The variety of sites and services for downloading or streaming music can be confusing. The best offer a huge library of songs, HD music and great value

 

The music industry is not what it once was. Gone are the days of trawling through the shelves of your local record store looking for the latest release or rarity by your favourite band. Instead we're living in the age of instant access to seemingly infinite, internet-based catalogues.

The release of the iPod saw take-up of portable MP3 players go through the roof almost overnight, and ripping CDs onto computer became an everyday activity. People wanted to share their music with others, and before long MP3s were changing hands for free, many via Napster, the first music sharing service which is still going strong.

Now, an industry that was once thought to be killing music is rightfully acknowledged as a legitimate and vital digital lifeline for artists, labels and retailers. Just take a look at how the UK Top 40 is now compiled: 98 per cent of single sales are digital and these contribute to the chart – and bosses are looking at ways to integrate streamed music as we speak.

But which online service should you choose? Well, it depends on a number of factors; primarily which media player or portable you use, how much you prioritise sound quality, and how much you're prepared to pay.

If you're an iPod owner you probably already use iTunes, and are a click away from the iTunes Store, where compatible tunes can be bought for 79p and transferred to your portable.

 

"There are 10 billion songs that are sold in the US every year on CDs. So far on iTunes, we've distributed about 16 million. We're at the very beginning of this" Dec 03Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple

 

But there are now often cheaper alternatives available from the likes of Play.com and Amazon that are compatible with all players.

There are subscription services like the re-born Napster. You can now pay a small monthly fee for unlimited access to millions of tracks that can be transferred to a compatible portable.

Then there's Spotify, a service that lets you listen to tracks on the internet for free. The files are streamed, so you never own them, but then you aren't paying for them, either.

 

"Spotify lets users listen to whatever music they love, whenever - and soon wherever - they want to hear it, through a platform which is simple, clean and quick to use" July 09Paul Brown, UK MD, Spotify

 

And what if you want proper hi-fi quality music rather than the compressed MP3s of stores like these? You're catered for, too, by services from Naim, Linn and B&W which all create original content which provides the best digital music around.

They each offer catalogues of unique albums at levels of quality that match and  even surpass those of CD. Below, we profile the eight major players when it comes to downloading the best quality and selection of music the internet can offer...

More after the break

 

iTUNES STORE

The iPod would be nothing without iTunes. Who's going to enjoy a portable, regardless of how sleek and sweet-sounding it might be, if the software used for filling it with music is a pain?

A large part of iTunes' success is down to the iTunes Store, an online shop that sells music, movies, TV shows, audiobooks, games, apps and podcasts. In a couple of clicks you can buy almost any type of media, and it takes barely more effort to sync it to an iPod. When life's that easy, why buy your media anywhere else?

As successful as the iTunes Store's other offerings are, its original reason for existence was to sell music. Initially tracks were only available at 128kbps, and were DRM-protected, but now all tracks are 256kbps with no DRM.

Pricing has changed, too. Once, all downloads were 79p; now, there are 59p and 99p tracks, too. 79p is still the norm, though, and that means iTunes is a little more expensive than most rivals.

"Look out for the Single of the Week – a free track that's almost always worth a download"

It's also important to note that all tracks are in AAC format. If you use a non-Apple portable or streamer, it's not guaranteed you'll be able to play them. But if you can, you can take advantage of what is an excellent codec, offering improve-ments over MP3. We'd still like to see Apple Lossless files being made available, though.

Double-clicking any track starts a 30 second clip. Also look out for the Single of the Week on the Store's homepage. This is a free track that's been chosen by the iTunes staff and is almost always worth a download.

The most straight-forward way to pay for downloads is to attach a credit or debit card to your account. Or you can pick up prepaid cards from an Apple Store, places like HMV, WHSmith and some supermarkets. You can even set up an allowance for your music-loving offspring, letting them download a certain amount each month without the need for you to hand over your card.

Apple fans will find the slick operation of the Store and its integration with the rest of iTunes and their iPod makes it hard to resist making purchases, but if you're the owner of a non-Apple player, we'd still recommend looking elsewhere.

THE LOWDOWNDOWNLOADS OR STREAMS  DownloadsMUSIC FORMATS  AACFILE QUALITY  256kbpsTRACK PRICE  59p, 79p, 99pSAMPLE CLIPS  YesSUBSCRIPTION PRICE  n/a

 

SPOTIFY STORE

If the iPod was the catalyst of the revolution in music consumption of the early 2000s, Spotify could prove to be the iconic site of the latter-part of the decade. It has millions of songs – and they can all be listened to for free...

The system is simple: you play the tracks you like without paying a penny, and in return you listen to the odd advert. Your music is likely to be interrupted only every four or five tracks, but if that proves too much, you can pay £9.99 for a Premium subscription, which cuts the ads out.

Almost as impressive as the free-ness of the service are its features and usability. Type in the name of an artist and you're taken to a page with their back-catalogue of tracks, often accompanied by pictures, a biography and review.

On this page you'll also find a list of similar artists, and there's an 'Artist radio' tab, which takes you to a playlist using your selected band as a starting-point.

You can create your own playlists using simple drag-and-drop, and the artwork from the currently playing track is displayed in the bottom-left corner of the screen. In fact, so slick and flexible is the system, it's easy to feel as though the music is actually yours.It isn't.

"You play the tracks you like without paying a penny, and in return you listen to the odd ad"

You can't download tracks, transfer them to a portable or stream them to a networked media player. That, though, is all part of Spotify's plan: discover and listen to music for free at your computer, then, if you want to keep it, you buy it.

You can even right-click on a track in Spotify and be taken directly to that same track's page at 7digital.com, where you can download a 320kbps MP3, complete with artwork, usually for 79p.

Track transferability isn't the only reason to pay for a download; there's also the matter of quality. Spotify streams Ogg Vorbis files at around 160kbps to standard listeners, and is in the process of adding 320kbps versions for Premium subscribers.

Both actually sound very good, but the nature of streaming means even the 320kbps files can be beaten for sound quality by a downloaded file at a similar bitrate.

We're not taking anything away from Spotify, though. We love it, and we know you will, too.

THE LOWDOWNDOWNLOADS OR STREAMS  StreamsMUSIC FORMATS  Ogg VorbisFILE QUALITY  160kbps, 320kbpsSTANDARD TRACK PRICE  n/aSAMPLE CLIPS  n/aSUBSCRIPTION PRICE  £9.99 for Premium membership

 

AMAZON MP3Online retail giant Amazon has hit the market with the first service that might make iTunes Store users think twice. The DRM-free MP3s don't sound any better than Apple files, but are often cheaper, with 69p being the most common price. Frequent offers see popular tracks available for just 29p and albums for less than £4.

The download manager is impressive, too. This handles the downloading of your MP3s and adds them to Windows Media Player or iTunes. Open your chosen player and the tracks are there, complete with accurate metadata and artwork.

Tracks are encoded using variable bitrates, averaging 256kbps, and they sound just as good as the constant 320kbps tracks offered by the likes of Play. So you get cheaper prices, instant delivery and a 30-second sample. Honestly, what's not to like?

THE LOWDOWN DOWNLOADS OR STREAMS  DownloadsMUSIC FORMATS AVAILABLE  MP3FILE QUALITY  256kbps variable encodingSTANDARD TRACK PRICE  29p to £1.19SAMPLE CLIPS  30 secondsSUBSCRIPTION PRICE  n/a

B&W SOCIETY OF SOUND Bowers and Wilkins' digital music service is more of a club than a download store. You pay for a membership, and in return you can download a number of albums from the back catalogue and a new album every month.

That may not sound a lot, but what makes the service so compelling is that each album is unique and specially recorded at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios.

This is not about catering to particular genres or artists, it's just about great music, sumptuously recorded, and because the lowest-quality format available is 16-bit Apple Lossless (16 and 24-bit FLACs are also available), sound quality is superb.

If you're musically open-minded this is a terrific way to discover new artists and listen to their output in proper hi-fi quality. If you're still not sure, head over to www.bowers-wilkins.co.uk to sign up for a free trial.

THE LOWDOWNDOWNLOADS OR STREAMS  DownloadsMUSIC FORMATS AVAILABLE  FLAC, Apple LosslessFILE QUALITY  24-bit, 16-bitSTANDARD TRACK PRICE  n/aSAMPLE CLIPS  n/aSUBSCRIPTION PRICE  £23.95 (6 mth), £33.95 (1 yr)

LINN RECORDSLinn specialises in classical, jazz and Celtic music, all of which is available from www.linnrecords.com. Very high-quality formats are available, including 24-bit Studio Master and 16-bit CD quality FLACs and WMAs, and they're worth every penny. You can even buy 5.1 Studio Masters for home studio setups.

The files are huge, but there's a download manager in development that handles all of the downloading in the background. It doesn't add the tracks to your music player, but this is a simple job to do manually. Also, although downloads include a booklet, inlay and cover art, you'll have to manually add this in your media player.

All this pales into insignificance, though, when you play the music. It has the kind of detail, dynamics and solidity that lower bitrate files can only dream of.

THE LOWDOWNDOWNLOADS OR STREAMS  DownloadsMUSIC FORMATS  5.1 FLAC, 5.1 WMA, FLAC, WMA, MP3FILE QUALITY  24-bit, 16-bit, 320kbpsSTANDARD TRACK PRICE  79p+SAMPLE CLIPS  30 secondsSUBSCRIPTION PRICE  £23.95 (6 mth), £33.95 (1 yr)

NAIM LABELNaim's label can be found at naimlabel.com. It originally concentrated on classical and jazz, but has recently expanded with Naim Edge, dedicated to contemporary artists.

As seems to be the norm with the digital music offered by hi-fi companies, sound quality is superb. Formats range from 320kbps MP3 to 16- and 24-bit WAVs and FLACs. The higher the bitrate, the higher the price, but the extra cash is certainly worthwhile for stunning quality.

Users of Naim products such as the HDX will enjoy perfect reproduction of these downloads. The WAV files will also work with both Windows Media Player and iTunes as standard, although we could only get the downloadable metadata and artwork to work automatically in WMP. There's always a free sample available on the site for you to try the music in various formats.

THE LOWDOWNDOWNLOADS OR STREAMS  DownloadsMUSIC FORMATS AVAILABLE  WAV, FLAC, MP3FILE QUALITY  24-bit, 16-bit, 320kbpsSTANDARD TRACK PRICE  69p+SAMPLE CLIPS  30 secondsSUBSCRIPTION PRICE  n/a

NAPSTERAt first glance, Napster is miles behind the competition: it's the only service here that still uses DRM, and the WMA-format downloads are 192kbps. If this makes Napster weak as a pay-per-download service, it's the subscription options that make it a winner.

Paying £9.99 a month grants you unlimited access to the 8 million track catalogue as a web-based stream, and lets you download tracks to up to three PCs for offline playback.

And, if you're a Sonos, Logitech Squeezebox or Noxon iRadio user, music can be streamed direct from Napster; the streamed files are 128kbps, but they sound loads better than you might imagine.

Upgrade to the £14.99 service and you can also transfer unlimited tracks to a compatible portable. Most players, other than iPods are covered; if yours is, you should give Napster a go.

THE LOWDOWNDOWNLOADS OR STREAMS  DownloadsMUSIC FORMATS  5.1 FLAC, 5.1 WMA, FLAC, WMA, MP3FILE QUALITY  24-bit, 16-bit, 320kbpsSTANDARD TRACK PRICE  79p+SAMPLE CLIPS  30 secondsSUBSCRIPTION PRICE  £9.99 or £14.99 a month

PLAYDIGITAL Play.com is another online retailer responding to declining CD sales by introducing an MP3 download store. Most tracks are encoded at 320kbps (although some are still 192kbps) and the standard price of 65p per track, as well as regular special offers, makes it competitive.

There's a download manager to handle your purchased tracks, but unlike Amazon it doesn't place them in well-organised files or add them to your media player. This is a fairly simple manual job, as is getting your player to find the artwork, but it would be nice if Play did it for you.

All files are DRM-free, so can be transferred to any device, and sound quality is very good considering the small file sizes. Navigation is the same as the rest of the site and you get 30 sec clips to help you choose, but Play has some work to do if it's to match Amazon's slickness.

THE LOWDOWNDOWNLOADS OR STREAMS  DownloadsMUSIC FORMATS AVAILABLE  MP3FILE QUALITY  320kbps, 192kbpsSTANDARD TRACK PRICE  65-70pSAMPLE CLIPS  30 secondsSUBSCRIPTION PRICE  n/a