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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 10

As easy as playing MP3s: what you need to play Part II

by Tom Holzinger / July 1, 2000

Version française...

Last month, we surveyed the availability and quality of classical music in downloadable formats, especially MP3 files. The scene has already changed since then, with MP3.com's recent defeat in court. This has interrupted much of their operations-but not their new classical music channel, a service said to be so successful that they will model a kid's channel after it.

As for eClassical.com, they wrote directly to La Scena Musicale to tell us, "We will soon add another 10,000 MP3 files and hope to add another 15,000 files after the summer . We might also encode MP3s into 160 kbs or higher. Not yet decided. We will also have the entire BIS catalogue." As for LSM itself, our web site (www.scena.org) will soon host a music media centre that will make it easy to locate and play classical audio files. Stay tuned for further developments!

In the meantime, what is the best way to play Internet-derived music?

There is only one answer: through a quality home-stereo system. No computer playback or electronic gadget can equal the experience of rich stereo sound filling your living room. By itself, a computer can sound only like a good radio at best. Thus, there is no dodging the issue: your computer or portable MP3 player must connect directly to your stereo if you plan to acquire and play high-quality audio files.

Fortunately, this is not difficult to arrange: Buy a patch cable, one with a stereo mini-plug at one end and a pair of RCA plugs at the other (readily available at good computer stores). Insert the mini-plug into the output socket of your computer sound card, normally labeled as "speakers"; the RCA plugs go into the "line in", "CD in", or "aux in" jacks of your amplifier.

If you are already accustomed to playing Internet music, that's almost all there is to it. If you are playing music on your computer for the first time, however, you'll have to decide which software programs will work best for you. (The information offered below is current as of June 2000.)

MP3 software players

There are at least a dozen Windows-based software programs that play MP3 files, somewhat fewer for Mac computers. Their range of functions includes:

* Basic playback of MP3s, other audio files, and CDs
* Sound equalizing, audio effects, and on-screen effects
* Playing of streaming files from Internet radio channels
* Creation of MP3 files from audio CDs ("ripping")
* Burning of CD and MP3 files onto compact disks
* Managing a library of audio files on a hard drive
* Browsing the Internet for information about the music

Does a classical music lover need all these functions? No. Should you look for an all-in-one software package (a "jukebox")? No. The truth is, most of the jukeboxes are not designed to maximize MP3 sound quality at all. My ears have convinced me to download a quality player for each of the major audio formats-enduring the inconvenience of multiple programs on my hard drive is worth it.

Here are the programs I use on my Windows 95/98/NT/2000 computer, all available as free downloads:

*MP3 files: Winamp 2.5 and Sonique 1.51
*CDs: the Sony player bundled with the sound card
*Live events (streamed): Windows Media Player 6.4 if supported
*Basic Internet radio: RealPlayer 7

Available at www.winamp.com, the Winamp player is a classic warhorse. It plays the non-proprietary music formats excellently. This may change, since its manufacturer has been taken over by AOL/Time, but for now it remains essential software, especially version 2.5 or 2.6. A bonus: its full-screen visual effects are stunning. Running with the "Albedo" plug-in, Winamp is an hypnotic-even spiritual-experience.

More difficult to use, but intellectually more exciting, is the two-month-old Sonique 1.51 player. It has a sleek, layered look unlike any other Windows program, and its MP3 playback quality is simply the best to be found anywhere. Based on sound quality, I feel it is the program to install specifically for listening to MP3 music, both stored and streamed. Here's the process I recommend for getting acquainted with Sonique:

1. Go to http://music.sonique.com and download the Sonique player. Install it with its default settings.
2. Connect the computer soundcard to your stereo system as described.
3. Put a good CD into the CD-rom drive and close any other audio players.
4. Use Sonique to play the CD. Fiddle with its "setup options" and "audio controls" until you get the best quality sound. This should be indistinguishable from hearing the same CD played by your stereo system.
5. Go to eClassical.com or MP3.com and download a free demo MP3 file recorded at 128 kbs (or, read next month's installment here in La Scena Musicale on how to create one yourself).
6. Use Sonique to play this file. Adjust its controls until you are happy with the resulting sound.
7. Keeping these playback settings, use Sonique to open a streaming MP3 classical music channel. My favorite (at needs a 56 kbs connection, but Pear's Classical Favorites (at streams at only 24 kbs. While the stream is playing, adjust the connection and buffering controls to obtain the best, most stable sound.

Both Winamp and Sonique will perform as excellent, versatile components for your stereo system. Although these programs cannot manage a library of MP3 files as effectively as a jukebox program, both allow the user to store basic labels: artist, song title, album title, genre, year, and very brief general notes. Also, they allow listeners to create playlists of favorite works, a boon to those who have Bach days or Mahler days.

What about portable MP3 players?

My editor loaned me a Samsung "Yepp" miniature player to review. Much to my surprise, I like it. It is the size of a pack of cigarettes, but heavier, and it does one thing and one thing only: play the MP3 files which are loaded into it from a personal computer. There are no moving parts and no skipping-just two AAA batteries and a flash memory card. A tiny window tells you which track is playing.
The sound quality on my borrowed toy was amazing - just as good as the MP3 files themselves. It successfully played all kinds of MP3 files: mono, stereo, fixed and variable bit rates, and any length up to a maximum of about 1 MB of file storage. With normal compression, that's over an hour of music. The portable device can also be taken to a bigger sound system in order to play the files on it with real power. Nothing was lost in the translation.

Getting the music into the Yepp can be tricky, however. The process requires special software on the parent PC and a custom cable for the computer's printer port (both are supplied with the player). In theory, one could store different programs on different interchangeable memory cards, but I personally didn't see how to do this on the Yepp.

In any case, I'm not sure that there's much future in such single-purpose players. Rather, I foresee that MP3 players may soon be embedded into everything, from hand-held computers to FM radios to microwave ovens. There will be generic memory sticks that get recharged with fresh music, insertable into any one of these devices. The new world will not only be wired, it will be sonically saturated. Whether or not much classical music will get played this way, however, remains to be heard.

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