Thursday, June 01, 2006

I need to look at getting an MP3 player

I've mostly been ahead of the mainstream curve with regard to electronics. I had a CD player before most of my friends. I had a 286 computer in the early 80s, and an Atari 800 XL before that. I bought a 486 and then a Pentium II before most of my friends. I bought a DVD player once they dropped below C$400. I even had a Photo CD player, a digital picture format that could have been the world standard if Kodak hadn't messed up by keeping it proprietary.

In spite of all this, I've been woefully behind the curve with regard to MP3s. I'm a little bit of an audiophile. When I heard that MP3s were of inferior sound quality wise I pretty much gave them a pass. Okay, so now there's lossless MP3 compression. And in almost every location where I listen to music (in a car, on public transit, in aircraft, in airports, or in the house with Logan and the dog running around) the background noise drowns out the loss of fidelity. Still, I pretty much ignored MP3s.

I started to look into them after my plane trip last November. I didn't even bother taking a CD player, since there's too much noise in a plane. Aircraft seats are so cramped that it's a pain stowing CDs and changing them on a flight. I considered ripping some MP3s from my CDs and putting them onto a single disk. This time out I had noise canceling headphones, courtesy of American Express's customer point catalogue. The sound quality is okay (not wonderful, but definitely worth the money), and the noise canceling made it actually feasible to listen on a propeller driven aircraft. Space was still an issue, though. I had to keep the CD player and the CDs at my feet while we were climbing. An MP3 player would be much handier.

A further demonstration of the advantages of MP3 players was had on the way back from Alana's parents' place. Logan had a CD player with a 60 second anti-skip feature, which he received from his grandparents. Three times during the trip Logan complained that the CD was skipping. This is more a testament to the shabby condition of Louisiana roads, but it demonstrated a problem with CD players. They have moving parts that don't like shocks or bumps.

Alana and I have been vaguely looking at MP3 players. The ubiquitous iPod seems a bit steep in price. I'm guessing that with the iPod you are paying for sound quality and organizational ability. MP3 players from companies like Sandisk are pretty basic in the organization department, but they are also about half to a third the cost for the same memory. We're starting to do some research, and we are keeping our eyes open for sales.

MP3s fix so many problems with portable music that there's no getting away from them. They only real hassle with them is that you can't easily play them in rental cars. You can get adapters to play your MP3s in your own car, but it's not something you'd want to cart along with on a business trip. Considering the crappy choice of music I had in North Carolina, I will still be packing CDs for business trips. I will simply stick them in my checked luggage (after first ripping them onto blank discs so I won't cry if they are lost).

(For an earlier rant about music quality on radio stations, see my Clear Channeling of America post from October 27, 2005.)

As Alana told me, she suddenly understands why the recording companies are worried. MP3s are strictly digital. It doesn't have to exist in any tangible way: no vinyl album, no 8-track, cassette tape, or reel-to-reel tape, no CD. It's ludicrously easy to copy and send. Unlike taping albums and CDs for friends, MP3s can be sent to complete strangers at virtually no cost to the sender or the receiver. At the same time, they don't have the scratch and skip problems of CDs.

This isn't news to anyone. What surprises me is that with everyone aware of the threat of digital music, CDs are still expensive and the record companies still pump out crappy music on radio stations across the country. If anything, my musical choices were worse in North Carolina than in Michigan. (The only reason I listen to music in Monroe on the radio is the excellent local college station, KXUL.) Why should someone risk money buying a CD that they've only heard one song from when they can download it for free? Sure, because it's stealing, but people have an amazing capacity to rationalize that part of it.

Recently I went looking for an old song, "Phasers on Stun" by the Canadian progressive rock band FM. I found it through a file sharing service. It is not available on iTunes and there is no way I'd find it in a store. You can't find the CD. You can't legally download the MP3. What's the legal status of "illegally" downloading the MP3? Well, it's illegal. The artist or label might release the album later, and they have the copyright. This reminds me of the line in "Download This Song" by MC Lars, "Hey, Mr. Record Man, the joke's on you. Living off your catalog from 1982." In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find something from 1982 unless it was a huge hit.

In order for CDs to have "value added", the recording companies are doing things like releasing CDs that are CDs on one side and DVDs on the other. Unfortunately, such disks don't work in the CD player of our 2000 Chevy Tracker. I found this out at Christmas when I received the latest Our Lady Peace CD. I had to cut the CD to another disk in order for it to work in the Tracker. Such copying is legal in Canada, but technically illegal in the U.S. I hope the RIAA isn't reading this!

The recording companies control the supply of the product, completely, both what is developed and what is heard. They've ruined radio. They've priced CDs so as to make a huge profit, even when the production cost is very small. At the same time, demand is widening while people are finding their own way of satisfying that demand. As "Download This Song" says, music is no longer a product, it's a service. Maybe at some point someone in the recording industry will embrace this.

Meanwhile, until I get an MP3 player I'll continue to feed the machine and buy CDs. For now, I'll stay behind the curve.


Michael Skeet said...

"Phasers on Stun" is available for download (in mp3 format) from a Russian site called The track will cost you... 11 cents. (Love that Russian economy.) The entire "Black Noise" album (the only FM album on the site, I'm afraid) will cost you $1.14. US prices, of course. That's for 192 kbps, 44mhz sampling rate.

Before you rush out there, though, Chris advises that you contact him for advice on payment. Translation: don't give those guys a credit card number...

Weird as it seems at the prices quoted, appears to be operating legally.

Allan Goodall said...

I'd be very, very hesitant to buy from someone in Russia! PayPal is probably safe enough, but I'm still not sure I'm willing to risk it.