Free MP3 packages sound sweet

The MP3 juggernaut picked up speed this week as three companies released free beta software designed to make it easier to obtain and play the huge variety of music content on the Net. Two of the packages also allow you to create your own MP3 content from your own music.

I did an ears-on evaluation of the betas of MusicMatch Jukebox 4.0, RealNetworks RealJukebox and Wired Planet's MP3 Player.

The first two not only allow you to grab and play MP3 files, they're also "rippers," that let you pop a music CD into your CD-ROM drive and automatically create individual MP3 files from all the cuts, or just the ones of your choice.

Wired Planet's MP3 Player is a different animal, a streaming player that delivers content over the Net from the company's custom music network.

All three betas are free for the download from the company Web sites. MusicMatch Jukebox is a 4.1MB download; RealJukebox is 2.5MB (6.5MB if you don't have the RealNetworks G2 Player); and the Wired Planet MP3 Player is 1.4MB.

The finished MusicMatch Jukebox 4 will sell for $US29.95, and Wired Planet's MP3 Player will remain free, supported by ads and online CD sales. RealNetworks wouldn't say what the final RealJukebox will cost.

Let them rip

Both MusicMatch Jukebox 4.0 and RealJukebox allow you to "rip" music CDs and create custom playlists from your MP3 files. And both have standard playback control panels for playing back individual or groups of MP3 files. Both also let you create RealAudio files as well as MP3 files.

The betas only allow creation of "near CD quality" files using 96Kbps sampling. Full CD-quality (128 Kbps sampling ability will arrive in the final versions.

You can set up RealJukebox so it automatically starts ripping your audio CD as soon as you put it in your PC's CD-ROM drive. MusicMatch Jukebox requires a few more mouse clicks to start the process.

If you're connected to the Internet, both betas also automatically connect to CDDB, a free online database of virtually every CD available (about 360,000 at last count). In a few seconds, your CD's title and artist pop up, along with the name and time of each cut. And the information is added to your local playlists. It works like a charm.

Both MusicMatch Jukebox and RealJukebox directly extract audio from your CD; the speed depends mostly on how fast your CD-ROM drive is.

With the RealJukebox, you can also listen to the CD as it's being encoded. With MusicMatch Jukebox, you can't encode and listen at the same time.

Compression costs

The 44-minute music CD ended up creating MP3 files that took up about 30MB of disk space. For comparison, standard (uncompressed) WAV files from the same CD took up 459MB.

Near CD quality isn't for everyone, especially if you're a fussy listener; it's more like good-quality FM radio sans the high- and low-end audio. But I was putting my MP3-encoded files through a 200-watt amplifier and a pair of high-end speakers. The difference will be much less dramatic with typical PC speakers. If you're playing MP3 for background music, it'll be fine.

Extra goodies

If you're into more "serious" recording, MusicMatch Jukebox has an edge in features. Its in-line recording ability lets you create MP3 files from microphones, cassettes, or those ancient vinyl disks (records, remember them?) using your sound card's inputs.

Although all the features aren't available in the beta, the company says the finished version will also include advanced recording features including fade controls, volume normalisation, clipping and the ability to combine up to 12 channels of audio. The company also says it will integrate Microsoft's Windows Media Technologies 4.0 audio compression scheme, an MP3 wannabe.

Find music fast

MusicMatch doesn't include any direct links to online MP3 content, but RealJukebox has a "Get Music" button that takes you to RealNetworks' and other MP3 sites.

More than 60 artists signed up to offer free content specifically for the launch of RealJukebox. Some are full albums, some are sample cuts, some will be known to those over 40 and most won't.

Good choices

If you've been thinking of dipping your virtual toes into the world of MP3 music, both MusicMatch Jukebox 4.0 and RealJukebox are easy to use and have a raft of features.

For those who want to do semi-serious recording and tweaking of MP3 files, MusicMatch Jukebox is the logical choice, but for most other users, RealJukebox has the edge, especially for its no-brainer ease of use and direct links to music in all its variety on the Net.

Journey to a Wired Planet

As the name implies, Wired Planet's MP3 Player isn't a recorder. And while you can use it to play any MP3 file, it's really tuned for the company's streaming MP3 Web site, which offers a variety of "stations" that feature different types of music ranging from new age to jazz to punk to trip-hop. It's streaming because you listen to the content over the Internet instead of actually downloading the files to your PC.

What's most striking is that MP3 Player lets you mix and match content from different Wired Planet stations to create your own custom mixes of music. You can also rate different cuts and listen to your choice from the top picks of other Wired Planet listeners.

Wired Planet's content is rather limited compared to the wide universe of MP3 files. It leans heavily on commercial albums that you already can buy with a click of a mouse. Plus there are those annoying ads. But it's free, and it's a handy way to listen to what's hot in any genre you like.

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Stan Miastkowski

PC World

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