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Passionato: Classical music downloads done right

We've taken Passionato for a spin -- a download store for classical music, using lossless audio and no DRM. Classical music-loving iTunes haters, this is what you've been waiting for

If you're a classical music connoisseur, chances are you've never felt much love for the likes of iTunes and Napster. While iTunes boasts a decent helping of classical music, the DRM and low bit-rate encoding of its music files meant that moving those downloads to your hi-fi has not been an attractive option.

But you're in luck, as this week saw the launch of Passionato -- a new classical music download store that offers music encoded in the lossless FLAC format, typically with bit rates eight times greater than those from iTunes. It's got catalogues from big classical names, including Naxos, Universal Classics and Jazz, Decca, BBC Worldwide, Capitol USA, Blue Note and EMI Classics.

It's the work of former Baltimore Symphony Orchestra president James Glicker, who told the BBC that the closure of traditional music stores, combined with the rising numbers of attendees at classical performances, acts as his motivation.

To his credit he's got a hell of a lot right in terms of how download stores need to work. We took Passionato for a spin last night and liked much of what we saw.

The site is pretty well designed, although currently quite slow -- due, we expect, to all the traffic its launch has generated. About 18,000 titles are available, all in 320Kbps MP3 and, seemingly, most in FLAC as well. FLAC downloads cost about 20 per cent more -- 99p per track compared to 79p for MP3. Albums and complete works vary in price.

60-second previews are offered on all tracks and after an easy sign-up, payment can be made with credit cards or PayPal. Your downloads are only available to you for about two weeks after purchase, however. This is better than iTunes, which doesn't allow any re-downloading options, but isn't as attractive as 7digital or eMusic's services, which let you re-download everything you've ever purchased from them any number of times.

We initially bought two of our favourite tracks from Passionato, in the FLAC format -- Widor's Symphony for Organ No. 5 in f Minor, and Handel's coronation anthem Zadok The Priest. Several performances were available and were encoded well, with performer, conductor, engineer and recording location information embedded in each file correctly.

So far we're impressed with Passionato -- it's got all the makings of a successful music store: good prices, no DRM, lossy and lossless offerings in standard formats, decent content, a recommendations engine, a friendly design, plus a forum for classical lovers to discuss music.

We'd like to see re-downloads of purchases made continually available, and perhaps user reviews of titles on offer included on album pages. But for the most part it's a compelling offering all classical music fans should check out, particularly if they've previously steered clear of the likes of iTunes. -Nate Lanxon