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  • iTunes Match: Will the Second Year Be as Imperfect as the First?

    November 15th, 2012

    So I noticed this week that my iTunes Match account entered the second year, and I am sort of on the fence about whether this year will be the last or not. You see, the concept is great, but the execution remains a tad flawed.

    First and foremost, at $24.99 per year, iTunes Match is a pretty decent deal, and a great space saver. If your entire music library consists of tracks you’ve purchased from iTunes, don’t bother. But if it’s the usual mixture of ripped tracks from CDs, songs you’ve acquired from other sources, and some content from iTunes, it may be a huge bargain.

    When iTunes Match is activated, all the songs in your iTunes library are compared with the 26  million tracks at the iTunes Store. If there’s a match, you get a pristine 256K AAC DRM-free version stored in the cloud for easy download to a Mac or PC, or to an iOS device. That’s true even if you have a lower quality track. It may also mean that if iTunes has a more recent mix of that track, you’ll benefit from the newest version, which appears to apply in large part to The Beatles, for example. And best of all, the storage space of matched tracks doesn’t count towards the meager allotment of space Apple gives you in iCloud.

    But let me explain further.

    It’s fair to suggest that 256K AAC is extremely close to CD quality, but not perfect. Under a double-blind, level matched listening test with a high-caliber audio system, you might hear the differences, and, depending on the source material, those differences may seem significant to you. In practice, the differences are probably not worth the difference for the vast majority of iTunes customers. Apple has begun to upgrade songs using higher resolution master recordings from the music companies, and that helps to reduce the perceived gap between the CD and the iTunes version.

    Besides, if you listen to most of your music from inexpensive earphones, it’s not anything to be concerned about. I know that, in downsizing to a smaller home (and for other reasons), I long ago sold off my high-end audio equipment. The system I’m using now sounds real good for something fairly cheap, but golden ears will not be satisfied by any means.

    Beyond the bit-rate, the other limit for iTunes Match is 25,000 songs. Songs matched in iTunes aren’t included. Certainly this seems to be an amazing limit, and I’m sure that over 99% of you don’t have a music library that could possibly be any larger. But a few of you do. I know one person who has three times that many songs, most of which aren’t duplicated in iTunes. This means picking and choosing, having multiple Apple IDs and iTunes Match accounts, or just not bothering.

    I suppose Apple could provide some sort of higher-priced unlimited service, but the existence of iTunes Match clearly involved making special deals with the music companies. Remember that iTunes Match doesn’t discriminate, which means that songs that may have been downloaded from unsanctioned (let’s call them illegal) sources suddenly become street legal. But this may also be a way for the industry to get payments from downloaded content from which they would never have earned a dime. So it may present a pretty good deal all around.

    For the most part, I’m pleased with iTunes Match. But there is one glaring deficiency that has not as yet been addressed over the first year. Apple doesn’t even recognize that the problem exists, apparently, at least in my interactions with iCloud and iTunes support.

    You see, a random number of tracks that, by every indication should be matched in iTunes, aren’t. Under these circumstances, those unmatched tracks are simply uploaded to the cloud, so the problem may be fairly minor in the scheme of things; that is, unless your source track is of lower quality.

    But it still doesn’t make any sense. Take the song, “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” from the great Beatles album, “Abbey Road.” For me it doesn’t match, and, apparently it doesn’t match for others either. Now perhaps the meta data on the original CD mix throws the system off to some degree. Perhaps if I had the digitally remixed and enhanced CD version, which came out in 2009, everything would match perfectly.

    But it gets worse with the classic Elvis Presley collection from the late 1960s, “The Memphis Record,” which features “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain.” I ripped it from the original two-CD package, yet only five of the 23 tracks on that album were matched by iTunes. In all fairness to Apple, that particular collection has no counterpart in iTunes, although the various songs are available in other compilations. Blondie fares better, with just two songs out of the 12 on “Best of Blondie” failing the iTunes Match test.

    Perhaps I’m just being too picky about such matters, but I think a service of this sort ought to be as perfect as possible, and, if there’s a miss here and there, Apple ought to be addressing the shortcomings. But it doesn’t seem as if Apple has taken any of this seriously, or maybe I’m just whistling in the dark.



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