The good news is that you have three ways to enjoy PC-stored music at home, without being tied to your PC: Hot-wire a portable device to your stereo system, use one of the combination devices that serve as both a CD player and hard drive, or opt for a console that plays via a home network system.GLITCHES. The last way is the most desirable. You set up a console near your stereo system and connect it to your PC. Then, you can lounge in your living room and order up MP3 files--the most popular format for Web music--by pressing the console buttons. Ideally, your home should be wired with an ethernet.
Without a network, you can make do with your existing telephone line. But you'll need to get into the innards of your computer to install a connector card, which enables your PC to talk to other machines. I tried this with the Rio Receiver, from SONICblue ($299), plugging both my computer and the receiver into nearby phone jacks. Installing the connector card, though, turned out to be a hair-raising experience. I shorted out my PC and had several other less dramatic glitches. You definitely want your geekiest friend around if you take on this project. But once it's up and running, you can listen to music without tying up your phone line.
When you use a Rio receiver, your PC keeps your music files. DigMedia MusicStore ($299) stores the files itself. Essentially a CD player with a 5-gigabyte hard drive, it connects to your PC via a USB port and to your stereo via a cable. It also has a docking station for DigMedia's portable MP3 player, SoulMate (sold separately for about $100), onto which you can load about an hour's worth of music for mobile listening. Cute touch.
What I didn't like about the MusicStore was its control panel, which looks more like the keypad of a cell phone than that of an audio player. Also, its hard drive is a fraction of the size you'd have on even a basic PC. That means even after you've loaded the MusicStore to bursting with your MP3 files, you'll only have about 85 hours of CD quality music.
The last option is simply to hijack a portable MP3 player and hot-wire it to your stereo system. This isn't the best-looking solution. Home network and combination devices can blend in with your stereo equipment. Portable devices don't. But if you can live with the decorating faux pas, the arrangement works pretty well and is easy to set up. All I needed was a standard stereo cable to connect the player to my stereo. I tried Creative Labs' Nomad Jukebox ($269), which has the most memory--6 gigabytes--among the portables. Its hard drive is still on the small side; it can handle up to 100 hours of CD quality sound. To load more music, I would need to disconnect the Nomad and bring it back to my computer. Good thing it's portable.
While I didn't find my dream machine, I discovered some workable setups--enough to make me think that pretty soon, I can go shopping for books to fill up those shelves. By Ellen Neuborne