takes some searching). At the very least it is exceptionally misleading of Passionato not to include some kind of disclaimer on their site to this effect. While I was able to solve the problem, I can well imagine most others not doing so and getting justifiably very angry. (Since this won't be of interest to everyone, I will save details of how this can be done until the end.) Furthermore, Passionato's description of getting music onto your iPod, while accurate for MP3s, is just flat wrong for FLACs. This is staggeringly stupid. While Mac users may only represent a small share of the market, iPod users do not; it's the most successful device of its kind on the planet and building a store that isn't iPod friendly is a bit like building a petrol station that only serves three wheeled vehicles.

However, the net result is a big fat FAIL for Passionato too (for compatibility and misleading statements on their website). However, like Chandos, it's a fairly easy fix - just offer a format that works with Macs and iPods and is lossless. They could also try to persuade Apple to just support FLAC, but I suspect the former will be easier. Note, if you are happy with MP3 at 320kbps, Passionato is a good site (similarly, now I have gone through the steps detailed below, it is okay for lossless for me).

The FLAC problem also exists with other stores I haven't tested, such as Linn Records (a shame since they also offer studio master quality). FAIL for them and anyone else not offering high quality Mac/iPod friendly downloads.

There may be an online store out there I haven't mentioned, one that has a good catalogue, CD quality downloads or better, and is fully and easily Mac/iPod compatible. If it exists, I haven't found it; if you have, please let me know.

You may think I've been a little unfair. Certainly, it is true that if you're happy with below CD quality, then Passionato, Chandos and iTunes all offer a decent and easy service (though Chandos's data rates are on the low side for MP3). It should also be noted that while Passionto is 320kbps MP3 and iTunes is 256kbps AAC, AAC is a more efficient codec and so probably sounds as good or arguably better.

However, I feel it's not unreasonable to expect download sites to offer at least the sound quality of the CDs they aim to replace and ease of use at the same time.

Finally, since I now have a fairly simple way of converting FLACs into AIFFs (see below), I may use Passionato again as the experience should now be fairly painless. However, in terms of the average user, the time it took me to get them working and the misleading statements on their website, the verdict for them remains a fail.

The Technical Bit - FLAC into iTunes will go (ish)

PLEASE NOTE: these instructions are for Macs only (I'm running an Intel Mac, OS 10.5.7 with Quicktime 7.6.2 and iTunes 8.2).

So, after much Googling, tearing out of hear, and banging my head against a brick wall, I did in the end manage to get FLACs playing in iTunes and my Passionato downloads onto my iPod. However, someone less tech savvy would long since have given up and gone home (so too someone who didn't have anything better to do with his afternoon).

The first question is do you have to keep the files as FLACs? If you're happy to turn them into something else, this is by far and away the simplest solution (and the only way you will get them onto your iPod*). Simply download xACT, install it by dragging it into your applications folder, then launch it. Select the decode tab (furthest left), choose between AIFF and WAV output, click add (bottom left) to choose the FLAC files, and then click decode. The AIFF files produced can then easily be imported into iTunes (you can then put them into Apple Lossless format to take up less space).

However, what if you want to get the FLACs themselves playing in iTunes? This can be done, but it is far from simple. After much googling I found this explanation from one Napoleon12. I think the below sets out his instructions slightly more clearly:

  • 1. Install the XiphQT plugin. Go here to download it. To install simply follow the instructions contained in the readme file (the folder it asks you to copy the file to may not exist, if so create it).
  • 2. Then go here. Download the first file (flac_import_0.5b1_p0.1.dmg) and install it following the instructions in the readme file. Once you have done this, you will be able to play the FLACs in Quicktime but not yet iTunes.
  • 3. From the same site download the third file (set-OggS-0.1.dmg). This contains two applications Set OggS and Clear OggS. Copy them to your applications folder.
  • 4. Restart both iTunes and Quicktime (in fact, for good measure, you should probably restart the whole computer).
  • 5. Select the FLAC files and drag them onto the Set OggS app. (A window will pop up to tell you it's done this and you can then click quit).
  • 6. You should now be able to add the files to iTunes in the normal way.
  • 7. Should you want, you can then put the FLAC files back to normal by dragging them over the Clear OggS app.

This gets the FLACs into iTunes and they will play. However, funny things do happen when you try to change track names or alter other tags. I am also told they will not send wirelessly to Airport Express or suchlike. They will also not play on your iPod. It is also entirely possible that future releases of iTunes and Quicktime will render all of this useless.

There you go - clear and simple: what more could you ask for! (Note to self, excessive sarcasm is not helpful.)

*This isn't quite true. Apparently some iPods can be rigged with 3rd party firmware and made to play FLACs, but I don't want to go there.

Update 26/6/09 - Response from Chandos

I have had a response from Chandos which I reproduce below:

I thought it would be useful to drop you a line.
It's great that blogs such as yours offer the opportunity for debate and user opinion. It is a shame that you were unhappy with the experience at The Classical Shop. We are constantly working to improve the quality of the site, by widening the labels on offer and also working to improve the usability of the site so we always welcome customer comments. We were aware that we needed to offer mac users the opportunity to download AIFF files and have recently added these to our offer. It is interesting to hear your experience of downloading in this format and I will pass your comments on to my colleagues. If it is possible to make this process smoother then we will certainly aim to do so. I'd also like to apologise that nobody from the company replied to you over the Christmas period. We were closed down over the break and it would have said so on the site, but of course somebody should have replied to you on our return. We regularly receive commendation for our customer service so this is very much out of character.

We have a growing database of users and in the main there is nothing but praise for the site and our content but if you have any further recommendations for improvements you feel should be made to the site then please do not hesitate to contact me.

I should further note that if you are using a PC, iTunes should import the lossless WMA files which you can, according to the Chandos site, download as one zipped file. I haven't tried this, but if this is the case, Chandos would be highly recommended for PC users. Mac users who are also running Windows on their machine therefore have a reasonable, if somewhat cumbersome, workaround.

Lastly, I would like to stress my negative comments about Chandos are purely in relation to the user experience offered to Mac users interested in high quality downloads and not a comment on the label more generally (which I greatly admire and which has produced some exceptional recordings).


Anonymous said...

You have me torn, Tam.

I agree with you on so much that you've written about either the horrible sound quality, or else the horrible user experience, offered by some music download sites. (Not difficult to see why so many people share files illegally, is it?)

On the other hand, I do feel that a tech-savvy guy like you should know better than to settle for Apple's lame iTunes media player. It's eye-wateringly bad for numerous reasons; and when compared to the less-slick-but-technically-superior alternatives like foobar2000, MediaMonkey and Winamp, it's shown up embarrassingly as the bloatware it truly is.

I know you've said you're not interested in looking beyond iTunes, but there IS software out there that spanks Apple's closed-architecture, closed-minded excuse for a media player, and I'd urge you to consider broadening your horizons. I'll go further and say that iTunes is really for those who know no better ... and something tells me that's not you.


Tam Pollard said...

You raise some interesting points.

Out of interest, though, are you using a Mac or a PC (since I'm not sure the alternatives you list are on the Mac - Versiontracker doesn't seem to list them)?

Why do I use iTunes? Well, I always have, though that's not necessarily a reason to carry on. One reason I like Macs (I've used them for over a decade), is that for the most part everything just works. And while I can and do tinker around at the edges, that integration of hardware and software is a key selling point for me. I've never had any complaints against iTunes until now.

Of course, I need to have iTunes, as I'm not sure there is another way to manage my iPhone, without jailbreaking it (though there probably is for my iPod).

It is true that their refusal to support FLAC is mindbogglingly stupid. It is probably also true that I could figure a work around with an alternative bit of software, but I'm not exactly clear, save for the FLAC issue (to what what I'd be gaining).

The FLAC issue could, of course, be sorted by swapping the iPod for something else, but it is a fantastic piece of design, and I have seen little to indicate there are other MP3 players I would like better.

Leaving all that aside though, most people other people are going to stick with iTunes on the Mac, even if some can and do investigate alternatives, and so it is foolish of the stores not to cater for them better.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right, Tam, when you say that iTunes is the media player of choice for Mac users. And in essence, there's little wrong with that if your needs are pretty basic and accord with what Apple wants.

Putting aside my own dislike of the Cult of Apple - if it's white and has an 'i' in front of it, it must be cool - I'm fairly certain that enterprising individuals HAVE come up with solutions/workarounds/alternatives to iTunes slavery for the Mac faithful. But as a PC user, I'd hate to be tied to, say, the shocking piece of ... I won't say it, but I'm talking about Windows Media Player, obviously.

That's why I appreciate having the choice you get with PCs. Okay, so they don't always integrate quite as seamlessly as everything Mac. But they DO give you acres of wiggle room to experiment, explore and implement a software environment that suits your needs. And in my case, I NEED a media player designed for a power user - fully customisable, and can handle (natively) whatever I throw at it. So foobar2000 it is, then.


Anonymous said...

Do not use Passionato. Are they a scam? As at 31 October 09 I await any sort of reply from Passionato Customer Service after being told to contact them 24 October after a failed donwload. I cannot comment on the technical quality of the music as it has not arrived. Only their financial speed in taking the money and not giving it back. Will sue for £4.99 if not repaid. Do not go there.

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