The trouble with iTunes

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Through our mini series on streaming audio we’ve learned how iTunes finds and plays a track on your hard drive but we haven’t yet learned why programs that circumvent iTunes, like Amarra, Pure Music and Bit Perfect exist at all.

If you’ve managed to keep up with streaming audio in the magazines, you may have heard of these aftermarket programs that are add ons to iTunes – and since iTunes is the single most popular music management and playback program in the world – boasting tens of millions of users – one would question why anyone would spend money on adding an iTunes “helper” program like those I’ve just mentioned.

Here’s the deal: iTunes’ primary objective is to make playing music easy and to do that Apple sacrificed the ultimate fidelity that’s important to us Audiophiles. And who can blame them? Although it’s widely accepted that Steve Jobs himself was one of us and cared deeply about the way audio sounded in his home,Audiophiles make up only a tiny percentage of music lovers the world over. iTunes is set up to make sure the user experience is never in question and the net result of that, from a high-end perspective, is an unfortunate up and down sampling of all the music that passes through the program.

I think we’ve shown that once any music player begins to actually play a track it most go somewhere to be heard: your computer’s sound card, a USB connected DAC, etc. The problem you immediately run into is one of compatibility. If you are trying to play a 192kHz 24 bit file and your sound card, DAC or connected device doesn’t support that high sample rate (most don’t) then one of two things will happen: you’ll get nothing or you’ll get trouble. In either case you won’t get music at 192kHz 24 bits – you’ll get something less.

Most connected sound cards, USB and network connected DACS are limited to 96kHz 24 bits and so it is the responsibility of the interface driver to announce the restriction to the player so things are seamless. Make sense? The designers of iTunes simply want you to hit play and not worry about anything else – but we’re Audiophiles – and we worry about everything! So iTunes sends the high resolution file through a downsampler and converts it to the highest allowed rate your connected device can handle: in this case 96kHz 24 bits. Ouch!

To make matters worse, iTunes does this with everything – both up and down. So, for example, if you connect our upcoming entry level DAC the NuWave (which replaces the venerable DLIII), which can accept 192kHz 24 bit asynchronous signals over USB, iTunes will upsample everything you play to that sample rate – even standard CD’s and, unfortunately, their upsample engine isn’t all that good (none are) so your standard CD’s end up sounding digital and somewhat unmusical compared to their native resolution. This is not ever going to be acceptable to any of us – and if you’re an iTunes user you should know this.

You aren’t getting what you think you are getting – ever.

The aftermarket programs like Amarra, Pure Music and Bit Perfect (all MAC only programs) use iTunes only as a management tool and include their own player, bypassing the iTunes player and upsampler. That’s why they sound so much better. Unfortunately for Windows users these programs are not available.

One last nail in the iTunes coffin for Audiophiles: there is no support for FLAC – which is the single most used lossless compression CODEC for high-end lovers today. Sigh.

So in conclusion, if you’re a Windows user and are relying on iTunes – stop. You’re screwed sonically. If you’re a MAC user and are willing to convert all your FLAC files to ALAC as well as purchase one of these aftermarket programs, you’re in good shape.