I'm a newbie to online music. A couple of weekends ago I finally decided to jump on the bandwagon and buy an MP3 player. I soon realized, however, that I needed a machete to cut through a whole thicket of competing standards, device incompatibilities, over-hyped subscription plans and the like.
To simplify things, I took a step back to decide what was really important for me. My priority was to find an MP3 player that would sound good when hooked up to my home audio system, so I based my research on that.
I found out I'd need an online store that offered downloads in bit rates high enough that string music doesn't sound like cats fighting over a fishbone when played through high quality speakers. Apple's iTunes store offers most of its downloads at bit rates of 128 kilobits per second. Not very good, so I ruled out the iPod. But it turns out that most online stores, including Napster and Real's RealPlayer Music Store, aren't much better.
I finally browsed over to a site that offers the high quality downloads I want. MusicGiants.com sells tracks sampled at rates as high as 11,000 kbps, albeit at a slightly higher cost. And it's got a huge music collection. Haven't been able to stump it yet.
And there was more good news. Or so I thought.
MusicGiant's files are offered in the Windows Media Audio Lossless format. Windows Media…that's Microsoft, right? The site is also part of the PlaysForSure alliance, a Microsoft-backed group that has built a compatible ecosystem of online music stores and music players. Great, all this meant that my choice of player would be a Microsoft Zune. Not so fast. After some final checking, I was gobsmacked to discover that the Zune won't play Microsoft's own WMA Lossless files, and isn't part of Microsoft's own PlaysForSure initiative.
Instead, Zune is hardwired to Microsoft's Zune store. If you want songs for your Zune, you buy them from Microsoft.
In other words, Microsoft screwed its industry partners when it launched Zune. MTV's Urge store was part of the PlaysForSure camp and I'm sure execs at the network were just waiting for the chance to get one back at Microsoft after it launched Zune without PlaysForSure compatibility.
They did this Tuesday by hooking up with Real and Verizon.
The bigger question is this: How can Microsoft ever again ask partners in the increasingly important online entertainment space to take its promises of ongoing support and compatibility seriously?
As for me and my quest to find a music player that could handle MusicGiant's WMA Lossless files natively, I found exactly one on the entire market (please let me know if there are others). It's the Toshiba Gigabeat, S30 or S60 model. The S30 has a 30 GB hard drive and the S60--which I bought--sports 60 GB. It's about the size of a video iPod.
Now for some final irony. Those particular Gigabeat models are, in fact, the Zune. At least, they're what Toshiba was putting on the U.S. market before it agreed to manufacture the Zune on behalf of Microsoft. They're pretty much the same players, except the Toshibas will play WMA Lossless and the Zune won't. Go figure.
(If you want one, better move fast. Looks like Toshiba is no longer actively selling those models here…I'm thinking the Zune OEM contract had a non-compete clause for the U.S.)
At any (bit) rate, I'm finally a happy camper because I can now purchase high quality music downloads and listen to them on the go or on my home system. I don't have to buy everything twice. Glad I didn't get 'Zuned'. You know, like MTV did.