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Originally published December 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 19, 2007 at 2:27 PM

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The best sites for music downloads

I went on a mission trying to find the best place to download music for the holidays, and found some sites naughty, others nice. Now that iTunes has many competitors, I looked for the best deal. Overall, it was a frustrating experience.

Seattle Times staff reporter

I went on a mission trying to find the best place to download music for the holidays, and found some sites naughty, others nice.

Now that iTunes has many competitors, I looked for the best deal. Overall, it was a frustrating experience. My poor computer endured many random uploads, and now all these programs are fighting for control of my hard drive. I just hope I didn't get a virus.

I picked one song as a test. It was a single I thought I wouldn't get tired of hearing over and over: "Is There A Ghost" by the Sub Pop group Band of Horses. Then I attempted to download it from nine major sites. My credit-card company is already calling, thinking some crazy hacker loves only one song.

Comparatively, iTunes is still the easiest to use. Amazon comes in second. Its downloads (at 89 cents) are cheaper than iTunes (at 99 cents) and the site is so easy I accidentally clicked on a random Christmas single and bought it. Sub Pop's new digital store would rank third for usability, but right now the store only offers full albums.

Rhapsody, Zune and Yahoo also have downloading services, but their main deals are subscriptions. As a music lover, I'm used to owning my music, so these services took some getting used to. In theory, it would be cool to listen to as many songs as I wanted to for the cost of an album a month, but for better or worse it's like cable. You have to pay that price forever if you want to keep listening. Once you stop, those songs are gone. You might as well stream songs on your computer for free.

Some of these companies (eMusic, Yahoo, Rhapsody and Napster) wowed me with their free downloads. But once I clicked on that link, they slyly asked me for my credit-card information before I could download. And eMusic takes it even further — after you download, your card is charged for a month's subscription, whether you want it or not.

Wal-Mart was also frustrating. Like most things in the store itself, the prices for digital music are cheap, but tax is added on. So, an 88-cent single comes out to 96 cents, which is not that much cheaper than iTunes.

And only certain songs come in a higher quality format (mp3s) while others are lower (wma's) with a sound quality that is barely passable. This was the case for the song I downloaded, unfortunately.

For sound quality, Amazon and iTunes have the highest at 256 kbps (kilobits per second, a data transfer rate), which makes for better audio. The rest are at 192 kbps, a manageable size that allows you to keep some audio quality but saves storage room for other songs.

And, Wal-Mart (128 kbps) and eMusic (153 kbps) have the worst quality. Although they are fine on the computer and iPod, these downloads would sound muffled on the stereo.

Syncing these songs onto a portable player, like an iPod, can be another headache. Amazon, iTunes, Sub Pop and eMusic were no problem for me. But for my iPod, the downloads from Wal-Mart, Zune and Yahoo needed to be translated to a different format through a converter found online. And both Rhapsody and Napster lock their music within their own players, so it took me all kinds of Googling wizardry to figure out how to get these songs out.

When you buy music this year, think about how you use it. If you just listen on your computer or portable player, you can buy songs cheaper. But, if you want to play the music on your stereo, you might have to pay a little more.

Note that however you decide to purchase music now, you can expect it to change in six months. The industry is changing every day — and looking for ways to reel you in. "People still do need an incentive to buy digital products," said Dean Hudson, director of technology and development at Sub Pop Records. "They don't trust the fact they don't have something physical, so if you can offer them something they can't get otherwise, or a little bit of convenience, then they will reward you with their sale."

Marian Liu: 206-464-3825 or mliu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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