Record companies fear it,music addicts love it: the MP3 audio-compression format has taken the Internet and the music industry by storm. Of all the MP3 software available for the Mac, Casady & Greene's new SoundJam MP is the most complete. It's the only Mac MP3 tool capable of not only playing back MP3 files but also encoding tracks from audio CDs?all with a comfortable, customizable user interface.
At first glance, SoundJam MP's interface evokes the look of Apple's QuickTime Player, the justifiably maligned movie and music player that accompanies QuickTime 4 Pro (see Reviews, October 1999). SoundJam MP sports the same brushed-aluminum, 1970s-swinger look. But Casady & Greene didn't mimic Apple's mistakes as well. SoundJam MP's volume control is a horizontal slider instead of an awkward virtual knob, and the program lacks QuickTime Player's gimmicky Favorites drawer.
What's more, as with @soft's popular MacAmp MP3 player (see " So Long, CDs," July 1999), you can completely change SoundJam MP's appearance by switching "skins." Most of the 13 skins that accompany SoundJam MP are pig-ugly, but you can download more from the SoundJam MP Web site or convert MacAmp skins to work with SoundJam MP.
Like nearly all other MP3 players, SoundJam MP lets you create a sequence of songs and store them in a playlist. The program's playlist features are straightforward and well designed?for example, you can have multiple playlists and drag and drop songs from one playlist to another. MacAmp lacks these niceties. SoundJam MP can also play live feeds from the growing number of Web sites that offer MP3 streaming. You can even include live streams in playlists.
But SoundJam MP is more than an MP3 player?you can use it to encode, or rip , MP3 tracks, simply by inserting an audio CD and clicking on a couple of buttons. SoundJam MP can also connect to an Internet CD database to retrieve track and artist names so you don't have to peck them in by hand.
You can customize SoundJam MP's encoding settings, but the program doesn't provide nearly as much encoding control as Xing Technology's AudioCatalyst 2.0. And unlike AudioCatalyst, SoundJam MP doesn't support variable-bit-rate (VBR) encoding, whose sound quality some MP3 gurus prefer. But SoundJam MP can play back VBR files, whereas Apple's QuickTime Player can't.
Like many other MP3 players, SoundJam MP includes a graphic equalizer (EQ) that lets you fine-tune sound quality to your tastes. SoundJam MP comes with 11 EQ presets, and you can add your own. For simple tone adjustments, SoundJam MP also offers basic bass and treble controls, which most MP3 players lack. And three bundled plug-ins display cool graphics in rhythm with the music. Some of the plug-ins are downright psychedelic; after a few minutes of staring at Melt-O-Rama, I felt like entering a rehab program.
SoundJam MP is hands down the best MP3 player for the Mac. Musicians wanting to encode MP3 tracks for Internet distribution may prefer Xing's AudioCatalyst for its more precise encoding controls, but the rest of us will find SoundJam MP's encoding features adequate. Test them for yourself by downloading a seven-day trial version of SoundJam MP from http://www.soundjam.com.
RATING: PROS: Supports both encoding and playback; excellent playlist features; supports streaming. CONS: No variable-bit-rate encoding; lacks precise encoding controls. COMPANY: Casady & Greene (800/359-4920, http://www.soundjam.com ). LIST PRICE: $50.
November 1999 page: 64