Easy as MP3Napster may have faded, but the revolution lives on. Here's everything you need to know to turn your PC into a digital music center.
For many people, the ultimate music format used to be the cassette tape: Cassettes were portable and easy to use, and tape players were cheap. Then along came compact discs, which were just as simple and portable as tapes, but sounded better. Now CDs are being challenged by the new wave of digital audio, which is even more portable.
For about $250 you can buy an MP3 player that holds more than 150 CDs' worth of music, has a battery that lasts about 8 hours, and is only slightly bigger than a pack of playing cards. But switching from the familiar world of cassettes and CDs to the far more complicated world of digital audio means not only selecting the right hardware but also figuring out where to find the audio files you want, how to process them, and how to manage all of your music. With a little bit of planning and getting up to speed, however, creating such an audio library should be easy.
The digital audio revolution began in 1987, when the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany began working on a technology that may one day make the CD as passe as eight-track tape: a file compression scheme that came to be called MPEG Audio Layer 3, aka MP3, capable of creating digital audio files as small as one-tenth the size of an uncompressed file. Sure, the compression results in some loss of quality, but it gave something in return: portability and versatility. As the MP3 format grew in popularity, users found that they could store thousands of easily accessible tracks on their PCs. And--despite Napster's ongoing legal troubles--MP3 music is here to stay.
These days, tiny portable devices allow you to take compressed music with you. Newer compression formats like windows media audio and realaudio shrink files to ever-smaller sizes. Sophisticated applications can convert audio to those and other formats, and then play it. Countless Web sites offer music in a wide assortment of genres. To help you pick which components you need to bring the music home (and take it on the go), we've assembled a guide to each, beginning with where to find tunes.
Michael Gowan regularly writes about digital audio for PC World. Audio file format tests were carried out by Robert James of the PC World Test Center.
The MP3 format makes huge, uncompressed audio files small enough to be downloadable over the Internet. Because songs and other audio clips are digitized, you can make as many copies of them as you like without any loss of quality. Take that idea, throw in millions of people with Internet access (many of them with broadband), and you get a service called Napster.
Napster let you share MP3 files on your hard drive with other users running the Napster application, and you could access their music files. Napster's servers acted as a catalog, matching searches with the files on users' hard drives. At its peak, Napster had more than 70 million users (according to Napster's own figures). The Recording Industry Association of America, however, soon obtained an injunction against Napster, forcing the service to filter out copyrighted works. At present, Napster is still offline as it strives to comply with the court order and to launch its subscription service (see "Pay for It").
In the wake of Napster, other peer-to-peer file-sharing technologies, such as Gnutella, have arisen. Aimster, Audiogalaxy, Kazaa, and Morpheus all allow music file sharing as well. (Check out "Napster Alternatives" for more information on these services.) But all of these music-sharing applications potentially violate copyright law too, because downloading music through them without paying for it means that the musicians don't get paid; it is possible, therefore, that the RIAA may take these services to court as well.
Fortunately, you can download legal digital audio files for free, and doing so is just as easy as using Napster, though the selection is far less extensive. Sites like Amazon.com, Listen.com, and Yahoo Music offer free tracks from popular artists. MP3.com also has a huge selection of free tracks, but you've probably never heard of many of the artists represented there. MSN Music has an interesting service that recommends new music: You type in the name of a band you like, and the service compiles a list of other bands that you might also enjoy. It even provides access to a preprogrammed streaming-audio broadcast of similar songs.
Music news sites such as RollingStone.com and Billboard maintain large archives of top artists' downloads. Artists and record companies have also discovered that giving away a free track is a great promotional tool, so check the sites of your favorite artists to see if they've gotten with the digital audio revolution.
Downloading music from such sites does have some drawbacks. Songs can come in several different formats, including MP3, Windows Media Audio, RealAudio, LiquidAudio, and Bluematter. To play files saved in various formats, you may need to download new plug-ins or player programs. Even the tracks that you get from Napster and similar peer-to-peer services occasionally have problems: You can end up with an unplayable or shoddy-quality file because someone encoded it badly.
With the end of the free Napster service, you might have thought that there was no more free music, but plenty of free tracks are out there if you know where to find them.
So how do you get down with digital audio? You probably already have a ton of music, but converting your existing CD collection into a digital audio library is thankfully simple. You need a PC, a CD-ROM drive, and some software.
In the jargon, a software application that copies and compresses audio tracks is called a ripper. It extracts the music from a CD as a.wav file--an uncompressed copy of the song. Each minute of uncompressed audio takes approximately 10MB of space on your hard drive. To shrink the file size, your PC uses a codec (short for compressor/decompressor) to compress the sound.
The codec determines what information can be omitted to make the file smaller. The human ear can't hear every frequency; through a science called psychoacoustics, the codec removes bits that you would never hear to create a more manageable file size. Some people claim that they can distinguish compressed audio from uncompressed. See the "Compressed Audio Test Report" sidebar below for details of our tests on the four major audio codecs.
A compressed file's size depends on how much compression you apply; this compression is generally described as a playback bit rate. If you choose a high bit rate--say 320 kilobits per second--the file will be bigger, and less audio data will be taken out. If you pick a low bit rate--96 kbps, for example--you'll get a much smaller file, but the compression may cause noticeable aural defects (for more on the inner workings of MP3 compression, check out "How it Works: MP3"). Coding Technologies of Sweden has come out with a new format, called MP3pro, that is supposed to sound twice as good as standard MP3 (see "MP3pro Offers Better Sound in Less Space"); unfortunately, however, portable players that support this format are not yet available.
Popular applications that can rip and encode digital audio include Audiograbber, MusicMatch Jukebox, and RealJukebox. You can download free versions of the last two, but the pay versions speed up the encoding process and give you more control, so upgrading to them is probably worthwhile. For example, MusicMatch claims that the commercial version of MusicMatch Jukebox can rip music 25 percent faster than the free versions and can burn to CD-R discs at higher speeds.
Quality Versus Quantity
Selecting the format and choosing the bit rate are the most important decisions you'll make in the ripping process. Most rippers support the MP3 format, as do most players--one reason MP3 is so popular. With other software, like MusicMatch Jukebox and Windows Media Player, you can encode in WMA or MP3 (however, the Windows XP version of Windows Media player supports only WMA); RealJukebox uses its own format.
Here's the question to ask before you select a format: What will you do with the file after it's been encoded? If you want to listen to it only on your computer, you can pick any format as long as you have a software player that can read the file. If you have a portable player or a listening device other than your PC that you want to use, check which formats the player supports. Almost all players can play MP3 files, but some can play songs in other formats. Depending on the bit rate, there are sound-quality differences among the formats: We found that WMA, RealAudio, and Dolby's AAC all produced better sound than MP3 at lower bit rates; see the sidebar "Compressed Audio."
After you pick a format, you'll need to decide what bit rate you want to use with it. The higher the bit rate, the better the quality--and the larger the file. Unfortunately, you must trade one for the other. Most MP3 encoders use 128 kbps as the default; a 3-minute song at 128 kbps will take about 3MB of storage space.
Once you've set your file format and bit rate, you select the tracks you want and instruct the software to rip and encode the tracks. (See "Rockin' in the Free World: All About MP3s" for more on how to encode files.)
But why stop at CDs when you're converting your music collection into digital files? If you have a sound card, you can use an RCA connector cord to hook your stereo receiver or preamplifier to your PC and then make digital versions of your LPs or cassettes. First connect the receiver or preamp's line-out jack to the line-in jack on your sound card; then use software such as MusicMatch Jukebox or RealJukebox to record the tracks from the albums and use a program that has a sound editor, such as Roxio's Easy CD Creator, to clean up some of the pops and clicks. (See "Transfer Music From LPs to CDs and MP3s" for more tips on this process.)
Once you've made a few hundred digital files of your favorite songs, you'll want to organize them. Fortunately, this is easy: Using your ripping application, you can create an ID3 tag--essentially an ID card--for the file. Many of the programs that rip music from CDs can embed within this tag the artist or group name, the song title, the album title, and the music genre simply by accessing an online database service such as Gracenote or Freedb.org. Your player can display the information, making it a breeze to identify and organize your music.
Digital audio permits you to mix and match music tracks however you like and to listen to those tracks in the office, in the gym, or just about anywhere else you happen to be. Picking the right playback hardware will only enhance your enjoyment.
The easiest (and cheapest) way to listen to digital audio tracks is on your PC. Free players such as Winamp and full-featured programs like MusicMatch Jukebox or RealJukebox can play any MP3 file. You may need to download plug-ins to listen to other formats; Winamp offers plug-ins for LiquidAudio and Ogg Vorbis, a recently released MP3 alternative. Windows Media Player can play MP3 and RealAudio files, as well as files in WMA format.
The most important feature of a software player is its ability to help you organize your song library. Most players let you view and sort your accumulated files by artist, song title, album, or genre (as long as you put in ID3 tags). That comes in handy when you're scrolling through a thousand or more songs trying to find a particular track. Programs can also keep track of songs held in different directories, allowing you to store albums neatly in separate folders.
Playlists are another powerful software feature, freeing you from the tyranny of the set track order on a CD, cassette, or LP. You can easily mix the order of songs and put different artists together to fit whatever mood you're in--an instant mix tape, if you will.
You create a playlist by dragging files from the library into the playlist window of your playback application. Here's a tip: Take your entire library and copy it into a single playlist. Click the random (or shuffle) button, save the playlist with a unique name, and let it play. Now you have your own radio station, guaranteed to play only the songs you like.
The sound you hear from your computer is a function of more than just the player you use: Your sound card and speakers play important roles as well. When buying a new system, look for a sound card with plenty of inputs such as line-in, microphone-in, and even SPDIF digital-in sockets for connecting CD players or other devices with digital outputs. Also look for software bundled with the card that allows you to adjust the sound to your preferences.
Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Platinum and Turtle Beach's Santa Cruz cards meet these requirements. You may want to get speakers that include at least two satellites and a subwoofer, such as the TDK Tremor series. Alternatively, you may decide to splurge on a six-speaker set such as the Klipsch ProMedia 5.1, A THX-certified sound system that will sound great whether it is playing back digital audio, CDs, or the latest blockbuster DVD. And don't forget that you can connect your stereo system to your sound card too: Just run a cable from the line-out socket of your sound card to the line-in socket of your stereo, set your amp to the right input, and turn up the volume.
Taking It to the Streets
Though it may seem otherwise, you don't spend all your time at your computer. Neither should your digital audio. Portable devices that let you play digital audio tracks away from your PC come in all shapes and sizes, but they can be categorized into three types, based on the storage medium they use: flash-memory models, hard-drive models, and--believe it or not--CD players. (See our chart for more on these devices.) A format coming soon is DataPlay; it uses a disc the size of a quarter to hold nearly as much data as a CD.
Flash-memory players were introduced first. Available from Rio, Intel, and other companies, they have the advantage of being very small. Because such players have no moving parts, the batteries last a long time and the tracks won't skip, no matter how rocky the terrain. But as with other products that use flash memory (such as digital cameras), storage is at a premium. Most flash memory players come with 64MB or 128MB of memory, although you can get much more if you're willing to pay for it. For instance, the Rio 800 comes with 64MB of internal memory for a street price of about $180, but versions carrying 128MB or 384MB of internal memory are available for the higher street prices of $245 and $500, respectively.
If you buy a model that has a lower amount of memory in it, make sure it has a removable memory card, because you will probably want to buy a bigger one, or multiple cards, very quickly. You can store only about eight or nine MP3 files encoded at 128 kbps on a 32MB card, so you'll likely want two or three cards handy for quick swaps. The cost of such extra cards can add up, though: a 64MB expansion pack for a Rio goes for $80, and the 128MB CompactFlash cards compatible with many players can cost $100 each.
Players that use a hard drive don't suffer from a storage shortage. Creative's $260 Nomad Jukebox and Archos's $249 Jukebox 6000 each have 6GB of space--which can hold about 100 hours of music encoded at 128 kbps, enough for many people's entire music collection. Creative is also launching a 20GB version of its Nomad Jukebox for $399. Hard drives require more power, so they use more or larger batteries than flash-memory players do, and they use buffer memory so that the hard drive doesn't have to be on constantly.
As with flash-memory players, you use the included software and USB cable to download tracks to a hard-drive device. With multiple tracks to organize, the quality of the player's on-board file manager becomes extremely important, as does the legibility of the player's LCD screen. Most hard-drive models also feature a line-out jack for hooking them up to your stereo. Even though you get much more storage from a hard-drive player, these portables don't cost much more than flash-memory players. They do tend to be a little larger, and they make more noise when the hard drive is being accessed.
CD players that can handle MP3s are the latest development in portable digital audio. Besides being able to play regular audio CDs, they can play CD-Recordable discs with MP3 files on them. With 650MB of space on a CD-R, you can store about 10 hours of music in the MP3 format--plenty for a round-trip coast-to-coast plane ride. Such players have the advantage of being relatively inexpensive (for example, the RioVolt SP250 costs $180, while the TDK Mojo has a street price of approximately $150), and CD-R discs are quite cheap.
Getting your files onto a CD-R just takes a few clicks with the encoding software of your choice (such as MusicMatch Jukebox or RealJukebox). Alternatively, you can use the software that comes with most CD-R or CD-RW drives. With either kind of software, you can create playlists for your MP3 CD player, so you can plan a sound track to match your journey.
One pointer before you start burning: you should use CD-R discs if you intend to create audio CDs, because most consumer CD players can't read CD-RW discs. For more details, read our roundup of CD-RW mastering programs.
Features: Portable MP3 Player Types (chart)
|Player||Storage type||Removable storage||Storage capacity||Formats supported||Maximum battery life (hours)1||Weight (ounces)||Street price|
|Archos Jukebox 6000 (http://pcworld.pricegrabber.com/search_prodsummary.php?masterid=414620&search=archos&ut=d1016cca777894a4)||Hard drive||No||6GB2||MP33||8||12.3||$249|
|Creative Nomad Jukebox (http://pcworld.pricegrabber.com/search_prodsummary.php?masterid=423747&search=nomad&ut=d1016cca777894a4)||Hard drive||No||6GB2||MP33||4||14.0||$260|
|Frontier Labs Nex II (http://www.frontierlabs.com/NexII.html)||Memory card||Yes||128MB||MP3, WMA||15||3.0||$199|
|Rio 800 (http://pcworld.pricegrabber.com/search_prodsummary.php?masterid=298436&ut=d1016cca777894a4)||Flash memory||No4||64MB||MP3, WMA||12||2.4||$180|
|RioVolt SP250 (http://pcworld.pricegrabber.com/search_prodsummary.php?masterid=468852&search=Rio)||CD-R||Yes||650MB||MP3, WMA||15||8.3||$180|
|TDK Mojo (http://pcworld.pricegrabber.com/search_prodsummary.php?masterid=422505&search=mojo&ut=d1016cca777894a4)||CD-R||Yes||650MB||MP3, WAV, AIFP||10||9.9||$150|
Pay for It
Where will digital audio go from here? Napster seemed to promise access to the entire catalog of recorded music from the beginning of time, available on demand over the Internet, but you can forget about that. What you can expect to become available soon are subscription services that give limited access to music for a monthly fee.
Many record companies are launching such subscription services. Record labels Sony and Universal Music Group, in conjunction with Microsoft, have put together a service called Pressplay, while AOL Time Warner, BMG Entertainment, EMI, and RealNetworks have teamed up to form a competing service, MusicNet. These services will be licensed to other companies that will in turn offer them to the public. Ironically, Napster's subscription service will be one of these MusicNet licensees.
To Feel the Music, Please Insert $$$
When it's launched, Pressplay MSN (Microsoft's cobranded version of Pressplay) will provide "access to tens of thousands of songs from a wide variety of artists, representing more than 50 percent of major-label content available today," according to an MSN spokesperson. Whether its monthly subscription fee will permit unlimited downloads or will restrict users to a certain number of songs per month was still undetermined at the time we went to press. The fee for the service had not been set either, although MSN claims it will be "competitive." The music offered through the service will be copy-protected using Windows Media Player's Digital Rights Management feature, but whether that will let you copy music to a portable player is also up in the air. Other parties, including FullAudio and EMusic, are set to offer competing services. FullAudio expects its service to cost between $5 and $15 a month. At launch, users won't be able to copy music to a portable player, but FullAudio spokesperson Sandy Rapp claimed that the ability to copy music to players that support Microsoft's Digital Rights Management system is "in the works."
These music subscription services will require you to use their software to play the music. Pressplay MSN will insist on a player that supports WMA, and the Napster subscription service will demand a new version of the Napster client that includes a secure music player from PlayMedia systems. Record companies will set rules that determine whether you can copy the music you get from these services to other devices or even to portable players.
In addition, Macrovision, a copy-protection and digital rights management technology company, has begun working with record labels to copy-protect music CDs, using a system called SafeAudio. If you try to rip a protected CD to an MP3 file, the resulting music file will sound garbled.
Which Format Wins?
Although the new subscription services will try to promote their own file formats, millions of MP3 files have already been created and are still being swapped over the Internet. That should give the MP3 format an advantage for years to come. But whatever file format you choose, and however you play it, there is no doubt that the future of music lies with the Internet.
Compressed Audio: Can You Tell The Difference?
Many people complain that compressed audio doesn't sound as good as CD audio. While that may be true if you listen to CDs on an expensive high-fidelity system, our tests with 30 listeners--mostly members of PC World's staff--show that for most people, music compressed in MP3, WMA, RealAudio, or Dolby's AAC format is nearly as good as from a CD if the music files are encoded at high enough sampling rates.
We compressed--in all formats and at all bit rates--five different pieces of music. In our double-blind tests, we asked users to listen to two versions (compressed and uncompressed) of each audio segment, and then pick which segment they thought was the compressed version. We then asked them to rate the difference in quality of their pick, assigning a score of five (imperceptible), four (perceptible but not annoying), three (slightly annoying), two (annoying), or one (very annoying). The music was played on a PC using a Sound Blaster Live Platinum sound card with its optional Live Drive expansion component, and a pair of high-end Sony MDR-7506 headphones.
Our testers found that all of the formats scored above four at a bit rate of 128 kbps or higher. However, RealAudio also scored an average of 4.1 when encoded at 64 kbps--significantly higher than the other formats at such a low bit rate. Interestingly, our testers did not rate 128-kbps WMA files any higher than 96-kbps WMA files.
Although MP3 is the most widespread format, it performed the worst at lower bit rates. In particular, it was rated very low at 64 kbps, achieving an average score of only 2.2. MP3 earned much better scores at higher bit rates, effectively matching RealAudio's marks at 128 kbps and above.
For general use, 128 kbps is fine (or 192 kbps if you have really good ears). If you want to pack a lot of audio into a small amount of memory space, you can take the bit rate down to 64 kbps for RealAudio and 96 kbps for AAC. With MP3, however, the lowest usable rate is 128 kbps; any lower, and the quality drops substantially.
--Ramon G. McLeod
How the Formats Compare (chart)
|CODEC||Tested bit rate (kilobits per second): 64||Tested bit rate (kilobits per second): 96||Tested bit rate (kilobits per second): 128||Tested bit rate (kilobits per second): 192||Tested bit rate (kilobits per second): 256|
MP3 on the Hi-Fi: Digital Audio Comes to the Living Room
Until recently, you could play digital audio on your PC or your portable player, but not on your stereo system. but that is beginning to change, with several vendors launching products that allow you to add MP3 and Internet radio capability to your high-fidelity stereo.
SonicBlue's Rio Receiver and Turtle Beach's Audiotron rely on a home networking connection to your PC to stream MP3, WMA, and WAV files from your PC to your stereo equipment; they do not contain a hard drive to store files. if you can get past the home networking obstacle--whether you use HomePNA phone-line networking or ethernet--either of these units can serve as a useful, reasonably priced (about $300 street) way to enjoy digital music in your home environment.
Some other products don't require a networking connection, but they're far pricier. the Compaq IPaq Music Center is available for about $600, while HP's Digital Entertainment Center is scheduled for release this fall at a list price of around $1000. Both have a built-in modem and HomePNA support; the Compaq supports ethernet as well. Each unit features a hard drive (20GB for the Compaq, 40GB for the HP) and a built-in CD reader; the HP product will also have a CD-RW drive.
Compaq's IPaq Music Center lets you buy CDs online and features Internet radio; your results with the latter will depend on your Internet connection. Both units have sleek, cool looks. In fact, the IPaq Music Center looked right at home with my Nakamichi receiver and other stereo components. (The HP unit was unavailable for testing for this article.)
And after just a few hours of playing a diverse selection of MP3s--which were ripped at the default 128 kbps, yet seemed on a par sonically with my audio CDs--I'm thoroughly convinced of the value such a unit provides. But the high price will put off many prospective users.
Philips has another appealing product if you're in the market for a new stereo system. Its $500 FW-i1000 compact mini-system includes an AM/FM tuner, dual cassette decks, a three-CD changer, and speakers. but the real hook--and the reason this model costs about $200 to $300 more than other Philips mini-systems--is the integrated Internet radio. The unit has an ethernet jack and can connect to Internet radio stations over a DSL or other broadband connection. The IM Networks Radio service provides about 700 Internet radio channels, but adding other stations is simple, especially via the Web, and you can create new stations without much trouble. Navigating the interface's buttons and dials is easier than you might expect (though it would become tedious if you tried browsing the full spectrum of channels). Still, the prospect of listening to Celtic radio from Ireland or to an old hometown favorite through your hi-fi--without using a PC--is very enticing.
--Melissa J. Perenson