by Marty Demarest

Someday we won't even stop to wonder how we got along without them. Like telephones, automobiles, printing presses and truck drivers before them, MP3 players will eventually pass into that category of things that changed our lives so profoundly that we never seriously looked back. And if trends are right in electronics stores, backpacks, pockets and purses around the nation, MP3 players are already well on their way to changing the way we experience music.

Consider, for example, a CD collection. Anyone who has spent some time amassing a collection of the shiny music discs has to admit that, from an aesthetic standpoint, they pose a few problems. As glorious as the quality of music they provide is, they still come in fragile, clear plastic cases that are always breaking and never quite manage to fit neatly into a truly handsome rack or stand. Imagine, however, if in the space of a few hours, you were able to convert your entire collection into MP3s - which are simply computer files that store audio - and transfer them into a lightweight electronic device that's smaller than a paperback novel. The songs could be accessed at the touch of a button; no more moving perilously tall stacks of dusty CD cases around searching for that single tune. They could travel with you without adding significant weight to your carry-on baggage. And when you were done listening to your music on the go, a simple cable could connect the player to a stereo, giving you room-filling sound wherever there were speakers.

Rather than remaining a hopeful instrument of the future, MP3 players have already arrived at this state, having rapidly evolved from humble-yet-stylish gadgets that store and replay a few hours of music at the most, to full-fledged "jukeboxes" like Apple's iPod and Creative Lab's Nomad, which can store and play back hundreds of hours of sound at CD quality. And while the price of these machines is still in the several-hundred-dollar range, like all technological marvels, that's quickly changing.

Also evolving at a high speed are the ways in which consumers access, store and create their MP3 files. At first, most users just kept a folder on their computer's hard drive, with painstakingly acquired and labeled songs, which were loaded one by one into a player, or played back through the computer's speakers. Now, however, there are programs designed to create, organize and play MP3s that make it a day's work to convert an entire CD collection into a batch of files.

One of the most useful of these programs currently available is the MUSICMATCH Jukebox. Like almost every computer program that can be downloaded from the Internet, there is a free version and one with a price attached. Of course, the version that costs money ($20) is the one that does all the extra fancy things, but even the free Jukebox in this case is one of the handiest downloads available for an electronic audiophile. What the Jukebox primarily lets users do is create MP3 files from CDs with amazing speed and ease. What could end up being a complicated procedure is reduced to inserting a CD into the computer's drive, selecting the desired songs from the list, and waiting a few minutes. Quickly, easily and painlessly, they've been converted into MP3s. If you have a CD-ROM burner, it's as easy as reversing the process to create audio or data CDs. (And yes, vinyl and tapes can be recorded as well.)

There are other functions available on the Jukebox, which is quickly becoming one of the most favored tools of the ever-enlarging MP3 crowd. These include different appearances (called skins) that can be selected, custom labels that can be printed for home-burned CDs, and an automatic process known as "tagging." With larger MP3 players in particular, it can become chaotic to try to organize an enormous collection based on a personal naming system. That's where ID3 Tags come in; they're electronic labels that can be attached to an MP3 file, naming the artist, song, and other relevant information. Some programs require you to input this information on your own, while other programs, like the Jukebox, do it for you. In testing the Jukebox on this feature recently, it managed to correctly identify almost every single CD in a large, diverse group of samples, with correct artists and track names. It was only with the smaller, obscure releases that it needed the information entered manually.

But what may be the most fascinating extra feature of the MUSICMATCH Jukebox is its proprietary online radio service, called Radio MX. Online radio can be a hit or miss phenomenon -- often coming through as low-fi, halting signals, which are usually just an online broadcast of a conventional radio station's programming. Radio MX, however, features a unique system of transferring complete MP3 files to listeners' computers that can only be run through the jukebox for a single broadcast -- no stopping, pausing or rewinding. This also means that anything from a well-programmed classic lineup to the latest releases by independent rock groups comes through in vivid CD quality. When a song just isn't working, listeners can skip to the next one. Try that with traditional radio.

But Radio MX has two unique features that finally make listening to online radio a complete surprise. The first is the station's "Artist Match" feature. Listeners log onto the station's Web site and enter a list of up to 25 musical artists that they like. The station then programs a custom stream of audio that includes those artists and others like them. While it sounds hokey, a recent listen offered a rare recording of the legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans playing J.S. Bach's Art of the Fugue, followed by P.J. Harvey, Moby, then Doris Day and Bing Crosby singing "Love Somebody." In a similar vein, but even more exciting, and a little eerie, is the "My Station" feature, which crafts a custom lineup of tunes for listeners based on what MP3s they have stored on their computer, and which ones they listen to the most, and which ones they skip.

If MUSICMATCH is any indicator of what music lovers can expect to encounter as they pursue their passions online, and if MP3 players continue to become increasingly powerful at lower costs, the future of music looks good indeed -- much better, in fact, than that stack of CDs collecting dust on the floor.

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