6 music services compared: Who can bust the iTunes monopoly?

6 music services compared: Who can bust the iTunes monopoly?

Summary: Over the past few months, I’ve been sampling all of the major U.S.-based competitors to the iTunes Music Store, as well as a few fascinating minor-league competitors. In this post, I’ll show you how each one stacks up against iTMS in terms of pricing and available features. After my testing was complete, I had a new favorite music service, and after you read my report you might decide it’s right for you too.

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Rhapsody (RealNetworks)

Price: Downloads comparable to iTunes pricing; Rhapsody Unlimited, $13/month; Rhapsody To Go, $15/month

Who it’s best for: Longtime Rhapsody fans who don’t mind the quirky software or who want easy access to music over the web, especially using something other than Windows

Verdict: The old-timer of music services is showing its age and doesn’t have much to tempt new fans. But it still has a huge selection of tunes from major and minor labels, and if you have a PlaysForSure device or you want the ability to play subscription tunes in a browser via Rhapsody Online, it’s a perfectly good option.

Zune Marketplace (Microsoft)

Price: Downloads comparable to iTunes pricing; Zune Pass subscription service, $15/month

Who it’s best for: Anyone who likes the all-you-can-eat music plan concept and the nonconformist appeal of toting an anti-hip Zune device

Verdict: The Zune Marketplace has a superb selection at prices that are typically comparable to iTMS; the $15 a month subscription deal includes 10 song credits per month, which makes it a much better deal than Rhapsody.

When RealNetworks and Microsoft have tried to compete with Apple as a straight download service, the results haven’t been pretty. That’s why both companies have made subscription-based all-you-can-download services the heart of their business. Both companies have access to impressively large music collections, but their offerings differ dramatically.

Rhapsody’s subscription service comes in two flavors: for $13 a month the Rhapsody Unlimited service lets you download DRM-protected tracks on up to three PCs for playback using the Rhapsody Player. For an extra $2 a month, you can buy the rights to sync those tunes with up to three compatible portable devices, like the Sansa Fuze or the Ibiza. Rhapsody subscription accounts also work with TiVo DVRs, Sonos multi-room audio systems, and Logitech Squeezebox players, among other home audio devices. If you choose not to sign up for a Rhapsody subscription, you can still preview up to 25 tracks a month in full.

One advantage of the Rhapsody subscription model is that it doesn’t require you to install the Rhapsody software to access your collection or listen to new tunes. You can sign in to your Rhapsody account using a web browser on Windows XP, Windows Vista, Mac OS X, or most mainstream Linux distros and fire up a web-based player that works just great. (But forget about Windows 7 for now. The Rhapsody software works fine but I was greeted with an “incompatible OS” error message when I tried playback in a browser.)

I never signed up for a Rhapsody account, but I have one now thanks to Yahoo’s decision to sell its subscription-based music service to RealNetworks last year. That meant my ultra-cheap two-year Yahoo Music subscription plan (less than $5 a month, paid for in advance in July 2007) became a Rhapsody To Go subscription. I’m pretty sure I won’t renew it when it expires in July.

Rhapsody’s biggest competitor is Microsoft’s Zune, which charges a similar monthly fee for its Zune Pass subscription. The big difference? That $15 monthly charge includes 10 credits good for downloading an unrestricted, high-bitrate MP3 track from the large Zune selection. Assuming you can find 10 tracks to download per month (and if you can’t you shouldn’t be a subscriber), that brings the effective cost of the all-you-can-eat portion down to about 5 bucks a month.

The end-to-end Zune experience is pretty slick as well, as I noted last November in a hands-on review. No long-term commitment is required, which means you can up for a month, listen to as many albums as you want, in full, during that month, and then cancel. It would almost be worth the $15 for unlimited music at a single party. And the Zune service offers one feature that its big corporate rivals don’t: You can download previously purchased tracks again. Your Zune account keeps a history of purchases and subscription downloads, and you can restore the entire collection to any PC where you sign in using the Zune software. (But you should keep good backups anyway.)

Download prices on the Zune Marketplace are no bargain, and Microsoft complicates matters by forcing you to buy Microsoft Points (800 points for $10) that can then be used for purchases. One album on my list wasn’t available at the Zune Marketplace, and two of the remaining six were, shockingly, more expensive than the same titles on iTMS.

Of course, the Zune world is Microsoft-centric. You must install the Windows-only Zune software to play Zune Pass tracks or to download from the Zune Marketplace. You can’t play subscription tunes from a web browser, and you can only sync music with a Zune player. So if you use Linux or you’re wedded to your iPod or iPhone, the Zune system has little to offer. But if you’re a Windows user willing to play within Microsoft’s bounds, the Zune Pass is a great deal.

Page 4: eMusic and Amie Street -->

 

Topics: Amazon, Apple, Browser, Microsoft, Operating Systems, PCs, Windows

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239 comments
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  • Download music

    I can't see why anyone would want to download poor quality mp3 files. I purchase all my music on CD. I import into iTunes using Apple lossless format and at the moment my average price per track is about 50p.
    Dennis.Keeling
    • Effort vs Reward

      Something I base my life on.

      I'm not that picky about the quality of my music in the first place.
      Don't even know if I listened to one of my standard iTunes downloads
      and one of yours if I'd even notice anything different.

      Second even if I did I'd still have to measure the effect that difference
      has vs the effort it takes too achieve it.

      Take purchasing a CD. Most of the songs on the CD were probably
      not to my liking. Then there is the storage of the CD after purchase.
      Then there is the whole routine you use to get your music. Cost of the
      CD etc. Time is money after all...:P

      Already I see myself bothered. Now unless that difference in music
      quality is so large that when I hear a song that you recorded and the
      clouds part, angels sing type thing its just not worth it....

      Pagan jim
      James Quinn
      • I really don't like DRM...

        So I buy new or used CDs. They are more or less permanent archives of the music, are very high fidelity, and are easy to store. If I want to use an MP3 player of some kind (including iPods) I can do so. Much more flexible.
        gypkap9
        • Granted to you the effort is worth the reward....

          To me not so much. Still I think DRM is becoming less and less an issue
          on iTunes.

          Pagan jim
          James Quinn
        • DRM

          Most of the record companies have now released Apple of the obligation
          to employ DRM via the iTunes store. Most tracks there are now Plus
          tracks meaning that they have no DRM at all and are encoded in a very
          high quality 256kbs aac (mp4) format.

          Still at only .99/track, it's the best download music deal going.
          jaypeg
          • Cal me

            When the song(s) reach their real market value: 25 cents/Track
            Mectron
          • Do you even know what "real market value" even means?

            From looking at your posting history, it is clear you have no idea. If the
            real market value was only $0.25/track there would be no one buying
            any music. Since that is far from the truth, the real market value must be substantially higher than $0.25/track.
            Bruizer
          • Real market value - and the knowledge of it

            The price of anything is what someone wn?nts to pay for it at any given time. There is no such thing as real market value. Eg. What do you pay for todays paper? What do you pay for yesterdays? For your own convenience please feel free to add products to the above statement - and try if it works for - boats, concert tickets, cars, bread, can of beans, wine, houses.
            ;-))
            nielskrarupjessen
          • real market value is determined by the market :)

            Real market value is whatever the price that is reached when a purchase is made of course. 0.25 per song would sell a lot more music, but that can't be a real market value at this point since no music companies are willing to sell for that price.
            MrAlan
      • Depends

        on how important culture is to you.
        For me it's very important and I have enough sensitive ears and mind to
        tell which is crap and which I want to keep.

        To me most of today's music is destroyed by exaggerated amplification,
        but I'm irregularly rewarded by my relentless searching.

        I think that Apple's competitors still don't get it, i.e. they simply don't
        understand consumers.
        Mikael_z
      • Digitally Remastered

        A lot of the New Zealand 'Dunedin sound' music I listened to in the 80's is now available 'Digitally Remastered'. Pity it was originally recorded on ordinary cassette tapes in someones living room. But the traffic passing on the street outside is clearer :-)
        donaaa5
      • Jim, I was going to reply to you in another blog...

        but first just let me say that the Zune subscription is quite nice. It's only 10 bucks a month for all the music you can listen to. The service is 15.00 but you get to keep TEN tracks every month, so it's a great deal for many music lovers. 5.00 bucks for unlimited listening pleasure to any song plus 10 selections. <br>
        Ownership is great and everything but you use OS X on a license basis and don't seem to mind.
        <br>
        Point is most music people buy is a passing fad, or grows old quickly. There is not enough music in the world to say you will continue to listen to every track you buy, that each one is so timeless and classic, and continue to keep buying music that you'll listen to in addition continually, or at all after some time. Most people have Gigabytes full of songs they'll never listen to again, in fact many people I know anyway listen to new purchases for a month and then move on.
        Of course there are tracks you are going to go back and listen to occasionally, all i'm saying is there are probably twice as many you won't, life doesn't offer most of us that much time.
        With the subscription you get the best of both worlds. You can listen to your fave old track anytime you want even if you didn't buy it, yet you get to pick 10 of your most favorite tracks (many of which come from that ability to listen to any new song or old you want with your subscription to determine, hey I want this one if I decide to stop my subscription.
        So you actually own 120 songs a year and all of the listening to new stuff and every genre imaginable in between. Only the most wealthy of people could enjoy that luxury buying every track. <br>
        I subscribe to XM/sirius as well cause I love to listen to stuff spontaneously, not having to buy something which i can only listen to a snippett of and have to decide if I might like it. I love to laugh and listen to the 24 hour comedy stations a lot while driving. In the morning on the way to work, a good laugh is priceless. I love MLB as well, so every summer evening there are games from coast to coast.
        I love taking a trip on a Saturday, there are games on from around 1:35 to around 1:00am or later when the west coast games wrap up here in EDT. <br>
        Anyway, you showed up in some blog and started in on how the iPod made it on it's own, word of mouth you said and Windows rode the coattails of IBM for the most part and somehow "wiped out" everyone but Apple. <br>
        Your analogy when like this: "If you went to a movie that had a huge budget and the most popular stars, but it was a bomb, it will sell huge the first weekend, but then "word of mouth" would create slumping ticket sales. <br>
        I agree with you on that one. <br>
        But you forgot to apply your logic to Windows.
        <br>
        http://e-articles.info/e/a/title/MS-DOS-Versus-PC-DOS/<br>
        If as you said IBM ruled the business world, and since MS didn't really start taking off until the split with IBM, not because "of" IBM in 91, why didn't OS/2, PC-DOS and IBM hardware naturally continue to rule the business world as you claimed they did?? <br>
        And if windows was not a great product, then why did everyone keep coming back after the "premiere"? <br> IBM, the king, was still there with it's full compliment of hardware and OSes for them continue using, and there was Apple to turn to, had the premiere been a bomb for those who switched from IBM. Must have been a blockbuster because they left IBM in hoardes at that point. Who create that, IBM? Nope, MS was smart and created a more open system with partners that didn't lock people into heavily proprietary protocols like Apple and IBM were doing. Appletalk and Microchannel come to mind.<br>
        MS made it on their own, read the history. They made MS DOS and OEM hardware more popular than IBM PCs and it's own PC-DOS and OS/2. <br>
        You are saying IBM made that happen? And somehow your analogy doesn't apply to MS?
        <br>
        If you have any appreciation for history, and the truth, you'll see that MS literally beat out the King, not ushered in by the king proclaiming to the world to switch from IBM and use MS and the OEM products instead.
        <br>
        So you were completely wrong in your assertion about getting a boost from IBM, but rather MS beat the king at it's own game and created it's own success with it's own OS and it's own partners on it's own terms. IBM did nothing to create that, in fact they've been trying to get back at MS for being the David to their Goliath, ever since.
        Thanks for your patience.
        xuniL_z
    • Pagan Jim has the right idea.

      I would also add that CDs include a huge amount of unnecessary packaging, and I rarely have time to sift through the local music store's collection. With the high bitrates of today's downloads, there's really no audible difference between "lossless" and Amazon or eMusic downloads. And they're convenient, cheap and leave me with no garbage tracks or garbage to throw away.
      WookieFan
      • Hardware is important.

        Most of the headphones people use to
        listen to music are pretty crappy. So you limit what you hear
        when you use them. So so called 'lossless' formats wil sound
        the same as CDs. Use decent playback equipment and the difference
        will be very obvious.
        Al_nyc
        • Understood, but...

          Yes, I do appreciate the difference, but think about what's involved.

          I listen on my commute (an hour and a half to NYC, each way), so music is not just a background thing for me at my desk.

          There's no way I will spend crazy money on bulky headphones, but I do use the Zune premium ones, which are great at noise canceling, and have decent response (but virtually no low-end). So, without the battery-powered monster headsets, I don't think there is really enough difference between FLAC, AAC and 320kbps mp3s (or even 256 kbps) to present a noticeable difference to my ear.

          So, returning to the subject at hand, Amazon mp3 and eMusic are excellent choices for me - cheap, high-quality, low-maintenance, universal format music. I just can't spend time ripping piles fo CDs to FLAC. But I appreciate that audiophiles feel this need.
          WookieFan
          • Try Skullcandy or NuForce

            The NuForce NE-7M or Skullcandy Titan are high-quality headphones at $50 and don't require additional amplification. However, NuForce also has an inexpensive portable headphone amplifier that will make any headphones sound much better.
            glocks out
          • thanks for the suggestions! (NT)

            nt
            midenginedrift
        • BS

          This is more audiophile self-delusion.

          If you have the courage, test it. Have someone mix 256 AAC and lossless
          CD rips and burn them randomly to a CD. Have him give it to a second
          friend, without telling him what he did (double-blind), then have that
          friend give it to you. Put it in your high-end audio equipment and mark
          which tracks on the CD are from a lossless source and which are from a
          256k AAC source.

          You won't be able to.
          frgough
      • The thing I find fascinating

        The thing I find most fascinating is that CDs were introduced in the early 80s... nearly 30 years ago. And no other popular format has been released that can match the quality of a CD. Even the new SD music cards with GBs of capacity don't even try to match the quality of a nearly 30 year old format.

        My personal method of keeping music is to purchase the CD and then rip it using dbPowerAmp into a lossless format (I was using WavPack but switched to WMAL recently). My philosophy is that if you have a master lossless copy you'll never lose quality if you ever have to re encode into the new format de jure.
        mikefarinha
        • There is a limit to what the ear can discern

          When you can convert from analogue to digital, there is a limit to what the human ear can discern. CDs use a sampling rate that is high enough to surpass the ability of people to notice the conversion to digital and back to analogue. There has been no change in nearly 30 years because no one could notice the difference.

          Of course, I'm just talking about the theory behind it. You can have improvements in hardware that perform the conversion, but the digital recordings are as good as they need to be. What they need to work on is better surround sound implementation to create a greater sense of "being there". While surround information is currently encoded into most CDs, that's one area that could use some real innovation.
          Tank252ca