Having gone through an reviewed some of the most popular music organization applications for MP3 players it’s time to turn to the other part of the equation: how to get a hold of media in the first place. Amazon MP3 is the first in a series of reviews that will test to see what media stores offer the best value for money, has the best selection and the best overall experience.
Software and requirements
Amazon MP3 is currently only available in a few countries including the US. As I’m in Norway, I had to use my (legal) US address to register an account and add funds via gift cards. Amazon still wouldn’t let me buy any songs because my IP was Norwegian. One trial subscription of FoxyProxy later I was ready to begin the experience, but first I have to point out what it means that I couldn’t use my legal US Amazon account to buy content from Norway. Sure, Amazon MP3 isn’t supposed to be available in Norway, but that doesn’t mean you have to lock out the IPs. iTunes for instance only bases its location data on the registered payment method, which means that you can use it with a foreign IP as long as your account is a legal, verified US account. Amazon doesn’t do this, which means that you won’t be able to use Amazon’s services while on vacation or for other reasons not inside of the the US even if you’re a US citizen with a US account you have used on Amazon MP3 before. It also means that if you for security reasons use proxies for other countries to mask your own, you won’t be able to use this service. While the latter might not affect anyone, I’m guessing at least some people will get rather annoyed when on vacation or a business trip and want to buy some music to enjoy, just to find that it doesn’t work.
As for software, Amazon does allow you to download songs directly from the web browser with no software installed. However, you can also install the Amazon MP3 Downloader, which is a lightweight app to manage your downloads- and this is the only option if you want to download full albums instead of single files. The application will let you be a bit more specific with what happens with the file after download, letting you choose the download destination and also auto-import into iTunes or Windows Media Player after download. The software is very lightweight and won’t hog your system so don’t worry much about being forced to use this to download albums.
Amazon MP3 is completely web browser based so no application to browse music like iTunes. Some media managers such as J. River Media Jukebox has a built in “Amazon Music Store” which is still only a integrated web browser showing the stock Amazon site.
The front page of the store has a lot of links and info on it, showing recommendations based off your previous purchases, sales going on exclusive Amazon MP3 editions, new additions etc. The sidebar on the left gives you a lot of links to browse by popular tracks, price, and genre. The right sidebar shows lists of best sellers as well as a nifty “free song of the day”, showing one of several tracks you can get for free. Theres a dedicated section for special deals which includes a range of free tracks as well as any special promotions going on. At the time of this writing, the center of that section was a special offer of 50 albums for $5 each, which is very nice. The entire music store basically consists of these theme pages with special promotions and “ads” on each one; genre pages, top seller pages etc. This makes it less boring to browse music as you don’t stare at endless lists of music, but I do miss a site map indication that shows you your location in relation to the main page, like Main>Genres>Rock>Classical Rock etc. Without this it’s hard to know where you are on the page and you need to rely on the back buttons of your web browser to get back to the “intersections” to try to browse by another path. If I for example click on the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon, I would have liked to see a path that tells me I’m in the rock section, maybe even a subsection of that, so that I could click my way to that section from the album page to quickly find more albums of the same genre. The thing is that some sections of the site has this feature, for example when browsing by price after first browsing by a genre, but it’s so random that you can’t really depend on it. This is however an issue with Amazon in general as they have never had the best UI for their web shop.
Artist and album pages
Amazon MP3 do have some nice artist pages where clicking on an artist will bring up a page with a list of songs you can buy or preview, an artist picture and some information and a list of albums. This is very nice if you like specific artists and want to get a good overview of what is available from that artist, but I do miss (or couldn’t find) an alert system that would alert you when new tracks or albums from that artist is released. This is a feature that iTunes already has and it’s actually a useful feature and one that shouldn’t be too hard to implement as Amazon already has product availability services in other parts of the store.
The album pages don’t have any info on the album like the artist pages have artist info, though that’s not really surprising considering how many alb
ums there are. The album pages like the single track pages are based off the standard Amazon item pages and aren’t all that exciting. You can preview tracks, view customer reviews and go to product page for the actual CD if available.
Amazon doesn’t really seem to have a default price for albums but on average most albums seemed to be around $7-10. Single tracks are $0.99 which is more or less than iTunes depending on whether the track is popular or not (iTunes bases prices off popularity). Amazon however has a lot of specials and deals going on at any given time as well as free music, so you can easily get cheap music if you’re not looking for anything specific. Amazon also offers Amazon MP3 branded gift cards which paired with a web browser with a proxy (to trick it into thinking you’re in the US) means you can use this in other countries if you like. Again, the only people the IP based lock out is hurting are the US customers on vacation as people who know how to get around such blocks won’t have any more issues with IPs than with payment methods. Gift cards are also nice if you want to give away music or if you want to restrict purchases on your child’s account etc.
Of course it doesn’t matter how nice the store is if it doesn’t have the songs you need, so selection is a big part of whether a music store is good or not. To test the selection of the store I have compiled a list of 20 artists suggested by myself and people in our IRC channel aimed to see both the availability of the artist and how many songs the store contains from each artists. There are known artists, unknown artists and outright weird artists in this list, as well as artists from various genres. As it’s impossible to look for every artist out there, this will hopefully provide some indication of what kind of music the store has. No artists will be added to this list in the future so please don’t comment to ask to add anything. The number of songs is based on listed tracks under each artist to rule out tributes etc, but it’s unfortunately impossible to rule out double entries. As I review more and more software I will update the chart for all reviews to compare the various music stores. Green signifies the most results, yellow signifies more or less identical results. As more software is added, red will signify the global minimum amount of results.
Amazon managed to find all the artists which is a good indication that they are indeed getting a very nice selection of music despite having been on the market for only a couple of years. I do want to note that Amazon’s search engine was unable to extrapolate my meaning when I wrote Johan (Sebastian Bach) with a single n (correct spelling being Johann). This isn’t good for a search engine as you might not know the exact spelling of the artist and end up finding nothing.
When you do find an album or a single track you want, you can of course preview the tracks. I have seen a lot of ways to preview music online, and some are less than optimal, depending on Windows Media Player plugins etc to work. Amazon luckily relies on flash for their previews, which means it should work fine as long as you have flash player installed (which 99.9% of people would if they’ve used the browser for more than 5 minutes).
The file format of the files you get is always an issue with online music stores as you might end up with more DRM issues than anything else. Considering the name it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Amazon MP3 is DRM free as MP3 files don’t have DRM. While some people would scream for better quality, like lossless FLAC, MP3 is in my opinion the best format for the mainstream consumer. The MP3 files provided by Amazon also uses VBR instead of CBR, more specifically v0 VBR with an average bitrate of about 240kbps. I’ve written about the meaning of these terms before and I must say it’s nice to see that Amazon has extended its environmental policy of no unnecessarily large packages to also concern MP3 files. Amazon of course wants to provide the best quality MP3 they can, and going for the v0 VBR option over the more common 320kbps CBR option is a welcome surprise. Of course, MP3 means the files will play on any media player out there. One thing I like to point out is that someone commented on this review saying that Amazon uses joint stereo on some tracks, which isn’t good.
As for tagging, I have used music stores (*ehrm*CDON.com*ehrm*) before where they provide you with a MP3 file without any embedded album art and then link you to a 150×150 pixel album art on the side- an utterly idiotic solution. I was therefor pleased (but not really surprised) to see Amazon had a bit more sense and provided fully tagged files including embedded album art. For all the files I tried the album art was 600×600 pixels which should be enough even for the newer MP3 players that really show off album art, but I can’t say for sure if this is the default size as the Amazon page for technical specification of the files didn’t specify anything other than that there would be album art in all files. The file was also tagged with artist, album, year, track number, genre, album artist and a Amazon song ID.
Amazon MP3 is a very impressive music store provided you live in one of the countries it is available in. It has a very nice selection and a decent system of browsing music, however the layout could be better and the search engine really needs some maintenance. The v0 VBR MP3 file format and the detailed tagging complete with embedded album art as well as the reasonable pricing makes Amazon MP3 a very good choice for your music purchases and it will be interesting to see it grow even more in the time to come.