Fun With MP3's
Review By Raymond Chowkwanyun
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Way back when there was still discussion about a successor to CD's and yet another format war was abrewing (SACD vs DVDA), I wondered aloud why it was necessary to have a standard at all. After all, we do live in an age of computers. All that is needed is some info in the file header about the sampling rate and word size and everyone could record to their own standard and still have the file decoded properly. This is, of course, exactly what you get with Moving Picture Experts Group technology, Layer-III a.k.a. MP3 that offers a variety of sampling rates.
OK, the sound is inferior to a CD. I've burned CD's direct from a CD and from MP3's and all that compressing and decompressing does degrade the sound - but only slightly. The degradation is somewhere between imperceptible and minor. But I can't strap a CD player to my arm to listen to music during a workout as I can with my MP3 player that is barely larger than the AAA battery that powers it. And for that application, I don't think the minor degradation introduced by MP3 matters.
The plus side of compression, of course, is that you can stuff a whole lot more music into fewer megabytes. Uncompressed CD's fill up a hard disk pretty quickly. Of course with terabyte hard disks just around the corner, the issue of scarce storage capacity may soon become moot.
I use the MPIO DMK to play MP3's when I'm at the gym and on the plane. Its main virtue is its small size and lightweight (one ounce). The price to be paid is a minimalist display, but when I'm gasping for dear life on the treadmill I generally don't need to know what track is playing. With no moving parts, there is never a problem with skipping which makes an MP3 player ideal for this sort of application where it is constantly being jostled about. The sound quality is very good and the unit is able to achieve a head banging sound level that is an important consideration for me. I found the much-touted IPOD to be deficient in this area. I estimate battery life for the DMK to be about eight hours, but since it takes only a single AAA, keeping a supply of spare batteries around incurs a negligible weight and space penalty.
The software that comes with the DMK is as minimalist as the player itself but works fine. The player connects with USB port on your computer through a dedicated cable (I find it useful to label the cable to distinguish it from the plethora of other such dedicated cables). Unfortunately, the software cannot save playlists so you have to download songs one at a time. The typical file makes the trip in a few seconds. The unit has a 128MB memory that equates to about 90 minutes of music. Your mileage will vary depending on the sampling rate of your MP3 files.
You cannot change the order in which songs are played on the DMK itself. You have to connect the DMK to the computer and then edit the playlist with the MPIO manager on your computer. One of the joys of MP3's is that you can easily assemble your own set of songs. With the computer it's as simple as drag and drop. So I can have an ultra punk song from the Clash followed by Doris Day. I find the contrast to be most invigorating.
Street price for the DMK as of year-end 2003 is around a hundred dollars.
I don't like the headphones that come with the DMK. They're of the earbud type and kept falling out of my ears. I found a couple of phones from Koss that work well. I use the KTXPRO1 at the gym because it has a sliding volume control in the wire. I wear the DMK on my arm where it's awkward to access the player's volume control so I just turn the DMK up full blast and use the headphone's slider which dangles conveniently right in front of me.
The Portapro I use in less sweaty environments for its superior sound. The KTXPRO1 is $20 and the Portapro is $50 so you can get both without breaking the bank.
The Pogo Ripflash Plus is an MP3 recorder with 256 MB of memory. Add an optional flash memory card and you have enough storage to comfortably record Gotterdamerung with room to spare. The Ripflash's internal microphone is only good for dictation. To make good quality recordings you will need a mike like the Sennheisers pictured above and a mike preamp, both available from Microphone Madness. What I do is stash the preamp in my lapel pocket with the mike poking out of the top. The linefeed then goes into the Ripflash that I hold in the palm of my hand.
Ripflash/Sennheiser combo makes great recordings, but requires a lot of user participation (this means you!). The first task is to set the recording level. Unfortunately the Ripflash has no level meter or any kind of indication that it's going into overload. The only way to tell is to monitor the recording through headphones. What I do is to set the level of the mike preamp on the first song and then hope for the best for the rest of the concert. I found it helps to paint a couple of white dots onto the volume controls of the mike preamp otherwise it's the devil to tell where you have the dial set in the dark. Likewise you might want to bring along one of those mini LED flashlights that turn on with a squeeze so you can take a quick yet stealthy look.
I would also suggest that you try making some trial recordings in the comfort of your home so you have some idea of where to set the level before you enter the rather nervy arena of the actual concert hall. A chamber music concert will need a higher level than Led Zeppelin. I think it's pretty common knowledge that microphones hear differently from human ears, but it's probably worth repeating anyway. A seat that sounds good to you won't necessarily sound good to the mikes. For example, in a symphonic recording, the mikes are likely strung about 20 feet above the conductor. Tough to get a seat there, I know. The next best thing is probably a front row center seat in the balcony. The whole idea is to get upstairs.
The Ripflash firmware is supposed to automatically chop up a recording session so that each song goes into a separate file, but I found it to be useless. You have to manually stop the Ripflash at the end of each song and then restart it to get the next song into a separate file. The problem here is the stop button on the Ripflash is so darn finicky. Press too lightly and the thing won't stop. Press too hard and it stops alright but it also turns off, helpfully erasing the last song before it does so. In short, it's a Goldilocks stop button. You have to press it just right to get the desired effect. Did I mention it's a good idea to practice in the comfort of your own home before setting out for the concert hall? A good way to do this is to convert some of your beloved analog recordings to digital form.
The Ripflash Plus with 256MB is $180 (there is a 128MB model for $130), the Sennheisers are $305 and the Mike Preamp is $140.
On your computer, the ideal would be to have one program that does it all. All being the need to organize all those MP3 files, compile them into playlists, burn CD's, makes labels, convert from songs from CD's to MP3's, and edit the MP3 files. Unfortunately, no such program exists, although I'm sure Uncle Bill is working overtime on the problem.
I confess that I've gone over to the Dark Side and use Windoze Media Player as my primary MP3 program. It works for organizing MP3's, making playlists, burning CD's and converting CD's to MP3's. It supports only a small number of MP3 players and unfortunately the MPIO DMK is not one of them. The Media Player doesn't have an editor so I use the Goldwave program. The interface is supposedly intuitive. Hah! Just means they were too darn lazy to write a user manual. But after some initial fumbling about I was able to do fades of audience applause and chop out long silences before the music starts that is about all the editing I wanted to do. For making CD labels I use Label Factory Deluxe by Art Explosion that I bought mainly on the strength of it costing five dollars (I'm cheap). It turned out to be a good program and you actually get most of what you see. The downside is a clunky interface that makes you navigate the entire file system each time you import a graphic (it's too dumb to remember the last place it retrieved a file from).
The Goldwave is about $45 (the company's Canadian so the price depends on the
Canadian to USD exchange rate).
So where do you get MP3's from apart from converting your CD's and making your own recordings? Online 'natch. One legal service I can suggest is emusic.com that has the entire Fantasy Jazz catalog online. And they're offering fifty free downloads to let you try out their system. This is the future of music distribution. You can listen to a sample of each song and then if you like what you hear, download it with a single click of the mouse. I don't like their pricing structure though which is to charge by the download. This means a 20-minute song costs the same as a 2 minute song. I think charging a penny per minute of music would be a fairer way to go. It would be nice too if they had a facility for making CD labels when you download a whole album.
And then, of course, there is wild wild west of filesharing. Frankly it's a lot of fun to see what the Web will throw up in response to a query. I mean who even knew that JJ Cale and Suzanne Vega recorded a duet of So Long Marianne? The downside is it's flaky with a lot of downloads ending up in the dumpster and you can't always get the song you want. It's a lot like going to a garage sale. Plus you might get a greeting from some monster law firm representing an aggrieved record company.
Finally, a product to avoid for now. The concept of the Neuros is great. An MP3 player with enough capacity to duplicate the MP3 collection on your computer that plays through your car's FM radio. Or any car radio for that matter including rental cars or cars borrowed from friends. Unfortunately, the FM broadcaster included in the unit is too weak to overcome commercial broadcasts on the same frequency. (I live in LA where there are a lot of strong FM stations.) The resulting sound is noisy and unacceptable. You could fiddle around tweaking your car's antenna to boost its reception of the Neuros signal, but that defeats the whole purpose of being able to connect with convenience.
It's really too bad. The software on the Neuros is great. You can download playlists from Windoze Media Player Version 9. The Neuros automatically gets the files associated with the playlist as well as the playlist itself. How neat is that? The download speed via USB 1.2 is sloooow enough to induce thoughts of whether you'll be an old man by the time the download finishes. With some refinement to fix these problems, the Necros could be a real contender, but for now it ain't ready for prime time.