- December 23rd, 2010
I've been using Rhapsody for a few days now and I'm leaning towards subscribing at the end of the free trial period. Here's why, and why I think the system - which previously had suffered from limited usefulness thanks to its reliance on heavy DRM - may now be viable and useful thanks to a sea-change in the rest of the world. To put it another way, I think Android could save Rhapsody, and that might even be a good thing. Here's why.
As soon as the lawsuits started, a large number of people suggested that the right way to deal with rampant music piracy on the 'net was to somehow make everyone pay a little more for their Internet connections, with that money going to musicians, in return for everyone being allowed to copy as much music as they want. This idea suffers from some major practical and moral issues: everyone has to pay this? Who divvies up the money? How does it get apportioned amongst the artists? Is anyone of any importance actually going to go along with this?
One solution to some of these issues is to just start doing it, but on a voluntary basis. Create a system that, in some ways, is a mirror of the music sharing system, but implement some walls so that those who don't pay the monthly toll don't get to benefit from it. And that's what Rhapsody is. It's a DRM infested music library that allows users to listen to as much music as they want, copy it to supported devices, and share playlists and information with one another. Unlike Napster and its ilk, the music encoding and information about the music available is moderated and high quality.
But... there's DRM. It's some proprietary thing specific only to Rhapsody (but it would be, wouldn't it?) which means if you own an unsupported device, you're out of luck - you can only copy music to it by plugging it into the headphone slot and hitting the record button on your device, assuming your device can even record music, which it probably can't.
So it's better than Napster (you don't get sued, you get that warm cosy feeling that you're contributing to the cost of creating the wonderful music you listen to, and you get a proper search system with decent quality music at the end of it.) It's also worse than Napster (you don't get MP3s, well, you can, if you want, but you have to pay extra for those, we'll get to that in a moment.)
The concept, in specifics
Here's what Rhapsody actually delivers:
1. A library of music comparable to Amazon's or iTunes.
2. Anyone can listen to (using streaming) 25 tracks every month for free, regardless of whether they're a subscriber. So if you're a subscriber, and you hear something awesome, you can actually send your friends a link, even those not on Rhapsody, and they can listen to it.
3. For $10 per month, you can stream as much music as you want in any Flash-supporting web browser. You can also stream to a supported audio device like some brands of home audio receiver. You can also stream to one portable device that supports it, and can copy music to one portable device that supports it. You can also, I believe, copy music to one Windows machine running the Rhapsody client software. You have a choice of AAC+ (64kbps) or MP3 (256kbps) as the underlying compression format for both streaming and copying, but the files are wrapped in DRM.
4. For $15 per month, you get the same as what you get for $10 per month, but can copy music to up to three devices.
5. While the technical measures to prevent it are limited, you generally can only stream to one thing at once, regardless of what you pay. This caused some consternation recently when the system to control this was "improved" and people used to streaming different things in different parts of their homes suddenly found themselves restricted.
6. There's a two week free trial for all of the above.
7. If you absolutely must have an unencumbered copy, then subscribers and non-subscribers alike can buy regular 256kbps MP3s individually for around a dollar each. As with Amazon and iTunes, whole albums are also available, usually for less than $1 x # MP3s and some tracks are unavailable except as part of albums. Again, it bears repeating these are normal MP3s, they'll play on that crappy 256M MP3 player you got in the 1990s.
8. You can share playlists, and email/tweet/etc links to music (that are available to non-members, thanks to the 25 track per month feature above)
For devices, devices running Android and iOS are supported through an official Rhapsody client, and require no external software to update them - you can create playlists and download the music in those playlists directly to the devices over Wifi or cellular, and even stream music. Blackberrys are also supported, but I can't tell you what functionality they have. In addition, some brands of regular portable player, such as the Sansa Fuze, have in-built Rhapsody support though need the Windows Rhapsody client to update them.
There are a lot of things to evaluate on the quality scale. There's audio quality, there's the software they supply, and there's also the website.
I've been using Rhapsody with two "clients", the website and my Android phone. Both allow you to search, stream, and create and manage playlists. These are associated with your account, so updating the playlist on your phone will update it on the website and vice versa. Searching is a little clunky on the Android client, which in general I found clunky anyway - the app had a habit of locking up for long enough that Android kept asking if I wanted to kill the process, despite the fact the app was clearly just waiting for network data. Trying to play a track midway through also often caused problems, as did the transition between one track and another, where jarring rattling noises were common. More problematic was the fact that frequently the app would completely lock up the entire system - I have no idea how that is even possible, but it is, and I had to reboot my phone several times by taking out the battery.
On Android you MUST use the Rhapsody app - no other music players will work - but integration with Android seems pretty decent. The music controls appear on the lock screen, for example, and work (on another music app I tried with Android, they'd appear when you were using that app, but they'd control the actual regular Music app!)
The website is fairly clean and efficient. If you want to listen to music, a window containing a flash-based player pops up, and for the most part I had no issues with it, although the system they're using does seem susceptible to pop-up blockers. The website only supports streaming and purchases, for obvious reasons. Search options are good, the system displays a lot of useful information.
Rhapsody streams and downloads music in two formats. The default is AAC+, and is sent at just 64kbps. You can also choose to stream MP3s at 256kbps. If you're on cellular data, AAC+ is pretty much the only sane option.
AAC+ is also known as HE AAC, and a lot of other names. It's a system where audio is split into a low frequency part, which is compressed using "regular" AAC, and a high frequency part, which is compressed using a somewhat less exact system, based upon the human ear's tendency to hear large amounts of high frequency tones as white noise. Now, I'm not an audiophile so take it with a grain of salt, but I certainly didn't notice anything unpleasant about the streaming in AAC+, I'd be quite happy to listen to all of my music in that format. On the other hand, I think FM radio is good too, so, like I said, take that as it is.
Streaming and downloads
As above, you can choose between streaming music, downloading it, or buying it outright and downloading MP3s. The Android client, from what I can figure out, supports all three.
Streaming is the default - selecting any piece of music you haven't downloaded causes it to be streamed instead. If you're concerned about possibly accidentally streaming music you can put the app into "Offline mode", in which it pretends there is no Internet connection at all.
Once you've set up playlists, you can download music, whole playlists at a time. There's no option to download music track by track or album by album, but it's relatively easy to copy an album to a new playlist, so this, in practice, is not a big issue. The downloaded music seems to act like a cache - whenever you select a track to listen to, the client looks to see if it's downloaded and if it is, it plays the downloaded version, otherwise streaming it.
Long pressing on a track gives you options, including one to purchase a track, so you can then buy and download an unencumbered MP3. I tried it, and got a system error. Logging into the website showed the MP3 was still waiting for me to download, but there was no apparent option on the phone itself to resume the download. When you download MP3s on the website, it bundles them into a .zip so you can do everything in a single download.
Why I think Android makes this work
From the above, you can probably figure out I think it's a nice system albeit with significant limitations. The major limitation, to me, is that downloaded music can only work on supported hardware. Now, in the past, "supported hardware" meant an entirely supported system. The iPod/iTunes combination, for example, originally pretty much required a PC or Mac, and it wasn't until companies like Amazon started selling unencumbered MP3s via their website that this linkage was broken.
Things start to get better when you break those links. Android fixes the situation in two ways: first, Android allows the music supplier to put their own application onto a music player to manage the music collection, and second Android is capable enough - in terms of features and hardware demands - to ensure the application can manage the entire process, getting, storing, and playing the music. And so there's no longer a requirement for a long chain of proprietary applications running on proprietary systems, only one proprietary system is needed - the application itself. And all hinges on whether that single app works or doesn't.
And this is where portable devices are moving. Recently MP3 player makers have been flocking to Android and producing players that are essentially similar in concept to the iPod Touch. The result is a system that is open, albeit one whose openness gives it the ability to better support proprietary systems. In the long run, I suspect virtually every MP3 player that isn't made by Apple will run Android, have Wifi, and be capable of using any online music store with an available app.
I have to say I rather like the system Rhapsody have put together. The website is a nice way to manage playlists, and while the Android app has a few glitches, it's certainly usable. And while, like everyone, I'd prefer open MP3s, the DRM is generally not getting in the way of what I want to do.
I've been listening to a variety of pieces since I started evaluating the system. What's really nice, and maybe it's just nice to me because I "missed out" on the whole Napster thing, is being able to find virtually anything and give it a try. Prior to this I'd occasionally search for things on YouTube, but the quality is variable on YouTube and obviously, while there are ways to download YouTube videos and extract the audio, the process is a pain and not something you want to do if you can avoid it.
As mentioned above, while the audio quality is good, the app needs some work in the quality department. Streaming seems to work well, even over cellular.
Like virtually everyone, I have issues with DRM, and would rather the technology not exist. Still, in terms of services that DRM seems to be appropriate for, this is one of them: I'm not buying music, I'm using a service that lets me listen to music. And if I buy music from this service, there's no DRM. So I'm in two minds about it, but I do feel that at least there's a "reasonable expectations" thing going on here that there isn't for, say, a DVD. If I "buy a movie", I expect to have the right to watch it on my own terms. So being told, for example, I can face 4 years in prison for what's involved in watching it on a computer running Ubuntu, for example, is a shock and promoting an injustice. If I "rent a movie", well, that's different. And if I buy a ticket to watch a movie at a cinema, well, my expectations in terms of what I can do with it are close to non-existent. I'd put Rhapsody somewhere between the last two.
On the other side, the existence of the service is another way to ensure money goes towards the production of music. I like that part, a lot.
And it's music. If you really, really, really must break the DRM, you can always attach a recording device to the headphone jack.
Like I said, I'm leaning towards subscribing. I'll see over the next few weeks how much I use the service, but it's pretty decent, and the multiple device subscription is actually around the same as a Sirius subscription for a single device. I would like to see the Android app made less clunky however.