Digital Music Superguide

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RELEASE THE SOUNDS

You've ripped your CDs to MP3 and AAC files. You've purchased songs from the iTunes Music Store. Your iPod is overflowing with tunes. It's probably safe to say that you're captivated by the allure of digital music. So you'll be thrilled to discover that inside your Mac rages the heart of a bass-thumping, teeth-rattling sound system. Your iPod can share its sweet sounds beyond your ears. With the right speakers and enhancements, you can integrate your Mac or iPod into your sound system -- or just as easily send your stereo to the consumer-electronics graveyard.

Musical Mac

You've got tons of music on your Mac. If it's truly at the center of your digital hub, it's time to put your Mac to good sonic use -- either as a stereo component or as a musical powerhouse unto itself.

The Speaker Connection Macs have either one built-in speaker or two, depending on the model -- but those speakers can make Jimi Hendrix sound as though he were playing a ukulele. Any Mac laptop or desktop can easily connect to external speakers via the line-out jack on your Mac. Unlike the speakers attached to your home stereo, which draw their power from the amplifier, computer speakers are powered -- they run off a power plug or batteries, and they include their own amplification.

Since most of the music you're likely to play consists of standard stereo (two-channel) files, you can avoid costlier surround-sound setups and look for a 2.1 system -- that is, a left and a right speaker, along with a subwoofer (the .1 part) that handles the low frequencies, or bass. Klipsch's $150 ProMedia GMX A-2.1 (www.klipsch.com) and Harman Kardon's $200 SoundSticks II (www.harman-multimedia.com) are some examples.

You may decide to purchase a multichannel speaker system -- because you also watch DVDs on your Mac and would like to enjoy the surround-sound capabilities built into Panther's DVD Player app, for example. Klipsch sells several other ProMedia configurations, including the $250 ProMedia GMX D-5.1 and $400 ProMedia Ultra 5.1; JBL (www.harman-multimedia.com) sells the $180 Invader 4.1 channel system; and there are more. (Keep in mind that no Mac games currently support multichannel audio.)

If you want to get rid of the ties that bind -- the wires that connect your speakers to your computer -- check out cordless systems such as RCA's $150 WSP150 (www.rca.com), Acoustic Research's $180 AW871 (www.bestbuy.com or other online retailers), or Sony's single-speaker $180 SRS-RF90RK (www.sonystyle.com). All use 900MHz radio frequencies to send music from a base (connected to your Mac via line out) to wireless speakers, with ranges varying from 125 to 300 feet.

Since speaker quality can be very subjective, it's best to go to a store where you can listen to potential purchases -- preferably with the types of music you typically listen to, and in a quiet, representative environment -- before you buy.

The ProSpeaker Option Owners of G4 iMacs and some Power Mac G4 models probably know about the ProSpeaker port next to the headphone jack, which allows you to hook up the Apple Pro Speakers ($59; included with the iMac). What you may not have known is that you can use that port to attach that extra pair of speakers you have gathering dust in a closet somewhere. With Griffin Technology's $25 ProSpeaker Breakout Cable (www.griffintechnology.com), you can connect your regular, unpowered speakers to your Mac with standard speaker wire.

Extra Power As mentioned previously, all Macs can send two channels of music out via the line-out jack. Most models support 16-bit audio (used for CD, MP3, and AAC files). The Power Mac G5, iMac G4, and 15- and 17-inch PowerBooks support 24-bit audio, which can produce better depth and create a rich, full sound when pumped through a great pair of speakers.

If you've got 24-bit envy or want more than just stereo output, you have options. M-Audio's $120 Revolution 7.1 PCI card (www.m-audio.com) offers 24-bit support, and it can output to as many as seven speakers and a subwoofer. This arrangement is known as Dolby Digital EX, the next generation of Dolby digital sound; it includes two speakers more than a 5.Command-Channel setup. People with iMacs, PowerBooks, or iBooks (Macs without PCI slots) can get similar benefits from USB devices such as M-Audio's $120 bus-powered Sonica Theater. Both products can produce virtual surround sound from standard stereo music.

Wired to Stereo While your Mac can function as the center of a great sound system, it can also integrate into your existing home theater or stereo system, giving you a component with great versatility.

You can send any sound on your Mac to the stereo simply by connecting a Y-cable (the kind with a stereo minijack on one end and two RCA plugs on the other) from your Mac to a spare input on your stereo receiver (as long as it's not phono, which has extra amplification and can't handle the full range of frequencies that modern music will try to cram through). A wide range of Y-cables is available, from Monster's $30 iCable for iPod (www.monstercable.com) to a $3 version available at electronics stores such as Radio Shack.

You can also use a PCI, USB, or FireWire interface for sound output. These tend to provide better sound, since they are dedicated to audio and usually have higher-quality parts.

The Power Mac G5 is the first Mac to include built-in digital-audio input and output. If you have a stereo receiver with an S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) optical input (also known as Toslink), you can connect an optical cable from your Mac to the receiver, and your sound stays digital all the way.

A Smarter Way Although you can simply connect your Mac directly to a stereo, you still have to access and control the music from the Mac, which is not exactly convenient, to say the least.

One of the coolest ways to integrate your Mac with your stereo is via networked music-playing hardware such as Slim Device's Squeezebox (mmmm; April 2004; wired, $249; wireless, $299; www.slimdevices.com). The Squeezebox attaches to your Ethernet or 802.11 wireless network and lets you stream various music formats, as well as MP3 Internet radio, to your stereo with analog or digital cables. With the server software running on your Mac, the Squeezebox lets you control your music with a remote. Two versions of the Roku Soundbridge ($250 and $500; www.rokulabs.com) -- similar to the Squeezebox, but without wireless capabilities -- should be shipping by the time you read this.

Remember, if all you want to do is share your music on your home network, you don't need to buy additional hardware (see "Mini Music Server").

Portable Pod

The iPod is one of the best things to happen to digital music -- but let's face it, using it can be rather antisocial. Sticking tiny earphones in your ears is a solitary endeavor; you can't exactly share the sounds in your head with the rest of the party. But you can set the music free.

Direct to Speakers The headphone port on the iPod and the line-out port on iPod docks act just like those on your Mac -- accordingly, any speakers that you can attach to a Mac with a minijack connector, you can use with the iPod. With a dedicated set of powered speakers, you can easily carry thousands of songs to any room of the house -- so there's no need to buy a second stereo.

If you're looking for speakers made just for the iPod, check out Alec Lansing's $150 inMotion (   ; April 2004). Plop your newer iPod into the docking station between the two speakers, or connect your first-generation iPod via the auxiliary input jack, and you're in business for a small space -- such as the kitchen, where you can listen as you make breakfast.

The Stereo Hookup As with speakers, you can use a Y-cable to connect your iPod to a stereo receiver anywhere you have one. If you want to integrate the iPod with your home stereo even further, take a look at TEN Technology's $50 naviPod (www.tentechnology.com) for third-generation iPods. Plug your iPod into the naviPod, connect it to your stereo, and place it somewhere visible. Then sit back on the couch and use the included five-key infrared remote for playback, volume, and track control.

To escape wire tethers, just beam the music from your iPod to your stereo. Lots of people already use radio transmitters such as Griffin Technology's $35 iTrip in the car when cassette adapters are not a viable option. But why should transmitters be limited to the road? These RF (Radio Frequency) gadgets connect to the iPod and broadcast to a specified station of your radio, so if you've got an FM radio at home, there's no reason not to use your transmitter inside, too. -- michael gowan

Mini Music Server

If you're running iTunes 4.01 or later, you've already got powerful music-sharing software installed. iTunes lets computers on the same network make their libraries available to everyone else -- even Windows iTunes computers. This feature is easy to use: just click on the Sharing tab in iTunes' preferences and select the Share My Music option to spread the joy of music around your networked home. This works with your everyday Mac, or you can store your music on an older computer you have sitting around (even a PC) and use it as a server.

To share music outside your network -- to listen to your home iTunes songs at work, for example -- there's another option. Download and install Slim Devices' free SlimServer 5 software (www.slimdevices.com), the same app that powers the Squeezebox. The server software uses iTunes' XML data to create a Web page with song information and playlists, from which you choose what to listen to. Set it up, and then use any application that supports streaming (such as iTunes and QuickTime, to name a few) to enjoy your music from anywhere. For more information, visit find.macworld.com/0005. -- mg

Stream Away You choose your playlists and control Slim Server via its Web interface; then you can stream the resulting audio through iTunes.
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