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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

MSN Music Falls Just Short of iTunes' High Marks

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page F07

Microsoft's MSN Music store shouldn't surprise anybody. The company with its own operating system, online service, digital-music format and media software was always the likeliest suspect to launch an online music store.

But Microsoft didn't rush to open its store last year, when most of its competitors debuted. Instead, it waited until last month -- a delay that allowed it to learn from other stores' mistakes. MSN Music (music.msn.com) is by far the most capable rival to Apple's iTunes Music Store, even if it doesn't yet surpass it.

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MSN Music's official launch won't come until Tuesday, an occasion that should bring a flurry of press releases and some new features, but the basics of the store are set. Like other digital-music shops, it charges 99 cents a song and $9.90 an album (save some weirdly priced exceptions, such as Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," at $10.89).

Shopping the store is a pleasure, whether in Microsoft's Windows XP-only Windows Media Player 10 or through a Web interface (you can only buy using the Windows version of Internet Explorer). Type what you want into a search form and results are cleanly presented a moment later; each track shown comes with a 30-second sample and a rating, from one to five stars, based on other users' input. This search engine will offer to correct typos, even the most obscure -- it fixed my attempt to spell Einsturzende Neubauten.

Shortcuts to an artist's full catalogue appear to the right. Adjacent "find lyrics" and "find tickets" links, however, issue only generic queries ("U2 lyrics" or "U2 tickets") to Microsoft's MSN Search -- and open Internet Explorer to do this, even if you use another browser.

MSN Music's catalogue includes about 600,000 tracks, up from 500,000 at the start; Microsoft's goal is to pass 1 million. (Apple's store is already there.) The store doesn't claim any exclusives yet, but a "Coming Soon" page lists AC/DC and Radiohead -- both absent from the Napster and iTunes stores.

Purchasing a song requires providing a credit card number and setting up a user account on Microsoft's Passport identity service. Not seeing any clear reason why my Hotmail password (that Web-mail service also requires a Passport login) should unlock my credit card, I set up a different Passport account for this store.

You can buy songs or entire albums in one or two clicks, depending on your choice of settings. Your purchases arrive as Windows Media Audio files, produced at a slightly higher quality level than other stores -- a "variable bit rate" encoding of around 160 kilobits per second that should capture more detail in a song's more complex passages.

The difference in quality was obvious in listening to two versions of Parliament's funk classic "Chocolate City"; an MP3 downloaded off a file-sharing system obscured an entire layer of background percussion that MSN's version had preserved.

But the comparison was much tougher when I auditioned versions of Miles Davis's "So What" purchased off iTunes and MSN Music. In repeated listening, I couldn't pick a clear winner -- although, when played over good speakers, both lacked a tiny bit of the original CD version's depth.

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