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MP3 rocks the music business

Diamond Multimedia's portable MP3 player   

November 10, 1998
Web posted at: 11:20 AM EDT PM PT

by Scott Spanbauer

(IDG) -- Judging by the lawsuits, MP3 is causing executives in the music industry plenty of sleepless nights.

The Moving Pictures Experts Group Level 3 format compresses a CD-quality audio file's tens of megabytes into just a few megabytes, making high-quality digital audio not only downloadable but portable. Until recently, only Net-dwelling, song-swapping music pirates have had much interest in the format. But recent developments could make MP3 a household word, and a familiar sight on the jogging circuit.

This month, Diamond Multimedia starts shipping the $199 Rio PMP300 portable MP3 player. The cassette-size player connects to your PC's parallel port, and stores about an album's worth of MP3 music using 32MB of flash memory. Included software lets you convert CD audio tracks to MP3 files and then copy them to the Rio.

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This setup, however, raised red flags at the Recording Industry Association of America.

The RIAA filed an injunction against Diamond, citing the Audio Home Recording Act, which requires digital recorder vendors to pay royalties to the music industry. A Federal court judge denied the RIAA's request late last month, finding that the organization didn't demonstrate a causal relationship between the Rio and unauthorized copying.

Diamond's success doesn't give every MP3 player a green light, however. The Rio slipped through the AHRA net because it connects only to computers, not audio systems. Other devices, including one due from Samsung in December, may fall under the AHRA's requirement to pay royalties. The Web site lists dozens of stand-alone and PC-based MP3 player or recorder devices under development.

Kids, you can try this at home

You don't need a player like the Rio to enjoy MP3-format audio. Most Macs and PCs are ready for MP3 -- just add software. Nullsoft's $10 Winamp 2.04 is currently the most full-featured MP3 player, with the ability to cycle through playlists of MP3 tracks and accept third-party application plug-ins. Microsoft's free Windows Media Player also plays MP3 tracks, but lacks most of Winamp's bells and whistles.

The only other thing you need is the music itself. Though most of the free MP3 tracks available online are from relative unknowns, a few sites, including and GoodNoise, are starting to feature established musicians. is currently offering a free 3.9MB track from rock veterans The Band, with Eric Clapton sitting in. GoodNoise's main page offers sample tracks from Ex-Pixies bandleader Frank Black's latest, Frank Black and the Catholics, for 99 cents per track or $8.99 for the entire album. GoodNoise also sells the CD for $11.99.

Is the MP3 version a better deal? I downloaded a track from the Frank Black album and played it through my stereo, comparing it with the same track played on CD. The CD version sounded richer, with better stereo separation. My PC's sound card is undoubtedly to blame, but until mainstream PC audio improves all around, the MP3 player may remain just another gadget.

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