The advent of digital distribution has changed a lot of things about the way we acquire music. Along with the convenience of being able to download the music you want from multimillion-track libraries almost instantly, there's been one critical shift: portability. The idea that you’d have to move to a specific room and feed your music into a single piece of equipment now seems archaic. The new norm is taking your music with you and, increasingly, having the ability to access every piece of music you own even if it can’t fit on your music player or mobile phone. The means for this miracle of “music in the ether” is cloud delivery.
Two key participants in this area are Apple with its iTunes Match and Amazon with its Cloud Player. Each has its advantages, but how do they compare? Let’s find out.
iTunes Match is a $25-per-year service. That fee gives you access to up to 25,000 tracks that you own (audiobooks and podcasts aren’t supported). Once you’ve paid for iTunes Match, you switch on the feature (by choosing Store > Turn On iTunes Match). iTunes sends a list of your tracks to Apple, which then compares them with tracks already existing in iTunes’ catalog. Your tracks must be in a format iTunes recognizes: AAC, MP3, AIFF, WAV, or Apple Lossless.
The tracks that match catalog items become available to you from any device that supports iTunes Match (computers running a copy of iTunes, iOS devices, and Apple TV). Any tracks that aren’t in iTunes’ catalog (or are, but whose metadata is so confused that iTunes fails to recognize them) upload to Apple's servers, where they become part of your cloud-based music collection. Tracks that you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store don’t count against the 25,000-track limit.
You can stream tracks through iTunes, iOS devices, and your Apple TV. iPhones and compatible iPads support streaming over both Wi-Fi and cellular connections. Additionally you can download songs to a computer running iTunes, or to an iOS device. (Current Apple TVs—which don’t have hard drives—don’t support downloading and therefore only stream tracks.) If you choose to download tracks from iTunes Match, the service delivers matched tracks as 256-kbps AAC files. Generally this is a good thing, as it gives you access to tracks that sound better than your originals—tracks you ripped at a lower bit rate (128-kbps MP3, for example). Unmatched tracks that you upload will come across in their original format and bit rate unless they started as Apple Lossless or uncompressed AIFF or WAV tracks; in such cases, they too download as 256-kbps AAC files.
If you choose to discontinue your iTunes Match subscription after your year is up, you’re welcome to keep any tracks you’ve downloaded (even if they’re the higher-quality versions). However, once you pull the plug, you can no longer access your tracks in the cloud.
The knock against iTunes Match is that its 25,000-track limit is too low for people with very large music libraries. Regrettably, iTunes doesn’t offer you the option to choose a subset or playlist of tracks: If your music library exceeds the limit, iTunes merely declares that you can’t use iTunes Match. And Apple offers you no option to purchase additional space for iTunes Match. If you have such a massive library, it’s up to you to cull it, and this task requires some trickery—you must either create a new iTunes library with fewer tracks or mark some tracks as podcasts or audiobooks so that iTunes doesn't count them among your music tracks.
And glitches remain. It’s not unusual to encounter duplicate entries, missing artwork, and missing tracks that are indeed in iTunes’ catalog.