New Hi-Fi Music Store Shows Promise

REVIEW Ask many an audiophile what their number one complaint about digital music is, and you'd likely get the same answer from just about everyone: quality.

The door has been left wide open for a high-fidelity music download service, and with the further ubiquity of broadband and larger capacity digital music players, file size is no longer an issue.

Enter MusicGiants. The Nevada-based company quietly launched its self-titled service September 29, but if my first look is any indication, the service may be about to make a big splash in the world of digital music. For a $50 annual fee, users are given access to a catalog of music from EMI Music, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group and Warner Music.

While the current music selection obviously pales in comparison to that of iTunes or Napster, the company says that it is in the process of securing deals with the other major labels to expand the catalog.

MusicGiants users can download each track for $1.29, which initially would be "free" through a $50 song credit given for joining the service. However, unlike competing services that encode their songs at 128 kbps, all tracks from MusicGiants are in Microsoft's Windows Media Lossless format, which encodes songs between 470 and 1100 kbps.

This results in a non-degraded version of the original digital recording, meaning there is little -- if any -- difference in sound, Microsoft claims.

So how did the service do after a week of rigorous testing from BetaNews?

THE MUSIC

Let's be up front. MusicGiants cannot take the credit for the quality of the music downloads as it employs Microsoft's Windows Media technology. However, the decision to use Lossless encoding is what makes the whole service worthwhile.

To test the format out completely, I downloaded a range of different musical styles to see how accurately it reproduces the sound -- from Rock, Funk, Dance, Hip-Hop and Pop among others -- and was I impressed.

To be honest, I own an iPod so obviously I don't deal with the Windows Media format very often.

However, I will cede to Microsoft that it has the format down pat. Compared with Apple's iTunes, music on WM Lossless just seems to be fuller with more depth. Bass is more pronounced, vocals sound more natural. And to the audiophile, it's the little things like that which count.

The sound quality alone makes the extra 30 cents that MusicGiants charges more than worth it. If I really like an artist or song, I'd much rather pay extra money to have a better quality version. For iPod owners, at least for the moment, that's impossible.

There is also another added benefit to lossless tracks that is not immediately apparent. Many of us like to make our own CDs. Those who have done so with the tracks bought through current services -- or downloaded from file sharing sites -- may find that the end result is a rather poor sounding CD.

However, when a Lossless track is reconverted to be burned onto a disc, the audio quality is identical to the original song, leaving you with a professional sounding CD.

So even if you're not an audiophile, you could find a service like MusicGiants useful.

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