How MusicGiants Left Me in Dire Straits
By Jim Bray
With music downloading becoming popular, could it indicate the pending death of the traditional record store?
I doubt it; it'll probably just remain another choice, albeit an incredibly convenient one where you can merely point and click your way to musical nirvana (or, eventually any other band you may like).
I downloaded my first album about five years ago, only to discover to my chagrin that the tunes I had stored onto my hard drive would only work there, on my PC, whereas I wanted to burn them to a CD so I could play them on my various home and portable audio systems.
I had to reorder that album to be shipped on CD, which the retailer was happy to do for me. But it left a bad taste in my mouth for the potential for downloading so far as audio curmudgeons who didn't have portable MP3 players were concerned.
Things change, of course, so when MusicGiants offered me the chance to try out their service, which also claims to offer better audio quality than other download services, I jumped at the opportunity.
The occasion was MusicGiants' release of an album "in true CD quality sound" before it was available in stores. The album was Neil Young's Living with War, which I wouldn't buy if I were paid to since I've never been a fan of the Bush-bashing buffoon whose fortune was made in great part by biting the hands of the U.S. consumers who feed him. But I was intrigued by the promise of CD quality sound from a download, so I surfed by their site (www.musicgiants.com, also accessible right from Windows Media Player) to see what other artists they offered. I was specifically looking for albums I already had and with whose audio quality I was very familiar.
As luck – or corporate design – had it, they had plenty.
MusicGiants claims their Lossless Windows Media Audio format is uncompressed and plays at up to about four times the kilobytes per second rate of such competitors as iTunes, Wal-Mart and others. According to their website, "Lossless downloads reproduce music at up to 1100 kbps versus the 128 to 192 kpbs of other download services. We use Microsoft Windows Media Digital Rights Management software to make sure all the music you have is fast, safe and protected."
The latter part means the music has copy protection embedded in it to ensure you aren't spewing the tunes all over the place. I have issues with this, but that's for a different column.
The supposed high quality of the downloads appealed to me, because I've downloaded tunes in the past from P2P and other services the quality of which left a bunch to be desired. Sometimes the stuff was so compressed there was a high pitched whine (or was that me?) that gave me a headache when I played the tunes back on a decent audio system.
The company says its downloads can be played on any portable media device that supports Windows Media Player 9. As with my earlier experiment with commercial downloading, my wish was not to dump the tunes to a portable device but to burn them to a CD, which I did without difficulty, using only the capabilities built into Windows XP.
The MusicGiants site as accessed through Windows Media Player, is a tad slow, but it's laid out fairly well and you can search by title, artist, genre, etc. There's a pretty good selection, too, depending on what you're looking for. As Murphy's Law would have it there were several albums I'd have loved to try but they weren't available.
That said, however, I found a couple that would make excellent apples-to-apples tests: Dire Straits "On Every Street", one of the CD's I use regularly as a test disc because of its excellent sound quality, and Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell", a CD with whose sound I've never been happy. Dire Straits downloaded just fine, though while watching the download proceed (I know, I really must get a life!) I noticed that it appeared to get stuck when the last song was about 91% done. That didn't seem to affect the final quality, though, and I burned the tracks to CD with no problems.
Meat Loaf was another matter. I tried downloading it a couple of times and it never worked, giving me an error message instead. MusicGiants' support was fairly prompt and tried to be helpful, but in the end we couldn't resolve the issue. Since I often have issues with things technological (I swear there's a little black cloud following me!) it may not be their fault.
But they credited my account and I tried a different album: a greatest hits collection of Strauss music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy conducting. I have an old CD that seems to be the same performances, though the MusicGiants version added two cuts my old CD doesn't have. That ancient CD has pretty good sound, but it's cursed with bad tape hiss that came over to the CD thanks to its analog beginnings.
So how did they sound?
Strauss was amazing. The performances I know so well seemed to take on a new life, scrubbed of the tape hiss (perhaps the original recording was also remastered, though I have no way of knowing) and sounding very bright and real. Perhaps a tad too bright, but this is something I've noticed on other CD's of older, analog-source material. When doing an A/B comparison, I thought the original CD had a tad more lifelike sound, but preferred the expanded dynamic range and overall presence of the downloaded version.
Dire Straits made a more interesting test, because the original CD already sounds about as good as I've heard from a compact disc. My A/B tests were inconclusive, though. On one hand I thought the download a little less dynamic than the original, while on the other hand I thought it had a wider sound stage. But my bottom line was that I preferred the original CD, slightly.
So I brought in reinforcements, in the persons of a half dozen or so people with a variety of audiophile bents, from casual listener to audio pompous ass, and we performed the tests on a variety of good systems.
This was a fascinating experience. There was no consensus at all: one audiophile thought the original CD was "about 25 per cent better" than the downloaded/burned disc. Another preferred the downloaded/burned disc, finding it more "real", with tighter bass and a better soundstage. More casual listeners' opinions were also all over the map.
About the only consensus was that if we hadn't played the discs back to back we probably wouldn't have noticed NY difference between the store-bought version and the MusicGiants download. So all in all, I'd have to call that a wash.
One downside of downloading tunes is that you don't get the liner notes and, of course, you have to provide your own disc and jewel case if you want to burn them to a CD. On the other hand, downloading is very convenient and you may be able to find albums online that are difficult to track down at your local record store – plus you can sometimes order individual tracks rather than entire albums (which can be nice since every album seems to have at least one stinker on it).
Pricing seems to be competitive overall, though of course it depends on the title and the competition, and the currency you're using. I surfed by Best Buy's and Tower Records' U.S. websites and they had the remastered Dire Straits disc for $11.99, whereas the MusicGiants download is $15.29. On the other hand, the Meat Loaf disc was $9.29 at MusicGiants, $11.99 to $28.99 at Tower (for various versions) and $12.99 at Best Buy. Go figure.
One of the great things about competition and the free market is the extra choices it brings consumers. And with services such as MusicGiants offering more selection and – especially for portable music player aficionados – more convenience, consumers have never had so much control over their buying decisions.
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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