Back in my college days, I was a music freak. I owned hundreds of vinyl records, often obscure rhythm-and-blues albums that I played as a deejay on my radio program, Jumpin' with Jersey Jay, at Minnesota's Macalester College. But as those days slipped away, so too did my music habit. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy music. It's just that, with work and family, I had less time to spend sifting through music at record stores, and less leisure to sit on my couch and groove on the latest tunes. The arrival of digital music changed all of that. All of sudden, it was easy to find new music by just surfing to a Web site that let me sample songs. And with a portable music player that holds a virtual library full of music, I can have my tunes with me wherever I go. Over the past year, I've copied 1,500 songs to my PC, loaded them onto my Apple (AAPL) iPod, and burned compilations onto CDs for friends.
But that's so 2003. I'm eager for what comes next. I want to tap the music in my PC to hear songs throughout my house and in my car, to hear whatever song I want whenever I want to hear it. In just the past few months, an entirely new category of gadgets and software has emerged that promises to let music fans untrap the music now locked up in their PCs. I set up a handful of them to see how well they lived up to that promise.
First, there are a couple of pieces of technical plumbing you'll need to join me in the digital music age. One is a high-speed Internet connection so you can pull tunes off the Web in a snap. And you'll want to set up a home network so that you can siphon music out of your PC and broadcast it to the gizmos that play it.
So let the revolution begin. The first gadget I tried was Onkyo Net-Tune TX-NR900, a $1,500 home-theater stereo receiver. Like any high-end receiver, it plays audio from my CD player, cassette deck, and TV. But it also has a jack that lets me hook it to my PC so I can play the 1,500 songs stored on my hard drive.
All told, it took about 20 minutes to set everything up. It was amazing, using the remote control to scroll through the titles of my music collection, stored in another room, on the receiver's one-line display right in front of me. I cranked up Jerk It Out by Caesars, a Swedish garage rock band, on my new digital jukebox, and my wife and two kids were soon bopping all over the living room.
My eight-year-old son, Will, has grown attached to a scaled-down version of the same thing, the Net-Tune NC-500. I put the NC-500 in his room and connected it to the home network. I gave him a primer on how to use the remote and went into the kitchen to fix dinner. All of a sudden, I heard him flipping through his favorite tunes -- first, the Foo Fighters, a grunge rock band, then the hip-hop band Spearhead.
Like Onkyo, Yamaha has figured out that the key to enjoying digital music is the ability to store your entire music collection in one place and play the songs anywhere in the house. But Yamaha takes a vastly different approach: Its MusicCAST digital music system, a pricey $2,800, has its own hard drive that can store thousands of songs, and it broadcasts them wirelessly to slick-looking receivers in other rooms. I put the receiver in my bedroom so I could go to sleep to some mellow jazz from Maceo Parker and wake up to rock guitar virtuoso Santana.
That's fine for folks who haven't already moved their CD collections to their PC, or who never plan to buy music off the Web. My problem with MusicCAST is that it doesn't let me take advantage of the library already stashed on my PC, and I'm not about to duplicate that collection by slipping CD after CD into the device to copy them. And if you want to buy a song online, you'll have to download the song to your hard drive, burn it to a CD, then copy the CD into the MusicCAST.
By sidestepping the PC, Yamaha fails to capitalize on the biggest breakthrough in the digital revolution. That's the ability to connect to other music libraries through the Web. There are all kinds of legal music services, some that let you download songs for less than a dollar, and some subscription services that stream tunes to you bit by bit so they play instantaneously.
Take Rhapsody, a service that costs $9.95 a month. You get access to 390,000 songs that can play directly from the Web to your computers. In addition, if you want to own songs, you can copy individual songs from about 80% of the Rhapsody library for another 79 cents each. Initially, I thought I would want to copy every song I liked. But it quickly dawned on me that I didn't need to own every one.
That's where the next gadget I tried answered the call -- the Omnifi Home Digital Media Streamer, for $299. You just hook it up to your home network and plug it into your stereo receiver. Just like the Onkyo boxes, it plays music from your PC. But Omnifi also lets you tap music streaming into your PC from Rhapsody and play it through your stereo as well. Connecting Rhapsody to Omnifi was the coolest thing I experienced.
All of sudden, my digital jukebox went from 1,500 songs to 390,000. I had been eager to hear The Wind, the last CD by the late, great rocker, Warren Zevon. On my PC, I selected the album from Rhapsody's menu and transferred it into the My Library folder in the Rhapsody software. I headed for the living room, clicked on the album title with the remote, and played it.
One of the lures of digital music is fans can take their favorite songs and listen to them in ways once inconceivable. Microsoft figured this out with Music Mixer, a new add-on for the Xbox game console. It's a karaoke player with a microphone and 15 songs with backup vocals and lyrics that scroll across the TV screen. The real cleverness of Music Mixer is how it lets you sing along to any song. I hooked the Xbox to my network and pulled some of my 5-year-old's favorites from my PC to the Music Mixer program. It stripped out most of the vocal track, and Sam serenaded us with Little Red Caboose, the Buckwheat Zydeco providing only the background music.
The next step along the path to digital music nirvana was introducing my music library to my car. Omnifi just put the Mobile Digital Media Player on the market. It includes a control panel meant to be installed in the dash, and a 20-gigabyte hard drive that can be stashed in the glove box or center console, or under the seat. There's also a wireless adapter so that you can pick songs from your PC library and send them to the car player while the car is parked in the garage.
It's a brilliant idea, but there's a kink. The company didn't include an AM-FM radio. Without it, you'll need to find extra space on your dashboard.
Still, it gives you a good idea of where digital music is headed: vast music libraries, owned or rented, that can be tapped anywhere, anytime. We're not there yet. The components, hardware or software, just don't work all that well together. But one day most of this stuff will interact seamlessly. When that day comes, I'll bet there'll be a lot more onetime music freaks getting their groove back. By Jay Greene