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Sun, Jul 04, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Apple's high-tech iPod: expensive, with low-fi music

By Randall Stross  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The human genome must contain instructions that make building personal music collections a primal biological need. If you find yourself guiltily spending US$2,000 a week at the iTunes Music Store from Apple Computer, you're not alone, historically speaking. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that's what the early adopter in 1890 was spending -- yes, weekly -- on phonograph records.

Today, Apple's ingenious combination of the iPod, a marvel of design, and its iTunes store makes collecting and playing music ridiculously easy, impeccably legal and impossible to resist.

Love the iPod, but don't jump too hastily to fill it with thousands of dollars of iTunes. The tracks are not carbon copies of the CD originals, but compressed versions: The smaller files are handy for speedy downloads, space-saving for storage and perfectly serviceable for listening through ear buds when riding on the subway. They are not what you will want, however, when your desktop computer becomes the home jukebox and wirelessly sends these simulacrums to the entertainment center in the living room.

Consumers find downloading instantly gratifying, but the company uses an extreme form of compression that takes a sample of the sound at intervals. The less information collected, the smaller the resulting file size -- and the greater the loss of fidelity to the original. Apple has elected to use a compression standard that, to put the best face on it, creates an awfully small file.

This music lite is a response to the data transfer problems entailed in downloading the music that resides on anyone's collection of CDs. With about 10mb needed to store one minute of music, albums eat up space quickly on a hard drive. Credit Apple for step one: Persuading the major music labels to make individual tracks available inexpensively, a la carte. By buying only the hit tracks and ignoring the rest of the album, storage needs drop by 90 percent.

Apple has yet to put into effect the second part of the ideal solution: Distributing music that is compressed only temporarily, a process called lossless data compression. Before saving a digital song to the hard drive, software can shrink it in size by 50 percent or so just by using a shorthand notation that takes up a little less space for any repetitive patterns in the 0s and 1s. When the song is played, the software has all the information that it needs to restore it perfectly. With this, "you'll get the full quality of uncompressed CD audio using about half the storage space."

The phrasing is from Apple's own Web site, but, unfortunately, the company does not offer "true CD audio," as it calls this, when you download music from the iTunes Music Store. It is available only when you traipse to the mall, buy the CD, and return home to copy it to your home computer with Apple software.

The company offers no explanation why "lossless" storage is desirable for tracks received through one source but not the other.

Customers are led to believe that they are getting a CD in all respects except the trouble of going to the mall. The iTunes store does not warn about the permanence of its method of compression; once freeze-dried, there is no way to reconstitute the music into CD quality for playing through a good stereo.

Ah, for simpler times, when we never had reason to look up the bit rate at which music is digitally sampled for CDs: 1,378kbps. The bit rate for iTunes, 128kbps, is so low that when played side by side against the original, the difference is audible not only to audio enthusiasts, but also to mortals with ordinary hearing. Wes Phillips, contributing editor at Stereophile.com, says "128kbps is like an eight-track," and he describes the combination of iPod and iTunes as "buying a 21st-century device to live in the 1970s."

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