C Ds Online: Click Here For Sinatra And Savings

If you're a fan of obscure Chicago bluesman Washboard Sam but live in rural Vermont, your chances of finding the recording you want in a local music shop may be next to nil. But thanks to the Internet, you don't have to drive hours to Boston to search. Instead, you can shop from the growing number of online stores offering everything from bebop to Beethoven at discounts of up to 40%.

Like cyberbookstores, online music retailers list vast collections of titles, almost guaranteeing you satisfaction. CDNow boasts upwards of a quarter million recordings in its catalog, whereas Tower Records carries 160,000 online (table), double what it offers through its largest walk-in music superstores.

What's more, CDNow and its competitors offer thousands of selected audio clips, although most are annoyingly short--30 seconds or less--because of copyright restrictions. And if you don't find your heart's desire at CDNow or Amazon.com, click on the Yahoo! search engine (www.yahoo.com), type in "music online shopping," and you will get a directory of nearly 200 sites, many dealing in specific genres such as African, Danish, or Latin music.

For sheer ease of use, CDNow stands out from the pack, with a clean design and the smartest search capabilities. N2K's Music Boulevard has a unique feature: The site automatically displays the cover art for many titles it has by an artist you select. The only problem is it can take more than a minute to download pages for such prolific artists as Frank Sinatra.

Surprisingly, the clumsiest site belongs to Amazon.com, the pioneer online bookseller that opened its music store in June. When I was shopping for CDs, after each selection Amazon would return me to the home page for its sister book service. More than once I ran a search for an artist before realizing that I had defaulted to the book section and Amazon actually was looking through its book catalog. Worse, while other sites showed a running tally of how much my spree would cost, Amazon told me the final tab only after I initiated a purchase--when I was a click away from having the order shipped.

WORST OFFENDER. The online services all share one shortcoming: mediocre search capabilities. The problems are most extreme in classical music, given that most classical albums don't have titles. The worst offender is Music Boulevard, which allows you to search by composer, orchestra, performer, and title--but not by work.

For some audiophiles, the biggest consideration is price. To test the economics of buying CDs online, BUSINESS WEEK priced a basket of nine CDs at the major sites (table). CD Universe offered the package, which lists for nearly $350, for about $285 with shipping, compared with $307 at Amazon.com and $320 at CDNow.

If you live in a big city, you can probably get what you're looking for through a music superstore. But for small-town residents or people with an urge to order jazz singer Blossom Dearie's latest CD without leaving home, the Web services come in handy.