Audio: Sweet Sounds On The WebEdward C. Baig
I have always been enamored of radio. As a kid, I'd gingerly twist the dial to pull in distant ball games, rock 'n' roll stations, and other faint signals. I also fiddled with a shortwave receiver to tune in the rest of the world. So I was thrilled to discover I could hear far-flung AM, FM, and shortwave stations over the Internet.
The World Wide Web is evolving into a terrific listening post for audio mavens. But you can take in more than radio. You can sample music and order compact disks, and even download singles to your PC. Other sites let you capture audio books, conferences, and courses, and with special devices, play them back on your car radio.
In most instances, before hearing any continuous sound, you'll have to download software from the Web site. You'll probably need Real Player from RealNetworks, free at www.real.com, or Microsoft's NetShow, also free, fromwww.microsoft.com/netshow. Once you're set up, you can surf for Webcasts. Try the Massachusetts Institute of Technology radio site, wmbr.mit.edu/stations/bc.html, which provides a list of more than 4,000 stations. You'll also find more than 260 radio and TV stations at AudioNet, the Web's preeminent radio network. Right before the Super Bowl, I used the site to check out sports talk in Denver and Milwaukee. I also tuned in the British Broadcasting Corp. to get its take on the Clinton sex scandal.
BARRIERS. You may be wondering why you need to turn on Internet radio with a real radio close by. Maybe you're a college hoops fan who no longer lives near your alma mater. Or you work in an office building where it's impossible to pick up your favorite stations. Webcasting gets you around these hurdles--and AudioNet also lets you listen to police scanners and a CD jukebox.
Alas, there are still sound barriers on the Web. Audio may come through distorted or drop out for seconds at a time because of congestion on the Net. And your experience will be only as rewarding as your modem speed, connection, sound card, and speakers allow. If the firewall at your company retards the data streaming through cyberspace, even a T1 line won't perform well.
If you want to enjoy online music, The DJ site plays tunes in more than 60 categories (crooners, hip-hop, etc.). You can rate songs and also buy albums via a link to the CDNow Web site (www.cd now.com). Several sites let you hear musical excerpts and order CDs, including Music Boulevard from N2K, (www.musicblvd.com) and the Tunes Network (www.tunes.com). Sometimes the music comes with pictures. You can watch live or archived concerts from Pearl Jam, the Rolling Stones, and other artists at JamTV (www.jamtv.com).
Meanwhile, a company called Liquid Audio has devised an intriguing Internet music-delivery system that allows you to create custom CDs. Using the technology, N2K recently launched a Web service called e-Mod. Music fans can download copyrighted singles for 99 cents each. It takes 12 to 15 minutes to download a near-CD quality 4-minute song using a 28.8 modem. If you've got a MiniDisk recorder from the likes of Denon, Sony, and Sharp, or CD-Recordable device from Philips, Pioneer, Yamaha, and others, you can burn selections onto an MD or CD. Cuts are available from a few well-known performers such as Chick Corea, but the big names are mostly missing. That's because record labels and retailers don't want you to cherrypick songs when they can sell you a whole album. It'll be a while before such intellectual property issues are resolved.
AT&T also lets you download music at its a2bmusic site (www.a2bmusic.com) but will not now let you transfer songs from your hard drive to a CD or MD. The company has shown a prototype of a device it hopes retailers will sell in 1999 for playing back digital downloads.
You can purchase downloads of books-on-tape, programming from The Harvard Business Review and The Economist, and speeches at the Audible Web site. Audible sells a $200 portable device that lets you remove the programming from your hard drive and listen to it in a car or plane. Audio Highway (www. audiohighway.com) sells a similar unit. With all this, the Web is sounding better all the time.