Hands on with Roxio's Boom Box

On Thursday Roxio announced a new $50 software package for Mac OS X aimed squarely at iPod owners called the Boom Box. It’s a collection of pre-existing software that Roxio has put together to help users get more out of their iPod, and I’ve had a chance to put the software through its paces.

Boom Box includes five applications: Roxio’s own CD Spin Doctor, MusicMagic Mixer, a playlist-building application, Audio Hijack, which lets you capture audio from applications, iPodderX, a podcast subscription management utility and iSpeak It, an application that can turn text-based documents into spoken word audio files.

CD Spin Doctor

CD Spin Doctor hasn’t been available up to now outside of buying Roxio’s Toast CD and DVD burning software. The software lets you digitize music you might still have on vinyl and tape — a concept that may sound odd to the college-age and younger set, but it’s quite appealing for an old fogey like me — my wife and I have a ton of 12-inch singles of synth-pop from the 80s that we’re really not interested in tracking down and repurchasing on CD or through iTunes.

To that end CD Spin Doctor is a very nice utility. The software lets you remove unwanted noise like clicks and crackles from scratchy records, or hiss from audio tapes, to help clean up your audio before you start playing it back on your iPod. It can also detect tracks automatically by listening for the gaps between songs, taking some of the manual labor out of having to import your analog audio into a digital format.

MusicMagic Mixer

Of the five applications included with this collection, I found MusicMagic Mixer to be the most appealing. iTunes makes it really easy to build playlists of different musicians and genres, but there’s an inherent problem: It’s only using the metadata attached to the individual song files to do that. This gets even weirder with iTunes’ Party Shuffle feature — I’ve heard it to go from Dean Martin to The Beastie Boys to Scandinavian death metal, and just about then my head exploded, so I’m not sure what came after.

MusicMagic Mixer takes a very different approach by analyzing each track’s soundwave, and matching songs that include similar acoustic personalities to the one you use to “seed” your playlist with. Contextual menus let you direct MusicMagic Mixer to choose more songs like the one you’ve selected, less songs like the one you’ve identified, and more. It’s not perfect but it’s very, very clever. Once you’ve configured a playlist you like, MusicMagic Mixer can export that playlist to iTunes with a single click.

If you have a really big music library, MusicMagic Mixer takes quite a while to categorize all your music. I have just shy of 3,700 songs in my collection. I let MusicMagic Mixer run over part of a weekend, since it told me it would take more than a day to build “fingerprints.” The good news is that once it’s done with the initial analysis, you can tell MusicMagic Mixer just to sync to iTunes to keep up to date with new music you’ve added.

iPodderX

Podcasting is the latest rage in the world of digital audio; thousands of them have popped up from news sites or anyone else with an opinion who feels like putting their thoughts down in an audio file instead of (or in many cases, in addition to) a Web page.

Trying to keep up with podcasts is a full-time job, and iPodderX helps with that by managing them in a simple application interface. You can browse podcasts by subject, subscribe to the ones you like, and have them automatically downloaded and delivered to your iPod. Finding content that’s actually worthwhile to listen to, however, is your problem.

Audio Hijack

Audio Hijack is a clever application that lets you record any audio on your computer, then transfer it to iTunes and listen to it on the go with your iPod. Let’s say, for example, that you’re interested in hearing the play-by-play audio webcast of your favorite sports team, but the webcast is only available in a streaming format — you can set Audio Hijack up to record that audio. If the webcast happens at a specific time, Audio Hijack contains scheduling tools to help you manage that too.

And Audio Hijack works with any application, including RealPlayer, Windows Media Player or Apple’s own DVD Player. This actually came in quite handy for me recently — my wife had borrowed an instructional DVD video from the library that I didn’t have time to watch, but contained information I was interested in. I used Audio Hijack to snag the audio as I was doing other things, then I dropped the audio onto my iPod and listened to it in the car.

Audio Hijack also lets you apply special effects to your audio to improve the quality of the audio file. You can equalize, for example boost base and treble, and more. You can also specify sample rates, tell Audio Hijack how much space you’re willing to give your files, and take specific actions like “encode to AAC with iTunes” once it’s done.

iSpeak It

iSpeak It rounds out the utilities included in the Boom Box collection. This software lets you take text-based files and convert them to spoken word audio files using Apple’s Text to Speech technology. The software’s developers have included hooks to weather and news reports, as well as a way to download text from Web site URL’s you specify, so it’s pretty easy to grab things. And if you’ve got a text file ready — let’s say, an exported Word document, or something else you want to listen to — you can click on a button and load it up, then transfer the spoken word version to iTunes with another click.

Getting the most out of iSpeak It depends a bit on being able to tweak Apple’s Text to Speech functionality to work best for you — finding the right voice for example (Apple’s quality here leaves something to be desired). What’s more, iSpeak It also allows you to insert commands to control the rate at which text is spoken, volume and emphasis on specific passages of text to further customize your playback.

Conclusion

Excluding CD Spin Doctor, which Roxio hasn’t yet sold as an independent application, the total cost of buying each of these applications separately is in the vicinity of $86 or so — so Roxio’s bargain-basement price of $49.95 is an excellent value for all this software, especially if you include the coupons and offers that Roxio includes from Wiley Books, Audible.com and Belkin Corp.

How much of the software you’ll actually use is another question. For my own purposes, I found CD Spin Doctor, Audio Hijack and MusicMagic Mixer to be the standouts of the bunch. iPodderX certainly does its job effectively, but frankly, podcasts just don’t interest me that much. And iSpeak It works as advertised as well, but it’s hamstrung by Apple’s clumsy Text to Speech technology.

For more on iPod, please visit the iPod Product Guide .

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