Jul 212011
 

Spotify is now available in the United States so it seemed appropriate to do a comparison with iTunes. For serious listening in my main system I do not use iTunes, the sound quality even with lossless files is terrible in my opinion. I do however use it on my computers, day in and day out. It has been a constant companion since the day it was released. For ease of use it has been tough to beat iTunes.

Enter Spotify, a free service that gives you access to a virtually unlimited catalogue of music. Yes, I said free and unlimited. You can also load any of the music you find on Spotify onto your iPod or other MP3 device, stream your and their collection from your iPhone or Android device. In short it does for free what so many, like Rhapsody, have been trying to get paid for.

Like anything online free comes with a couple of gottchas. You will be forced on occasion to listen to short advertisements. This isn’t bad and over the last few weeks I have found them to be fairly unobtrusive. If you are listening to your own library you do not have to listen to the ads, they only appear when you are dipping into the seemingly infinite Spotify catalogue. So let’s get down to business.

iTunes VS Spotify

In order to compare iTunes and Spotify I lived with both, side by side for a couple of weeks. Being so familiar with iTunes I focused more on Spotify for much of the testing, simply trying to see if it would become as second nature as iTunes had. All comparisons were performed on Windows systems, XP and Windows 7.

Installation

Installing either software is as easy as clicking NEXT a few times. Spotify is a much smaller application and thus installs and loads faster, uses fewer resources, and is less likely to mess with the rest of your system. On my slower XP machine I found iTunes to be a sluggish beast but it works.

iTunes and Spotify both want to know where your music is however, Spotify automatically finds your iTunes folder among others and imports them, without moving them. This allows you to continue using iTunes without the fear of changes.

Spotify found and loaded my collection of 40,000+ songs in about 1 minute compared to the hour or more with iTunes. Once either application has found your files, you are ready to rock. Overall, Spotify is faster to install and run than iTunes.

Using the interface

I have been using iTunes for so long it has become second nature, let’s face it, iTunes is simple to use even for my mother. Setting up playlists is a breeze, the Genius feature is brilliant, and you have a lot of options in how you want iTunes to look and behave.

Spotify on the other hand took a little getting used to. Nothing about it was difficult, it was just different, but that isn’t a bad thing. The differences are there because in addition to your own library of music, Spotify lets you listen to just about any piece of music you can think of. You don’t have to go to the Apple Store to add music (and pay for it) you simply search for music and add it to either a playlist or your queue.

Spotify playlists are easy to create and add music to, plus you can mix your own music with songs or albums you find on Spotify. Let me get back to the queue because it rocks. One of the things I love most about the software I use in my main system (Ultimate Jukebox) is that I can create a queue instead of creating a play list. A queue allows you to move songs up and down, insert where you want, add one to the top of the list, and in general control what you hear as you feel like hearing it.

Overall, I give iTunes the edge for simplicity of use while Spotify nudges iTunes out for actual control.

Sound quality

I have to admit it never occurred to me that Spotify might sound different from iTunes. My MP3 files are all 320kbits and Spotify free version uses Vorbis format, 160kbits. I have been vocal about the iTunes software sound quality for some time. Anything you play through iTunes loses life however when you play a file purchased through iTunes on other software, it sounds better, meaning iTunes software sucks for sound quality.

I expected the same, more or less from Spotify but as soon as I played the first song I was shocked. Spotify seemed to bring David “Fathead” Newman to life through my AKG 702 headphones. It sounded much more open, faster, and more detailed. David sounded much closer to the FLAC files I use in my main system. Not perfect by a long shot but much, much better.

To verify all of this I level matched iTunes and Spotify, to remove any possible preference based on the brains preference for louder music. it was night and day as I switched back and forth between the two.

Now I moved to my main system, fired up my XP box feeding an analog signal through my ASUS Xonar STX sound card into my Emotiva USP-1, XPA-1 amps, and sat back to listen through my Magnepan 16QR speakers. Through this system the differences between the two were even greater. iTunes was like nails on a chalkboard. I have never been able to listen to anything, including Apple lossless files on this system, through iTunes.

Spotify on the other hand was smooth, open, listenable, but not audiophile. I would never sit and do any serious listening to either but for background music, Spotify is more than capable. Eventually I will get a premium account and try it again but I am seriously doubtful it can match my lossless FLAC files through Ultimate Jukebox.

Conclusion

If you care even a little bit about the sound quality move to Spotify. It sounded better even on the worst set of earbuds I could find in the house. It sounded better over crappy desktop speakers, it always sounded better. The slight learning curve associated with Spotify is well worth the boost in sound quality.

For a free program to do so much is impressive and the best part is that you will never have to pay the Apple Mind Control Group another penny for music. As an added bonus, it will sound better too.

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