This post marks the return of a series of articles that review online music services, such as EMusic, the iTunes Music Store, Napster, and more. The fact that almost 2 years have elapsed in between reviews indicates that market has gradually stabilized. Has it done so for the better? No, not necessarily. For the background and methodology used in this review please read the music store review guidelines.Introduction:Yahoo! Music Unlimited is a music subscription service (originally born as LAUNCH, but acquired and rebranded by Yahoo! in recent years). Like the Napster and Rhapsody services, customers pay a monthly subscription fee for unlimited access to the music catalog. Tracks can be streamed to a desktop client over the Internet or downloaded for offline use on the desktop or compatible portable device. When the subscription term ends, further access to the track is disabled, though a purchase plan is available that allows for a permanent "burnable" copy of individual tracks.
Sound Quality: The tracks available for download from Yahoo! Music are encoded with the Windows Media Audio codec (WMA) at 192 kbs, apparently with a constant bit rate (CBR). The streaming tracks are most likely using the same encoding, though it is difficult to tell for certain, as the Yahoo! Music Engine (the music player application) does not display the bit rates for streaming tracks. 192 kbs WMA is better than other streaming services, and it is in fact better than most competing pure download services. In fact, it is on the boundary of what is acceptable for long-term archival and serious listening. 192 kps WMA encoding audibly introduces artifacts at the extremes, but it is sufficient for most desktop or portable usage on average headphones or speakers. However, since this is primarily a subscription service, long-term archival is probably not the intended use, thus the quality is appreciably high. Score: 7Fair Use Rights: The subscription tracks (both streaming and downloaded) are encrypted with Microsoft's WMA Janus DRM format which requires a license on each client machine for playback. This license is refreshed with your account information via the Yahoo! servers at periodic intervals to ensure that if you terminate your subscription then your right to play downloaded tracks is also suspended. Burnable (i.e., permanent) downloads can be copied to archival media, such as CD, up to seven times per playlist, but can be copied an unlimited number of times if the playlist is modified. Subscription tracks can be played on any of up to three authorized machines, and the authorization is transferable. Copies can be made an unlimited of portable devices, providing they support WMA DRM. A clever use of this service is the built-in integration with the Yahoo! Messenger client -- users can share tracks with other Yahoo! Music Unlimited subscribers over IM. While all of this still falls short of actual fair use, it is one of the more liberal DRM-restricted policies in the industry. Score: 6Cross-Platform Compatibility: The Yahoo! Music Engine is required to access and download the subscription content, and this software runs only on Microsoft Windows. As has been well articulated before, the client also unfortunately attempts to piggy-back other software and desktop modifications into the install. Once tracks have been downloaded they can be played on any other music software that supports WMA DRM, such as the Windows Media Player. Portable devices are also required to support WMA DRM in order to play Yahoo! subscription tracks. Unfortunately, Apple's iPod, (currently with over 80% of the portable marketshare), is unlikely to ever support WMA at all. In other words, in order to put the music on device that supports WMA, but not DRM, you must purchase the "burnable" track individually, in addition to the monthly subscription feeds. And to put it on a device that doesn't play WMA, such as the iPod, you would have to burn it to a CD and re-rip the track -- not only an additional expense and inconvenience, but also at a noticeable loss of sound quality. Good if you own a subscription compatible device, not very good otherwise. Score: 4Usability: The Yahoo! Music Engine is the primary interface by which the user navigates and plays subscription music. The design is utilitarian and straightforward when managing existing tracks (those already downloaded or imported), but the client falls short when looking for new music. The client is essentially just a wrapper around a web-based search and browser interface (much like iTunes interoperates with the iTMS), and the limitations are apparent. The right pieces are all there -- search, browse, reviews, ratings, cover art, etc., but the interface lacks a certain refinement that inhibits the overall usability. One welcome addition are the weekly charts of popular albums, segmented by genre and sub-genre. These charts would be a good way of finding new music, tempered somewhat by the out-of-date tastes of the current customer base. The online help files are refreshingly well written. Ultimately, the required client is at best functional, and can be maddeningly slow when connecting over the network. Additionally, the very noticeable gaps between streaming songs detract from the overall usability. Score: 5Independent Selection: The Yahoo! Music Unlimited service had 4 of the 10 criteria selections. However, it did have a long list of other albums for 2 of the artists, as well as a number of refreshingly unexpected surprises, many of which were discovered by following the "related artist" links. While the store is not deep enough to be a canonical resource when you are looking for one particular artist or track, and there are annoying holes where some individual songs are blacked-out for download on otherwise available albums, it is a good middle-of-the road offering. Score: 5Price: At $59.40 for a one-year subscription, or $5.95 per month (with one week free as an introduction), the Yahoo! Music Unlimited service is almost being given away. And permanent burnable tracks are usually $0.79 each, roughly 20% less than the going rate at other music stores. There is no comparing the price with any other service -- if it delivers, it is worth several times the cost. But the caveats are long: it is effectively a Windows only service, it probably will not work on your portable music player, the catalog is underwhelming, the interface is primitive, and when you stop paying the monthly fee or Yahoo! chooses for any reason to discontinue the service, you will not be able to listen to the music any longer. That said, the service is priced to sell, (at least as an introductory offer), and that price is very good. Score: 8Overall Score: If you live in the United States, use Windows, and have a compatible portable music player, the Yahoo! Music Unlimited subscription service is a excellent complement to your existing collection and your favorite store. Even if used only as a tool for auditioning albums for later purchase on CD, at $5/mo it is well worth it. However, if you are exclusively a Mac or Linux user and/or own an incompatible portable device (like 80% of the market), then the service is unfortunately of nearly no value. DRM may be a necessary evil for subscription services, but that doesn't make it any more palatable for the consumer. Ultimately the consumer will be simply renting temporary access to the music, not buying it. This is a great deal if you can use it, and if you accept that it is only a supplement to a full music purchase service (i.e., one without DRM). Yahoo! does make permanent downloads an option, albeit with the same restrictive DRM -- and thus is halfway to a truly superlative solution. With better cross-platform compatibility, a better catalog, a choice of DRM formats, and an open client, then this would be the best music store in the business. As it is today, it is an especially good start. Score: 6Read the Napster 2.0 Review.
Read the EMusic Review.
Read the Audio Lunchbox Review.
Read the Bleep Review.
Read the Wal-Mart Online Music Store Review.
Read the Apple iTunes Music Store Review.
Read the Breakdown guidelines for this review.