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MP3: The Definitive Guide

MP3: The Definitive Guide

By Scot Hacker
1st Edition March 2000
1-56592-661-7, Order Number: 6617
400 pages, $29.95

Sample Chapter 6:
Hardware, Portables, Home Stereos, and Kits

In this chapter:

Until recently, MP3 audio was a software-only proposition for most people. MP3 files were created on the computer and listened to on the computer. But that was before the appearance of the now-legendary Diamond Rio, which won the landmark court battle against the RIAA and, in so doing, legitimized a tidal wave of hardware-based MP3 playback devices. At this writing, there are at least a dozen portable MP3 players, and a whole genre of MP3-oriented home stereo devices is threatening to enter the consumer channel. Dozens of sites are available on the Web designed to help you build an MP3 player from scratch, and many alternatives for playing MP3 in your car are available.

This chapter covers the aspects of MP3 playback that escape the limited confines of the personal computer. Since many of the devices covered here involve connecting computers, home stereos, and custom devices, we'll start with an overview of analog and digital connection issues, before examining the field of MP3 portables and the quickly changing question of how best to store files for use with portables (including the advent of Lilliputian hard drives and removable memory cards). In a similar vein, you'll see how you can use a hand-held computer to play back MP3 files, assuming you've got a suitable PDA. We'll survey the landscape of MP3 equipment designed for use in home and car stereos, then move on to the tricky stuff: Do-it-yourself schemes for building your own MP3 hardware from pre-fab kits and plans, or, for the truly hardcore among you, from scratch.

Note that in most cases, the hardware mentioned here will not help you create MP3 files outside your computer-only play them back. The fact that commercially available hardware-based players are classified exclusively as storage devices-and thus do not contribute to piracy-is the essence of the landmark Rio suit and has completely shaped the MP3 hardware landscape.

Playing MP3 Through Your Home Stereo

There are basically two ways to listen to MP3 audio through your home stereo. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages.

Either way, you'll be hooking up your hardware either via analog ports, or through digital outputs in the playback equipment. The difference between these two types of connections is in the conversion process. As described in Chapter 3, Getting and Playing MP3 Files, digital bits need to be converted into analog signal at some point in the chain. The question is whether this job is done by a (usually) low-quality, built-in DAC (digital-to-analog converter) or by a higher-quality DAC in a digitally equipped amplifier, DAT, or outboard DAC.

Analog Connections

Since most people have neither amplifiers with digital inputs nor outboard DACs, connections are usually a simple matter of obtaining the right analog cables and connecting the right jacks.

Connecting your computer to your stereo

To make the direct connection, you'll need a special adapter and a length of RCA cable (also known as a " patch cord"). The adapter should have a 1/8" male jack on one side to plug into your sound card's line out jack and two female RCA jacks on the other, as shown in Figure 6-1.[1] Connect your RCA cable into the adapter's female jacks, and run them into the Auxiliary input on your home stereo's amp or pre-amp (actually, any input on your stereo besides Phono will suffice, but Auxilary is often the only input available). Turn your amp or pre-amp's input selector to Aux, and you're all set.

Figure 6-1: Obtain an adapter similar to this one to connect an external MP3 player or computer sound card to your home stereo

The necessary patch cord and adapter can be obtained inexpensively at most electronics parts stores, such as Radio Shack. You can also find prebuilt cables designed for this purpose at www.musicmatch.com/get_gear/.

NOTE

Do not purchase more cable than you reasonably need. In the ideal environment, your computer would be very near your stereo, so you can use 3' or 6' patch cords. Of course, this is seldom feasible in real living situations, where the computer is in a completely different room. But keep in mind that longer cables will pick up noise and increase impedance, which will cause high frequencies to roll off.

Connecting external devices

Virtually any external MP3 playback device (some of which are covered later in this chapter) can be used through your home stereo, in addition to functioning as a stand-alone unit. While connection options vary from one device to the next, the principle is generally the same. Home stereo MP3 components will have RCA plugs on the back which can be jacked into the Aux or any other free input on your amplifier (with the exception of Phono). Some car stereo MP3 units, such as the empeg, have a pair of RCA jacks as well, to make it easy to slide them out of the car and use them as a home stereo component. Future high-end MP3 players may include digital outputs as well, though we weren't aware of any at this writing.

Portable players such as the Creative NOMAD typically do not have RCA outputs, but rather a 1/8" headphone output jack. To play a portable device with these outputs through your stereo, you'll again need to obtain an appropriate adapter and cables. Some portable units come bundled with these. If not, you should be able to find one at your local Radio Shack or other electronics/stereo store.

Digital Connections

Digital input jacks have become increasingly common on amplifiers sold in the late nineties, and are the norm on amps built for use with home theaters. The advantage, again, is the ability to transfer the job of digital-to-analog conversion from the sound card itself to a device specialized for the task, such as a digital receiver, home theater system, or outboard DAC. The low cost and limited space available on a typical computer sound card means that built-in DACs are functional, but not optimal. Audiophiles often spend from $300 to $10,000 for a dedicated "outboard" DAC in order to handle all incoming digital sound optimally.

In order to use a digital connection, you'll need support for it on either end of the chain-in addition to support on the amplification side, you must also own a sound card or dedicated MP3 playback device with digital outputs. The Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live! is an exceptionally popular card with S/PDIF jacks, though the digital output comes on a "daughter card," not on the main sound card body. If you purchase the SoundBlaster Live! Value Edition, you won't get this daughter card.

NOTE

The SoundBlaster Live! is used as an example of a popular, relatively high-quality card here, not necessarily as a recommendation. Audiophiles will note that the Live! resamples signal up to 48kHz, even in the case of digital output, and thus introduces some quantization noise. This is not the case when using Turtle Beach or Guillemot ISIS soundcards, for example. The ISIS is even sold with an additional external DAC.

Connection types

Digital connections come in four flavors, though you're likely to see only one or two of them on the vast majority of consumer hardware. Remember-you must have the same connector type on both your sound card and on your amplifier or DAC. Adapters between some of these formats can be found at specialty retailers, but it will take some hunting.

NOTE

While some people are able to hear the difference between quality cable and consumer cable (analog or digital), others are not. In the grand scheme of things, the differences between these connection types are small enough to be considered negligible. However, if you have very good stereo equipment and listen carefully, the differences are there. Like fine wine, it's often the subtle differences that take the most training and experience to detect, but that mean the most in the long run.

If you're purchasing cable for digital connections rather than analog ("digital coax"), be sure to get cable rated at 75 Ohms for S/PDIF connections, or 110 Ohms for for AES/EBU connections. Standard analog interconnects will do the job, but won't deliver optimal results. You can also use 75 Ohm video cable with RCA plugs for the job, and probably save some money in the process.

S/PDIF
Short for Sony/Phillips Digital InterFace, this connector looks like a standard RCA jack,[2] but one jack handles both left and right channels (if you see a pair of them on your equipment, they're for input and output, not left and right). Better home theater systems, outboard DACs, and digital-output-capable sound cards work with S/PDIF, while consumer-grade equipment is more likely to use Toslink (see the following entry). While you can use any standard RCA-type patch cable with S/PDIF connectors, most audiophiles purchase dedicated digital cables for the job. This cable type is typically referred to as digital coax in stereo stores.

Toslink
The most commonly available type of fiber optic connection is made over the comparatively inexpensive Toslink cable. Toslink jacks consist of a square-ish shield surrounding a small-diameter metal housing for the optical cable itself. Toslink does an adequate job of transferring digital signal, but does not tend to win accolades from audiophiles due to the fact that the fiber inside is plastic, not glass, and is therefore prone to internal reflections. Because the tip of the fiber must be kept perfectly clean, always replace the plastic shields that came with your Toslink cables when not in use.

AES/EBU
Found almost exclusively on high-end and dedicated equipment, this digital transfer spec moves through balanced cable-like a microphone-and usually terminates in XLR (3-pin canon-style) connectors. You'll most likely see this only on specialized equipment where quality considerations are paramount and long runs are necessary, as is the case in recording studios.

AT&T Glass
Expensive and uncommon, AT&T Glass is a fiber optic connection type which does not suffer the quality stigma of Toslink because the glass fiber is not subject to the internal reflection problems that affect plastic fiber. Only the most expensive, specialized equipment sports AT&T Glass connectors.

As with any cable type, make sure your digital connections are firm and secure, and keep cable lengths short whenever possible (though length is less important with optical connectors than with traditional cables).

Portable Players

MP3 took its first big step outside the realm of the computer when it entered the portable player market. In fact, the market is heating up so quickly that research firm DataQuest expects to see 155 million portable MP3 units sold to consumers in the year 2000. The devices are quickly becoming as ubiquitous as the portable cassette or CD player.

All of these units are based on the same basic concept as a portable CD or cassette player, but enjoy the advantage of having no moving parts, and therefore not being susceptible to skips caused by bumping or jogging. On the other hand, they have the disadvantage that they must be loaded up with music prior to use, which takes more time and effort than just throwing a few CDs into your backpack.

NOTE

There are many more portable devices on the market than are listed here, with more coming all the time. As MP3 becomes less of a geek toy and more of a killer app for the general consumer, expect portable players to become as popular as-or more popular than-portable CD and cassette players are now. What you see here is a brief survey of the field at this writing, focusing on features and flexibility. Think of this as a guide to the kind of functionality you should be looking for, not a complete menu of portable choices. Take a look at the Hardware section of MP3.com at www.mp3.com/hardware/ for more options.

You'll also want to give some thought to the type of computer connections offered by the device. Various portable brands and products connect to your PC over parallel, serial, or USB connections. I don't know about you, but I haven't had a machine with a spare parallel or serial port for some years now, and despite what anyone says about parallel pass-through arrangements, these have often caused me grief. The parallel port just wasn't designed for sharing (it is faster than serial, however), and increasing numbers of low-cost consumer computers ship with only one serial port, rather than two or four, as they did once upon a time. The real solution is USB, which is designed for sharing, and is much faster than either parallel or serial. Unfortunately, USB-compatible portables were somewhat rare at this writing (this situation should rectify itself in the near future).

NOTE

To quickly compare the kinds of features you should be looking for in a portable player, see Table 6-1.

Speaking of connections, make sure you get a unit with its own desktop " cradle," as shown in Figure 6-2. Without a cradle, you'll have to manually connect your portable to your PC every time you want to transfer tracks. This becomes less important with USB connections, since you can just leave a USB cable dangling from a USB hub. Since a cradle stays permanently connected, all you have to do is drop the unit into its bay, fire up the software, drag a few tracks into the player's desktop software, and be on your way.

Figure 6-2: The Creative Labs' Nomad portable player in its cradle

Memory and Storage Issues

Most first and second generation portable units suffer from limited storage capacities, which means you get to listen to the same music (typically an hour or less) all day long. If you want to cram more music into a portable player, you have to encode at lower bitrates, which means decreased quality. The problem is being mitigated by the advent of next-generation, hot-swappable memory modules, tiny hard drives, and portable CD players that play MP3 data CDs. Just prior to press time, a new player called Personal Jukebox (www.pjbox.com) had announced an MP3 player packing a 4.86 GB hard drive capable of storing around 100 CDs worth of music, in a form factor only slightly larger than a traditional MP3 portable.

NOTE

By Christmas 1999, most portable MP3 hardware was slated to start being SDMI-compatible (see Chapter 7, The Not-So-Fine-Print: Legal Bits and Pieces, for more on SDMI). If you want no part of this scheme, you may do well to scan the online auction sites for an older portable.

Many of these units are also capable of operating as simple storage devices for data other than MP3 and other audio files. If the provided software allows (and in many cases it does), you can drag Word docs, images, spreadsheets, or whatever you like into the unit. If you purchase an additional cradle so you have one attached to both your work and home machines, you can take advantage of your fast Internet connection at work to download the latest huge browser upgrade, take it home stored in the portable's memory bank, then transfer it back to your home machine's hard drive for installation. Whoever said floppies were obsolete was right.

Memory to go

When shopping for a portable, do not underestimate the importance of getting a unit with as much memory as you can afford. Limited amounts of memory are the single biggest stumbling block to portables being truly viable. Vendors frequently overestimate the amount of playback time you'll get with 32, 64, or 96 MB of RAM in their marketing materials. If you don't mind swishy, warbly sound, sure you can fill up your portable with 96 kbps files and get a lot more playing time. But is it really worth it? If you care enough about your music to want to bring it wherever you go, then you care enough to have it sound decent.

WARNING

Be cautious when a vendor tells you you'll get an hour of "digital quality audio" from your unit. What does the term "digital quality" really mean? Pretty much anything the vendor wants it to mean. In reality, such statements are often based not on 128 kbps audio, the quality of which is already questionable, but on 96 kbps or even 64 kbps encodings. They might be talking about mono, rather than stereo encodings. Or they might be talking about 22kHz, rather than 44kHz audio. At those rates, the quality is noticeably worse than AM radio or cassette tape-noisy and swishy. Who wants to disrespect the music they love that way? On the other hand, many of these units are capable of taking voice memos at very low bitrates (low enough to discourage you from trying to record live music concerts), and you can store several hours of acceptable-quality class lectures in 64 MB without difficulty.

One of the most viable near-term solutions to the storage problem is the portable, hot-swappable memory module. These are beginning to appear from a number of vendors, but the two leaders in the field are SanDisk (www.sandisk.com) with their Multi Media Card (MMC) (Figure 6-3), SmartMedia, and CompactFlash cards, and Sony, who are currently marketing their " Memory Sticks." Sony has a leg up because they also manufacture so many popular consumer electronics devices, including photo printers, car navigation systems, digital telephones, digital cameras, and personal computers compatible with the Memory Stick technology. Toshiba, Matsushita, and SanDisk have announced a partnership to eventually develop postage-stamp sized memory cards capable of storing up to 256 MB, and capable of up to 10 MB/sec of throughput. Most portable units that accept memory cards at this writing were using MMC cards of one flavor or another, though Sony was preparing to jump into the market with a portable player of their own, which would of course use Sony Memory Sticks.

Regardless of vendor, the principle behind these modules is the same-purchase as many memory modules as you like, load them up beforehand, and take them with you. This solves the storage problem quite nicely... if you can afford to buy a bunch of them.

Figure 6-3: The SanDisk Multi Media Card, commonly referred to as an "MMC" is barely the size of a quarter, and can be used as everything from a floppy replacement to an MP3 swappable storage solution

NOTE

An industry specification called SSFDC (for Solid State Floppy Disk Card) represents an attempt for flash memory cards to adopt common mechanisms and interfaces to ensure interoperability across devices. For example, an SSFDC memory card will work as easily in your portable MP3 player as it does in your digital camera or even your cell phone. If this is important to you, check the manufacturer's web site for mention of SSFDC compliance.

Lilliputian hard drives

Meanwhile, IBM has developed its MicroDrive, a hard drive barely larger than a Susan B. Anthony, weighing less than an AA battery, and capable of storing 340 MB of data (Figure 6-4). Of course, the flipside of small drives is a return to moving parts, and with them a return to skippability and mechanical failure, so this may be one for those who don't exercise rigorously. Interestingly, physics dictates that inertia won't affect tiny hard drives as much as it does larger drives; it should take quite a blow to dislodge the read arm of a microdrive. And, of course, first-generation technologies are always expensive until they reach mainstream adoption.

Shortly after IBM introduced the drive, Diamond Multimedia, Clarion, Samsung, Sanyo, and Casio announced that they already begun receiving shipments of the $499 device for use in upcoming products. Diamond, in fact was the first to announce that their upcoming Rio II MP3 portable would include the MicroDrive. Meanwhile, i2Go (www.i2go.com) had just released a device called the eGo near press time, which was capable of working with two MicroDrives, for a total storage capacity of 680 MB. Things are about to get a whole lot better.

Figure 6-4: IBM's MicroDrive stores 340 MB of data and is small enough to be used in portable MP3 devices

In my mind, that kind of storage capacity is the key to real usability for these units, and will obviate many of the hassles of carrying around additional flash memory cards and/or constantly updating the contents of MP3 portables. If you're an early adopter and just can't wait, get one of the available units now-they're loads of fun. But if this is a device you intend to use for a long time to come, hold off for better storage capacities; the scene is going to get a lot better than it was in early 2000.

Portable MP3 data CDs

Also new on the scene at this writing are portable devices that can read MP3 tracks from data CDs, which means you get a meaty ten hours of playback time. Unfortunately, it also means a potential return to the skipping problems that occur whenever mechanical devices and physical exercise come together. These skipping problems can, however, be mitigated by a good read-ahead caching scheme. If a unit can read a few minutes of music off the CD in one "gulp," it can then play that music from memory until the buffer expires, keeping the time spent reading data from disc to a minimum. See the section on the Pine player, later in this chapter.

Diamond Rio

www.rioport.com Diamond's Rio changed everything. With the advent of the Rio portable unit, MP3 files were freed from people's computers and suddenly became playable at the gym, on the subway, in the schoolyard, and while skydiving. The suit against Diamond by the RIAA (as covered in Chapter 7, The Not-So-Fine-Print: Legal Bits and Pieces) set a critical precedent and cleared the way for the future of similar devices and burgeoning competition.

Since the Rio was a first-generation device, it lacked many of the features now commonplace on portable units. However, subsequent editions of the Rio are much improved, with more memory, USB connections, a better-looking case, and a built-in equalizer so you can optimize the output for any given genre, as shown in Figure 6-5. While Diamond has big plans for the future, they're shipping both their original Rio 300 and the newer Rio 500 simultaneously through the first part of 2000. The price difference of $100 gets you a USB connection, more storage, a cooler case, a backlit display, and MacOS support.

Figure 6-5: The Diamond Rio PMP500, in its cool translucent case

Diamond has created an integrated software/web site solution called the RioPort, which is the name for both the companion software you get with the Rio and the site at www.rioport.com. While any MP3 user can head over to RioPort and download tracks from their growing library of signed (often "name brand" artists) for free or for a small fee, Rio owners have the advantage of tight integration between the site, the RioPort software, and your Rio player. The software, which is a combination music library, ripper/encoder, and sync utility, will automatically detect MP3 files on your system, regardless whether they come from the RioPort site or another site. The software also includes a built-in web browser that connects directly to RioPort.com and other popular MP3 sites, so you can find the files you're looking for quickly and easily. Once downloaded, songs become part of your music library, and can be synched with a connected Rio (or, in fact, any portable player) or played directly through the computer.

NOTE

The Rio 500 has a cool bookmarking feature that lets you mark specific points in your files. This is particularly useful for saved news broadcasts, lecture notes, etc. To mark a point in a file, just press the Bookmark button. To access your saved bookmarks, use the thumbwheel on the unit to navigate through your bookmark collection.

Rio use on other platforms

While older versions of the Rio do not provide software or the proper connection type for MacOS users,[3] BeOS and Linux users are in luck, thanks to the presence of an Open Source version of the Rio filesystem protocol made available by The Snowblind Alliance. Linux users can download source for the Rio utility from www.world.co.uk/sba/rio.htm. After compiling and installing, usage is straightforward. You'll need to be running as root, since it accesses hardware directly. You'll also need to know the address of your parallel port (if your PC doesn't use the default) and specify it with the -p flag. Common memory addresses for parallel ports are 0x378, 0x3BC and 0x278. Then use:

rio -d

to display a directory of the files currently loaded on the unit. To upload a new file, use:

rio -g ~/data/mp3/somesong.mp3

to delete a song, use the -z flag instead. The utility is capable of many additional functions; see the included documentation for details.

BeOS users have it even easier. Rather than using the Rio utility directly, Be provides a version of the Rio filesystem as a dynamically loadable add-on, as shown in Figure 6-6. See Be's documentation on setting up the Rio.[4] Once mounted, the Rio appears in the Tracker just like any other mounted file system, and you can simply drag MP3 files into the Rio folder from elsewhere in the Tracker. In fact, you can even FTP files directly from the Internet into the Rio.

If you're a Mac user, you'll find that SoundJam (covered in Chapter 3) includes native support for later versions of the Rio over USB. You'll need to have USB 1.2 support installed-this comes with MacOS 8.6 and later. If you're using an earlier version of MacOS or a PCI USB adapter card, you'll need to download USB 1.2 or later from Apple's support site. You'll find an application in the SoundJam folder called RioPort SoundJam MP. Launch this and you'll be able to drag files into the player from the Finder, create folders within the Rio, delete files, reformat the Rio's memory module, and sort your on-board playlists exactly as you would a standard SoundJam playlist.

Figure 6-6: In BeOS, users mount the Rio as a normal filesystem

Rio: The next generation

While an exact release date was not available at press time, we were able to get a few projections on features to be included in a version of Rio to be released sometime in the first quarter of 2000. Diamond is looking closely at giving users a choice in the type of removable storage to be used. Users should be able to buy a base unit capable of playback, and expansion modules similar to those available for the Handspring Visor (covered in this chapter), so users can snap on an MMC module, Memory Stick module, or even an IBM Microdrive module. As the number of mini-storage options increases, this kind of expandability will become increasingly important, and users won't be locked into storage technologies if they should become obsolete.

The new Rio is scheduled to include support for Windows Media files, and Diamond is working with InterTrust to work out the details of a solid security model.

The company is working with outside design firms to find an optimum form factor; Diamond wants users to be able to operate the unit comfortably without even looking at it, which is important for use when driving or biking, for example. And of course Diamond wants the units to get even smaller, so users can stuff them into smaller pockets. They're also looking at ways to expand the size and quality of the display. Ultimately, it should be possible for users to view song lyrics stored in ID3v2 tags, or even to potentially display album cover art. Better playlist support is also on the table.

Meanwhile, Diamond is working on plans to launch a home stereo MP3 component, possibly similar to the Rio in ways, but in a home stereo component form factor and integrated into the home network. Diamond is beginning to see the writing on the wall here: many consumers have seen home networks as a geek toy without any real advantage for normal user. But everybody loves music, and once people see what they can do with a networked MP3 home, they'll be compelled to get those miniLANs up and running. No further details on the device were available at press time.

Creative Labs' NOMAD

www.nomadworld.com Creative Labs, progenitors of the widely popular SoundBlaster and SoundBlaster Live! sound cards, has their own answer to the ubiquitous Rio: the NOMAD (Figure 6-7). The NOMAD I is available in both 32 MB and 64 MB models, both of which can take additional 32 MB flash ROM cards. The NOMAD II, on the other hand, has no built-in memory and relies instead on add-in memory modules, for greater expandability. The NOMAD II can accept any type or size of SmartMedia card.

NOTE

An important point to keep in mind is that any unit that utilizes memory modules rather than built-in storage circumvents issues surrounding the ability to get files back out of the device (see Chapter 7).

Both versions of the NOMAD feature a built-in FM tuner and, more interestingly, built-in voice memo capabilities. If you have a sudden brainstorm, are fresh out of paper, or forgot your PalmPilot, you can just switch to Memo mode, hit the Record button, and speak directly into the device. When you're done speaking, your memo is encoded to MP3 (at an extremely low bitrate, judging by the quality of the results) and stored in the device's memory. When you later fire up the NOMAD I Manager software, you can save your voice memos to hard disk for posterity (note that, like all portable MP3 players, you cannot transfer music files out of the NOMAD I and back to disk; this would allow piracy and put the vendor afoul of laws outlined in Chapter 7).

Figure 6-7: The author in the great urban outdoors with the Creative Labs' NOMAD I

Because the NOMAD II is fully programmable, the unit is designed to be "future-proof." By this, the company means that users can run Creative-provided software to update the built-in flash ROM, which will theoretically enable it to handle additional file formats or copyright protection mechanisms. This means you won't be left out in the cold if the industry decides to move in another direction. Like a computer, you'll just upgrade the software, rather than being left with an obsolete device.


Living with the NOMAD

I lived with a NOMAD I for several weeks, taking it virtually everywhere, from long bike rides over mountainous terrain to shopping trips in the car. The unit performed flawlessly, though I did have some qualms with certain aspects of both the hardware and software design. I found the unit's buttons well-located and easy to access, even when the its leather slipcover was in place. However, the buttons are not easy to distinguish from one another without looking at the unit, which made it very difficult to operate when biking.

With a pair of my own headphones, I found the audio quality of well-encoded MP3 files excellent.

I also really appreciated the magnesium case; many players out there come in plastic cases, lending them an air of, as Frank Zappa would say, "cheepnis." This unit, even though it weighs only a few ounces, felt rock solid in the hand, like a quality instrument. The NOMAD II is scheduled to move to a plastic case, which allow for more color options. This is unfortunate from an aesthetic perspective but not surprising-the company pointed to manufacturing issues with the magnesium cases.

So what are my complaints? For one thing, the NOMAD I is for some reason beholden to Microsoft's antiquated 8.3 filenaming restrictions. This doesn't affect usage of the player, but if you drag a file called "Bob Dylan-One More Weekend with You.mp3" into the NOMAD Manager, it will appear in the panel as "BOBDYL~1.MP3." If you have multiple files all starting with the same artist name, it becomes very difficult to tell which file is which. Yuck. Note, however, that this does not affect the unit's own display window, which properly shows ID3 tags. Why this couldn't be done in the Manager interface as well is beyond me. This issue should be cleared up with the NOMAD II, though it was too early to tell at press time.

Second, I found my patience worn a little thin by waiting around for transfers to happen. In my perfect world, the NOMAD cradle would have USB, FireWire, and Ethernet interfaces so I could plug in any of the high-speed connectors available to my system. The version of the NOMAD I tested had none of these (a problem the NOMAD shares with most of the first- and second-generation portable units). Oddly enough, even deleting files takes much more time than one would expect. If you want to delete a lot of files, your quickest bet is to click the "Format" button at the top of the NOMAD Manager window, rather than deleting files singly or in groups. Fortunately, the NOMAD II is scheduled to include USB support, so this should be a non-issue. Interestingly, the convenience of having a cradle becomes less important with units like the NOMAD II, since all you really need is a free USB cable to plug in-no more messing with parallel ports on the back of the machine.


NOTE

You must set you parallel port to ECP to establish a connection with the NOMAD I. There's a good chance your BIOS is already set up this way. If you're not sure, enter you computer's BIOS screen at boot time and look for the option. Again, this problem could be easily circumvented by providing additional transfer ports.

RCA Lyra

www.lyrazone.com

While the Lyra doesn't break any real new ground, it does offer a few features that weren't available on other players at this writing. Perhaps most noteworthy, the unit is software-upgradeable, meaning you won't be locked out if one of the other excellent file formats discussed in Chapter 9, Competing Codecs and Other File Formats, comes into greater popularity. As shipped, the unit supports RealAudio G2 in addition to MP3, which could be especially beneficial for those wanting to listen to Internet radio shows on the train or bike ride to work. G2 files are uploaded to the unit through the same drag-and-drop interface provided for uploading MP3 files.

The Lyra also sports a six-line LCD readout-displaying track and artist names, folder name, track number (as stored in the unit-not the track number on the original CD), and the bitrate and elapsed time. The display is backlit, so it can be easily read in dimly-lit situations. It also supports a certain amount of on-board file management, so you can actually arrange your music in directory structures similar to those on your hard drive[5]-a capability I'd like to see in more portable players. To manage folders on the Lyra, just click the New Folder button and give the new directory a name. Files can be dragged into folders from within the Lyra management software, which is a modified version of RealJukebox (see Chapter 5, Ripping and Encoding: Creating MP3 Files).

I-Jam's I-Jam

www.ijamworld.com

If small is your bag, the I-Jam is one of the smallest portable MP3 players of the bunch, and comes in a rainbow of case colors. Supporting both USB and parallel, MacOS and Windows, the I-Jam boasts a heckuva lot more power than other players, pumping out 60mW, rather than 5, as most players do. The I-Jam stores music only on SanDisk memory cards (Figure 6-3), and includes no built-in storage of its own. The unit also comes equipped with two output jacks-one headphone and one stereo output-which is a nice touch. Also included is a neck strap for those who don't wear belts (though a belt clip is provided as well).

Unlike other portables, the I-Jam comes with no dedicated upload or file management software. Instead, I-Jam provides a .DLL which allows the I-Jam JamStation (a sort of dock for your memory cards) to appear in Windows Explorer as a normal drive. Once mounted, all you have to do is drag files into or out of the drive letter, just as you would with any other drive. You'll know your unit is full when you get an "Out of disk space" error message. Not only does this capability free you from having to use dedicated software, but it also gives you the ability to organize your files in directories and subdirectories, and to store any type of data you like on the memory cards, rather than being limited to audio files-essentially treating the unit like an overgrown floppy drive.

Table 6-1 compares a variety of MP3 players. Features and specs for portable players vary from one to the next. While it may be impossible to find a single player that does everything, think carefully about your needs before purchasing. This table represents a brief snapshot of the market as of October 1999-options may be radically different by the time you read this.

Table 6-1: Portable MP3 Players Compared

  Diamond Rio 300 Diamond Rio 500 Creative Labs' NOMAD I Creative Labs' NOMAD II RCA Lyra RDD204 PONTIS MPlayer3[6] I-Jam's I-Jam
Storage type SmartMedia SmartMedia Flash memory SmartMedia 32 MB or 64 MB flash cards only MultiMedia cards San Disk MultiMedia Card (16 MB, larger ones expected in the future)
Built-in storage capacity Built-in 32 MB plus optional 32 MB add-in cards Built-in 64 MB plus optional 32 MB add-in cards 32 MB plus optional 32 MB cards None plus optional 64 MB cards None plus optional memory modules None plus two slots In future models
Weight (in ounces, w/o batteries) 2.4 2.75 2.5 Unknown 4.0 3.5 2.5
Dimensions (in inches) 3.5x2.5x0.625 3.59x2.46x0.74 2.3x3.35x0.67 Unknown 4.5x2.5x0.875 4.36x2.75x0.8 3.375x2.0x0.875
Can record voice memos No No Yes Yes No No No
FM radio tuner No No Yes Yes No Planned Yes
Backlit display No Yes Yes Yes Yes Planned Yes
Output connector types Headphone Headphone Headphone plus stereo connecting cable Headphone plus stereo connecting cable Headphone Headphone Headphone and Stereo
Upload connection types Parallel USB Parallel USB Parallel Serial, parallel, or USB Parallel or USB
Output signal strength? 5mW 5mW 5mW Unknown 15-20mW 5mW 50mW
Case type Opaque black plastic (teal or camoflage in some editions) Opaque metallic gray or translucent teal or purple Magnesium Plastic Metal Plastic Plastic (clear or opaque)
Cost (as of December, 1999, in U.S. dollars) 169.95 269.95 249.99 Under 400.00 249.99 for 64 MB with car kit, 199.99 for 32 MB 190.00 219.95
Software upgradeable No Yes; audible codec No Yes Yes Planned Yes
EQ controls 4 presets 4 presets plus bass and treble Yes, environments Yes, environments 5 modes: Flat, bass, rock, pop, jazz Bass and treble Bass and treble
On-board file management No. Displays song numbers only, not filenames Yes; Filenames displayed, play_lists possible No Unknown Yes Planned Complete (shows up in Explorer)
Supports other audio file formats MP3 only MP2, Audible.com content Windows Media (WMA) Any formats are possible with software upgrade RealAudio G2 Planned Will support all audio formats
Can store normal data in addition to audio files No No No Yes (SmartMedia) No Planned All data types
Copy protection mechanism None MetaTrust infrastructure present, not implemented w/o upgrade No Planning SDMI Will have SDMI in future Planning SDMI Will be SDMI
MacOS support No Yes No No No Yes Yes
Linux/BeOS support 3rd party 3rd party No No No Yes via open SDK No
Comes with cradle No No Optional Memory dock No Optional JamStation

Hand-Held Computers and Other Devices

Necessity is the mother, and MP3 is a necessity for many people. But not everybody can afford to buy a dedicated portable, since they already spent this year's geektoy budget on a PDA or other hand-held device. Fortunately, the popularity of MP3 is driving the extension of some existing devices to support the format. The list here is short, but expect MP3 support to find its way into nearly anything that has a CPU and can conceivably play audio in the near future. In fact, Ericsson had just announced a cell phone with MP3 playback capability via an add-in cartridge at press time.

Utopiasoft's Hum

www.utopiasoft.com

This one isn't actually a portable MP3 player, but, a skinnable software system for WinCE-based handheld computers that lets you play MP3 files directly through your PDA (Figure 6-8). Of course, most PDAs ship with a very limited amount of memory, and much of what's there is already occupied by the operating system, applications, and your data. That means Hum probably won't be useful unless you're using add-in CompactFlash memory cards, which are currently available in capacities up to 96 MB.

The Hum software utilizes a technology called AdaptivePlay. If your device has a slow CPU, or is busy handling tasks for other applications, or does not have high-quality media capabilities, audio processing is bumped down to 22kHz automatically. When more computing resources become available to the device, quality jumps back up to the normal 44kHz automatically.

Figure 6-8: Utopiasoft's Hum lets you play MP3 files on your Windows CE-based hand-held computer


Of PDAs and MP3s

As you can see here, there are both Win CE- and PalmOS-based Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), or hand-held computers capable of playing MP3 files. If you've been thinking about getting a PDA anyway, should you consider going with an MP3-capable PDA instead? There are pluses and minuses here. Obviously, storage is the biggest limitation you'll be facing. But while PDAs traditionally have shipped with a paltry 2-8 MB of storage, the genre is beefing up as it matures, and hand-held computers are increasingly becoming more full-featured, and coming with larger complements of built-in RAM and hot-swappable storage options. The trend shows no sign of abating.

One advantage to using a single device for both purposes (besides the money you'll save) is the fact that you'll be able to use a single desktop cradle, minimizing the number of ports you'll need to take up on the back of your computer (not an issue for USB-connected devices, thankfully), and saving a little space on your desk. And of course you'll have one less device to cart around or clip to your belt.

On the other hand, a PDA isn't going to have the full complement of physical buttons on its case (unless you get an add-in hardware unit such as the InnoGear expansion module for the Handspring Visor, as shown in Figure 6-9). You'll probably need to operate everything via software running on the PDA itself, just like you do on your desktop computer. However, some MP3 software for PDAs may be capable of mapping simple stop/start/next controls to the normal operational buttons on the PDA itself-you'll need to do a little research beforehand to see whether this will be possible. Perhaps more importantly, your PDA may not have the horsepower to run an operating system and its applications while simultaneously decoding MP3 in the background. Custom DSPs in dedicated MP3 players take care of this job with no risk of skipping or drop-outs. The audio chipset in a PDA also isn't as likely to have the same level of quality you'll find in a dedicated player.

If MP3 is your life, there's probably no question you'll want to go with a dedicated MP3 unit. If you just want to listen to the occasional MP3 file in the background, give this option some serious consideration. The possibilities of having a well-integrated unit are only going to get better as time goes on.


Handspring Visor/InnoGear MiniJam

www.handspring.com / www.innogear.com

As this book was going to press, lovers of the original PalmPilot and Palm OS were reveling in the news of the release of the new Handspring Visor, created by several of the original Palm team members and executives. While the Visor runs PalmOS (making it backwards-compatible with the thousands of Palm applications out there), it added the dimension of expandability, thanks to a new class of "Springboard Expansion Modules," one of which is InnoGear's MiniJam MP3 Player, a tiny hardware-based player that snaps into the back of the Visor. The MiniJam can use either power supplied by the Visor's internal batteries or be hooked up to an external power converter or to a cigarette lighter adapter. The unit ships with your choice of 0 or 32 MB of internal memory, and uses standard MMC (Multi Media Cards) for additional expansion. The company also plans to sell car cradles for the unit.

NOTE

In practice, the MiniJam has two MMC slots. One is on the back of the unit, and is inaccessible when the module is snapped into place; the other is on the front, so you can swap memory cards without removing the expansion module. By early 2000, the industry projects that MMC cards may be available in capacities up to 128 MB, which means you may be able to stuff 256 MB of music into your Visor. And because the Visor shares memory space with its expansion modules, you can store data from your PDA on the same MMC cards that hold your music.

Controls and display on the unit are fairly standard: Stop, Play, Rewind, Fast Forward buttons appear on the top of the unit. Display screens are provided for playlist, ID3 tag info, and equalization controls (four EQ presets are available, though users can modify and save additional EQ settings). Users can even store voice memos on their Visors via the MiniJam.

Figure 6-9: The InnoGear MiniJam is an expansion module for the HandSpring Visor PDA

Internally, the MiniJam uses DSPs from Micronis, which some believe offer sound quality superior to that of the DSPs used in most units. Early testers were allegedly claiming that the MiniJam sounded better, and had better bass response than the Diamond Rio, though I was not able to confirm this. The MiniJam outputs a standard 5mW through its headphone jack.

The companion software shipped with the MiniJam is Real Networks' RealJukebox Gold (covered in Chapter 3), which is capable of searching your system for attached portable units. Behind the scenes, RealJukebox ships with Windows .DLLs containing connectivity code for various players. The MiniJam is one of them, so the unit shows up as a choice in RealJukebox's portables menu. Of course, the MiniJam does not require a separate cradle: it uses the Visor's.

Mac support should be available sometime in 2000, while Linux and BeOS users will be happy to learn that InnoGear is planning to distribute a developer's package (SDK), which will include all the source code needed to deliver MiniJam support for those platforms. The SDK should become available sometime in the first quarter of 2000.

NOTE

One of the more unusual MP3 players scheduled to make the scene by the time you read this is Sony's VAIO Music Clip Personal Network Player, which quite literally comes in the form of a fountain pen (though it doesn't write). It's truly amazing to behold how many goodies Sony has packed into this little device: An LCD readout, a headphone jack, the standard array of control buttons, and-get this-a USB port. The device stores up to five hours of music and runs on a couple of AA batteries. Advantages: Slips easily into your shirt pocket so you don't have to deal with belt clips or long cords. Disadvantages: Non-expandable storage, limited battery life. Think of the Music Clip not as the most far-out product you've seen, but rather as a harbinger of devices to come: Unlimited by traditional constraints of shape or size, and capable of being streamlined into your lifestyle with near transparency.

Home Stereo MP3 Players

At this point, it practically goes without saying that MP3 playback hardware is bound to become a fixture of the consumer home stereo setup. Because most stereo component MP3 players will be linked to a computer somewhere in the home, these devices fit perfectly into the "convergence" scenario you've been hearing about for so long; the boundaries between computers, networks, and home entertainment systems eroding one piece at a time.

At bottom, these dedicated players aren't all that much different from portable devices, though they're packaged in standard home-stereo-size component cases and typically offer more flexibility and playback options than you get with portable players. Not to mention storage space up the yin-yang.

There are essentially four types of home stereo MP3 players:

... and of course we'll be seeing myriad variations and hybrids of these concepts.

Choosing the Best External Player

While the market for external MP3 players is still young, this is clearly going to become a huge field before long, and competition will undoubtedly create a bewildering array of choices for consumers looking to jump in. So what should you look for in an external player? Here are some criteria to keep in mind as you shop, which you will of course have to balance against your budget.

Storage
How much can it hold? If you have to load it up with new music every few days, you'll probably end up regarding the device as a hassle. If you've got a huge collection, you'll want to cram as much of it into the device as possible. If you're already in the habit of burning your own CDs, look for a unit that can play directly from MP3 data CDs.

Good connectivity
If you're looking for a unit that interfaces with your PC for file transfer, don't settle for archaic parallel or serial connections.[7] They're slow and they hog ports that could be put to better use with other devices. If you have a home network, look for a machine running a real operating system, with a real Ethernet port. This way you'll be able to transfer files to it from any room in the house via FTP or Windows Networking, or, if it's a Unix/Linux- or BeOS-based machine, telnet in and manage the machine remotely. Failing that option, don't settle for anything but USB or FireWire. At this writing, none of the commercially available boxes allowed for Ethernet connectivity, though several of them promised it for the future. However, potential legal consequences make it difficult to allow this kind of transfer commercially; you may have to build your own machine if this is what you're looking for. The advent of SDMI should make MP3 networking commercially possible without stepping on the toes of the legal suits.

Display
Look for a machine with a clear, multi-line LCD readout viewable from a distance. Make sure the unit is capable of reading ID3 tags, so you're not left grappling with meaningless track numbers. Check to see whether the display output can be redirected to a TV (most cannot, though it could be a nice feature, depending on your needs).

Software
The unit will probably come with some kind of companion software that can be used for uploading tracks, creating playlists, and possibly even encoding albums. Find out from existing users of the product what they think of the software. Does it impose unnecessary or arbitrary limitations? Can you work with tracks of any bitrate? Good companion software may be an important aspect of your enjoyment of the device.

Playlists
Some of the early devices on the market were limited to playlists of a certain size, or could only manage a single playlist. Music is largely about mood, and you're going to want to be able to switch atmospheres with the press of a button. Check to see if the device or its companion software will let you create query-based playlists. If you're going to have gobs of storage on the machine, you better be able to organize it however you like, either on the machine itself or from playlists created on your PC and transferred to the device.

Audio output
Does the device use a standard sound card for output to your stereo, a custom DSP, or a proprietary chipset? If it uses a sound card, find out what kind. Overall quality may be heavily affected by audio chipset quality. If the device is a sealed unit, you may void your warranty by trying to upgrade it yourself. Ask around online to find out other people's impressions of unit before plunking down your cash. If you have a digital amplifier or DAC, look for a unit with optional digital outputs.

Ambient noise
If the machine is based on standard computer hardware, it may also contain a fan or fans, just like your PC. Do you really want to hear the hum of a fan in the background when you're trying to listen to music? This may be unavoidable with some devices, but ask around to find out just how much noise is being generated by the fan before committing your money. If you have a choice in the matter (i.e., you can open up the case and replace parts without voiding the warranty, you might consider replacing the power supply and CPU fans with some of the ultra-quiet models available from a specialized retailer such as www.pcpowercooling.com. Also see the Silent Systems section of www.molex.com. If you're really hardcore about it, consider coating the inside of the case with acoustical foam, though this will almost certainly void your warranty and could introduce air circulation issues if your existing fans aren't moving enough air.

CD types
If the device has a built-in CD player, will it handle both audio and MP3 data CDs? And with the steady rise of recordable DVD, the possibility arises of storing gobs of MP3s on a DVD disk. You might want to make sure your unit is capable of handling these as well. Of course, you may be able to stick a DVD drive in the machine yourself at a later date, but will the unit's software be upgradeable as well? Most units based on computer hardware are software upgradeable, but make sure before spending your money.

Hackability
This one depends on your personality type. If you're a real do-it-yourselfer, you may want to make sure the machine is running an operating system you understand well, so you can make modifications if necessary. And again, you may want to give the device a larger hard drive, or monkey around with the controls. Will doing so void your warranty? Probably. That's a decision only you can make. If you're more the standard consumer type, you'll probably want to go with a slick, sealed unit much like your existing stereo components.

ReQuest's AudioRequest

www.audiorequest.com

One of the most interesting and complete home stereo MP3 solutions out there is ReQuest's AudioRequest-a complex and unusual beast capable of just about everything your PC is capable of doing, MP3-wise. So why not just stick a computer next to your stereo and be done with it? First of all, it wouldn't look too hot, and to make it really useful you'd either have to have a monitor attached or install an LCD readout and control buttons. You'd want to rig up a remote control unit, and figure out how to connect your PC to your television (AudioRequest lets you manage playlists and play synchronized animated video images via TV hookup). And you'd have to deal with the ambient noise created by the CPU and power-supply fans. Ambitious geeks could pull all of this off, sure, but by the time you were done you probably would have invested a lot of time and money, while the AudioRequest is ready to plug and play, and looks slick to boot.

AudioRequest includes hard drive options large enough to store 150 or 300 hours of MP3 audio-that means you can play it 24 hours a day for 2 weeks before hearing the same song again. And because the device is virtually a complete computer,[8] it won't be difficult to upgrade its software to allow support for other file formats. Windows Media files were about to become playable on the AudioRequest at this writing.

But it gets even better: In addition to hard drive storage, the AudioRequest (Figure 6-10) also includes a CD-ROM drive capable of playing either audio CDs or MP3 data CDs. In fact, you can even slide an audio CD into the tray and encode it's tracks directly to MP3, directly within the unit.

Perhaps the biggest difference between AudioRequest and a standard PC is that ReQuest takes great pains to enforce compliance with existing copyright laws. Unlike the Rio, AudioRequest most definitely is a recording device as well as a playback unit, and thus has to disallow the transfer of unprotected digital audio files back to your PC. Details on that arrangement are covered in Chapter 7.

AudioRequest's ECP parallel connection can be used both for transferring files from your computer to the device or for transferring from the device to portable players. Some form of USB networking is scheduled to be included on the unit in a future release. Analog inputs are also provided, so you can easily encode from cassette or LP.

Figure 6-10 The AudioRequest prototype; the appearance of shipping units may differ

Lydstrøm's SongBank

www.lydstrom.com Occupying a rather unique niche in the file-based home audio scene is Lydstrøm's[9] SongBank (Figure 6-11). The SongBank is not specifically an MP3 unit, though it does handle MP3 files, alongside many other digital audio compression formats including Windows Media. Future versions of the SongBank will support the RealNetworks G2 and AAC formats as well-Lydstrøm is format-agnostic. Internally, the unit uses Lucent's EPAC format, for an optimum quality-compression ratio. To understand what the SongBank is and does, you have to first stop thinking in terms of computer-based devices. The SongBank is not a computer, nor does it interface with your computer. It's a home stereo component with an eye toward the convergence of digital audio, the Internet, and even some non-audio home-control functions (you can power up your coffee pot in the other room with this thing).

Figure 6-11 An artist's rendering of the futuristic Lydstrøm SongBank

The unit itself features very sleek Euro styling and a large and detailed LCD readout/touchscreen remote control unit (the remote control "docks" into the face of the SongBank and doubles as the onboard control interface). Rather than a single output to your home stereo, the SongBank offers three separate analog output ports and three digital ports (Toslink, S/PDIF, and AES/BEU), connected to three separate software playback modules. Each playback module can be directed toward a separate output, so you can play different music in different rooms of the house, all from the same unit. Want to play blues in the kitchen and jazz in the den? Just select a room and a genre from the remote control, which is RF-based and can work in a house of up to 30,000 square feet in size. While the base unit already stores 6,000 songs, additional "slave" (external storage) units can be connected via FireWire for nearly infinite archivability. Current slave units are standard external hard drives, but Lydstrøm will eventually support various types of removable cartridges, flash cards, PCMCIA units, etc. Other models available at this writing can store up to 14,000 songs without slave units.

How it works

So, how does this thing work again? You pop a standard audio CD into the player and it gets cross-referenced against an internally stored database (not the CDDB; Lydstrøm says their database is more flexible than the CDDB) and all of its songs are encoded to EPAC format on the internal storage. The contents of that CD are then made available for playback on the unit via the remote control/faceplate, even after you remove the CD itself. And if you insert a data CD full of MP3 files, the unit handles everything transparently-same deal. Because the internal database is not on the Internet, the device doesn't require a network connection of any kind. Every month, you receive a CD in the mail that updates the SongBank's internal database and upgrades the onboard firmware to make improvements or to enable new features and capabilities.

However, the unit is Internet-capable, and Lydstrøm plans to have a complete backend site online by the time you read this. Once that happens, you'll be able to optionally connect the unit through a modem or Ethernet connection (via DSL or cable modem) and have the database and firmware upgraded automatically. More importantly, you'll be able to browse Lydstrøm's site for music and purchase it for download, all through the remote control unit, which Lydstrøm claims is dirt-simple to use. Lydstrøm won't be alone selling music online, though. They're partnering with other vendors so you'll simultaneously be able to browse and purchase from collections put online by other online music retailers. The company couldn't disclose their partners at press time, but they're thinking big here: imaging being able to connect directly to a music label, or to an online CD retailer like CD Now! or Amazon.com. Or to more established existing MP3 distribution sites. Meanwhile, the online database will be intelligent. It will know where you live, and will be able to tell you that concert tickets for the same musician are available. You'll be able to buy tickets and sample songs simultaneously, through multiple vendors, all through a single account you maintain with Lydstrøm.

NOTE

Lydstrøm claims to have a patent pending on a technology that allows modem users to double their digital audio download speeds, though they were very tight-lipped about the specifics of this technique at the time of this writing. File this under "sounds too good to be true."

What happens when you want to get music out of the SongBank and into your computer? Well, you can't do that, for the usual legal reasons discussed elsewhere in this book, but Lydstrøm is working with Rio and other vendors to support export to portable units. When you do that, music will be moved to the device, rather than copied, to prevent unauthorized proliferation of digital music. And Lydstrøm is doing all of this with the computer completely removed from the loop.

New paradigms in distribution

The internal database used by the SongBank lets you create and manage playlists, of course, and also does some fancy tricks with the music itself. For example, the SongBank can keep track of the beat count and adjust the tempo of the next song (without changing the pitch), so guests dancing at your parties can keep right on jamming. You'll probably want to keep this option disabled most of the time-changing the tempo is pretty disrespectful to the artist, in my opinion, though DJs do it all the time for precisely the same reason.

Meanwhile, each SongBank owner gets a unique ID, and each unit has a serial number. This information is stored and transmitted through all online music purchases, so if your unit should be stolen or damaged, you can always retrieve the music you legally own without having to pay for it again.

NOTE

Lydstrøm is careful to point out that the SongBank is not a geek toy-they're not going after the technophile audience, but after the general consumer. They're selling a convergence device masked as a fancy CD player. Amazingly, the SongBank is not priced out of the ballpark. The base unit retails for $399, and the higher-end models still come in at under a grand. The day of the sophisticated consumer convergence device is here.

MP3 CD-ROM Players

While only a few MP3 CD players are mentioned here, this field is growing fast. Be sure and search the Internet for more options.

NetDrives' Brujo

www.netdrives.com/brujo.asp

This one is basically a modified CD player designed to handle MP3 data CDs as well as standard audio CDs. Since there's no on-board storage, there's no need to interface this unit with your computer. On the other hand, you must have access to a CD burner, so the total cost of ownership is higher than advertised by NetDrives. If you've already got a CD burner and have been busy socking away massive archives of MP3 data CDs, you'll find this unit a dream come true, with one CD being capable of storing 10-12 hours at 128 kbps.

The unit includes both standard RCA and headphone outputs, and comes with a 31-key remote control usable at up to 8 meters away. The unit can handle up to 220 MP3 files, but oddly enough, playlists are limited to 63 tracks.

MacPower Peripherals' Mozart's Music Box

www.macpower.com.tw/

Despite the name of the manufacturer, this unit has nothing to do with the Macintosh, nor does it require that you own one. The unit is a very simple combo player that handles both audio and MP3 data CDs and jacks into your home stereo via standard RCA plugs. Unfortunately, the unit does not read ID3 tags, so all you'll see on the LCD readout are track numbers. While the version available at this writing required users to hook up different cables to play either audio or MP3 CDs, an updated version without this limitation should be available by the time you read this.

Mozart's Music Box is equally at home in car or home installations. See pictures of the Mozart in car environments at www.mp3car.com.

Pine's D'Music

www.pineusa.com

Shipping with no on-board storage of its own, D'Music is a portable CD player capable of playing both audio and MP3 data CDs. If you don't already own a CD burner, this unit probably isn't for you, unless you buy a lot of data CDs from MP3.com or other sources. If you've been storing up a multi-gigabyte collection and burning the overflow to data CDs all along, this unit may be just the ticket. The D'Music comes with a ten-second anti-shock buffer, a remote control (useful for hooking the unit into your home stereo), and a built-in graphic equalizer. Although designed for use as a portable, there's no reason the unit won't work well in home stereo configurations as well.


Remote Control

While most of the non-portable hardware discussed in this chapter comes with its own remote control system, some users will be happy to discover that they can save a ton of money and "virtually integrate" their existing computers into their home stereos by adding a remote control to the PC itself. A company known as Irman (www.evation.com/irman/ ) makes a small black box about the size of a cigarette pack that connects to an available serial port. One face of the box includes an infrared receiver capable of interfacing with virtually every remote control ever made.

Once installed, users can use any of a number of MP3 playback applications running Irman plug-ins, or otherwise modified to accept incoming signals from the Irman box. Hook up your sound card to your home stereo, attach an Irman box, and run WinAmp or X11Amp from a distance. If your computer isn't situated within line-of-sight of common areas in the house, you can place the Irman box anywhere-even in another room. Serial cables up to 15 meters in length have been tested and allegedly work perfectly.

Then again, you can approach the situation the other way around, spend a bit more, and have a transceiver on your computer broadcast MP3 audio right through the air to a receiver on your home stereo. Essentially, you end up with the same situation you would get by hooking your sound card to your stereo, but without the need for long cables. X10's MP3Anywhere includes transceiver and receiver units that operate at 2.4GHz, and can transmit right through walls (unlike standard IR signals, which are blocked by obstacles). X10 also provides a remote control designed to operate with a wide variety of common MP3 playback software, giving you capabilities similar to those of Irman. See www.x10.com/mp3_x10/mp3_anywhere.htm for details.


Car Players

What better place to get deep into your MP3 collection than on a long car trip, or to switch off the endless commercials on the radio and drink in a few new downloads to pass the time while you wait for the gridlock to clear? Because the basics of MP3 hardware are compact, they can be crammed into a car stereo form factor and treated like any other in-dash or pull-out car stereo unit. They can be hooked up to high-quality car amplifiers and speakers, or to those ridiculous monster-bass kettledrum speakers that make even the best music sound like it's been blown out with a gas station air pump.

After reading this section, learn more on MP3 audio and cars at www.mp3car.com.

Car MP3 on a Budget

Before you get too excited, be aware that the first few generations of any new technology are always going to be expensive, and this genre is no exception. At this writing, dedicated car MP3 players were running $750-$1000. Some intrepid souls were creating their own solutions with soldering irons and home-drawn schematics, but that's just not something your Average Joe is likely to do.

Fortunately, there's a cheaper, and possibly more flexible way to go about it. Get yourself a standard portable MP3 player as discussed earlier in this chapter and jack into your car's audio circuitry. There are a number of ways to go about this. Check the documentation or web site of your portable's manufacturer-there's a good chance they sell inexpensive accessories to make auto hookup easy.

NOTE

To keep things organized inside the car, you might want to attach a bit of velcro tape to your dashboard and to the back of your portable unit. Alternatively, go to a cell phone store and look at the car phone caddies. Some portable units and remote control devices fit neatly into some cell phone caddies.

Cassette adapter

These odd little units are shaped exactly like a cassette tape, and fit into the cassette slot on your existing car stereo. Plug the headphone output of the portable into the jack on the front of the "cassette" and you're in business. These units are a clever, inexpensive hack, but are a bit of a hassle-you've always got to keep the "cassette" handy and swap things around every time you want to play MP3s. But they do get the job done, and let you get more mileage out of your existing equipment. Note, however, that this technique is also the lowest-quality car MP3 solution you're going to find.

Auxiliary in

Some car stereos come with an auxiliary input jack right on the face plate, which makes hookup of portable devices a snap. If you're shopping for a normal car stereo anyway, be sure you get one with an Aux input, just so you've got the flexibility to work easily with a portable device sometime down the road.

Cigarette lighter adapters

If you want to save on batteries, you can get a cigarette-lighter adapter at nearly any electronics, hardware or department store. These usually come with a variety of connectors and/or a voltage switch. Portable players commonly run on 3V of DC, but check your portable's documentation carefully before running current through it. You almost certainly do not want to run your car's full 12V through your portable!

WARNING

It is dangerous (and illegal in most regions) to wear headphones while driving.

Direct wiring

Unless you have Aux In jacks on the back of your receiver, or an equalizer or other external preamp (which also implies the presence of a separate amp), you'll need to jack your portable directly into the car's audio wiring via an "RF modulator," which accepts line-level input and outputs VHF or FM signal. However, this is not a job for the squeamish. If you're not already well-versed in car stereo wiring principles, talk to your local car stereo installation shop.

If you're not using a dedicated portable unit and want to hook up a laptop or dedicated computer in the trunk or under the seat, you'll probably want to get an inverter to transform the car's 12V DC into 120V AC. However, unless you purchase a very high quality inverter, you'll find that these generate additional noise. In addition, using a laptop raises other issues-how will you control the unit? Will it be sufficiently shock-proof? While many users initially get excited about the prospect of using a laptop computer as a car stereo, only serious hackers or those willing to spend time and money putting together a complete system should contemplate this seriously. In the end, it's going to be a lot easier and cheaper to just jack in a standard portable unit. If you do want to go this route, see the In-Trunk and Do-It-Yourself sections later in this chapter for additional tips, and start doing research at www.mp3car.com.

If you don't know what you're doing, let your fingers do the walking and head over to your local car stereo installation shop and let them take it on. In most cases, the job should be simple and inexpensive, but keep in mind that some cars make behind-dash access more difficult than it needs to be, and this fact may mean added labor charges. Still, you'll end up with a fairly elegant solution for less than you would pay for a dedicated car MP3 player.

In-Dash and In-Trunk Players

If you know you'll never be satisfied with the paltry 32 or 64 MB of RAM in your portable and are looking for a better solution, you'll want to go with a unit specifically designed for in-car use. Like standard car stereos, these come in two flavors: Pull-out units you slide into the dash, and trunk-mounted units operated from the driver's seat via remote control. Regardless, you'll still need a way to get MP3 files into the unit. Chances are, you'll have to take the unit into the house to load it up from your PC, unless your garage is very close to your office and you have a very long USB or Ethernet cable. The ideal solution, it seems, would be to use wireless networking technologies so you could FTP files into the unit from a computer in the house, right through the air. I haven't seen anything like this on the market, but it's only a matter of time.

empeg

www.empeg.com

The amount of attention directed at the remarkable empeg unit in the year leading up to its release was nothing short of incredible. Audio buffs were excited. MP3 buffs were excited. And the Open Source software crowd over at Slashdot.org were positively jubilant, thanks to the fact that the empeg unit runs a superbly hacked version of Linux.

NOTE

Developers and geeks may want to check out www.empeg.mars.org, a site dedicated to exploring the internals of the empeg unit at the source code level.

Make no mistake: This is not your mother's car stereo. Imagine the components of a laptop computer stuffed into a car stereo form factor, given a custom LED readout instead of a monitor, and some neatly placed buttons instead of a keyboard or mouse. And rather than risking the "blue screen of death" right in the middle of your favorite track, make sure it's running one of the world's most stable operating systems.

Because the bootstrap code is stored in flash ROM, the empeg unit boots in a few seconds. The empeg includes a 220Mhz Digital/Intel StrongARM processor, 8 MB of memory, and a 6 GB hard drive (in the base model; a 10 GB model is also available, and even larger drives may be available in the empeg by the time you read this), and can be used as easily in the home as in the car, thanks to the presence of a pair of standard RCA plugs in addition to the car audio wiring. Digital to analog conversion is provided by custom DSPs built into the machine, which also handle bass, treble, and other audio output controls. And because the slimmed-down operating system takes up less than a megabyte of system memory, there's RAM left over to do read-ahead cacheing. The hard drive can grab around three minutes of music and store it in memory, so the read heads don't need to be in constant contact with the platter, saving both power and heat while further minimizing the possibility of pothole-induced playback errors.

The decoder software, based on XAudio, can handle MP2 and MP3 files, and since all decoding happens in software, it should be easy to upgrade the unit to handle other compresssion standards when/if they take off. Shock and vibration protection is provided by hard drives rated at 150G while running and 400G when not running.

Since 6 GB is a lot to transfer, the empeg mercifully comes with a USB port in addition to serial. You can load the hard drive to capacity in around an hour over USB. Oh, and it comes with a credit-card sized remote control, so your friends can operate the unit from the back seat (the driver uses buttons built into the front panel), as shown in Figure 6-12. The default faceplate is blue, though amber and green plates can be had for an additional surcharge.

Figure 6-12 The empeg unit running through the author's home stereo

The unit is loaded by connecting to your PC's serial (230,400bps max), or USB (12Mbit) ports, then firing up the bundled Emplode software (even though the empeg itself runs Linux, the desktop software is aimed at Windows 98/2000 users). Create new playlists by pulling down Edit > New Playlist, then drag tracks from Explorer into that playlist. Space available on the unit is reported in the status bar at the lower right of the Emplode window (Figure 6-13).

NOTE

As noted in the instructions, be sure to launch the Emplode software before hooking up the USB cable. Otherwise Windows will get confused looking for driver support for the attached unit.

Playlists are created via drag and drop, then synchronized with the contents of the unit. When you've got everything arranged the way you like it, click the Synchronize button on the toolbar and the transfer begins. By the time you shower, eat breakfast, and drink your coffee, the unit will be ready to grab on the way out the door.

NOTE

Perhaps the only big minus for general consumers interested in going with an empeg unit is that since its case is tightly packed with computer parts, there's no place for an on-board amplifier. You must have an external amplifier in your car if you want to run the empeg.[10] In addition, demand was still exceeding supply at this writing, and potential buyers were queued up for months waiting for units to become available. It's likely that empeg will have ramped up production to a commercial level by the time you read this.

Figure 6-13 The empeg unit comes with its own transfer management software, called Emplode

Using the on-board controls

Navigating the empeg controls (see Figure 6-11) may take a bit of getting used to at first, especially as the buttons on the faceplate are unmarked. Pressing the bottom button on the faceplate will bring up a horizontal menu in the display, consisting of:

Playlists | Source | Sound | Shuffle | Information | Visuals | Power Off | About

Use the left and right buttons to navigate this main menu, then press the bottom button again to select that entry; you'll get a submenu relating to that choice. For example, pressing the bottom button while Shuffle is selected will let you turn shuffle mode on or off, while pressing the same button while Source is selected will let you toggle between empeg (the unit itself), auxiliary input, and FM radio. Selecting the Sound entry lets you control the volume, balance, fader (front to back balance), and the built-in equalizer. Be sure and check out the Visuals menu-there are a ton of built-in visualizers from which you can select, from simple ID3 tag display to rather sophisticated histograms, dancing pixels, and warping lines in time to the music. Pressing the top button will always let you escape from any given menu or submenu.

NOTE

To get the full effect from the built-in visuals, navigate to the Information menu and turn Information off. All available pixels will be used for visualization display.

Upgrading the empeg

Both the firmware on the unit and the Emplode desktop software are software-upgradable, and users (especially early adopters) should check empeg's Upgrades page frequently at www2.empeg.com/upgrades/. This will not only get you bug fixes to the firmware and/or the synchronization software, but important new features as well. If there are upgrades available for both the Emplode software and the player itself, install the Emplode upgrade first. With Emplode open, pull down Tools > Upgrade empeg-car software, then click the Browse button and navigate to the location on your system where the upgrade binary was stored.

WARNING

Always unplug the power cable from the unit before starting the upgrade. You'll be prompted to turn the power on later during the upgrade process. If you typically use the USB connection to synchronize with the unit, note that you must use a serial connection to apply the firmware upgrade (an appropriate serial cable is provided with the unit).

A progress indicator will inform you of the update's progress as the kernel and RAM disk are erased and reprogrammed. Finally, the MP3 data partition on the unit will be "pumped," which prepares the unit's database to work with its playback software.


Living with the empeg

I had the pleasure of borrowing one of the first units to roll off the empeg assembly line, and lived with it for a month before I sadly had to return it. Because I do not have an external amplifier in my car, I used the unit exclusively as a home stereo component, in a month-long MP3 fest.

The empeg's built-in DAC is excellent, and I found the audio quality to be fully equivalent to CD audio when listening to 192 kbps MP3 files. Still, I would have liked to have seen a digital output on the unit so I'd have the option of using my outboard DAC for its extra warmth. I also found that the remote control, which was clearly designed for another device, was not as intuitive to use as I would have liked, though I quickly learned its controls. My biggest beef with the controls in my evaluation unit was the lack of a radial volume knob; it was just too much work to get to the volume controls from the faceplate buttons. Fortunately, empeg hints at a big change coming in the future: "- a volume knob done one better." They didn't offer more clues, but hopefully you'll be able to get a glimpse of their plans by the time you read this.

With a 6 GB hard drive, space was a non-issue. I only reloaded it a few times, and that was mostly to add new test files. 6 GB gave me enough storage to play music several hours a day for weeks without repeating tracks. The unit's display was clear enough to read from across the room, and I enjoyed switching between playlists with the press of a button, and toggling between the many built-in visualization modes. I found the built-in FM radio perfectly functional. In a perfect world, this unit would optionally come in a case designed to be integrated into home stereos, and would have an Ethernet interface so I could transfer files via FTP from any machine in the house. Fortunately, empeg hints on their site that they intend to offer a version that allows remote logins in the future. I'll know the future has arrived the first day I can telnet into my home stereo.


NOTE

It's worth remembering, whether you're talking about the empeg or any other unit that's essentially a re-fashioned computer, that just because you build it specially to play MP3 files doesn't mean that the rest of the powers of a general-purpose computer suddenly disappear. Give your machine some connectivity, and you've got web access from your MP3 player. Give it a satellite uplink, and you can have a GPS system in your dashboard, giving you directions to anywhere you need to go, or even playing music appropriate to the scenerey outside your window. Need some extra storage space to cart big image or video files around? There's no reason your car stereo, with its massive hard drive, can't also function as a gargantuan floppy disk, letting you cart media files between home and work.

Xeenon MP Shuttle II

www.xeenon.com/xeenonweb/product/product.htm/ A rather different approach is taken by the Xeenon shuttle products. Rather than sticking a complete computer in the dash, Xeenon puts a unit in the trunk, with the exception of a removable hard drive which slides in and out of the dash for quick portability and security. The brains of the machine are out of sight and out of mind. All potential thieves will see is an empty hard drive bay in the car-hardly tempting.

Rather than controlling the unit from buttons on the faceplate, the Xeenon utilizes an external keypad, which connects through the car's chassis back to the brains in the trunk, which in turn control the hard drive in the dash. The arrangement sounds a little inelegant, but has its advantages. The removable hard drives in particular mean that loading the unit up with new music will be faster than with any competing unit, and by locating the drive in the dash rather than in the trunk, everything stays convenient.

In essence, the unit is functionally similar to the trunk-mounted PCs some users build themselves, except the unit is ready to go-you don't have to scrounge for parts and hack things together. Think of this one as a hybrid between a total do-it-yourself tweak and a commercial implementation.

NOTE

There are many more options for playing MP3 in the car, and don't be surprised if the major car stereo vendors start presenting their own models in the near future. Again, keep on eye on www.mp3car.com for the latest dope.

Kit Players

If none of the commercial offerings available by the time you read this quite fit the bill, if you think you can do it yourself cheaper, or if you're the type who has a garage of tools dangerous enough to take off a limb, you're a good candidate for an MP3 hardware kit. If you want something done right, do it yourself, right? Right.

NOTE

Virtually all of the commercial manufacturers go to pains to remain compliant with SDMI and other security considerations. If you'd rather not be beholden to these laws and would rather be on your own recognizance in terms of legal issues, building your own player will give you the freedom to get tunes into and out of the unit without having to jump over security fences.

There are basically two approaches to building home- and car-based MP3 units:

Of course, if you're really intrepid you can always go it alone, without a plan. However, this option should only be considered by self-styled inventor/programmers ready to get themselves out of any jam they end up creating for themselves. And be warned: Projects like this inevitably run into obstacles.

If you decide to just go for it, be prepared to spend hours in electronics newsgroups or at the library, figuring out how to fool a motherboard into thinking it's got a keyboard attached when all it's really got are a few buttons made out of bottle caps. Clear a space on the workbench, fire up the soldering iron, and go for it. Seriously though, this approach can be both the most challenging and the most satisfying.

If you decide to go the do-it-yourself route, you should definitely subscribe to the mp3stereo mailing list. Send a message to mp3stereo-subscribe@lists.gofast.net with the word "subscribe" as the subject.

Ready-to-Build Kits

While there are a number of ready-to-build MP3 hardware kits floating around out there, you'll want to track one down that best suits your needs and sense of aesthetics. Some kits consist mostly of additional parts needed to hack an existing computer into a standalone MP3 player, while others are based entirely on custom parts. Unfortunately, few of the kits I've seen available on the Internet are things of beauty-most place function above form. If looks matter a lot to you, you might want to either rethink and go with a commercial unit after all, or be prepared to depart from the kit and devise your own case and/or readout.

CarPlayer

One of the best all-around informational sites for MP3 kit builders at this writing was www.carplayer.com, which offers both prebuilt units for the car and the home, and offers both ready-to-build kits and plans without parts. In addition, the site offers a lot of data up front, so if you think you can get by on your own ingenuity, you may be able to simply studying the available diagrams, pictures, and explanations.

TrackZ

If you want to make sure the build process is painless and you're on a budget, check out the TrackZ player at www.mp3kit.com. This unit can be purchased pre-assembled or as a kit. Both are available in a variety of configurations, giving you control over the quality of the display, whether or not you want an external enclosure for it, whether you need cables, etc.

WARNING

TrackZ uses a proprietary operating system, so don't expect to be able to fiddle much with the unit's basic functionality.

Do-It-Yourself

While the prefab kits make the build process relatively painless, many people opt to go the distance and create their players from scratch, using readily available, cheap parts and either devising the schematics themselves or relying on the shared experience of others who have gone down that road before. While this isn't a book on hardware or operating system hacking, here's a basic outline of the kinds of things you'll need to think about if you go the DIY route. After reading this section, hit the Net and start doing additional research. There are dozens of sites set up to show off the projects other people have built, where you'll find plans, diaries, solutions to common problems, and perhaps most importantly, some of the software you'll need to make it all come together. You'll find a list of good starting points in the "More information" section at the end of this chapter.

Hardware and form factor

The first thing you've got to decide is how your unit will be housed. Most people building their own players from scratch go with a complete computer, using standard parts from the "PC organ bank." This approach avoids the necessity of crafting your own parts to fit into a custom form factor or to play a particular role. Of course, the ease of use is offset by the fact that computer-based players are generally going to be larger than players built to custom specifications (though very small computer cases and motherboards are available, if you know where to look). Another approach is to get an old CD player from the swap meet and gut it, saving only the chassis and case. Alternatively, save only the chassis and build your own case from custom-molded sheet metal, plastic, or carefully bent stainless steel mesh.

If you're lucky enough to have an old laptop laying around, you can always use that to cut down on the size, keeping in mind that you won't be able to mount a display in the front. One of the unfortunate things about laptop solutions is that their built-in audio chipsets are generally inferior to dedicated sound cards, and can't be changed out on a whim. If audio quality is paramount, avoid the laptop route. A better solution is to shop around for the smallest case you can possibly find and start from there. Meanwhile, ask around online and find out who's making the quietest power supplies and fans available. You don't want all that humming interferring with your enjoyment of the music. See the notes in the "Choosing the Best External Player" section earlier in this chapter.

Do not shop for computer parts with maximum performance in mind, as you might with your own home computer. Save money, keep things cool, and enjoy the quietude of smaller fans by going with the slowest Pentium machine you can find. For dedicated work like this, where you won't be doing anything but decoding MP3, you can get by with a Pentium 75 or 100 and 8 or 16 MB for RAM. You'll be amazed how cheaply you can purchase a machine like that at online auction sites. Nobody wants them but you.

NOTE

If you're brave and willing to work with very small parts, you can always rip the guts out of a laptop and place them in a custom-designed case, and possibly even alter the audio path if you're skilled with printed circuit boards and soldering irons.

Another nice thing about building your own box is that you can decide which sound card goes into it. Since you're going to be interfacing with your home stereo, don't skimp on the sound card-get the best one you can afford. If you've got a digital receiver or outboard DAC, be sure to get a sound card with digital outputs to maximize quality. There are also a couple of manufacturers of dedicated sound cards for just this purpose, with MP3 DSPs soldered in place. These may also have RCA outputs, so you won't need an external DAC. See www.interlog.com/~miclee/mp3.html/ for one such example.

NOTE

If you've got a slower machine, or one that for some reason will also be busy doing lots of other CPU-intensive tasks, take a look at lp3, a dedicated MP3 hardware decoder that hangs out of the parallel port and talks to plugins for WinAmp and other players: lp3music.com. With one of these, you can use a machine much slower than a low-end Pentium or high-end 486-you'll probably get good results even with a 386.

Operating system

If you're building a computer-based system and depending on existing software, your machine will of course need an operating system. While many people use Windows 95 or 98 as a base because that's what they're most familiar with, it may not be the best solution for a standalone MP3 unit, for several reasons:

Long boot times
Granted, you may end up leaving your machine on most of the time, but when you do turn it on, you'll need to wait 30-90 seconds, depending on the configuration. If you do use Windows, make sure you aren't loading anything unnecessary in the startup group. Windows can, however, be configured to boot straight to DOS, which will save greatly on boot time. In fact, if you know you want to go the Microsoft route, try and get a hold of an old DOS installation, and don't even bother with Windows. Understand, however, that this may present other problems-most (but not all) existing solutions depend on the presence of WinAmp or other GUI Windows players.

Resource consumption
Because you'll probably be going with inexpensive, older, slower hardware, you want as much of your horsepower and memory as possible available to the task of playing MPEG audio, not being soaked up by the operating system. Even when running nothing at all, Windows consumes more resources than the alternatives.

Stability
When was the last time your CD player crashed? When was the last time Windows 98 crashed? Need I say more?

Hackability
Because you're creating a custom solution, it may be beneficial to be able to remove parts of the operating system that are unnecessary, or at least opt not to load them at boot time. If you think you may want to alter the operating system to suit your needs, Linux will be your best solution, as its source code is completely available and open to you. BeOS is less hackable than Linux, but you can get in at a fairly low level and choose not to load unnecessary components. Very few aspects of Windows can be altered by the end user at a low level. If you do intend to build your own Linux kernel or alter the operating system substantially, you will of course need some C or C++ experience.

While thousands of people have created Windows-based standalone MP3 players, you'll probably end up with a more satisfying end-product by going with a Linux- or BeOS-based system. Linux is the most flexible of the lot, and you'll find many tools already out there in the field that work with Linux-based systems. However, working with Linux also requires the greatest degree of technical/programming skills. BeOS has the advantage of being much easier to configure and use than Linux (even easier than Windows in many regards), and is media-optimized from the ground up-it's perfect for this kind of project.[11] Both Linux and BeOS have the potential advantage that they include built-in telnet servers; if you set up your machine on an Ethernet connection, you'll be able to telnet in from any machine in the world running any operating system and control them from a distance.

NOTE

While it's certainly possible to use a Mac as a standalone MP3 player, this may not be the ideal solution for a variety of reasons. Macs take a long time to boot, MacOS is difficult to program for, cheap parts are not as readily available, and MacOS is not as stable as other platforms thanks to its cooperative multitasking and lack of a memory protection model. Of course, stability isn't usually an issue with units like this, which are just doing a single task for extended periods of time, but you're just not going to find much info out there on how to hack MacOS to output display data to an LCD, or to work via remote control. You could, however, probably create a Perl or other web-based system for controlling an MP3 player on a Mac from browsers on other machines in the house.

Display

Whether your unit ends up in the car or amid the home stereo components, it's highly unlikely you'll want to have a monitor taking up extra space. But you'll still need some way to get a readout of the currently playing song, browse your playlists, and monitor the state of the unit.

This is most often accomplished via an LCD or LED display. Since these don't attach to a video card, you'll need to connect them via another means, typically over a serial connection. You can connect the machine's outbound serial connection to a tethered LCD display in a miniature case, which can be mounted wherever convenient, or you can reroute the connection through the computer case to the front panel and mount the display in a free drive bay.

LCD readouts can be ordered from a number of electronics supply houses. Many people are very happy with the quality of displays purchased from Matrix Orbital, though nearly any display for which you can find a suitable driver is a good candidate. Users looking for an even more polished appearance may want to spend the extra money and get a VFD (Vacuum Fluorescent Display), which enjoy better clarity at a wider viewing angle than do LCDs. Of course, hooking up an LCD isn't as simple as rerouting the normal video display signal to the display unit. You'll need a special driver for your operating system and for your particular LCD. The driver must be capable of receiving data sent to it from a separate software module or from an MP3 player plug-in module. See the URLs listed in the section previously for more information. Precise implementations on various operating system/playback software combinations are very different from one another.

Input methods

Because your unit will probably not have a full keyboard attached, you'll need to find another way to control it. Perhaps the simplest solution is to get a cheapo numeric keypad-the kind with a standard keyboard connector but missing the rest of the keyboard. The nice thing about these is that you can just plug them into the standard keyboard port and be done with it. Unfortunately, they're not exactly elegant looking, and you may not want a separate module dangling from your home stereo.

A much more elegant (and stereo-like) approach is to purchase an infrared remote system, such as the Irman described earlier in this chapter. One of the great things about the Irman is that plug-ins for Windows and Linux already exist (the Linux source code should compile in BeOS without much reconfiguration), so no programming experience is necessary and a big part of the battle has already been fought for you. Setup should be a breeze.

If you want buttons on the front of the unit like normal stereo components, you're definitely going to have some more work to do, and will need some electronics skills. Some users have figured out how to split open a normal keyboard, remove the controller chip and its lead wires, then mount the chip inside the unit and connect the leads to the buttons on the front of the unit from inside the case. You'll need to do some sleuthing to isolate a set of wires, determine the signal they send, and map them to the buttons you install on the front of the unit. The other lead running out of the chip will remain connected to the motherboard where the keyboard normally connects. One thing to keep in mind is that poorly done buttons can easily make a nice case look like a hack job. If you go pure infrared, you can keep the case design very clean.

Software

Finally, you'll need to decide which MP3 player you'll be using in your system. Since the usual graphical interface isn't an issue, you should definitely consider command-line players, since these consume fewer resources and are likely to be easier to control from the keyboard, which is essentially what you're doing with any of the input methods described above. However, many GUI MP3 players can also be launched and controlled from the command line, or have plug-ins to enable keyboard control, so graphical players are not out of the question. As long as you can find a way to create an interface between your chosen input method and the software, you're sitting pretty.

If you're building a Windows machine based on infrared input, definitely check out the Ampapod and Irman plug-ins available at www.winamp.com/plugins/. Just specify the COM port through which your infrared receiver is attached, tell the plug-in which buttons on the remote should map to which WinAmp functions, and you're set. Linux users can use LIRC (Linux Infrared Remote Control; details at fsinfo.cs.uni-sb.de/~columbus/lirc/ ) in conjunction with the IRMP3 software (details at www.fasta.fh-dortmund.de/users/andy/irmp3/ ).

NOTE

If you're using Linux, you'll need to do some tweaking to get the operating system to boot directly into operational mode without prompting the user for a login. If you don't have much experience hacking Linux, ask around in the community for a custom init preconfigured to bypass the login sequence. If you want to do this yourself, there are a few gotchas to watch out for. You don't want to simply set up your system to boot into runlevel 1, because while that will put you directly into single-user mode, it will also prevent you from using some important services, like networking. The secret is to change a single character in /etc/inittab and the system will boot to root access without prompting you for a password. Specifically, you want to change:

id:1:initdefault
to:
id:3:initdefault
If your system boots straight to the xdm graphical login manager, change id:5 rather than id:1. Note, however, that there are the usual risks associated with having the box running as root all the time, but this is a stereo component, not a public web server.

If you're working with keypad or button input, you'll probably have to create a custom solution (remember that the kit available from www.carplayer.com includes the software you need to do this, in case you don't want to create it from scratch).

Many projects use rxaudio (www.xaudio.com) for its flexibility and the ease with which it can receive control signals from scripts and custom programs, thanks to a companion utility called rxcontrol. IR support is also possible through rxcontrol. See www.softlab.ece.ntua.gr/~sivann/rxcontrol/ for details. Xaudio is available for nearly all platforms.

Networking alternatives

At several points in this chapter, I've mentioned the advantages of making sure your MP3 player is networkable. While most of the commercial solutions available at this writing didn't have network capabilities, many of the devices being built by hobbyists and hackers do. The prospects of being able to load your MP3 player via FTP, to manage your playlists via telnet, or to select tracks through a web interface from another machine are all irresistible.

NOTE

If you're building a Linux machine with networking capabilities and want to get really fancy, you can store all of your songs in a database such as MySQL and interface with it through a web server extension such as Perl or PHP. Myriad Perl modules are available so you won't have to create everything from scratch. See igalaxie.com/ltt/mp3/php3/ for more information on PHP solutions, and www.cpan.org for Perl modules. Once configured, you'll be able to bookmark a web page in a browser on another machine in the house, see available playlists, and select songs on your stereo just by clicking on them in your browser. Windows users can of course use Microsoft Access or other Windows database software that can be accessed from the command line or external programs to create custom solutions. If you're building a BeOS-based system, download MP3box from www.betips.net/software/, which does the same thing but uses the Be File System as a native database rather than requiring additional database software.

Even more irresistible is the prospect of not having to transfer files between your computer and your home stereo via FTP. If you're crafty and have an always-on home server or "convergence device," you can make this the central repository for all MP3 files in the home. The stereo playback unit or units would still have a sound card and Ethernet capabilities, but would be configured to stream MP3 from the server on-demand and in real time. The playback units wouldn't actually store any MP3 files at all. One could theoretically construct such a system so that multiple playback units in the house could all siphon down separate files or playlists, so each family member could hear the music they want to hear.

However, not everyone has a home network already in place, so these possibilities aren't always viable. If you don't have an existing network and are considering it, take a look at systems from X10 (www.x10.com). This company has long specialized in remote control of lights and alarms, and provides systems for automating many aspects of the home environment, from the simple to the complex. Responding to the desires of MP3 fans, X10 makes available a system called MP3 Anywhere, which lets you beam MP3 audio through the air or right through walls (using 2.4-gigahertz wireless signals), from a computer to the home stereo, without the need to run cables, install a network card, or purchase hubs. Because the system comes with a remote control, you don't need to be sitting at the PC to control the flow of music. The MP3 Anywhere system comes with send/receive units, a "MouseREMOTE" remote control, and software interfaces for talking to the most popular Windows MP3 players. This way, you can still sit at the couch in the living room, but control the playback by pointing the remote at a wall, toward a computer loaded with MP3 files in another room.

The disadvantage to MP3 Anywhere is that you don't have the complete flexibility of possible solutions that you have with a generic TCP/IP connection. On the other hand, you may not need to. Why transfer MP3 files from your computer to another storage unit in your home stereo if you can just beam them through the air as needed?

More information

This is a book on MP3, not on building hardware or hacking operating systems. Creating a custom system for MP3 playback can be very satisfying, but it's not something to be undertaken lightly. You'll definitely need to learn more than what's presented in this book. Here are some good starting points:

Convert your PlayStation into an MP3 stereo component
www.mp3psx.com/info.html/

Information on BeOS-based stereo components
www.betips.net/mp3box/

The InMotion car player
www.jarcom.com/inmotion/

KarPC: Automobile MP3 stereos pre-assembled or in kits, for most operating systems
kpc.phester.org

Kits and prebuilt players for home and car
www.carplayer.com

LC-DAT
www.public.iastate.edu/~jmesterh/lcdat/

Linux MP3 Players Project Page
www.ccs.neu.edu/home/bchafy/mp3.html/

lp3: Dedicated MP3 hardware decoder unit
lp3music.com/

MP3 Server Box
igalaxie.com/ltt/mp3/

MP3-o-Phono: Plays MP3 CD-ROMs in a standalone Linux-based unit
www.softlab.ece.ntua.gr/~sivann/mp3ophono/

MP3God: The Car MP3 Player
www.scott.kincaid.net

MP3Hardware
www.mp3hardware.com

Obsequieum: A networked MP3 Jukebox for Linux
obs.freeamp.org

PC104: Small, stackable motherboards for use in dedicated units of all kinds
www.pc104.com/

Wired remote control products for car players
www.mp3ondemand.com

XIMP
ximp.iscool.net


1 Not covered in this chapter; see www.mplayer3.com .

2 To relieve a little stress on your cables, you can get a 1/8" stereo plug attached to a soft cable, rather than the hard adapter pictured here.

3 Higher-quality equipment will use BNC connectors rather than RCA plugs for S/PDIF.

4 The Rio gained native MacOS connectivity with the advent of the Rio 500.

5 BeOS support for the Rio was in "experimental" mode at this writing.

6 Up to 99 directories are supported, each of which can have up to 99 subdirectories.

7 Actually, transfer speeds over parallel can be pretty good if ECP is enabled in the BIOS and the transfer software support is. But that doesn't get around the inconvenience of using the parallel port rather than USB.

8 At press time, ReQuest would not disclose what operating system the device runs on.

9 Pronounced "Ludstrum," where "Lud" is like "hood." It's a Swedish name.

10 Unless you're keeping your old cassette deck and or radio, in which case a cassette adapter or RF modulator should work. However, you would lose some quality in the conversion processes.

11 You can find more information on BeOS-based stereo components at www.betips.net/mp3box/ .

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