In general I’m not an “early adopter” of anything (okay, the iPhone is an exception – I know my lust for one will win out), but usually I wait a while before upgrading, updating, or downloading new versions of anything. I do use the Software Update feature on my Macs to keep my OS and Apple apps up to date, and Version Tracker for anything else, but I make them cool their heels for a week after a new version is released, and keep my ear to the grapevine for any fallout before I dive in.
However, I was intrigued enough about the new iTunes Plus interface to give it a go and test out the new DRM-free versions of some of my purchased music. The interface itself does not look much different. If you haven’t already upgraded to iTunes 7.2, then clicking on the iTunes Plus link in the Quick Links area (upper right) will prompt you to upgrade.
Once you are seeing the iTunes Plus at the top, it’s hard to overlook the large “Upgrade My Library” banner in the top right – clicking on it will let you know which of your previously purchased music tracks have plus versions available – you can choose to upgrade for .30 per track. Clicking on any album or other music link will trigger a prompt to set your iTunes Plus Preference (which means that it will always show you the Plus version of a searched-for track or album when it’s available). If you decline by clicking on cancel, the store will show you the protected version but will also let you know if a Plus version is available, by showing a link called “learn more” to enable the Plus Preference. You can set or change this preference at any time in your Preferences. The whole thing is somewhat klugey, but hopefully Apple will improve this feature with the next version of iTunes. It would be nice if they’d just show both versions and let the buyer decide which one to choose.
One nice option it offers you is to move your old tracks to your desktop when it upgrades any that you select, which makes it very easy to listen to the old ones (I used Preview for that) and compare them to the new ones to see how much difference there is in the audio quality, if any.
I upgraded 4 tracks for a total of $1.20, which was all that was available at this time, but Apple promises to continue to update their catalog with the DRM-free (“Plus”) versions as they become available from the music companies. Because these DRM-free songs are encoded at a higher bit-rate (256kbps versus the standard 128kbps for protected tracks), they also take up more disk space, so keep this in mind if drive space on your computer is limited. One track that I upgraded was 4.7MB in the old format, and a whopping 9.3MB in the new Plus version.
So could I detect any difference in audio quality? Yes. But just barely. No doubt any difference would be more noticeable if you have very good speakers or pricey earphones, likewise the difference will be less detectable if you’re just using your laptop’s speakers or some cheap ones from a discount store. I listened to both versions of the tracks I upgraded – several times over to be sure – and I do think there is a slight improvement in the highest and lowest levels as well as a slight improvement in the vocal track.
My determination is that upgrading for the sole reason of improving the audio quality is probably not worth it for most casual music fans – only a true audiophile with a top-of-the-line speaker set up will really appreciate the small amount of improvement. However, the freedom from DRM restrictions may make it well worthwhile for anyone who has their iTunes library spread across multiple computers, multiple iPods, and CD Players, or anyone who simply hates the idea of protected music. For that reason alone I will likely continue to upgrade my library as new Plus versions of tracks I’ve purchased becomes available.