iTunes Match Is Finally Here (A Couple Weeks Late)
Monday's iTunes 10.5.1 software update introduced iTunes Match. A service that can, "Store your entire music library in iCloud, including music you've imported from CDs, and enjoy your collection anywhere, anytime, on your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, computer, or*Apple TV."*The vast majority of the 250,000,000+ iTunes users will likely fall in love with iTunes Match. Access to one's music from anywhere is cool, but I suspect the iCloud backup of one's music may be the hidden gem users don't know they'll need sooner or later.
What is the Cloud and why is it called the Cloud? Audiophiles should think of the Cloud as an endless computer network (the Internet) containing numerous independent data centers. This network begins at a home user's Internet modem, provided by a cable or phone company, and usually ends at places like Apple's new Maiden, North Carolina iCloud data center. This Billion dollar 500,000 square foot data center contains several petabytes of disk space [Link]. Users uploading music via iTunes Match are actually uploading files to this NC data center. In simple terms iTunes creates a connection to a server in North Carolina and stores one's music that isn't matched on the server's hard drive. The Cloud is simply an off-site hard drive. Never use the previous statements when answering a question on an exam. It's merely a simple explanation for a complicated process that is the subject of many textbooks and IT certifications. The term Cloud is derived from network diagrams created by phone companies and almost all Enterprise IT network staff. When creating a diagram of one's network containing computers, switches, and routers the symbol of a Cloud has always been used to depict the Internet or an external network [simple network diagram]. Not a very technical reason for the name Cloud but it has been the industry standard for decades.
iCloud: This is Apple's service that stores and synchronizes photos, documents, apps, books, email, calendars, contacts, and iTunes purchased music and movies. All of the aforementioned content is available from any iPhone 3GS or newer, iPad, or iPod Touch 3rd gen. or newer running iOS 5 or newer. [Link]
iTunes Match: This is Apple's $24.99/year service that incorporates all music on one's computer rather than just iTunes purchased content. According to Apple iTunes Match, "[D]etermines which songs in your collection are available in the iTunes Store. Any music with a match is automatically added to iCloud for you to listen to anytime, on any device.*Since there are more than 20 million songs in the iTunes Store, chances are, your music is already in iCloud. And for the few songs that aren’t, iTunes has to upload only what it can’t match [limit 25,000 tracks not including iTunes purchases]. Which is much faster than starting from scratch. Once your music is in iCloud, you can stream and store it to any of your devices. Even better, all the music iTunes matches plays back from iCloud at 256-Kbps AAC DRM-free quality — even if your original copy was of lower quality."
iTunes Match In Action
First and foremost iTunes Match (iCloud) does not support lossless compressed or uncompressed music. iTunes Match doesn't alter any local music either. This means all local lossless music either from CD rips or file imports will remain lossless on the local computer and be available at 256kbps via iCloud. iTunes Match will either upload or match your lossless music but the matched downloadable version of the music will only be available as a lossy 256kbps AAC file. Not a big surprise, but more of a bummer than anything.
On June 8, 2011 Chris Foresman authored an article for the Ars Technica website [Link] in which he stated, "Another question our readers asked was what happens if your library is filled with higher quality rips, such as tracks encoded in Apple Lossless (ALAC) format. Matched tracks will still be in 256Kbps iTunes Plus format, while uploaded tracks will retain their original format (emphasis mine - CC). Tracks aren't replaced in either your iTunes library or on your devices unless you request them to be, so the lossless files in your main iTunes library will be safe. Sticklers might balk that matched tracks won't be available via iCloud in a higher-quality format, but if you don't require lossless quality on your mobile device, having access to smaller 256kbps AAC files via iCloud may be a benefit."
The following day June 9, 2011 I corresponded with Chris Foresman about his statement that unmatched lossless files would be uploaded in the original format. His article was the only writing on the Internet mentioning lossless uploads. Normally I would blow it off as misinformation, but Ars Technica is a high quality site and great source of thoroughly researched information. Chris responded to me by saying, "The information we got is all from Apple, either from its website our from our sources there speaking on background. Songs which do not match up will be uploaded *as-is.* If you have an ALAC track, it will upload that exact file. When you request to pull that file to your mobile device, Apple will send that exact file. I admit I'm not 100% sure about ALAC support on devices themselves, but as long as your iPhone can play ALAC files (which I think it can), then that ALAC file will be downloaded and added to the library on your mobile device."
Because of this email exchange I held out hope that unmatched lossless files would be uploaded. I tested this wishful feature as soon as I signed up for iTunes Match as was expectedly disappointed.
Using iTunes Match with iCloud I found some interesting quirks such as matching and downloading tracks not in the U.S. iTunes Store, matching and downloading tracks from a band that will not allow its music in the iTunes Store, conversion of 24 bit / 48 kHz material that's uploaded, matching several tracks from an album with tracks from different albums, and matching some tracks but not all tracks on a single album.
Subscribing to iTunes Match is as simple as clicking the subscribe button and agreeing to pay $24.99 per year with automatic yearly renewal. I subscribed to iTunes Match with a completely empty library as I wanted to use a very controlled test environment. Shortly after subscribing iTunes Match went to work on my empty library populating iTunes with links to every track I've purchased that's still available from the iTunes Store. My library went from nothing to full of album art and little cloud icons very quickly. iTunes Match uses a three step process. Step one gathers information about one's library. Step two matches one's library with the songs in the iTunes Store. Step three uploads artwork, metadata, and any unmatched music. After subscribing to iTunes Match the service must be enabled on one's iDevice. Enabling Match will replace all the music on the local device however [Image].
After the iTunes library is populated with iCloud icons and album art there are a few new items to note. Purchased music available via iCloud has a small cloud icon to the left of the album name [Image]. Hovering one's mouse over that cloud icon turns the icon into a gray box with a down arrow inside the cloud [Image]. Selecting this new icon downloads the 256kbps lossy AAC file(s) to the local computer. In iTunes 10.5.1 Apple introduced two new columns that must be enabled manually. To enable these columns simply right-click or control-click any column heading and select the two new iCloud headings. The iCloud Download column displays a small icon if the tracks can be downloaded or when the iTunes Match is attempting to match the tracks with the Apple "skybrary." The iCloud Status column displays information such as Matched, Purchased, Uploaded, Not Eligible, or Error [Image].
Music that is ripped via iTunes will not have a cloud icon next to the album name when viewing the album art, but will display an iCloud Status. The available Statuses for ripped or manually imported music are Matched, Uploaded, Not Eligible, or Error. There appears to be a difference in iTunes Matching capability that depends on how the tracks were "imported" into iTunes either ripped in iTunes or imported manually into the iTunes library. I'll cover these findings a bit later. For now here are some screenshots depicting iTunes' behavior after importing three unique versions of Beck's Sea Change, AC/CD's Back in Black, and Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. I'll focus on Beck's Sea Change to illustrate how iTunes Match effects imported music. I imported the regular version of Sea Change in addition to the Mobile Fidelity and HDtracks 24 bit / 88.2 versions. Immediately after importing the tracks iTunes listed these three albums as 33 individual albums. This usually happens if there are guests artists on an album and if there is no Album Artist metadata tag. In this case Beck was the only artist and he was listed as the Album Artist. After iTunes Match scanned my library subsequent to the album import the albums appeared correctly as three individual albums. No user intervention was required although I'm not sure what iTunes Match has to do with organization of imported albums. The screenshots below illustrates iTunes Match's ability to match local music with cloud music. All tracks from the standard album display matched, five of thirteen tracks on the Mobile Fidelity album were matched and the remaining eight were uploaded, while the high resolution version was listed as Not Eligible. Astute readers have likely noticed iTunes Match indicates a match for some of the Mobile Fidelity tracks although the iTunes Store does not contain the MFSL release. More on that later.
Bit Depth & Sample Rate Support
It should come as no surprise that iTunes Match does not support high resolution content. The Bill Evans screenshot below displays the Waltz for Debby track at 44.1, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192 kHz. Only the 44.1 version was accepted by iTunes Match. I tested 24 bit / 48 kHz files using Peter Gabriel's album Half Blood available through B&W's Society of Sound. Rumor has it when iTunes HD Music becomes available the tracks will be 24 bit / 48 kHz. This rumor makes the 24/48 test a bit more interesting. The Half Blood album is not technically available in the iTunes Store, but all of the tracks are available on the New Blood album. I imported the 24/48 version into iTunes after downloading from B&W SoS. After iTunes Match scanned all ten files nine were matched and one was uploaded. The nine matched tracks were matched to the 16 bit / 44.1 kHz versions in the iTunes Store. Not apples to apples at all. Whats more the one uploaded track named Intruder was not matched with its 16/44.1 counterpart. This enabled me to analyze what iTunes Match does to 24/48 files. I deleted Half Blood from my library and downloaded the matched and uploaded tracks from iCloud. All the matched tracks came down as 256 kbps 16 bit / 44.1 AAC files. The uploaded track came down as a 256 kbps (VBR) 16 bit / 44.1 AAC file [Image]. It stands to reason that iTunes resampled the 48 kHz track to 44.1 and converted it using Variable Bit Rate AAC prior to uploading as the entire process is rather slow. If nothing else the process of iTunes Match ruining perfectly good audio is interesting.
The major benefit of iTunes Match is said to be its matching capability that Google Music and Amazon Cloud Drive don't offer. Matching the audio instead of uploading the audio is far faster. But is it better? I put this matching capability to the test with a few albums. I used the previously mentioned Beck Sea Change albums and the Sony AR1 SACD Sampler that I knew was not in the iTunes Store or even the CDDB database. The Sony AR1 disc had no matching metadata from iTunes so I input all track names, artist names, etc… After ripping the disc iTunes Match uploaded eight of the fourteen tracks and matched the remaining six tracks with music already in the iTunes catalog. As these tracks were previously available on different albums I saw this as a bonus. However, after checking the matched tracks in the iTunes Store I saw this as an unpredictable disservice. Selecting the Ping drop down arrow displays the option to locate the album, artist, or track that iTunes has matched to one's local track. The first track from the Sony AR1 disc I tested was number seven Snowflake by Lara Ruggles. The iTunes Match version of this track is available on Lara Ruggles' Out of an Eggshell -EP. The matched track appeared to be identical to the track on the disc. Then the matching went awry. I attempted to match track fourteen Sting Quartet No. 4, IV: Still Life (Absolutely Strict) by The Fry Street Quartet. Moments after the disc was ripped iTunes matched this track with String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2: Allegro Moderato also by The Fry Street Quartet [Image]. That was mistake number one and a disservice to users thinking their tracks have been matched. Now for the unpredictable disservice. A couple hours later I was looking over my notes and needed to check the iTunes Match for the same Fry Street track. This time track fourteen Sting Quartet No. 4, IV: Still Life (Absolutely Strict) by The Fry Street Quartet was matched with Rorem String Quartet no. 4: VI. Head of a Boy by The Fry Street Quartet [Image]. Not only was this incorrect but it was the second incorrect match for the same track.
Moving on to Beck's Sea Change once again, specifically the Mobile Fidelity version imported, not ripped, into the iTunes library. The test track I used was number three Guess I'm Doing Fine. iTunes Match indicated a match in the iTunes Store / iCloud for this track even though this was the MFSL remastered album. I confirmed there was no MFSL version of Sea Change available via iTunes. Here is where it gets interesting. The MFSL version of the track is 4:58. The standard release of the track is 4:49. When browsing this album in the iCloud via my iPhone iTunes listed the track as 4:58. I though this was one indicator the actual remastered track was available. I proceeded to download the 4:58 version of Guess I'm Doing Fine to my phone. When the complete album track list is viewed on my phone this downloaded track still listed 4:58 as its length. However, when I played the track the Now Playing window clearly listed 4:49 and the track length indicating the iTunes Matched version is from the standard CD release not the remaster. I switched back to the complete track list for Sea Change (MFSL) and track three was still listed as 4:58 even though it clearly was 4:49.
Does this really matter? Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill? Yes, and no. This does matter because those of us who care about listening to the best version of a specific album may be fooled into thinking we can here such a version via iCloud / iTunes Match. I'm not making this into something larger than I should. Frequently a great remastered album can sound better at 256 kbps than a dynamically compressed version of the same album at 16/44.1 or even high resolution 24/96. Thus, I can see music lovers settling for the supposed matched remastered album at 256 kbps when they are away from home without access to the lossless copy. I would hate to be away on a long trip with an iCloud full of mismatched music that only presented itself as I listened to each album individually. What a bummer.
Matched, Not In U.S. Store, But Downloadable
The talk thus far has been that iTunes Match uses the Apple iTunes Store catalog to match one's music and to upload what isn't available in that catalog. Even Apple clearly states that as a fact. My testing revealed that music unavailable in the U.S. iTunes Store was matched and downloadable from iCloud. In addition, music unavailable from any iTunes Store worldwide was matched and downloadable even though the band has not made its music available through iTunes.
I recently received the album Miniatures & Folklore by Gavriel Lipkind and Alexandra Lubchansky from Naxos America. I ripped it to my iTunes library where the iCloud Status displayed Matched. I tested the match by selecting track one from the drop down Ping menu. I was presented with a pop up stating, "Your request could not be completed. The item you've requested is not currently available in the US store" [Image]. Not the end of the world but interesting given Apple's statement about matching what's in the store. I switched to my iPhone and attempted to download the Matched version of the album. Lo and behold the tracks downloaded without a hitch [Image]. I guess it's possible to let Apple off the hook as the music is supposedly available in at least one of its iTunes Stores. The next rip v. import example defies all Apple logic.
Rip v. Import
According to the iTunes Match algorithm a ripped album is not the same as an imported album. I can see some logic behind this as a CD's TOC Table of Contents likely plays a role in matching an album. However, the iTunes Match results differ so greatly between a ripped album and imported album that it defies logic. Further defying logic is the fact that a ripped album can have an iCloud even though Apple has never sold the album and the band has never allowed its music into the iTunes Store. Case and point AC/DC and its Back In Black album. ( See AC/DC vows to keep denying fans iTunes digital downloads [Link])
First up is the Back In Black album ripped to FLAC and converted to Apple Lossless using dBpoweramp with full embedded metadata. The album was subsequently imported into iTunes through the Automatically Add To iTunes folder / feature. The album imported perfectly. iTunes was able to read all the metadata. After a fresh scan of the library Back In Black's iCloud Status displayed Matched [Image]. Given AC/DC's avoidance of the iTunes Store I was surprised at the match. I tested the match by following the matched links to the iTunes Store. Track one on Back In Black is Hells Bells. iTunes matched this to track three on the album A Tribute To AC-DC (Whole Lotta Rosie) by the AC-DC Tribute Band [Image]. The remaining tracks from the Back In Black import experiment were just as mismatched and just as disappointing.
Next up is the Back In Black album ripped to Apple Lossless using iTunes 10.5.1. iTunes found the correct metadata through CDDB but didn't offer any album art. Lack of album art was expected as this is typically only available for music in the iTunes Store. After the rip completed and a fresh scan of the library Back In Black's iCloud Status displayed Matched [Image]. Given the previous results this was not surprising. I quickly tested the match by selecting You Shook Me All Night Long from the Ping drop down menu. The link took me to the iTunes Music Store's section of New & Noteworthy Rock music, not even AD/DC tracks by a cover band. This behavior was somewhat similar to the Miniatures & Folklore album that was unavailable in the U.S. iTunes Store. I switched to my iPhone where Back In Black was listed as available from iCloud. I downloaded Hells Bells and to my bewilderment the real AC/DC version of the track at 256 kbps was delivered to my phone. Where's the logic? iTunes Match never uploaded a single track from Back In Black during my tests and the album is not available via iTunes. Maybe Apple is concealing some information about iTunes Match. That's hard to believe from such an open comp… only kidding.
Concluded: iTunes Match Is A Mismatch
Apple's position is that matching one's library is better than uploading one's library and therefore iTunes Match is inherently better than Google Music and Amazon Cloud Drive. If Apple could deliver on its marketing promise and correctly match one's local tracks with tracks located in the iCloud it might have a case. Unfortunately iTunes Match with iCloud is no better than the previous cloud offerings. Clever terminology such as "Once your music is in iCloud, you can stream and store it to any of your devices" is completely misleading. What the statement actually means is the music must be downloaded (streamed) to one's device and stored on that device. Real streaming doesn't consume real storage space other than a temporary file during playback. iCloud doesn't stream music. Period. Plus, completing with real streaming services like MOG is not a game Apple should play. MOG offers real streaming and real downloading of more music than iTunes and it's all available in better quality 320 kbps MP3 files. I can't see the draw to iCloud over a service like MOG. Why would people continue to purchase music through iTunes at 256 kbps and only have access to the music they've purchased through iTunes when they could simply subscribe to MOG for $10 per month and access all that and more? iTunes Match isn't for audiophiles, music lovers, or anyone for that matter. iTunes Match and iCloud are Dead On Arrival just as Google Music and Amazon's Cloud Drive were back in May 2011. Apple is a day late and a dollar short with iTunes Match and iCloud.