MP3 music once meant pirated songs or artists you'd never heard of that you could only hear on a PC. Secure distribution technology and new portable players from name brands like Sony are making it easy to get your favorite music off the Web and play it anywhere.
That is a recurring tune at the Consumer Electronics Show here this week, as both established and upstart music companies go digital.
For example, Liquid Audio offers mainstream music that you can play on the free desktop Liquid Player or, with plug-ins, on the RealNetworks Real Player and America Online WinAmp Player. At CES, Liquid Audio announced you can now play its music on new portable players from Sony, Sanyo and Toshiba.
The new MP3 players at CES offer more memory and programmable processors so you can download any format and play it longer. The selection also includes a smattering of low-priced models. Philips and I-Jam both have 64M byte programmable players, while Creative Labs' Nomad Jukebox will keep you dancing for 100 hours.
Like Microsoft, Liquid Audio offers technology compliant with the Secure Digital Music Initiative so record labels can securely distribute and sell music on the Web. But Liquid Audio also markets the music itself.
The Liquid Catalog contains 50,000 songs that you can download free or for a fee, says Richard Fleischman, senior director of product management at Liquid Audio.
While some songs cost money, "there are a lot of free songs available promoting albums," Fleischman says. Liquid Music downloads offer additional information like artwork and liner notes. A "buy it now" button can take you to a Web site where you can purchase a CD.
Beyond the desktop, "Liquid Audio is focused on consumer devices," Fleischman says. Toshiba, Sony, and Sanyo portable players now play Liquid Audio music.
Downloading Liquid Audio content to the Sony Memory Stick Walkman or Vaio Music Stick is a two-step process. Songs downloaded to your Liquid Player must be transferred to Sony's Open MG desktop player because Sony devices play only Open MG or Windows Media files.
But with Sanyo players and Toshiba's new SD Media Player, you can transfer Liquid Music tunes directly from the Liquid Player to either device.
Also announced Thursday, the Sanyo Fisher SSP-PD7 Solid State Audio player and SSP-HP7 Sanyo all-in-one headphone/player include Liquid Audio's SP3 Secure Portable Player Platform and a multi-decoder system which can be programmed to decode any codec format.
Sanyo's Solid State audio player and headphone/player have 32M bytes of removable memory, meaning they can play 60 minutes of Liquid Audio original-format music or 30 minutes of MP3 files. Pricing will be announced upon release later this year.
Also at CES, I-Jam announced its 64M byte IJ-200 device, which uses a Texas Instruments multiformat digital signal processor. Available in April, the $US299 device plays MP3 and Windows Media files but can be upgraded to play other formats.
"With 64MB of memory, it can play about an hour and a half of CD-quality music," says Doug Marrison, president of I-Jam Multimedia.
For MP3 novices, I-Jam announced the entry-level IJ-50C. An MP3-only product, the IJ-50C is scheduled to ship in March, priced between $99 and $129 depending on the size of the CompactFlash card used inside.
"The IJ-50C reaches a consumer level that MP3s haven't gotten price-wise," Marrison says.
Other new MP3 players announced at the show include Philips' $299 64M byte Rush, the WMP-1V Wrist Audio Player from Casio, and two new offerings from Creative Labs: the Nomad Jukebox and Nomad II MG.
Available in the spring, the as-yet unpriced Nomad Jukebox looks like a portable CD player but is in fact a high-capacity MP3 player with 6G bytes of storage for more than 100 hours of musical playback.
Creative also unveiled the Nomad II MG. It has the 64M bytes, Universal Serial Bus connection and upgradable firmware of the Nomad II, but comes in a small magnesium case like the original Nomad. Nomad II is expected to ship at the end of the month for $299, while the Nomad II MG is slated for spring release and will cost slightly more.