MusicGiants Offers CD-Quality Downloads

In a press conference held September 28 at Sony Music Studios on West 54th Street, MusicGiants —see Wes Phillips' earlier story on this company—announced the launch of a new music download service that offers CD-resolution digital recordings from the major artists on the major music labels, EMI, Sony/BMG, Universal, and Warner.

All Internet services use compression to minimize the download times but streaming services compress the data down to rates below 128kbps and download services, epitomized by iTunes, rarely operate above 256kbps. The use of intelligent schemes minimizes the perception of musical corruption, especially on portable media, but the loss is all too apparent when auditioned on high-fidelity audio systems. Until consumers can get sound quality fully equivalent to that on hard media, such as the CDs they buy in stores, Web services will not mean a lot for audiophiles or, more importantly, anyone who really listens carefully.

What distinguishes MusicGiants from the others currently available is the provision of full fidelity content via the use of the Windows Media Audio Lossless format. At download rates of up to 1100kbps and fully lossless compression (and expansion), the MusicGiants Network provides the sonic equivalent of CD quality (and perhaps more). The major labels are supplying digital files, there is no additional A/D conversion in the process of transferring the music into WM9 Lossless format. The demo sound at the conference was certainly okay—strange system, strange environment and unfamiliar music for me—but when asked to compare MusicGiants' sound with a compressed offering, CEO Scott Bahnemann had an chance to really wow the assembled press. Instead, he asked if anyone in the audience had an iPod and, getting no response, moved on. That was a lost opportunity.

To take advantage of MusicGiants Network, you do need broadband internet access and a Windows XP/2000-based computer or system server. MusicGiants does offer an impressive box for this. Called the SoundVault, it is an embedded Windows XP music server with digital and analog 5.1 channel audio output, DVI and VGA video output for menus and operation, expansion and communications ports and a 380GB hard drive. Its $9500 SRP, including wireless keyboard and mouse, may be pricey but it is configured sleekly, includes balanced as well as unbalanced outputs and runs without fans, making it more like a component of a high-end audio/video system than a PC.

The menus are clear, easily navigated and, with the T1 connection at Sony, remarkably responsive. One can browse by artist, title, genre and sub-genre. Particularly nice is the inclusion of a "Fidelity Meter" which shows you the bit rate of the track being played. While all available music is catalogued, tracks and albums the user already owns are flagged, preventing redundant expenditures and letting the MusicGiant software manage your entire collection. [As helpful as this may be, I am alarmed by the idea of letting a third party have access via spyware to my collection of media files.—John Atkinson.] Purchase options, in addition to track and album, also include "Complete this collection" which buys you the balance of an artist's work in one, expensive but clearly priced, click.

Nonetheless, with its apparent higher fidelity, the support of the major labels and the inclusion of a large number of important artists, this service is, already, one to be reckoned with. It is targeted at the premium market as defined by those who care about sound quality and can afford to pay for it. Pricing is based on a $50 annual fee (credited against purchases above $250!), a per-track charge of $1.29 and an album charge of $15.29 with the latter varying for multidisc sets. These prices are not much different from retail CD prices but are exempt from shipping and, at the moment, sales taxes. Besides, it provides the enticing advantage of buy-it-now, have-it-now!

What I found most appealing about MusicGiants is (1) the emphasis on lossless high quality sound, (2) pricing equivalent to store retail but with greater convenience and (3) the explicit plans to include multichannel recordings by the time that CES rolls around in January of 2006. I'll certainly be listening for that! For more info, click on www.musicgiants.com.

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