I don't think it's possible to have too much music. I remember working with a photographer a few years ago who'd done a bunch of shoots for Rolling Stone, and he'd accumulated enough CDs to fill a 10-feet-by-6-feet wall full of shelves. (Drool.)
But what good are all those tunes when you can't find them or play them quickly? That's the question I've been pondering as I stare at my living-room CD rack and 5-disc changer. Thankfully, I've already got most of my music ripped to MP3s. I still prefer full CD-quality music when I can get it, but it sure would be nice to take advantage of all those stored tunes--and the instant access I have to them on my PC--to listen to a track here and there.
That's what I'll be looking at this month--different ways to get digital audio files to your stereo.
The Easy Way: Line-Out
When in doubt, run a cable. That's usually the cheapest solution to most computing problems that involve moving data from one place to another. Running a long audio cable from your sound card to your home stereo is certainly a possibility.
In most cases, you'll need either a digital audio cable (many sound cards offer a coaxial digital output that most modern receivers can accept) or a 1/8-inch stereo-to-stereo RCA cable that adapts the analog outputs on your sound card to the standard size of your receiver's inputs. Companies like Monster Cable or Radio Shack can sell you the proper cable. I wouldn't spend too much money on a super-high-quality cable, though, as you're already dealing with compressed audio files.
But unless your PC and your stereo are in adjoining rooms, running a cable won't be the most convenient solution. If you've got a portable MP3 player, it's often easier to simply plug that into your stereo. The best way to do that is with a line-out jack that sends an unamplified signal to your receiver. That's a critical distinction, because if your player offers a headphone output only, you should be prepared to spend a bunch of time playing with volume settings on both the player and the receiver to find levels that don't distort the sound.
Several portable players, such as IRiver's H340 , feature both headphone and line-out jacks. Others like Apple's full-size IPods and Rio's Karma player have docking stations that include line-level outputs. Just hook the docking station up to your stereo and leave it within easy reach. Then plug your player in and use the same familiar interface to navigate your music collection. When you aren't playing music, the docking station provides a convenient place to recharge your player. The Karma's dock even uses the same RCA connectors you find on your stereo, so you won't need special audio cables to hook it up.
For a more sophisticated living room, step up to a networked audio streaming device that can play digital music files stored on your computer. If you've already got a home network running, this is a great way to take advantage of it. Almost all of the $100-to-$500 devices we've tested support wireless networking, so you won't have to run any cables to set them up.
Slim Devices' $279 Squeezebox is the best of the ones I've tried, with a geek-friendly software interface, a ton of user-created plug-ins, and a fairly high-res display that makes it easy to navigate through your music. (The previous version of the device also came with an endearingly awful horizontal version of Tetris that you could play on its four-line display. Sadly, that has not made it to the new version.)
Digital World recently reviewed the Sonos Digital Music System , an expensive, complex digital music system that looks really slick. On the other end of the spectrum is Apple's Airport Express , a $129 device the plugs into your wall with Apple's trademark simplicity. That's probably what I'll go with when I finally bring MP3s to my stereo.
Digital Music Prices to Rise? We've heard this before, but it seems like some major labels are trying to raise the wholesale price they charge for licensing digital music to stores like the Apple ITunes Music Store and Napster. My opinion on this idea hasn't changed since I ranted about what's wrong with digital music last September .
In Heavy Rotation
Rogue Wave: Don't you hate it when you get turned on to a band right after it's played in your town? That happened to me recently with Rogue Wave , a great indie pop band that uses some very cool multipart harmonies to produce a unique sound.