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(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Can't somebody come up with an easy, attractive - and dare I say legal - way to tap into the wonderful world of MP3 music?
By "tapping in" I mean taking it off the computer and bringing it into the living room - not just attaching a couple of speakers to a computer, or navigating discombobulated menus to produce complicated playlists, requiring you to copy files hither and yon onto MP3 players. There are speakers with great sound out there, but a computer means "work," and when I want to listen to music at home, I don't want to be reminded of work - and when I'm away from work, the only "menu" I'm interested in is the dinner one.
What are the choices, after all? There's no way for people in this part of the world to buy MP3s on line I tried, but I couldn't do it. It's like there's a conspiracy against people who want to buy music on-line legally; the powers that be have conspired to do their best to turn me and you into thieves. Between the obstinacy of iTunes in refusing to sell to Israelis to the insecurity of buying from AllofMP3.com to the outright swiping of my prepaid Visa funds by ePassporte (no, I have not gotten my money back yet), I've run out of ideas for legal music downloading.
Here I try to throw money at sites like Napster.com or MSN Music in an attempt to follow all the rules implemented by the RIAA for legal downloading of music, whether or not I agree with their ridiculous DRM restrictions about copying or sharing what I bought. I'm willing to make a deal, but they're not. Contrast that with the open arms music lovers find at peer-to-peer sharing sites like BitTorrent (http://azureus.sourceforge.net) or SoulSeek (http://www.slsknet.org). Nobody rejects you because of who you are or where you're from. You can't say I didn't try to do things on the up and up.
Personally, I've given up on downloading altogether and gone back to my first love, streaming Internet radio. I've written before about using the combination of StationRipper (http://www.stationripper.com) and Shoutcast (http://www.shoutcast.com), where you can find thousands of free (and legal) on-line streaming radio stations to record music to your hard drive and quickly build a free (and legal) collection of thousands of songs.
Ah, but how to play them in the living room? With downloads, you could just burn a CD and play it on a living room stereo, or just attach your MP3 player to a set of speakers and play them that way. Of course, that's extra work for you - you have to copy the songs off the computer, set up playlists, yadda yadda. Sounds like too much work for me.
There is one easy and legal solution to lazy listening of MP3s - live streaming Internet radio, where somebody else goes through the trouble of putting together playlists for the benefit of the listening public - saving me the work of winnowing through the music I downloaded. With nearly 12,000 streaming Shoutcasts, after all, you're bound to find someone with the same taste as you! I long ago replaced my living room CD player/radio with first, a computer and set of speakers, and then just a pair of speakers, controlled by an Apple AirPort Extreme Wireless Music System (http://www.apple.com/airportexpress), which works just fine with a PC, as well.
But you still need a PC to control the Airport, the speakers and the music - so you still don't get that full I'm-free-from-my-boring-job zoneout music experience. In my case, the computer that controls the AirPort Extreme speakers is in another room, so if a song comes on I don't like, I'm stuck listening to it until its over, or I have to go upstairs and change the station.
You'd think somebody would have invented a single unit networked device that could be plugged into an Ethernet socket and let you choose what you want to listen to without having to go through a PC. If they can load up MP3 players or iPods with "music managers" that can download songs - and ensure that you don't copy them more than "X" amount of times - they could set up a desktop "box" that looks like a stereo, not a computer, and load it with a music manager that lets you select from a list of streams from on-line broadcasters.
I've been thinking about this for a long time, as a matter of fact - ever since I saw the first prototype about five years ago from a company whose name I can't recall and obviously went bust. I saw an ad for it and then a demonstration, and was all ready to write them a check when they "disappeared" into the cybersphere.
But fortunately, others have picked up on the idea, and streaming radio stereo boxes that can tune into Internet radio are already here - and picking up steam. I got an e-mail a few weeks ago advertising the Acoustic Energy Wi-Fi Internet Radio (http://www.acoustic-energy.co.uk), "the most exciting radio development this decade" (http://tinyurl.com/m5dyl). It streams 2,700 radio stations and doesn't even need an Ethernet cable - it works on Wi-fi (meaning it requires a Wi-fi router to work). It's based on a streaming service run by a company called Reciva (http://www.reciva.com), which streams the stations via its servers to users of the AE Wi-Fi set. At $299, though, it's a bit pricy, if you ask me.
A somewhat better buy can be had with the $239 Penguin Radio. The PR has been around for about a year and claims to have 15,000 users in Europe.
The Penguin streaming service offers 5,000 plus stations, and was designed to be used, according to the product's site (http://www.penguinradio.com), but technophobic church folk, so it's set up to be as simple to use as possible. Both the AE and the PR are nice looking products you would be pleased to put in your living room, and both have plenty of music and talk choices (PR has more streams, as well as podcasts, but AE can stream Real Audio, while PR can't; both stream MP3s and Windows Streams as well).
I was all ready to lay my money down for one of these handsome looking units - until I realized that neither of them let you program your own stations. While there are good reasons for this, as the sites for both products explain, that leaves me with a question - what happens to my expensive radio if AE's Reciva service or the Penguin people get tired of maintaining their databases? And don't say it won't happen - remember my initial enthusiasm at this concept five years ago when, at the last moment with hand on check-writing pen, I got the word that the company was defunct. Meanwhile, I guess I'll still be seeking that ultimate music escape experience, having to either download, with its inherent moral dilemmas, or listen to computer streams via PC, with its inherent reminder of employment slavery.
Life is tough.