Top 5 DRM-free mp3 retailers reviewed

January 12, 2008

Top 5 mp3 retailers, finally some good options to download music legally Finally, as most of the major music labels have made portions of their libraries available online DRM-free, consumers have some choice in where to buy their music. Here are some great places to kickstart your search.

This list is in no particular order, but each option is ranked according to the following criteria: (1) speedy delivery, (2) system footprint — do you have install a resource-intensive program to download files?, (3) user interface, (4) effectively connects users with new music. Obviously another important component is the selection of music available, but as that changes from week to week it’s outside the scope of this article.

Amazon mp3s logo

1. First on the list is, a relative newcomer to the mp3 downloads race, Amazon has targeted the group of consumers who have no tolerance for DRM and are looking for an inexpensive, legal alternative (most of us?). You own the music after downloading it.

- Speedy delivery: Amazon begins the download process immediately after you approve the purchase. In several tests, mp3s over 3 minutes required less than 30 seconds to download (using a 10mbps cable connection). 5/5

- System footprint: upon making your first mp3 purchase, Amazon downloads a very small utility that manages downloads. In the future it will automatically launch when called from the Amazon mp3 site. One drawback? The utility doesn’t ask where to store your files at the outset, so you may want to customize it right after installing the app. 4/5

- User interface: the Amazon mp3 site provides a fairly standard set of navigation with several hierarchically placed columns. It features filters for price and genre. Overall a simple interface that meets the need. 5/5

- Connects users with new music: this is a struggle for Amazon. Though the company provides lists of top mp3s sold, top artists, hot new songs and featured artists, it still frequently feels difficult to find new music that’s compatible with past buying trends. 2/5

Average score: 4/5, a good option for people who just want music.

eMusic logo2. takes a different approach by charging a monthly subscription fee to download a number of mp3s per month. Right now the subscription levels are $9.99 for 30 mp3s, $14.99 for 50, and $19.99 for 75. eMusic also focuses on independent labels so you may be able to find lots of new music from lesser known artists.

- Speedy delivery: eMusic also begins downloads immediately with fast transfer speeds. 5/5

- System footprint: a small application eMusic calls the download manager organizes and manages your downloads. 5/5

- User interface: straightforward navigation along with user recommendations for additional music. 5/5

- Connects users with new music: community aspects help eMusic partially fill this need with fan and user lists, music charts and lots of sorting options. 4/5

Average score: 4.75/5, a strong option for users who don’t mind a subscription-based business model.

iTunes logo

3. iTunes has dominated the online music downloads space for a while now and continues to innovate with compelling new features. Apple charges $.99 for tracks protected by DRM and provides mp3 downloads of some songs for slightly more.

- Speedy delivery: iTunes typically provides very quick downloads but during peak periods it can slow down due to its popularity. 4/5

- System footprint: iTunes takes a lot of system resources and can take several seconds to load even on modern systems. On many of the download options, Quicktime is bundled. 3/5

- User interface: very easy to browse by genre and pull up many popularity lists. iTunes brings mp3s, video and podcasts under one umbrella. 5/5

- Connects users with new music: thousands of lists created regularly by community members. Popularity charts provide a good starting place for finding more good music based on genre. It’s easy to see user ratings for each song and album. 5/5

Average score: 4.25/5, de facto standard in the industry, good for iPod users and those looking for an immersive experience.

Rhapsody logo4. Rhapsody, another member of the subscription club allows you to download and stream any of its music to various devices as long as your account is active. The standard plan is $12.99 per month, but to store the songs on a portable mp3 player costs $14.99. To download songs without DRM costs an additional $.89 for subscribers.

- Speedy delivery: in speed tests Rhapsody began downloads immediately on a consistent basis. 5/5

- System footprint: Rhapsody software not as resource intensive as iTunes but more significant than other options. 4/5

- User interface: not possible to even preview music without installing site plugin, too much reliance on application installation on web site. Emphasis placed on having a subscription to even preview more than 10 songs per month. 2/5

- Connects users with new music: lots of suggestions and popularity lists, editorial reviews, genre sorting. Community features not as tightly integrated as other options. 3/5

Average score: 3.5/5, may work for those who can afford a continual investment and who demand lots of new music regularly.

Yahoo MUSIC Unlimited logo

5. Yahoo offers a subscription based service called MUSIC Unlimited for only $5.99 per month if you pay yearly. That’s a pretty cheap way to have a lot of music at your fingertips, at least when you’re at a computer. The site doesn’t provide a way to download music onto an mp3 player unless you pay an extra $.79 along with your subscription.

- Speedy delivery: in speed tests Yahoo began downloads immediately on a consistent basis. 5/5

- System footprint: again not as large a footprint as iTunes, but more than Amazon. 4/5

- User interface: some neat integration with music videos, lots of top lists and navigation is intuitive. Music blogs and reviews give a nice community boost. 5/5

- Connects users with new music: aggregation of blog feeds provides some great music suggestions but can be awkward to find other music based on what you’ve already purchased. 4/5

Average score: 4.5/5, inexpensive option for those on a computer regularly.

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17 Responses to “Top 5 DRM-free mp3 retailers reviewed”

  1. Wes:

    Something important to note about eMusic – they simply do not have much of a selection if you’re looking for mainstream artists, and a lot of what they DO have that looks like mainstream artists is actually low-quality covers of those artists’ songs. Use the free trial to identify if you can find enough music you like to justify the cost.

  2. Joe Mamma:

    e-music pretty much sucks not much work by original artists

  3. John Doe:

    Mp3 is another site, they boast that they have the largest invertory on the net, But I cant get them to let me know if their downloads are drm free. when I e-mail them asking this question, I get a response completly unrelated to my question. I don’t think they actually read the questions, it may be a computer generated response Pretty lame!! Or they just don’t want to tell me that I can only use their music on their program, Like Rhapsody, untill after I buy It. Rhapsody was OK, But too expensive. I had it for like three years. Looking back, I could have bought and owned alot of music for that kind of money. I am only going to buy drm free downloads from now on.

  4. Dhaith:

    eMusic has *loads* of music by original artists, especially in the indie, classical and jazz genres. if you are looking for the ‘originals’ of the mainstream bulk that Sony et al produce, turn to iTunes.

  5. LOLMAN:

    Pointless list as you miss out on by far the two most important criteria: the size of the music selection, and the quality of the music files (bitrate and filetype).

    “if you are looking for the ‘originals’ of the mainstream bulk that Sony et al produce”

    i.e. music that more than 5 people have heard of and that is actually worth listening to?

  6. LOLMAN:

    By the way only posted on this site because this page is the #2 result on Google for “DRM free MP3s”.

    Also re eMusic, I don’t like a site that doesn’t even let you browse the catalogue without creating an account.

  7. bubblegumboy:

    well i have not tried all of these sites, but i can tell you that Rhapsody has horrible bitrates for the mp3′s offered. you can listen to music online at that has better bitrates than anything ive found on Rhapsody.

  8. rioca smith:

    personaly i preffer itunes
    we can found a multiple choice (everthing we need)
    and the quality is very good

  9. user:

    I have used emusic, and there really is tons of absolutely great stuff on the elecronical music side…

  10. Monster:

    I’ve been an emusic customer since October 2006 and I have found so many great (mainly metal) albums there. I was a total mainstream junkie before this and emusic really helped broaden my musical experience and I’m so glad for this. So if you’re ready to leave the mainstream zone I can totally recommend emusic!

  11. xenki:

    itunes i think is a little better than but don’t know for other choices

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    OK, now years down the road, there are some clear winners in this.

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