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Spotify for iPhone: A sound investment?

Spotify's audio quality is bad -- and I don't mean that in the Michael Jackson sense of the word. Firing up my favourite playlist, drums sounded muddy, and the kicks like stale Rice Krispies

I jumped on the Spotify mobile bandwagon yesterday. I paid my tenner for the month, downloaded the 'free' application for the Jesus phone, and sat back in open-mouthed astonishment as a mobile gateway to a bazillion songs opened before me. I felt like those people in the Burger King adverts who think they're getting so good a deal they must be inadvertently robbing the joint.

Many questions needed answering: why would Apple allow access to an almost infinite supply of nearly-free music when it's trying so hard to peddle songs on its own iTunes music store? Isn't Apple destroying itself? Where's the catch? Was I missing something? Is there something wrong with Spotify?

Later that evening on the commute home, the catch became clear: Spotify's audio quality is bad -- and I don't mean that in the Michael Jackson sense of the word. Firing up my favourite playlist, the drums sounded muddy, and the kicks like stale Rice Krispies. I heard The Prodigy screaming "smack my beer gut", while 50 Cent muttered something about finding him in the tub on Shawny's birthday. I couldn't make head nor tail of it.

Yes, I'm exaggerating wildly, but there's a noticeable difference in audio quality between the desktop client and the mobile one, and an even bigger difference between those tracks and music bought via iTunes Plus. Subscribers to Spotify's premium service can stream 'CD quality' music at 320kbps, but there's no such option with the mobile client. The best we have currently is an ear-insulting 160kbps -- and it sounds it.

I won't go into the geekish pros and cons of the various compression methods at work, but to my ears it's like regressing from iPods to tape Walkmans and having to pay £10 per month for the privilege.

Yes, I can be a sound snob sometimes, and sure, most users won't notice the difference in audio fidelity -- but that's because most people are still using the iPhone's bundled white earphones, which make everything sound like Rich Boy, regardless of the bit rate or compression method. If you're using a pair of quality cans though, you'll instantly pick up on the slight muddiness, the lack of sharpness and general roughness of the sound. It's all rather 'low-res' for my tastes, and having to contend with a noisy outdoor environment only makes it worse.

All this raises the question: has Spotify's sound quality caused me to cancel my subscription? No is the short answer. I've learned to take my audio-snob hat off just long enough for me to get from A to B on the train, and it's during those times that Spotify really shines -- as a music-discovery tool. I'm hearing songs I'd long forgotten from childhood and enjoying music I previously wouldn't have tried (who'd have thought death metal could be so... tolerable?).

I'm getting a fabulous deal, and with my £120 per year in its investors' pockets, so is Spotify. The real winner in all this, however, is Apple. By providing access to Spotify's vast wealth of slightly hobbled music, and promoting the discovery of new tracks, it encourages people to buy higher quality versions of their favourite songs and albums on iTunes. It's genius -- and if things do work out this way, it could also go some way to reducing music piracy.

Spotify is far from perfect, but there's no getting away from the fact that it represents the future of music delivery. You may have your reservations now, but on the day you get involved, your music life will be a whole lot better for it.