Apple and EMI recently announced that EMI would offer its entire catalogue without DRM (digital rights management) protection at the iTunes store, sometime in May. With just a full day left in the month, Apple made good on the promise, adding unprotected tracks - iTunes Plus - to its online digital media store yesterday.
As expected, individual unprotected Apple iTunes are available for 99p per track while iTunes albums are offered at the same price as the protected version. Individual protected iTunes continue to be priced at 79p per track.
To purchase iTunes Plus tracks you must upgrade to iTunes 7.2. Although an iTunes Plus link appears in the Quick Links area of earlier versions of iTunes, when you click it, you're instructed that you must upgrade to iTunes 7.2 to view iTunes Plus music.
Once you've installed iTunes 7.2, that link takes you to the iTunes Plus page, which holds What's Hot and Featured Albums boxes similar to those on the iTunes Store's main page as well as Top Albums and Top Songs columns that list pretty much what their titles suggest.
The page also contains a Genre pop-up menu, from which you can choose Alternative, Blues, Children's Music, Classical, Comedy, Country, Dance, Electronic, Folk, Hip-Hop/Rap, Holiday, Christian & Gospel, Jazz, New Age, Opera, Pop, R&B/Soul, Reggae, Rock, Soundtrack, Spoken Word, Vocal, World, and iTunes Latino genres. Choose a genre and the contents of the iTunes What's Hot and Featured Albums boxes change to reflect popular and featured albums within that genre.
Shortly after iTunes Plus became available we looked through some of the categories and they show some growing pains. For example, much as we like Brian Eno's 'Thursday Afternoon' and The Residents' 'Third Reich 'n' Roll' we're not sure they belong among the iTunes Store's featured classical albums.
When you click on an album on the iTunes Plus page, you're asked if you'd like to set your iTunes Plus preference. If you click the iTunes Plus button at the bottom of the dialog box, you'll always be shown the iTunes Plus version of a music track or music video if one is available. Click Cancel and you'll continue to be offered protected tracks, although you'll be told that an album is also available in an iTunes Plus version (accompanied by a Learn More link that, once again, offers you the opportunity to enable the iTunes Plus preference).
If you choose to enable that preference you can switch it off only from your iTunes Store account page where you access the option via a Manage iTunes Plus button. Regrettably, with iTunes Plus preferences enabled you're not shown the less-expensive protected version of the track.
Likewise, with iTunes Plus disabled, you're not provided with links to the DRM-free tracks unless you click that Learn More link and, in the subsequent window, click the iTunes Plus button to enable the iTunes Plus preference.
Among the few glitches we encountered shortly after the launch of iTunes Plus was an error dialog box that appeared whenever we attempted to change our iTunes Plus preferences. Fortunately, the error is in error. When we either enabled or disabled the iTunes Plus preference, the new preference stuck, despite the error suggesting that there was a problem.
Downloading an iTunes Plus track or album works almost exactly as does downloading protected iTunes tracks - the one thing you can't currently do is gift unprotected music as you can with the iTunes Store's protected music.
A small iTunes Plus caption appears just above the Buy Album button on an album's page and a Plus icon followed by the 99p price sits to the left of each track's Buy Song button. Click one of these buttons and, by default, you're prompted for your ID and password, and your media downloads to your computer.
The resulting files are encoded at a bit rate of 256kbps and are tagged with a .m4a extension. (This is the extension for unprotected iTunes AAC files, versus the .m4p extension appended to the iTunes Store's protected AAC files.) A four-minute track weighs in at just over 8MB.
When signed into the Store, click the iTunes Plus link and you should see an Upgrade My Library area in the upper right corner of the resulting iTunes Plus windows.
This area was designed to make it easy to upgrade compatible contents of your iTunes Library to an unprotected form. Albums can be upgraded for 30 percent of the current iTunes album price, upgrades to individual music tracks cost 20p per track. The iTunes store displays the total cost of updating your library.
Unfortunately, you can't upgrade individual tracks or albums - this is an all-or-nothing option for your entire compatible library. However, you're not forced to upgrade an entire iTunes album if you've purchased only a few tracks on it.
Click the See Details button, and you're taken to a page that lists all the albums and tracks that can be upgraded. Click the Buy button and everything is upgraded to the iTunes Plus version. Before iTunes begins downloading the tracks, you're told that the old versions will be removed from your iTunes library. You have the option to direct iTunes to toss those tracks in the Trash or move them to your Desktop. In both cases, the tracks will appear in an Original iTunes Purchases folder, organized by Artist and Album folders. So, for example, within the Original iTunes Purchases folder, you'll find an Al Green folder that contains a folder for the Reverend's 'I Can't Stop album'.
Non-protected iTunes tracks are encoded at 256kbps - that's twice the 128kbps bitrate protected iTunes songs are encoded at. Using iTunes we burned both protected and the new unprotected versions of The Stones' 'Jump Back' and Brahms' 'Requiem' to CD to see how they sounded through a living room setup. The uplift in sound quality wasn't huge. Subjectively, in comparison to the protected versions, the DRM-free versions of the recordings sounded like a thin layer of film was washed away from them.
In the Requiem, for example, you could more easily hear the bows' rosin and the distinct overtones of the timpani rather than their less-distinct thump in the protected version. And passages where the choir and orchestra are going at full force, the unprotected version sounds less confused - you can more easily pick out voices and instruments rather than being overwhelmed with waves of sound.
Comparing the two versions of the Stones' "Angie", we could more distinctly hear the tap on the cymbal's bell and closed high-hat and the 12-string guitar rings a bit more clearly. And, as with the Requiem, the various parts are a touch easier to discern.
Is that difference worth an extra few pence for each iTunes track? It depends on the gear you use to listen to your music and the keenness of your hearing. Given that the earbuds bundled with the iPod are hardly audiophile quality, you're unlikely to get your money's worth listening to unprotected tracks with this kind of setup. On higher-end headphones or quality stereo speakers you might find these tracks more to your liking.
Again, the difference between protected and unprotected versions is anything but startling, but if you've stayed away from the Store in the past because you're unhappy with the quality of its tracks, you may find those offered in unprotected form more pleasing.
Apple iTunes Plus: Specs
- Apple iTunes 7.2
- web connection
- Apple iTunes 7.2
- web connection
We reckon Apple iTunes Plus tracks are an improvement on their DRM-riddled brethren, but whether iTunes Plus are worth the extra cash will depend on your musical taste and setup. Christopher Breen is senior editor of PlayList.com and author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide