The world of music downloads is ever-changing. Most music downloads are now available without the restrictions of digital rights management (DRM), and converting between different file formats is usually possible, though sometimes messy. The latest development is the availability of cloud storage for all your music tracks, making your music collection available from anywhere with a web connection. (Cloud storage means that your files are on a company's server, rather than on your local machine.) If you'd rather stream music than download individual tracks, see our related report on music streaming sites .
Three companies dominate the reviews of music download services: iTunes, AmazonMP3 and newcomer Google Music. Each offers similar services, prices and catalogs, yet each has different strengths. In addition, eMusic is our pick as the music download service to check out for music by independent and emerging artists.
If you're an Apple fan with an iPhone, iPod or iPad, then iTunes (*Est. $0.69 to $1.29 per track) is still the most attractive option for your music download purchases. With an extensive catalog of over 20 million tracks, including music from the four major record companies, iTunes presents a wide range of music genres, including Latin music, spoken word and music from independent musicians. All music from iTunes is now DRM-free, so it has no download or copying restrictions. However, iTunes still uses the AAC file format for its music tracks, so people with MP3 players that don't support the AAC format (many music players aside from the iPod now do, however) may need to convert these files into the WMA or MP3 format.
For fans of mainstream top-40 music who want low prices for their MP3 music downloads, AmazonMP3 (*Est. $0.69 to $1.29 per track) offers a catalog of 19 million tracks. Owners of Android-powered smartphones and tablets can download songs directly to their device. Anyone can use the Amazon Downloader to download music to a computer and direct it into Windows Media Player or iTunes. AmazonMP3 often has the lowest prices, with daily bargains and rewards for frequent purchases. ITunes compatibility makes AmazonMP3 a good choice for Apple users as well.
your main concern is to access all your downloaded music at any time on any of
your devices, then consider Google Music (*Est. $0.99 to $1.29 per track),
which launched in November 2011. Now rolled into the Google Play service,
Google Music's catalog of 13 million songs is smaller than that of iTunes and
AmazonMP3, and content from some major labels, such as Warner Brothers, is not
carried by these services. However, Google Music fills that void through
arrangements with over 1,000 independent labels and distributors. Still, it's
Google Music's full integration with the cloud that sets it apart from its
competitors. You can upload up to 20,000 songs (regardless of where you
purchased them) into your Music Locker at no cost, and access them from any
web-connected device. You can also make tracks available offline. ITunes and AmazonMP3 offer similar services, but at a cost, and their storage services are not as fully integrated.
EMusic (*Est. $12 and up per month) is a recommended option for those who listen to alternative music or who prefer not to deal with the larger companies. EMusic's catalog has over 13 million tracks, mostly from independent musicians or emerging artists. They also carry Sony's back catalog of songs, so you can purchase songs published more than two years ago by Sony artists. With eMusic, you don't buy individual tracks; you pay a monthly subscription that allows you to download a defined number of songs that you can play on any PC or MP3 player. For music by independent artists, it's also worth checking out the offerings on Google Music, as their Artist Hub service allows musicians to publish and sell their own music.
While there have not been many recent reviews of music download services, we did find some useful comparative reviews at The Huffington Post, Lifehacker.com and TopTenReviews.com. The first two compare the current three biggest music download services -- iTunes, AmazonMP3 and Google Music -- while TopTenReviews.com presents its top 10 music download services for 2012. Professional reviewers at Download.com (owned by CNET), PC World, PCMag.com and Macworld all review at least one of our best-reviewed music download services, while About.com looks at music downloads primarily for mobile devices. Only the AmazonMP3 service receives customer feedback at Amazon.com. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)