Media Player Makeovers

Acoustic, media and content management tips to improve your aural experience on the cheap.

Upgrade your acoustics

There's no reason to punish your ear drums with the crummy set of earbuds that came with your portable media player. Laying out a few dollars for a pair of higher-end earphones can enhance your listening pleasure tremendously by offering cleaner, more-detailed audio and a broader frequency range.

Bass fanatics on a budget need look no further than V-Moda's Bass Freq in-canal earphones. For US$50, these colorful buds--they come in eight hues--give you a decent amount of sound isolation without requiring painfully deep insertion inside your ears. And yes, the earphones deliver on the promise of their name, giving tunes a mighty bass boost (though you'll have to contend with some cord noise).

Ultimate Ears' US$100 Super.fi 3 Studio earphones provide greater clarity and more encompassing sound than the V-Moda set, which isn't such a big surprise considering that they cost about twice as much as the Bass Freq earbuds. The sound isolation is similar to that of the V-Moda models, but the Super.fi 3 Studio comes with a lot of nice extras, such as a metal carrying case and five different ear-tip fit options. If you're ready to take your earbud experience to the next level, try Ultimate Ears' US$249 Super.fi 5 Pro or US$200 Super.fi 5 EB.

Find unrestricted tunes

Despite claims to the contrary by music-industry executives, you can download unprotected copyrighted music without breaking the law. Several sites offer digital-rights-management-free tunes on the up-and-up. So you can play them on any device, whether Apple's iPod, Creative's Zen, Sandisk's Sansa, or other models.

At eMusic, you can download 40 songs each month for $10, and all the tunes are unrestricted; just don't expect to find the latest or greatest hits. eMusic caters to independent musicians, though you will still find albums from such big-name artists as Barenaked Ladies, Santana, and Van Morrison. Another option, Audio Lunchbox, offers a slightly more eclectic selection than eMusic for similar pricing ($10 for 40 songs).

The Internet Archive has royalty-free music at no charge from artists who have agreed to noncommercial distribution of their concerts (including bands such as the Grateful Dead and Blues Traveler). To download a concert track, right-click the link to that song, and select Save Target As.

Have an iPod? You don't have to go to iTunes for mainstream music. Rhapsody gives you the freedom to transfer purchased songs to a number of devices--including Apple's popular player. Use the Rhapsody software to buy songs, connect any supported player, and drag purchased tunes (or playlists) straight to your iPod, which appears in the Sources window.

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