The economy took its toll on digital audio in 2009, with CD sales continuing to decline (even as vinyl makes a resurgence), digital start-ups going bankrupt or disappearing after takeovers, and labels expressing dissatisfaction with would-be digital saviors like MySpace Music. Even so, there was actually quite a lot to cheer this year. The following five products aren't necessarily the best, but to me, they did the most to move the state of digital audio forward in 2009.
Windows 7. Microsoft appears to have recovered from Vista with a new OS that runs efficiently, looks good, and satisfies users. Released on October 22, the latest version of Windows also includes some important new features for digital audio lovers. I was pleasantly surprised by Microsoft's decision to support for Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), which is the default format used by Apple's iTunes. With this simple move (along with native H.264 video support), Microsoft has finally acknowledged that Windows Media isn't taking over the world any time soon, and will hopefully move to the much more sensible strategy of making Windows a sort of "Swiss Army knife" of digital media. In addition, the new Remote Media Streaming feature lets you access the media library on your hard drive from any PC over the Internet, reducing the need for third-party solutions like JukeFly or online music lockers like Lala. Plus, for professional audio recording, Windows 7 is much more stable than Vista was at launch. Love it or hate it, Windows is still the OS used on more than 95 percent of computers worldwide, and Windows 7 is probably going to be around for a long time--like XP was--so these advances, however overdue, are major news.
Spotify and Rhapsody on iPhone. Music fans have been waiting for the celestial jukebox--the ability to listen to millions of songs on demand from anywhere--for years. In 2009, the music industry finally started coming around to the idea that on-demand access to millions of songs could be the digital business model that saves it. Nowhere was this clearer than in Apple's decision to approve iPhone apps from Spotify in August and Rhapsody in September. These two subscription services--Rhapsody in the U.S., Spotify in Europe--give iPhone users access to millions of songs, on demand, for a few bucks a month. Single-song downloads have been great for Apple, helping iTunes become the top music retailer in the U.S. starting in 2008, but the company may be coming around to the idea that subscriptions--or at least on-demand streaming--represents the future, as evidenced by its acquisition of Lala earlier this month. When Apple finally takes the plunge, Rhapsody and Spotify subscribers can be smug, knowing that they've been able to stream songs to their iPhones since 2009.
Sonos S5. I've been singing the praises of Sonos's multiroom home-audio system for a couple years now. There's no other equivalent system that offers such easy set-up, solid sound, reliable streaming (thanks to its dedicated wireless network), and slick user interface--including an iPhone controller. The only drawback has been its relatively high price of entry, especially compared with cheaper competitors like Logitech. The release of the Sonos S5 this November (read the CNET review) is a major step forward in affordability, giving you single $399 device--receiver, amplifier, and speaker, all in one--that lets you get started down the Sonos path. You'll still need a $99 bridge if you have a wireless home network and want your S5 to be in a different room than your router, but the S5 is Sonos's most affordable product to date, and a move in the right direction for multiroom digital audio.
iConcertCal for iPhone. For live music fans, nothing's more frustrating than missing a show because you happened to miss the listing in your weekly paper. This year saw the release of several iPhone and iPod Touch apps for finding and tracking local gigs, but my favorite remains iConcertCal, released in July for $2.99. (It was briefly removed from the iTunes Store earlier this month to fix a bug, but it's back now and working fine.) Unlike other gig-finding apps, iConcertCal doesn't require you to enter a list of artists you want to track--instead, it grabs all the artists whose music you have on your iPhone. If you want an even bigger selection, you can download the free iConcertCal desktop add-in for iTunes (useful in its own right), link it to your iPhone with a user name and password combination, and the iPhone app will then track every single artist you list in iTunes. You can also use it to see all local shows happening in the next couple of days.
Zune HD. At last! The latest version of Microsoft's portable music player, released in October, has everything its predecessors lacked. Classy industrial design. Touch screen. Gorgeous on-screen interface that makes it easy to find favorite songs or music you've recently added and scrolls through images of artists as you play their songs. Well-designed PC client software that does everything you've come to expect from iTunes and looks way better doing it. It's not perfect--the browser and lack of app store are kind of weak, and I'm still bothered by what sounds like a bass roll-off and lack of oomph in the midrange--but the Zune HD has so many features that iPods still lack, like wireless sync, a built-in subscription music service (with 10 permanent monthly downloads to boot), and the ability to add songs to a currently playing playlist, that it makes my iPods seem a bit out of date. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the Zune brand is still tarnished by its initial weak launch, and outside the tech press, the Zune HD didn't get the love it deserved. Perhaps when (if?) Microsoft moves these features into the next version of Windows Mobile, we'll finally see Microsoft considered as a viable competitor to Apple's mobile music juggernaut.
Tomorrow, I'll follow up with the five least welcome digital music products in 2009.