Liberate Your Music from Its PC Prison

How to listen to digital audio on your stereo

Digital music should be a couch potato's dream: Imagine never having to get up and fuss with a CD changer again. Once you load up your computer's hard drive with MP3 music files, you can create playlists of favorite tunes for different moods and set the repertoire for a whole day's worth of listening with a few clicks of the mouse. The problem is, most computers are in the den or home office, not the living room. Do you really want to lounge in the Aeron chair in front of your PC?

Fortunately, there are plenty of options these days for moving digital tunes out of the computer room to the places where you want to hear them, so you can enjoy Dylan, Dizzy, or Debussy right there on the sofa. What you need to figure out is your budget and how in touch you are with your inner geek.

A simple option, and my preferred one, is to hook up a laptop to the stereo. It's not exactly cheap, but it's convenient--and you'll have a spare PC to boot. Network devices that pull songs from your computer and transmit them to your receiver are a close second. They are a relatively inexpensive and elegant solution, but you have to install a home-network setup. If you're on a budget--and like the idea of also being able to take your songs with you on the train or to the beach--connecting a portable MP3 player to your receiver is quick and easy. And if you have more cash to spare, a stand-alone MP3 stereo component that's equipped with a CD player and a hard drive for storing music is great.

The quickest route is probably to buy a separate computer to connect to your receiver. Stick with a laptop. Desktops are cheaper, but most have fans that make too much noise. I used $1,000 laptops from Compaq (CPQ ) and Dell (DELL ). Both worked well, though neither had a particularly good sound card, so the fidelity wasn't the best. You can easily fix that by hooking up an external sound card, such as the Extigy from Creative Labs ($150), which pumps out superclear tunes. Jukebox programs such as MusicMatch or RealOne, which you can download for free from the Internet, provide an easy way to sort through the thousands of MP3s you're likely to end up with once you start recording your CDs to your laptop. That being the case, you'll want a machine with a pretty hefty hard drive. One gigabyte holds about 200 songs, so look for at least 20 GB.

Second in terms of simplicity are the new portable MP3 players with hard drives. The best known of these is Apple Computer's iPod (AAPL ) ($400 to $500), but you need a Macintosh computer to use it. Since I don't have a Mac, I tried the Rio Riot ($400), RCA's Lyra HD ($300), and Creative Labs' $400 Nomad Jukebox 3, all of which sport 20-GB hard drives. The Riot and the Lyra also work with Macs. When I hooked up the portables to my stereo, they all provided amazingly good sound given their diminutive size and weight.

The Riot and the Lyra were a snap to set up and made creating playlists relatively easy. The Nomad was a bit more difficult to configure. It misread the tags--short files with information including song title, artist, and album name--attached to my MP3 files, which made finding the tunes I wanted cumbersome. But it sports a speedy FireWire connector, which lets you transfer songs from your PC up to 30 times faster than you can with the Lyra or the Riot. Once you have the music on the portable, you can run a cable from the headphone jack to the auxiliary input on your stereo. The Lyra and the Nomad also offer "line out" connections, which offer better sound quality.

If you already have a home network or are willing to set one up, you might consider a network device. I tried the AudioTron from Turtle Beach ($300) and the Rio Receiver from Sonicblue (SBLU ) ($169), both of which reach out over a network and transfer the files to your stereo. I hooked the machines up to my existing network, but they also support a new standard that uses your phone wires to easily link the machine to your computer.

Once you have a network in place, the Rio is the easier one to install. I was listening to music in less than half an hour. The AudioTron proved more of a hassle: The instructions weren't very clear, so I needed to make two calls to customer support before I got it running on my network. Both, though, easily streamed any song I wanted from my hard drive and made short work of finding songs and building playlists of favorites.

Anyone who craves simplicity and has the dough to pay for it might think about one of the stand-alone units. I tried Sonicblue's $1,500 Rio Central and Escient's $2,000 FireBall. Both feature CD drives that make transferring songs from your CD collection to the machine's hard drive a breeze, and both let you burn CDs as well. They each have roomy 40-GB hard drives--large enough to cram pretty much all the music you, your kids, and your Uncle Louie are likely to listen to in a year.

I got the Rio Central up and running within 20 minutes of taking it out of the box, and its remote control and small screen on the front made it easy to record CDs, create playlists, shuffle songs, and burn disks. The Fireball is just as simple to use, but you have to hook the machine up to your TV to see your song lists. Since my TV is in another room, that was a hassle.

Hewlett-Packard (HWP ) used to make a $1,000 version of the hard-drive-based player called the de100c, but the company discontinued the model in the wake of its merger with Compaq. That's too bad, because the de100c is a nifty machine that can do much of what the Rio and the FireBall do--at a lower price. If you look hard for the next several months, you probably can find one at a deep discount.

There are plenty of options out there to move your digital tunes to the places where you really want to listen to them. Now, all you have to do is get off the couch and set the whole thing up.

By David Rocks

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.