UPDATE (January 2009): DRM-free iTunes music now available

The Amazon MP3 music store is a real rival to Apple's iTunes Music Store, beating it on price and freedom.

I've been using Apple's iTunes Music Store since its UK launch in June 2004. I've purchased over 700 tracks since then, with my first being Stevie Wonder's 1972 album ‘Music of My Mind'.

Call me a heavy user, but iTunes has served me well, and its ease of use makes downloading digital music and immediately syncing it with my iPod about as easy as can be.

Back in 2004 iTunes was really the only store in town. But today there are many competing digital music services, some offering subscriptions to masses of music and others - such as 7Digital - following the iTunes route.

Amazon MP3 is closer to 7Digital than iTunes, running from a website rather than a standalone application. There are a few significant benefits to Amazon MP3 that could tempt me and millions of other iTunes users away from Apple.

Amazon MP3 logo

Amazon M3: Price

First, price. I often buy albums from Amazon on CD rather than from iTunes because the price difference is more times than not a mere £1. For the extra quid I get the physical CD with all tracks at top AIFF-quality. I can then chose at what bitrate compression I import it at into iTunes. And if it turns out that I don't like the album I can sell it on eBay and make back some of what I spent on it.

iTunes mostly sells albums for £7.99 or 79p multiplied by the amount of tracks if there's less than ten songs on the album. You don't get a choice of bitrate quality, and of course you can't sell it on - or indeed get it back into iTunes if something goes wrong with your hard disk, for instance.

Amazon MP3 is a lot cheaper than iTunes, and has some real bargains. On UK launch (December 2008) it was offering new albums by Take That, Oasis, Snow Patrol, Kings of Leon and Will Young for just £3 each. Each of those album on iTunes cost £7.99 - except ‘Dig Out Your Soul' by Oasis, which is £4.74.

Not all Amazon MP3 albums are as little as £3, and we'll have to wait to see if these were just a launch promotion. Others cost around £5.99 or £6.49 - still a nice saving of £2 or £1.50 on iTunes.

Amazon MP3 price

Dig deeper into Amazon MP3 and prices sometimes level out. ‘The Sound of The Smiths' costs £7.99 on both services, although the longer ‘Deluxe' version is £3 cheaper on Amazon. On average, though Amazon albums are cheaper, although some individual tracks do randomly cost the same 79p as iTunes.

Like iTunes, Amazon restricts some - usually longer tracks - to album-only sales.

Four and a half years ago ‘Music of My Mind' cost me £7.11 (9 tracks x 79p), and it still costs that amount today - although Apple has raised audio quality from 128Kbps compression to 256Kbps. Amazon MP3 lists the album for £4.98, with 256Kbps compression. The tracks are also available individually at 69p each.

NEXT PAGE: quality

The Amazon MP3 music store is a real rival to Apple's iTunes Music Store, beating it on price and freedom.

Amazon MP3: Quality and no limitations

When Amazon MP3 was first launched it offered music at a higher quality (256Kbps to Apple's mainly 128Kbps) and free from limiting Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions. I might not be able to tell the difference between a 128Kbps and 256Kbps track while listening on my iPod as I walk to work, but that extra quality is likely to be noticeable on higher-end hi-fi equipment.

Apple used to use its own FairPlay DRM technology in iTunes, which digitally encrypted AAC audio files and prevented users from playing these files on unauthorized computers. A FairPlay-protected track could be copied to any number of iPods, but it would only play on up to five authorized computers simultaneously. An iTunes playlist containing a FairPlay-encrypted track could be copied to a CD only up to seven times before the playlist had to be changed, although a track could be copied to a standard Audio CD any number of times.

Now Apple has caught up with Amazon, and is offering music at the same 256Kbps quality and without DRM restrictions.

Amazon MP3 quality

But Apple's tracks are still in the AAC format that means they cannot be played on all digital music-playing devices. Songs from Amazon MP3 can be played on any MP3-capable device, including iPods, Zunes, Zens, and most music-enabled mobile phones. iTunes AAC tracks won't play on much else than the iPod and iPhone.

However, it is possible to convert iTunes purchases to MP3.

NEXT PAGE: interface and design

The Amazon MP3 music store is a real rival to Apple's iTunes Music Store, beating it on price and freedom.

Amazon MP3: Interface and design

It's hard to see how iTunes' convenience can be bettered, and AmazonMP3 is clunkier in its navigation and search - not that iTunes isn't without its annoying idiosyncrasies.

You can browse by price or genre from the MP3 homepage, check out the current top downloads or new and future releases, and search for songs, albums or artists using a standard search box at the top of any Amazon MP3 page.

Amazon MP3 home

Apple iTunes home

You need to download the Amazon MP3 Downloader application, and this can work directly with iTunes - but it's clearly slightly more effort than iTunes' seamless download and store functionality. Album information and artwork are all included, just as with iTunes.

Amazon MP3 buy

Amazon MP3 preview

Amazon MP3 shares the basics that iTunes has pioneered, such as offering 30-second extracts of songs to listen to before you buy.

It also includes customer reviews, and has the advantage over iTunes in that it calls upon user reviews from its well-established CD sales service.

Amazon MP3 Downloader


From a content point of view, obviously iTunes offers much more than just music: podcasts, TV shows, movies to buy and rent, music videos, etc. And it does appear to carry more music than AmazonMP3 currently does.

At the time of writing Amazon MP3, for instance doesn't offer Sweden's excellent The Embassy or Danish band Efterklang. iTunes has far more depth than Amazon, which is more interested in larger, popular artists.

Neither store features music by digital refuseniks The Beatles or AC/DC

Amazon MP3: Specs

  • Internet connection
  • sound card
  • Internet connection
  • sound card


While iTunes currently offers a greater depth of music - as well as movies and TV shows - Amazon MP3 is pretty certain to catch up. Its prices are erratic but I couldn't find one album there that was cheaper in iTunes (UPDATE: there are a few out there). Now that Apple has followed suit with higher quality and no DRM restrictions there's not much in it apart from price and convenience - unless you want to play the music via something other than an iPod or iPhone. As some of the savings are dramatic, even on new releases, Amazon MP3 must be a compelling alternative even for long-term, heavy iTunes users like me. iTunes works more seamlessly and is nicer to navigate but the price difference of Amazon MP3 had me converted almost immediately.