MP3 To Go

Photography by Kevin Candland

In the past year, the way many of us listen to music, the means by which we obtain that music, and–in some cases–even the kind of music we listen to have all changed. What's behind the biggest musical shift since the CD? The audio-compression format MP3 (see ""So Long, CDs"," July 1999).

But the MP3 revolution isn't finished yet. Thanks to new portable MP3 players, each smaller than a Sony Walkman, the music is moving from the desktop to the pocket. Although it was previously simple enough to download MP3 files and listen to them with one of the many freely available software-based media players–QuickTime 4.0's QuickTime Player ( http://www.quicktime.apple.com ) among them–if you wanted to tote your tunes, you had to do so using a PowerBook. Hardware-based MP3 players–such as Diamond Multimedia's Rio 500 and Pontis Electronics' MPlayer3 (see the sidebar "Taking It with You"), as well as similar, soon-to-be-released devices such as I-Jam Multimedia's I-Jam MP3 Player–now make it easy for Mac users to take their tunes on the road. We'll show you how it's done and provide some tips for making the most of your MP3s.


What's MP3?

For those who missed its debut, MP3 (technically known as Moving Picture Experts Group Audio Layer III) is a technology that allows you to compress audio files to approximately one tenth the size of CD files while maintaining a large degree of fidelity. In other words, your music sounds pretty good. This smaller size makes MP3 files highly portable–perfect for transmission across the Internet.

Thanks to this portability, the increasing number of people with online access, faster Internet connections, and the Web's spirit of free exchange, MP3 is quickly becoming a viable means of music distribution. Musicians now have a way to expose their own work to a large audience–an audience that might not have heard their music otherwise–without becoming entangled in the machinations of the music industry. And fans of such bands as the Grateful Dead and Phish–groups that encourage free distribution of their concert recordings–can now legally collect dozens of performances for free.


Bring It on Home

You can find an abundance of MP3 files on the Internet. Once you start to look, you'll discover them scattered about on Web sites, attached to messages in newsgroups, and tucked away on underground servers.

Although many of the files have been placed on the Web by their copyright holders, some have been posted in violation of copyright laws–uploaded by individuals who have no legal right to distribute them. (Downloading these files is against the law, too.) However, generally speaking, the most visible MP3 sites, such as Live365.com, MP3.com, and the Internet Underground Music Archive ( http://www.iuma.com ), carry only legal MP3 files. The files offered on these sites are from artists who aren't represented by major record labels.

Not too surprisingly, record companies have mostly shunned MP3. The idea that unsecured, highly transportable, high-quality audio files can be swapped across the Web is a daunting reality for many record-company executives who fear losing both money and control over distribution. However, because MP3 is so pervasive, major recording artists who understand the promotional value of free music are beginning to release selected cuts–or portions of cuts–in the MP3 format.

Helter Skelter

Given the ease with which MP3s can be created and distributed, illegal sources of MP3 files have sprouted haphazardly in cyberspace–pirate locales such as many of the Hotline servers. Hotline is similar to Fetch and Anarchie (File Transfer Protocol programs), but has messaging and chat functions and its own method of speedy file transfer. Although you can still find individual songs and even full albums on many Hotline servers, threats of prosecution for copyright violation have put a bit of a damper on the number of MP3 files available at such sites.

Not everything on Hotline servers is illegal, however. Some small bands post their songs there, and many such servers offer MP3 files with live recordings of bands who allow and encourage trading. In fact, both Phish and the Grateful Dead have updated their official trading policies to include the transferring of MP3 files.

If you're ready to take the Hotline plunge, download the software you'll need from Hotline Communications ( http://www.bigredh.com ) and check out Hotline Central ( http://www.hotlinecentral.com ). Hotline servers come and go very quickly, and this Web site keeps a list of operating trackers (each of which tracks up to roughly 1,000 servers) along with their online addresses.


Listen to the Music Play

Pulling an MP3 file from the Web is no different than downloading any other file. But once that file is on your Mac, you must use a program to play it. Although Apple's free QuickTime Player can play MP3s, it's not really an ideal tool. It doesn't support files encoded using variable bit rate (a less common method of encoding MP3s), nor does it support playlists , or groups of songs. With QuickTime Player you have to play each individual track in a new movie window or cut and paste multiple tracks into a single movie.

Making a List

Although QuickTime Player doesn't natively support playlists, you can download Tonio Loewald's $5 shareware program QuickMP3 ( http://www.zipworld.com.au/~tonio/quickmp3.html ), which lets you create playlists that work with QuickTime 4.0. Regrettably, QuickMP3 does little more than create playlists and offer a simple player interface–it lacks the niceties of other MP3 players, such as control over equalization (EQ), the ability to change track names within the program, and a Get Info command that reveals the bit rate at which the files were encoded. The higher a file's bit rate (the more data as measured in kilobits of information per second), the better the sound quality.

You can get more-complete MP3 players on the Web. These include Norman Franke's free SoundApp ( http://www-cs-students.stanford.edu/~franke/SoundApp/ ); Oliver Dreer's free MPEG Audio Realtime Player ( http://www3.pair.com/odreer/ ); and @soft's $25 Macast, formerly called MacAmp ( http://www.macast.com ). Our current favorite downloadable MP3 player is Panic Software's $18 shareware Audion ( http://www.panic.com/ppack/audion/ ). Audion also supports audio-CD and streaming Internet play and comes with a variety of attractive skins , or user interfaces. Casady & Greene's $50 SoundJam MP (800/359-4920, http://www.soundjam.com ) is a fine commercial player that can also encode MP3 files.


It's My Party

Although the Internet is a great place to find MP3 files, you likely have a fine resource in your own home–your CD, album, and tape collection. Using your Macintosh, an MP3 encoder, and–optionally–an audio-editing application, you can turn your music collection into a hard disk full of MP3s.

Transforming, or ripping , CD tracks into MP3s is a snap (they're already digital files), but you'll need an MP3 encoder to do so. Finding free or inexpensive MP3 encoders is not so simple. At one time you could use Rafael W. Luebbert's MPecker Encoder to encode MP3 files. But because of licensing issues, MPecker Encoder is no longer available and old versions of the utility have since expired.

This narrows your choices to commercial encoding utilities such as the above-mentioned SoundJam MP, Xing Technology's $30 AudioCatalyst (206/674-2700, http://www.xingtech.com ), Proteron's $35 N2MP3 (402/932-3894, http://www.proteron.com ), and such high-end tools as MacSourcery's $395 (plus $99 for the MP3 encoder) BarbaBatch (800/622-7723, http://www.macsourcery.com; see Reviews , January 2000) and Terran Interactive's $499 Media Cleaner Pro (800/577-3443, http://www.terran.com; see Reviews , November 1999). Although all of these utilities are capable of producing MP3s, some clearly get better results than others (see the sidebar "Encode Your Own" for Macworld Lab's test results).

Disc Fever

Once you have your encoder, just insert the CD you want to convert into your Mac's CD-ROM drive and import the audio files with your MP3 encoding utility. You can also import the CD tracks with QuickTime Pro, save them as AIFF files (Audio Interchange File Format, a standard Mac file format for sound), and then bring them into your MP3 encoder. Alternatively, if you have Adaptec's $99 Toast (800/442-7274, http://www.adaptec.com ), software for burning CDs, you can use the included Toast Audio Extractor to do the job.

Old-Time Rock and Roll

Encoding files from records or tapes is a little tougher, because you must connect at least one external device to your Mac's sound-in port. If you're recording from cassette, connect your tape deck directly to your Mac's sound-input port via a Y -cable. Use the left and right RCA jacks (the type of audio jacks found on home-stereo equipment) for the cassette deck and a single stereo miniplug (the kind used on a Sony Walkman) for the Mac. If the volume level of your tapes is wildly variable and you can't boost the volume from the cassette deck, consider boosting the signal with a preamplifier.

Pulling tracks from old vinyl LPs is more work–requiring a preamplifier between the turntable and the Mac. In most cases, it's easiest to connect your turntable to your home-stereo amplifier and then run the aforementioned Y -cable from the amplifier's Tape Out ports–the jacks used to connect the amplifier with a tape deck–to the input port of the Mac. You can also find inexpensive preamplifiers at electronics stores such as Radio Shack.

Once you have everything set up, you can capture tape and LP tracks with an audio-recording utility such as E.J. Campbell's $20 shareware program Ultra Recorder ( http://members.aol.com/ejc3/Ultra.html )–be sure to capture your tunes as AIFF files. After you've transformed the songs into AIFF format, just drag them into an MP3 encoding utility.


Size Me Up

Encoders, regardless of their differences, have this in common: ripping at higher bit rates increases a file's fidelity as well as its size. For example, a three-minute file ripped at 128 kilobits per second (Kbps) occupies 2.8MB of hard-disk space; the same file ripped at 192 Kbps weighs in at 4.2MB. Depending on the encoder (and the type of music), the 192-Kbps file may sound far better than its slimmer sibling.

But you should rip at higher bit rates only if fidelity is crucial or file size is mostly inconsequential. If you're creating an MP3 file to put on your Web site for others to download–and you expect listeners with 56-Kbps modems to be downloading your file–use a low bit rate to keep file size small. In our previous example, that 1.4MB difference between the 128-Kbps and 192-Kbps files may influence whether users download your file.

Conversely, there are times when it's preferable to sacrifice file size for fidelity. You can, for instance, fit nearly 11 hours of MP3 files encoded at 128 Kbps on a CD-R disc. But if you're particular about how your files sound, you may wish to give up 4 of those hours and create a better-sounding 7-hour disc that contains files encoded at 192 Kbps. Or if you're trading recordings of Grateful Dead concerts with your Deadhead buddies, you may want to rip at 256 Kbps to ensure that every plink, plank, and plunk of Jerry Garcia's guitar is crystal clear.

Break It Down

Size versus quality is also a concern if you plan to use one of the new hardware MP3 players. If you rip your files at 128 Kbps, you can fit about two hours of music on a Rio 500, although only if you use the optional 32MB flash-memory card along with the Rio's 64MB of built-in memory. Depending on the capacity of the flash-memory card you insert into the Pontis MPlayer3, you could exceed this two-hour limit by a wide margin.

Loading MP3 files encoded at higher rates to such devices doesn't make sense, given the limited capacity of hardware MP3 players. When encoding MP3s for use with these devices, you're better off ripping your audio files at 128 Kbps with the cleanest encoder you can find.

Bigger Is Better

You can also err on the side of being too parsimonious with file size. If you dip below the magic mark of 128 Kbps, sound quality suffers greatly. Music encoded at 64 Kbps sounds dreadful–reserve low bit rates for speech and narration, where fidelity isn't a vital concern. If you need to create extremely small files–for QuickTime streaming or quick-and-easy download with slow modems–MP3 isn't your best choice. In these situations, use QuickTime Pro with the QDesign Codec. This encoder is specifically designed to produce extremely compact audio files for delivery over the Net. For higher-quality QDesign-encoded files, try the $399 QDesign Music Encoder Professional Edition (604/688-1525, http://www.qdesign.com; for more information on the QDesign Music Encoder, see Reviews , September 1998).


Alternative Music

All this said, MP3s aren't the only game in town. Online audio is a booming business, and other encoding options are starting to crop up. For example, the music industry uses the RealAudio format, from RealNetworks ( http://www.real.com ), to stream songs over the Web–and for a good reason. Streamed music–music that plays as the listener's Mac receives data over the Web, instead of only after entire sound files download–can be delivered quickly. In addition, those in the music business often create files you can't save to a hard disk, and the quality of many Real Audio files is so wretched that few people are interested in saving them anyway.

A Drop in the Bucket

Although Real Audio is fine for streaming, the music industry is turning to another encoding format for downloadable files–Liquid Audio ( http://www.liquidaudio.com ). This new format produces high-quality audio files that differ from MP3s in that they're secure–encrypted so that only the authorized listener can play them. In addition, those who encode audio files with Liquid Audio can prevent those files from being copied to a CD-R. Finally, these files are coded in such a way that their origin can be easily identified–making it simple to locate the track's source.

Liquid Audio may sound draconian to users accustomed to the laissez-faire spirit of MP3, but the fact remains that the music industry won't allow online distribution of commercial recordings unless those recordings are copy protected in some fashion.


The Last Word

Although record companies are searching for a secure means of selling music online, Liquid Audio and similar schemes hardly spell the end for MP3. The genie is out of the bottle, and the efforts of all the massed legal departments of the record companies can't put it back.

Thanks to MP3's quality and ability to make small files, available encoders and software players, the new portable hardware players, and the desire of musicians and listeners everywhere to make music accessible to all who care to hear it, MP3 is here to stay. And that should be music to everyone's ears.

Contributing Editor CHRISTOPHER BREEN is a coauthor of My iMac (IDG Books Worldwide, 1999).

February 2000 page: 86

Encode Your Own

If you've spent much time listening to MP3 files, you've probably noticed that some sound significantly better than others. Although poor-quality sound can result from low bit rates, your MP3 encoding software can also greatly affect audio quality.

Encoding a file into MP3 format involves casting away less discernible sounds (those at the extreme levels of human hearing), and each encoder varies slightly in what information it discards–resulting in a difference in sound quality. In addition to variations in quality, the time it takes to encode an MP3 file can also differ from encoder to encoder.

To find the fastest and highest-quality Mac MP3 encoding software, Macworld Lab and a panel of distinguished listeners scrutinized MP3 files generated by three of the most popular encoders on the market–Casady & Greene's SoundJam MP (800/359-4920, http://www.soundjam.com ), Proteron's N2MP3 (402/932-3894, http://www.proteron.com ), and Xing Technology's AudioCatalyst (206/674-2700, http://www.xingtech.com ). We listened to these files and rated their quality as excellent, fair, or poor. We also measured how long it took for the encoders to do their work. (See the benchmark, "Shrink 'Em Down.")

How We Tested

We began our tests by encoding three audio files featuring three distinct musical styles–classical, as represented by the Allegro Moderato movement of Bach's Violin Concerto no. 1 in A Minor; jazz, in the form of Charlie Hunter's horn- and guitar-rich piece "Ashby Man"; and rock, as practiced by The Who in "Squeeze Box." We measured encoding times for "Ashby Man" at 128 Kbps and 192 Kbps, using an encoding method that produces the best quality each utility is capable of. Once the files were ripped, we used QuickTime 4.0's free QuickTime Player to play them through a Power Macintosh G3 connected to an Atlantic Technology three-way speaker system.

What We Listened For

MP3 makes music files smaller by dropping areas of sound the human ear can't easily distinguish. When a file has been ripped with a quality encoder at a high bit rate, the difference between the MP3 and the source file can be very difficult to hear. Generally the MP3 file will sound less crisp than the original. Cymbals, violins, and high percussive sounds lack brightness–this quality is particularly noticeable in classical music. At lower bit rates, or with poor encoding, you lose even more of the top end and begin to hear distortion and flanging –high frequencies and vocals take on a swooshing kind of sound.

How They Fared

If you're ripping a single track, the fact that one particular encoder is 30 seconds slower than another isn't a terrible burden. However, many users rip entire CDs or CD collections, and that 30 seconds per track quickly adds up. In our tests, we found that SoundJam MP was the swiftest of the bunch. N2MP3 was the slowest–at 128 Kbps it took 1 minute and 23 seconds longer than SoundJam MP to rip our Charlie Hunter audio file, which was 5 minutes and 19 seconds in length. All three encoders offer a best-quality setting, which we used (although SoundJam's is tucked away in a preferences check box).

Getting the Right Sound

The time an encoder takes to rip files is important, but the most crucial characteristic of any encoder is the quality of the files it creates. We found that MP3 quality depends a great deal on that of the original file. Our Charlie Hunter track, for example, featured a lot of instruments and a midrange-heavy mix. It's more difficult to distinguish distortion and flanging in this kind of song than in those that feature high frequencies or solo instruments. The Bach track featured greater separation and crisper-sounding instruments–such as a harpsichord and violin–making it easier to hear distortion and flanging. The exposed acoustic-guitar riff that begins the Who track would also potentially suffer distortion from MP3 encoding.

However, despite using the same source files in all our subjective quality tests, we found that the quality of the MP3 files each encoder produced was noticeably different.

Making the Grade

We were least impressed with the fidelity of the SoundJam files–particularly those ripped at 128 Kbps. Even through the thick mix, we could hear flanging on the jazz track. And although SoundJam's 192-Kbps files were an improvement over its lower-bit-rate efforts, they weren't as good as the 192-Kbps files from N2MP3 and AudioCatalyst.

To our surprise, N2MP3, which was the slowest at ripping files, didn't use that extra time to produce the best MP3s in our roundup. Its output was better than that of SoundJam, but its files couldn't compare to those AudioCatalyst ripped–this was the only encoder to receive a rating of Excellent in our subjective quality tests. Even at lower bit rates, AudioCatalyst's files were consistently superior to those SoundJam and N2MP3 ripped.


Macworld's Buying Advice

It will be as clear to you as it was to us: if you're after clean-sounding MP3 files at an affordable price, and you don't mind sacrificing several extra seconds per track during the encoding process, AudioCatalyst 2.0 is your best choice.

N2MP3 1.0.2

3.5 mice
  PROS: Good-quality encoding. CONS: Encoding process is a little slow; no playback features. COMPANY: Proteron (402/932-3894, http://www.n2mp3.com ). LIST PRICE: $35.

SoundJam MP 1.1

3.5 mice
  PROS: Supports both encoding and playback; excellent playlist features; fast encoding. CONS: Poor-quality encoding at 128 Kbps. COMPANY: Casady & Greene (800/359-4920, http://www.soundjam.com ). LIST PRICE: $50.

EDITORS' CHOICE
AudioCatalyst 2.0

4.0 mice
  PROS: Superior overall MP3 encoding. CONS: No playback features. COMPANY: Xing Technology (206/674-2700, http://www.xingtech.com ). LIST PRICE: $30.

Taking It with You

Sure, it's cool to listen to music on your Mac, but the real fun comes when you can listen to MP3s on the move. With the release of Diamond Multimedia's $270 Rio 500 (800/468-5846, http://www.diamondmm.com ) and Pontis Electronics' $190 MPlayer3 ( http://www.pontis.de ), tiny Walkman-like MP3 players have finally come to the Mac. We had the opportunity to examine these diminutive devices, and here's what we found.

Smaller Than Life

Even in these days of cell phones the size of matchbooks, you'll be surprised at just how petite the Rio 500 and the slightly larger MPlayer3 are. Both units are about the size of a deck of cards, yet each is large enough to accommodate easily accessible Play, Stop, Fast Forward, and Rewind buttons, as well as a backlit LCD.

Of the two players, the Rio has the more intuitive interface, with just a couple of buttons and a scroll wheel for navigating tracks. The MPlayer3 has a menu system that is harder to navigate. The Rio carries a USB connector and the MPlayer3 uses a serial one–meaning that the Rio works with all modern Macs and transfers files more quickly, thanks to the faster USB protocol (the MPlayer3 works only with those Macs that carry a printer or modem port).

Thanks for the Memory

Both devices sport a headphone jack and a slot for inserting memory cards, those little buggers that let you store music for playback. The Rio can handle a single memory card, whereas the MPlayer3 can accommodate two. The Rio's built-in 64MB memory holds only about 70 minutes of music encoded at 128 Kbps–the MPlayer3 has no on-board memory at all, making these card slots a necessity.

Although our MPlayer3 test unit shipped with a 16MB flash MultiMediaCard, at press time Pontis said that its customers will receive either two 16MB cards or a single 32MB storage card with the MPlayer3. However, even 32MB is not enough–that amounts to only about 35 minutes of music encoded at 128 Kbps (not even a whole album's worth).

Making a Connection

To get music onto a player, you need some kind of software, and the Rio 500 comes with the more generous software bundle–a limited version of Casady & Greene's SoundJam MP. The Rio's version of SoundJam doesn't contain the additional interfaces (skins) found in the full version, nor does it offer EQ (equalization) controls.

Downloading tracks to the Rio is very simple. With SoundJam open, plug the USB cable into the player; a window that contains the contents of the Rio will open. To add tracks, simply drag and drop individual MP3s or a folder full of tracks into this window. The loading process is fairly quick.

The MPlayer3 provides no Mac application for encoding or playing MP3 files, which means you can listen only to previously encoded music–unless you want to spend more money for an encoder. The player does include a simple program for downloading MP3 files, but the software, Pontis L.E.D., is not nearly as intuitive as Rio's offering. First you have to switch the player into download mode. Then you start the program and drag MP3 files into the player list. Downloading a single 9MB MP3 file from a 266MHz Power Mac G3 took nearly 30 minutes–performance that would be entirely unacceptable to any user. However, Pontis promises that it will offer a speedier, USB version of its device in the future.


Macworld's Buying Advice

As it stands now, there is no compelling reason to buy the MPlayer3. It lacks encoding software, speedy file transfer, and adequate storage. The Rio 500 is simple to operate and small enough to slip into a shirt pocket. It's also a bit pricey, considering how little playing time you get out of the unit. Although it would be nice if the Rio also offered serial transfer for those without USB (yes, even though it's slow), if you want MP3 to go–or simply lust after cool gadgets–the Rio 500 is for you. If you're on a budget, you may want to wait for an MP3 player with a more generous storage scheme.

MPlayer3

2.0 mice
  PROS: Small. CONS: Horrible download performance; no included encoding software. COMPANY: Pontis Electronics ( http://www.pontis.de ). LIST PRICE: $190.

EDITORS' CHOICE
Rio 500

3.5 mice
  PROS: Simple operation; ultracompact design. CONS: Limited playing time; no serial support. COMPANY: Diamond Multimedia (800/468-5846,  http://www.diamondmm.com ). LIST PRICE: $270.

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