Why Amazon’s ‘Unlimited’ Cloud Music Storage Deal Is Partly Bogus

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So you’ve maybe heard about Amazon offering unlimited server-based music storage (call it “cloud” if you must—I prefer the apparently retro/old-school term “online”). Like me, maybe you have a massive music collection that you’ve shopped around the online scene without success because of service storage limits (take a bow mostly Google Music).

And so with this Amazon deal, you’re probably thinking “At last! A place for hard drive tune-jammed music aficionados like me!” You grab your portable one (or two) terabyte music repository, packed with hundreds of gigabytes of lossless audio files (real music lovers listen lossless-only; compression’s for dilettantes), conjure Amazon’s cloud drive interface, and prepare to fire.

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Then you get an error message warning you the files you’re trying to upload aren’t supported, or they’ll cost extra (a lot extra), and the whole beautiful promise comes apart, just like pretty much anything purchased off a 1-800 TV ad. Alas, you didn’t read the fine print, did you.

Like the part where Amazon writes, “All lossless files with the .m4a extension are not eligible for storage in unlimited music space.” And slightly later, “Music recordings in other formats, lossless files, or audio recordings that are not of songs and non-audio files (even if in MP3 or AAC format) are not eligible for unlimited music space and will count against your Cloud Drive storage space.”

Translation: Listening to music as was originally intended by the artists—that is, without lossy compression—isn’t happening in Amazon’s notion of unlimited space. That excludes everything in my collection, since I made the jump to FLAC (free lossless audio codec) years ago, spending months fastidiously converting my CD collection over with Exact Audio Copy, then recently converting that over to the lossless version of Apple’s M4A format so I could play uncompressed audio on my iPhone 4. The only way I’m getting my nearly 500GB of lossless music on Amazon is by spending $500 a year, or $1 per year per gigabyte.

In fact, reads Amazon’s fine print, “To be eligible for unlimited music space, files must be music recordings in MP3 (.mp3) or AAC (.m4a, iTunes non-DRM files) format and must be less than 100 MB in size.” Forget Ogg Vorbis and Windows Media Audio, then.

“Unlimited” is of course the new “limited.” It’s the Autobahn, but where speed control’s handled by giving your vehicle a top—and in this case, fairly restrictive—speed. It’s been this way at least since broadband companies started fibbing about monthly data plans, trotting out “fair access policies” with secret quotas. Most would call that false advertising, because it is. What Amazon’s offering isn’t unlimited cloud music storage for $20 a year, they’re offering unlimited compressed audio storage, and then in only one of two lossy audio formats.

I realize for many that compressed audio’s the de facto standard these days. iTunes and Amazon still top out at 256 kbps. Music sounds flattened to my ear at that rate. I’ve tried every trick to improve compression quality, but nothing’s worked. My ears won’t abide the reduction.

If you’re buying music from either of those two, you’re listening well below the originally intended quality line. But you will be able to avail yourself of Amazon’s unlimited music storage option. I suppose there’s that.

MORE: Amazon Offers Unlimited Cloud Music Storage for $20 per Year

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

2 comments
BreatheInTheAir
BreatheInTheAir

It is so sad that there are no cloud services that can stream high quality audio, I would pay a lot for that kind of service, another sad thing, the smartphones these days, some of them can play high quality audio well enough, but there is no storage, with FLAC songs weigh 40 MB, and the phones having 32GB max and with no storage expansion, it's really hard to store music offline on your phone.

AndyMendoza
AndyMendoza

I know this is an old article, and the writer may not be listening, but I hear you! I'm researching what cloud player to use and found Google so far as allowing FLAC formats so I guess I will use them. I have a significant amount invested in the Amazon ecosystem but I guess I will use both services. I am the kind of person who doesn't own a lot of music but when I do find music (through internet radios Pandora/Spotify) I want the highest quality possible. It's a shame that most music streaming radios transmit in such low quality. If they upped the quality, I would pay to subscribe.