Jet Audio: stereo on screen

Samsung Electronic's on-screen media player gives you Web radio presets, lets you add special effects to music and allows you to convert MP3 files to .wav format.

Is it software or hardware? Judging from the glossy metallic stack of components that Samsung's Jet Audio Plus launches on your desktop, it's hard to tell. Functionally, it's not important: this set of audio software "components" provides a handy, all-in-one playback solution for MP3, CD audio, RealMedia, and video files.

Despite its name, Jet Audio does nothing to "accelerate" audio, but this software -- which was developed by Cowon -- does go well beyond the functionality of most media players. Music hobbyists and tinkerers can add a range of 3-D effects, tweak frequency response with a 20-band equalizer, and save streaming audio to disk. If that isn't enough, an Internet radio component allows you to listen to any of the thousands of radio stations broadcasting RealMedia streaming audio worldwide.

Jet Audio uses the now-classic onscreen stereo system metaphor -- seven modules that appear as stacked audio components. The top three are a module for tuning the display and hiding the modules, an EQ/Effects unit with numerous presets, and a mixer module that duplicates the functionality of the Windows volume control. Below these are four more modules used to play audio files, CDs, MIDI files, and video files.

All the modules share the same interface and controls, and have advanced playback features like list play, random play, and reverse order play. The modules also have the ability to define groups of files as "albums." Of course, you may also select files the old-fashioned way -- one at a time -- or simply drag files to the modules to be played. The drawback here is that, even when the modules are maximised, some of the text labels are difficult to read at the 1024-by-768 screen resolution I use.

A Bevy of Effects and Controls

I'm not a big fan of adding effects to somebody else's music, but the flanger, reverb and chorus effects that Jet Audio provides can be fun to play with for the uninitiated. More useful is the 20-band EQ section, with its variety of presets, including one to bring out vocals in a muddy mix. I found this user-definable preset especially handy for removing the severe bass boost some over-zealous MP3-ite added to a couple of my favourite tunes. Unfortunately, the EQ and effects are for MP3 playback only.

Jet Audio's CD module takes CD playback to a new level. Using the Internet Connect function, it will search a Web database for information on the artist and song titles, and display them as they're played. Annoyingly, it isn't automatic. You must wade into the album editor and request it be done. On the plus side, if your CD isn't in the database, Jet Audio allows you to enter the information yourself and upload it to the database.

This module, like the others, provides numerous playback options, as well as one-touch buttons for each track and a quick select window to select tracks by title. Used in conjunction with the digital audio module, the CD player allows you to record tracks from a CD to .wav files using the analogue input on your sound card. If your CD drive supports Digital Audio Extraction, you can make a direct, distortionless digital transfer.

Catch A Wave

A wide variety of audio file formats can be played on Jet Audio's digital audio module, including the increasingly popular MP3, normal .wav files, and a host of less common types, including .aif and .au/.snd files. A built-in MP3 playback engine with three quality modes allows even relatively slow machines to play back MP3. You can also use the Microsoft DirectX MP3 engine, but Jet Audio's effects and EQ aren't available in this mode.

The 4.02 internal MP3 playback engine added some noise and artefacts while playing certain files, but after a quick trip to the Jet Audio Web site to download and apply the 4.03 upgrade, the problem was fixed. MP3 playback quality was then on a par with the DirectX engine and the popular shareware MP3 player WinAmp. I also played several .wav files and RealAudio files with equally good results.

The digital audio module has two features that I've not seen in other MP3 players. The first, a function that lets you convert MP3 to .wav, is hidden away in Jet Audio's configuration dialogue. If you want to clean up an audio file, this is invaluable, as no audio editor that I'm aware of currently supports MP3 files. The .wav files I recorded suffered no loss of fidelity that I could discern.

The second feature is an editor for the ID3 tags included in most MP3 files. ID3 tags contain the name of the song, the artist, and other information, displayed when the file is played. If information is missing, the editor allows you to enter it yourself.

Sing Along With MIDI

The MIDI module has the same extensive playback functions as the other modules, and also allows you to change the key and tempo of the songs. But my favourite feature of Jet Audio's MIDI module is its support for MIDI karaoke files. These little gems have lyrics embedded in them that are displayed in a separate window as the music plays. The words are even highlighted before they are to be sung. I only wish there were an option to force highlighting to occur closer to the time the word is to be sung. WinKaraoke, the only other player I know of, uses the same amount of anticipation, however.

The MIDI module doesn't have its own internal software synthesizer, such as Roland's VSC-88. Notebook users who generally have no wavetable on their sound card could certainly use it.

The video module plays a number of different video file formats, including MPEG, AVI, .mov, and RealMedia. It also recognises and plays Video CDs. But unfortunately, support for DVD movies and the latest RealMedia movie format, G2, are not included. Clicking on the RealMedia logo in the player window falsely offered me the opportunity to upgrade; the program told me to visit Jet Audio's very slow web site to obtain the G2 codes, but I could find no such animal.

To cut down on screen clutter, the package includes a small remote-control panel that gives you access to most of Jet Audio's functionality. Though I found the device a bit flaky -- double-clicking on the icon did not always bring the panel to the top -- the remote quickly became my favourite way to use Jet Audio.

Twirling the Radio Dial

The bonus Jet Audio Internet Radio module is a great way to access the numerous RealMedia Internet radio broadcasts. Basically a redesigned front-end for the RealMedia Player, Jet Audio's interface does a much better job of organising stations by category, and its 12 one-touch access buttons are far handier than RealPlayer's drop-down menu. Unfortunately, the stations currently broadcasting are constantly in flux and many of the presets Jet Audio provided were offline. You'll have to do extensive editing to get an up-to-date list into the program.

After upgrading Jet Audio's MP3 engine I found it to be a superb player for all types of media. And it's extremely handy having all media playback chores under one roof. Jet Audio Plus carries a list price of $US49.99, but I was able to find it for sale on the Web for about $US30. If the program provided software wavetable synthesis and DVD movie playback, I'd give it two thumbs up. But for now I'll just call it one and a half.


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