A Quintessentially Good Player


By Steve Rosenbush

(Readers'

Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good Well-organized and ad-free, QMP handles formats like Ogg Vorbis, an open-source alternative to MP3

The Bad Copying music can be slow

The Bottom Line A must-have for open-source fans

The Quintessential Media Player is a product I ended up liking very much. Its appeal had less to do with technology and more to do with the environment and atmosphere -- QMP is a commercial-free zone.

After several weeks of testing music players, from Windows Media to RealPlayer, Winamp, and Yahoo! (YHOO), I had resigned myself to the idea that listening to music on my computer made me a target for advertisers. The Windows, Yahoo, and RealMedia players tried to connect me to their respective music stores and sell me upgrades. The programs all presented me with an endless stream of buttons that seemed to scream, "Buy me!"

SPECIAL REPORTDIGITAL MUSIC FORMATS

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RealPlayer: Master Music Manager

Winamp Still Loves the '90s

Microsoft in Fast-Forward Mode

QMP, refreshingly, has no music store, no advertising, no pitches for Internet radio. It does support Icecast and AOL-owned SHOUTcast, for those who do like Net radio. And the player has a "music browser" that gave me access to information about bands and musicians that I wanted to learn about -- but it didn't beat me over the head.

HEARING LITTLE DIFFERENCE. I was initially intrigued by QMP because of its promise of high-quality audio. QMP plays and records music in a variety of formats, including the oddly named Ogg Vorbis. This commercial-free, open-source alternative to the MP3 music format has been around since the mid-90s. Proponents claim that Ogg Vorbis delivers much better quality audio than the ubiquitous MP3.

To be honest, I had a hard time hearing the difference between files of the two audio formats. The adherents may be right -- maybe Ogg is awesome. But given the limitations of my ear -- not to mention my laptop's audio system -- it was hard to tell.

I don't pretend to be an expert on these matters. My stereo system at home is in need of repair, and I've been making do with the CD player and speakers attached to my computer. I also use a $39 Hello Kitty portable CD player that's sitting on the kitchen counter. Even I can tell that it sounds really awful, which just goes to show that I do bring some discernment to the task at hand.

NO HELP NEEDED. But the real appeal of QMP is that it's more of a tool than a service. It's about listening to music you already own, not buying or renting something new. And it benefits from that focus. It did a good job of copying and playing music. The green and off-white player is uncluttered and easy to figure out.

The developer, Quinnware, hasn't gotten around to finishing the "help" page on its Web site. But I didn't really need it -- the player was that easy to use. Buttons for basic tasks like playing and copying music were clustered nicely on top of the screen. And the four windows below give me a quick view of my music library, my collection of playlists, and my current playlist. The player also makes it simple to construct playlists, with a drag-and-drop approach that was intuitive.

QMP fared less well when it came to transferring music to portable devices, though. It didn't recognize MP3 players unless they could be identified as removable hard drives. It "saw" a lower-capacity device that plugged directly into the computer. But higher-capacity devices that were connected via a cord to the USB port on the computer weren't visible to QMP.

SLOW COPIER. QMP isn't very fast when it comes to copying music. For a one-time fee, usually $15 to $20, consumers can buy music players that copy CDs up to 40 times faster than the time it takes to actually listen to the music. QMP is much slower.

I adjusted the audio quality to 70% of the maximum level. At that level, QMP copied music about 4.5 times faster than real-time playback. When I boosted the audio quality, it took much longer to record the same songs. The free version of Yahoo's MusicMatch player was more than twice as fast. And the $19.99 upgrade was 10 times as fast.

I was perfectly happy with the results when I set the audio-quality level to 70%. Still, it took 8 to 10 minutes to record a typical CD. That can feel like an eternity if you stare at the screen, watching the "progress" bar work its way through the job.

TREMENDOUS BARGAIN. If you're willing to walk away and do something else for a few minutes, recording a CD isn't such a chore. But it's not going to win any speed awards. For people who want to be able to copy a CD in a minute or two, QMP may be frustrating.

The QMP player is a tremendous bargain, considering that it's available for free. It compares favorably with the premium versions of many rival players.

Some people will no doubt insist that it outperforms them with it comes to audio quality. While that could be the case, it's open to debate and hard to prove. For the average user, it probably doesn't make a huge difference anyway.

But it has already pulled nearer the head of the pack when it comes to ease of use and clean design. With a little more speed and better support for portable devices, it could be best in class. I'd probably be willing to pay for it, too.

Rosenbush is a senior writer for BusinessWeek Online


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