For your MP3 listening enjoyment

The MPEG Layer-3 audio format made headlines for the past year, from controversy over recording rights to just plain music for your ears. But what is an mp3 worth without its player?

mp3 caught the world by storm because it allows users to easily send and receive music. This media format analyzes the audio signals and takes into account properties of the human ear to maintain the original sound quality. Sounds not recognized by the human ear are filtered out by a masking effect, reducing the size of the mp3.

Research into a high quality, low bitrate audio coding format began in the 1980s at the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlanger, Germany. In 1989, they were granted a patent and a few years later they released the first mp3 player but it was a horribly unstable program. Not long after, developer Tomislav Uzelac of Advanced Multimedia Products created the AMP mp3 playback engine. Once incorporated with a Windows interface, the program was dubbed and dubbed "Winamp," and was the first commercially available mp3 player.

With the launch of Winamp and the growing number of Internet music hubs, 1998 marked the beginning of the mp3 craze. The format struck such a chord with Internet users because it was readily available to download and develop. In contrast, several alternative digital audio formats have emerged with better compression ratios and quality. However, developers of each format limited their range of uses.

The basic function of an mp3 player is to decode mp3 files and send the data to the computer’s sound card as standard audio. There are more than enough players for Windows but for Macintosh users, the variety isn’t as great. Nonetheless, extensive lists for both are available at www.download.com and www.macdigitalaudio.com.

Most players include a playlist editor to sort audio files and a graphic equalizer like on any home stereo. For aspiring DJs, the latest mp3 players support streaming audio. Two leading developers-Shoutcast and Icecast-offer software for Internet DJs to mix and match their music and then broadcast it live across the Internet.

Winamp 2.78

The Winamp audio player developed by Nullsoft is truly the best free player available. It can handle audio CDs, mp3 audio files and streaming audio broadcasts with ease. The multitudes of features included with Winamp make it a worthwhile download. The player includes a playlist editor capable of arranging audio files by name and size. Also included is a 10-band graphic equalizer with user definable presets that can automatically load specific files. Another feature of Winamp is that it combines extensive functionality with an intuitive interface. The interface itself can be customized using "skins" that alters the look of the player but in no aspect changes the functions of the player.

Winamp is an awesome player but other mp3 players do perform better. The absence of a decent library option (being able to sort files by genre, length, etc). really hurts Winamp in terms of convenience. Winamp is currently available only for Windows OS but a Macintosh version is in the works.

X MultiMedia System 1.2.7

XMMS is an Open Source mp3 player for Linux. Like Linux, it too is free. It is compatible with Gnome, Afterstep and WindowMaker dock applications, making it convenient to have on the desktop at all times. It comes with a spectrum analyzer and oscilloscope as built-in visualizations and fully supports Winamp skins. XMMS also supports streaming audio including Shoutcast and Icecast. The player is being developed at a snail’s pace and its future doesn’t look very promising.

Sonique 1.95

Designed by Lycos, Sonique is not the easiest to use but it is one truly amazing piece of software. It is the first audio player to feature a windowless interface. Even though the controls appear unfamiliar, users will be stunned by its seamless interface and animated menu system. Like Winamp, Sonique also supports an assortment of audio file formats including audio CDs, mp3s Windows Media Audio and Ogg Vorbis audio files.

Sonique is otherwise equivalent to Winamp. It has a playlist editor, a 20-band equalizer and supports skins. The equalizer can adjust bass and treble as well as pitch and downloadable skins are also very distinct in shapes and sizes ranging from grungy to sleek-and-smooth, there is a Sonique skin for everyone.

Of all the players tested, Sonique tended to bog down the computer the most by using much of the system resources. If you don’t want to deal with searching for controls or want aesthetics, go with Sonique. Otherwise, stick with Winamp.

MacAmp 2.01

For the Macintosh users who prefer not to use the bundled iTunes software, MacAmp is a commendable alternative. This audio player- basically a perfect clone of Winamp for the Mac-both plays and records mp3 audio streams. This is a full-featured player that stands out with its Tracker option. Tracker allows the user to search through hundreds of available Internet streams according to genre.

MacAmp is not freeware like the other players available on Windows. During the 14 day "nag-free" trial period, MacAmp records a maximum of three minutes at a time, with
recording disabled after 14 days.

The mp3 audio format has only been in the public eye for a short time, and in this short time, its popularity has grown parallel to that of the Internet. Various lawsuits filed against its peer-to-peer software have not stunted the growth of the format but only fuelled its hunger to become the internet’s dominant audio format. Unlike the beta tape, it looks like mp3s are going to be around for a while.

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