Digital Music Streams Beyond the PC

Thanks to myriad devices and services unveiled here at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), you won't have to. Instead, stereo-style components, stand-alone receivers, and affordable portable players let you play your digital music collection in your living room, car, and wherever you are on the go. Still, getting your MP3s out of the PC isn't cheap and requires hardware and network tools you may not yet have.

MP3 travels to your stereo

MP3 stereos aren't brand new, but they are appearing in volume. You can find them as stand-alone players with hard drives and Internet service, and as component units that draw music from your PC's hard drive and play it on your stereo.

AudioRamp Inc. is expanding its IRAD line of stereo products that play MP3s and streamed audio. Current IRAD models have a built-in hard drive to store all your music on the unit. But storage comes with a price; the stand-alone IRAD-S, with an 8GB hard drive, costs $US599, and the IRAD-C component with an 8GB hard drive costs $US549.

"Our new line, the I-RAD-T, talks to the PC over HomePNA at 10 megabits per second or over Ethernet so it doesn't need a hard drive and a high-powered processor," says Dan Sheppard, president of AudioRamp. "It lets the PC do the work instead."

The IRAD-T costs $US299 in a stand-alone version and $US249 for a component. However, getting the HomePNA adapter or Ethernet setup is up to you.

Rio, a division of SonicBlue, and Voyetra Turtle Beach also offer MP3 receiver products that stream music from your PC to your stereo via phone lines. Because these receivers require a PC, vendors sell them as accessories to a new PC.

Dell sells the Rio Receiver packaged as the Dell Digital Audio Receiver for $US299 as a companion to its Inspiron and Dimension systems. And Gateway offers a similar player, the Gateway Connected Music Player, for $US299 with a new PC. If you don't already have network capabilities, it costs $US358.

Playing MP3s sans PC

Like AudioRamp, ReQuest markets a device that plays MP3s without a PC -- the AudioReQuest. The version with 20GB of storage costs $US799.95 and the 30GB version $US1199.95. ReQuest bundles an Internet music player, a music jukebox, and an MP3 CD-RW drive into one pricey unit. But it lets you rip CDs and burn MP3 CDs, as well as download MP3s, and store it all on the unit's own hard drive. A TV-out connection lets you navigate your playlist and watch animations on your TV.

At CES, ReQuest previewed AudioReQuest-II, which adds features like automatic CD recognition. Pricing and availability is not available. Compaq and Samsung also have Internet music players in the works.

Digital media players like the MP3 stereos can act as both a media server and a gateway. Ideally, you'll want a broadband connection for both the unit and your PC. But in the meantime, running a home network using HomePNA technology lets you stream across devices even if you connect with a modem.

Upcoming devices put digital tunes on the road besides putting digital music in your living room. Companies such as FullAudio are developing a subscription service to let you play MP3s anywhere, even in the car.

FullAudio will provide a selection of songs and information for a monthly fee, says Gary Cohen, vice president of business development. You'll get a single interface to access streamed radio, download music files, and retrieve ripped CDs from your own collection.

At CES, FullAudio is demonstrating its music navigator, which works with wireless base stations to let you control and play music on your stereo via the PC. FullAudio is also showing a car stereo with a hard drive to contain your catalog of selections. It would wirelessly synchronise with your home service when it's within range of your home LAN.

Rio is showing off a similar tool, the Rio Car, an MP3 car stereo that lets you move your MP3 collection into the car via a wireless connection.

Satellite radio: An alternative

The Internet lets radio fans choose among countless Web radio stations from all over the world. Several new products let you move the streaming radio from your PC's speaker to your stereo.

Among those shown at CES are the Kerbango Internet Radio and the SmartMedia DDL Player, both scheduled to be available in the coming months. They're both priced at $US199.95 for use with an existing broadband connection, or $US99.95 plus a $US14.95 monthly Internet service charge through dial-up. They both move Internet radio out of your PC and into the living room.

But what about your car? Analysts like Bryan Ma of IDC predict the real future for Internet radio is the car, but wiring your vehicle with a Web connection is still largely a work in progress.

In the interim, radiophiles may draw on new satellite radio services showing at CES. XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio both plan to launch services this Northern summer.

To move the technology into your home, a satellite-ready stereo system will cost about an additional $US150, says Hugh Panero, president and chief executive at XM Satellite Radio.

Budget MP3 players appear

Portable MP3 players are small and slick, but many run on expensive memory cards and cannot play CDs. A more affordable alternative is the portable MP3 disc player.

Pine Technologies and I-Jam Multimedia have both announced MP3 CD players that play MP3 CDs as well as standard CDs. Both vendors say their units have a 50-second antishock mechanism so they won't skip, which has been a drawback of portable CD players compared to MP3 players.

The I-Jam 830 MP3 CD player is a slim device that plays 10 hours on a single MP3-RW disk, says Scott Roche, an I-Jam spokesperson. At $US129, it will be cheaper than most portable MP3 players when it ships next month. You won't have to buy expensive memory, although you will need a CD-RW drive to make the CDs.

The SM-200C+ MP3 CD player from Pine Dmusic is scheduled to ship this quarter. Priced at $US229, it is still cheaper than a portable MP3 player and has enough memory to hold 200 songs.

Despite new options to move compressed music out of the PC, it's still not easy. Besides new hardware and services, you often need networking capabilities on your PC, and for Internet radio, you'll want broadband. Quality also remains a question, since you might be more likely to notice the quality reduction of compressed music files when you're routing them through your home stereo, where you're used to hearing CDs.

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Cameron Crouch

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