Neil Young goes with download first, CD later

Company lets you listen to high-fidelity downloads by the rocker that provide the same sound quality as the CD.

Neil Young has released his next album, "Living With War," on a Web site specializing in high-fidelity downloads--before the record hits stores.

The collection of songs, which will be sold as an album and not singles, is available on MusicGiants. The company sells music in the Windows Media Audio Lossless format, a beefier format that provides better sound quality than standard downloads from iTunes or other services, according to MusicGiants.

An average song in the Lossless format might be 15MB, said Elliot Mazer, a producer for Young (he mastered the 1970s album "Harvest") and a consultant for MusicGiants.

By contrast, an MP3 file of the same song might be 3MB. The reduction in file size for MP3s is accomplished through perceptual coding, he said. In that process, the dominant sound on a track--the primary vocal tone, for example--is retained, while overtones or other sounds are swept away. Mazer says perceptual coding is analogous to cranking down the color quality on a monitor from 32 bit to 16 bit.

While the smaller files economize on bandwidth and storage, sound quality diminishes. When a song in the lossless format is unzipped and played back, it contains more depth of tone and texture.

"On a Lossless file, when played back it is exactly like the CD. If you took a CD and listened to it and then listened to something on Napster or iTunes, it would sound deader or smaller," he said. "With bandwidth and storage the way it is, why would you want to go with the smaller format?"

The site sells songs for $1.29 a song. A complete album generally sells for about $15.29. The company has a music library of about 500,000 songs from labels such as EMI, Sony and Warner Music.

Windows Media Audio Lossless format files can be played back on Windows Media Player 10.

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