Holy CD-Quality Audio, Batman! AmazonMP3.com MP3 Downloads Are 256 Kbps VBR!

Following Apple’s lead, Amazon now offers DRM-free MP3 downloads.

When I heard that Amazon launched MP3 downloads without annoying so-called Digital Rights Management (DRM) copy-protection nonsense, I was skeptical. (It’s my nature.) Not all MP3s are created equal. A 56 Kbps MP3 can sound as bad as an AM radio station in a 1966 VW Beetle car radio. And a 256 Kbps MP3 is indistinguishable from CD-audio. Using variable bit rate (VBR) makes the compression rate about 5:1 or 6:1 (and the file slightly smaller than Constant Bit Rate (CBR)). Apple’s iTunes primarily sells files at 128 Kbps (about 10:1 compression) which is noticeably worse than CD-audio.

Of course, shopping at Amazon is never quite amazing. You have to do the “Amazon dance” to get what you want. You know what I’m talking about. Multiple login screens, multiple screen views, horrible search engine, etc. You eventually get what you want, but it can be frustrating. It’s as if they’ve tried to recreate the chaos of the mall shopping experience on their website.

So back to my skepticism. I figured that Amazon’s MP3s would be lousy (lossy?) quality. But they are not. According to Amazon’s FAQ, most of the Amazon’s MP3s are 256 Kbps VBR:

Bit Rate: Where possible, we encode our MP3 files using variable bit rates for maximum audio quality and smaller file sizes, aiming at an average of 256 kilobits per second (Kbps). Using a variable bit rate allows us to allocate a higher bit rate to the more complex sections of music files while using a smaller bit rate for the less complex sections. The average of these rates is then calculated to produce an average bit rate for the entire file that represents the overall sound quality. Some of our content is encoded using a constant bit rate of 256 Kbps. This content will have the same excellent audio quality at a slightly larger file size.”

Amazing! Too bad Amazon buries this info in a FAQ. It should be in neon lights (or the web equivalent thereof) on their website. Amazon also is not publicizing the AmazonMP3.com domain name.

If you poured whatever magic qualities Derek Jeter possesses (the kind that make him money in clutch situations) into the raw talent of Alex Rodriguez, then you’d have the perfect baseball player. And if you poured Apple’s marketing magic into Amazon’s huge warehouse of products, then you’d have the perfect shopping experience.

But the fact that Amazon is selling 256 Kbps VBR DRM-free MP3s rocks!

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2 Replies to “Holy CD-Quality Audio, Batman! AmazonMP3.com MP3 Downloads Are 256 Kbps VBR!”

  1. Hi Eric – I too am a professional (family physician) who is a music dork/freak/fan/technophile. I agree wholeheartedly about the Amazon MP3s. The LAME compression is just excellent, and no doubt it is as good as CD. The people who want lossless downloads must have better ears than I – it is impossible for me to tell the difference. I will not download from ITunes any longer, unless I have music gifted to me.

    Normally, I rip my CDs with Exact Audio Copy and compress with LAME. Plus, EAC+LAME is completely free.

    Happy Holidays!

  2. This is kind of old information, but I assume they do the same thing still.

    Pretty interesting, but lossless vs. 256 kbps sound files are totally different. Lossless is more than 5 times better quality, and it’s harder to hear the difference if you have consumer grade equipment to hear it on.

    With that said, I think people don’t know what to listen for. MP3 doesn’t effect vocals much, and the vocals are the loudest thing in the mix. MP3 tends to effect transients a lot, so guitars/drums would definitely be affected.

    That is just my 2 cents.

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