You don't have to download MP3 files to enjoy digital music. Audio streaming means you can listen to tunes in real time via a Web connection, but where should you go to find the best music on the Internet? And what software do you need? Rosemary Haworth & Danny Allen have the answers.
The music industry has been a tad slow to embrace online audio, and that's putting it kindly. But it looks as though there may finally be some viable alternatives to illegal file sharing. PC World's June issue (page 35) compared the new crop of Australian music download services including BigPond Music and Ninemsn proving there's plenty of legitimate choice out there even if Apple and Napster haven't brought their respective services to Australia yet. However, downloads are only one aspect of Internet audio. For several years it's been possible to listen to music over a Web connection, a process known as streaming - a fact not lost on local radio stations, many of whom also now offer live Internet streams. Be it local or international, commercial stations or otherwise, rather than saving the file for listening to later, streaming lets you connect your software and enjoy the music there and then.
Sometimes you can also create your own radio station by choosing musical genres or specific tracks and simply sitting back to soak up whatever's playing.
Most streaming services use either Microsoft's Windows Media Player or RealNetwork's RealPlayer. So which should you opt for? Is it worth signing up for the premium services on offer, is there alternative music streaming jukebox software and where should you head to enjoy the best of the Net's musical treats? Read on...
The players compared
Windows Media Player 10
Windows Media Player (WMP) comes bundled with Windows XP, so the chances are you already have it. Which services you can access, however, will depend on the version you're currently running so it may be worth downloading the latest edition (version 10) for free from www.microsoft.com/windowsmedia.
Clicking on the Radio button at the top-right accesses a huge library of Internet stations. Search or browse by musical category, location or radio station name. Some stations will work with dial-up Internet access, others may need broadband. When you listen to a station, you can often see album covers of songs current playing and details about what's up next.
In testing we found that the only Australian-based radio stream available was commercial-free Bondi FM. We also noticed that you're required to login using a free Microsoft passport account - the same details you might use for an MSN messenger account.
Unlike RealOne, however, WMP doesn't offer the ability to determine your Web-connection speed and choose the most appropriate one if there are multiple streaming rates on offer.
For both video and music, WMP makes use of collaborative partnerships to provide users with a range of individual tracks for streaming in the Media Guide section. Partners include Vitaminic, Blastro and Music Brigade, but in the main you get little more than a taster of what's on offer before being prompted to sign up. In this sense it's no worse than Real's constant push to get you to move over to its premium services, but it's noticeably thinner than the impressive Radio section and it means you have to actively seek out places to stream tracks for WMP playback.
WMP 10 also serves as a front-end for Microsoft's recently launched US-based music download service (click on the butterfly icon at the top right). It's also likely that by the time you read this, WMP will be able to act as a front-end for Australia's own NineMSN music download service too.
Price: free (free MSN Passport login required)
The free downloadable RealPlayer 10 software tends to announce its arrival by splashing icons all over your desktop and taskbar. It also wants very badly to be your best musical buddy and tries, irritatingly, to become your default player for all multimedia types. More usefully, it can determine the type of Web connection you have and choose the most suitable data rate, if more than one is available, for optimal playback. We found RealPlayer had better support for file formats than WMP and was more tolerant of lower-quality audio streams.
But RealPlayer tries really hard to push you towards better things. And it expects you to pay for them - although try as you might, you can't pay to download tunes from its Music Store as it currently only serves US customers.
If you fancy more radio then there's the option to sign up for RadioPass with access to 3200 stations worldwide, including 70 that are advert-free. You can trial the service for 14 days after which it'll set you back an $US11.99-per-month subscription.
The majority of sites seem to cater for both Real and WMP users, and with so many music-oriented sites out there it's impossible to gauge whether there's a bias towards one or the other.
Price: Free (RealPlayer 10 Basic); RadioPass $US11.99 per month
Until there's such a thing as a standard audio format, you'll probably find that loading up both main players is the only way to be able to enjoy the broadest selection of content. However, Nullsoft's Winamp 5 (www.winamp.com) and Apple's iTunes (www.apple.com.au) jukebox software both also feature extensive listings of free Internet radio/music streams and are well worth trying out.
Tips for a better listening experience
As you'll quickly discover, not all audio file formats will play in every player. Codec (as in decoders) plug-in software which read compressed music file formats can be added to your favourite media player/jukebox software by visiting the maker's Web site and retrieving updates as support for new formats become available. If the player can't read a file type, an error message usually prompts you to look online or read the list of supported file types.
It's also worth visiting the client's troubleshooting Web pages. For example, Window Media Player with a Creative sound card who hear unwarranted distortion when playing an MP3 file are advised by Microsoft to find the file Ctmp3.acm on their PC and rename it to Ctmp3.bak. This particular problem arises because WMP isn't fully compatible with the file, which is a Creative PlayCenter MP3 decoder.
Another tip is to enable cookies in your Web browser. Doing so means presets - stations you've recently listened to and logins - can all be smoothly accessed now and in the future.
Bumpy playback can plague those with limited bandwidth. If that's you, avoid peak hours when the thronged masses of the US are online.
That said, streaming doesn't actually require that much bandwidth - although because you're accessing information, those on download limit ISP plans might need to monitor usage. Also, if you simultaneously download MP3s or applications with several media browsers open at the same time, your system itself and connection is likely to come to a crawl. This is less of a problem on broadband, but if you're using all the downstream bandwidth for other things, the streaming performance is going to be affected.
If you plan to download music as well, then broadband is pretty much essential for the task. Without it you won't be able to stream a radio station or online clip while simultaneously saving other tracks to your hard disk.
And as well as time-outs, there's also more likelihood of your Internet connection dropping while you download large, high-quality music files. Tracks recorded at lower bit rates have smaller file sizes that download faster.
Alternatively, invest in a download manager such as Download Accelerator Plus (www.speedbit.com) or Internet Download Manager (www.internetdownloadmanager.com). These will help maintain your connection and automatically resume downloads if they get interrupted for any reason.
Great audio streaming sites
Ready to delve into the wealth of content that's available? Here's our handy guide to the better streaming audio resources.
Launch, Music on Yahoo
According to a June 2004 Nielsen Net Ratings study, the US Launch site currently attracts more than 250,000 Australian visitors every month. That's why Yahoo recently launched an Australian version providing streaming radio and video over a variety of genres and styles: rock, pop, 80s, country, hip-hop, dance and more. There's also a focus on local acts - bios, audio, interviews and monthly in-depth profiles. Radio can be delivered at any bandwidth and video is served at 56Kbps, 128Kbps and 300Kbps. You will need at least 96MB RAM, and at least Windows 95 to run the service. At the moment Launch Australia offers over 20 different stations and over 2000 on-demand music videos, but this is quite likely to grow.
Launched way back in 1999, Live365 has thousands of stations and lets you search for a station by genre, keyword or even create your own mix. Both dial-up and broadband users are catered and you can choose to listen to the stations via RealOne, WMP, most MP3 player software of your choice or Player365 - the site's own browser-based player.
For streaming, Nullsoft also offers ShoutCast which enables you to tune in to a huge number of online broadcasts, listed by music genre. You can also search by keyword for specific artists or songs. ShoutCast is free and, as you would expect, works seamlessly with the Winamp client or with RealPlayer.
Though primarily providing access to a host of Internet radio stations, clicking on the left-hand Song Archive pane reveals a treasure trove of thousands of tracks, searchable by artist. The free Netscape radio software downloads very quickly and doesn't hassle you for personal information, get you to sign up for mailing lists or other such nonsense. All in all, a site well worth bookmarking - especially if you used spinner.com which has been folded into this site.
Rhapsody is technically only available in America, but you can use the seven-day trial for free anywhere in the world. You only get access to a limited selection of radio stations, though, and are restricted to low-quality 20Kbps streams. If you want to sign up for the full service you'll either have to move to the States or wait and see if it becomes available over here.
PeopleSound uses RealPlayer to stream tracks. Subscribers to the free service can listen to selected half-minute clips of new songs, download or listen online to unsigned artists - searchable by genre or "soundalike" - and get regular free complete downloads.