Michael Nyman, God's Hands [from Gattaca]
Fear Of Pop, I Paid My Money
Frank Zappa, Naval Aviation in Art?
Turin Brakes, Long Distance [Max Tundra remix]
Fantômas, Experiment in Terror
The Stereonerds, Harddisk Rock
I burned the WMA versions to CD using Windows Media Player 9, and then used iTunes to rip it back out to WAV. I then used iTunes to burn everything - WAV, AAC, MP3, WMA - to a single audio CD, which I then listened to on my stereo [California Audio Labs CD player, Onkyo receiver, Aperion speakers].
1. On a really good stereo, it pays to listen to audio CDs every once in a while. I've only ever listened to DVDs on that stereo lately - after all, it is hooked up to the widescreen TV - but damn, that sounded really good. It's a different experience than listening at the PC or in the car, which is of course where I normally listen to music. The Nyman sounded especially transcendent.
2. AAC is not bad, but everything still sounds off. It's like looking at a reproduction of a painting printed by a printer whose cyan nozzle is one mm off in one direction. It looks OK, really, but it just doesn't hit you the same way.
3. MP3 is fine at 128 Kbps. Still sounded weird, but acceptable. In my car, I can't really hear the difference. I now know, however, what compression sounds like. It gets to be really, really noticeable on loud volume transitions [the Stereonerds is extremely digital, as a lot of Atom™'s stuff can be; it does not sound good after having gone through compression]. Strings suffer badly too.
4. I don't care what Microsoft says: Windows Media at 64 Kbps is not equivalent in quality to MP3 at 128 Kbps. It is, however, damned close. If you're only going to listen to pop music in your car or through PC speakers, it's probably just fine, and it's technically impressive that it does so well at half the bit rate of MP3 or AAC. On the good quality stereo, though, it was even more punishing than the audio wrongness wrought by the other formats, with a very weird flange-y effect on the orchestral music. Sounded OK otherwise though.
Final conclusions: I would have sent out this audio CD to everyone to group-trial it, but I couldn't get the WMA track to burn at a volume level similar to the other, Apple-generated tracks. Just going by the overall volume level, those six tracks stuck out, and it would've made a truly blind comparison even more difficult. If you really want a copy of the CD, though, contact me privately and I'll send it out. I've only got about six CD mailers though.
iTunes for Windows is probably the first Apple product since the iMac to be very clearly a winner. It does more than what it's supposed to do, the price is good, and the profit motives seem clear. In short, great job. It does however have any number of irritations that seem to derive from its Mac heritage; however, having worked at Apple/Claris/FileMaker all of those years means I'm not surprised at all. Platform typicité is kind of a one way street with some folks; you're damned if you don't hew to the Apple style guidelines, but if you ignore the Windows ones, that's cool 'cuz Windows sucks in the first place. The shortcut menu is missing the Size option. You can't double-click in the upper left hand corner to close it. Auto-sizing of column widths doesn't work at all. Context menus are missing obvious items such as Play. WMA is not supported [although this isn't suprising, it is annoying as you can't just switch to iTunes if you want; instead, you'd have to convert all the WMA to WAV first and then just pray that the trip back to AAC wouldn't totally munge your music]. And so on.
However, iTunes does get one thing right that WMP doesn't: it's far easier to put together a playlist and burn a CD. This is so painful in WMP that I've seldom actually done it, opting instead to use Roxio Easy CD Creator, which at $100 is, uh, a wee bit more expensive than iTunes. Its use of the CDDB service also means it seems to get track info more correct for relatively obscure CDs [such as the Turin Brakes CD single I used for this test].
On the whole, though, I don't imagine I'll trade in WMP for iTunes. There are still a couple of things I would miss about WMP - its ability to download album art and mini-reviews for most of my library, its ability to view your library in more comprehensive ways, its integration with the My Music folder in Windows XP [iTunes moves everything two directory levels down, buried in an iTunes folder - this doesn't make any sense at all].
I just realized I forgot to buy anything at the Apple Music Store. Oops. There's a reason for this, though - after listening to real CDs and comparing them to compressed versions, I really, really don't want to buy anything that's only available in a compressed version. Plus, it's easier not to have to worry about backups.