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Navigate the Digital Music Scene

Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page M03

Buying digital music can be confusing. On one hand, you have an alphabet soup of acronyms, all referring to varying formats. On the other hand, you have a slew of online retailers, each furiously competing for your hard-earned music dollar. And in the middle, you have an avalanche of players, each of which offer different features and work with different formats.

So what do you do? For starters, you can use this guide to figure out which digital music format is right for you.

Does size matter? Or maybe color? Or is it that you want WMA over AAC? Did that make you go "huh"? Read on . . . (Nate Lankford For The Washington Post)

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There are already multiple choices, all with their own advantages and disadvantages, and companies eager for a slice of the lucrative digital music pie are scrambling to introduce even more. For longevity, stick with the mainstream:

MP3. The good news is all digital music players can play MP3s. The bad news is all MP3s deliver inferior quality (think of the flat sound of radio compared with the rich sound of CDs).

WMA (Windows Media Audio). Not only does this format sound better than MP3, but it does so at a smaller file size, which means you can fit more onto your player. Although it's supported by most players, WMA is not supported by all, including the iPod.

AAC (Advanced Audio Coding). Music in this format, a descendant of MP3, sounds better. Because the only major company supporting AAC is Apple, however, the only major devices that can play it are iPods.


The number of organizations striving to score your cash is changing even faster than the number of digital music formats. To get you started, here are three of the biggest:

MSN Music (www.music.msn.com). Atypical of Microsoft, which tends to stick to middle-of-the-road offerings, MSN Music offers a surprisingly large and interesting mix of artists. The con: no audiobooks. The pro: Because the files are in WMA format, and because most players support WMA, you should have no trouble finding a player you like.

iTunes (www.apple.com/itunes). Offers a broad selection of songs, heavy on pop and rock. But because it insists you load its software to use the store, if you're not using compatible Mac OS X or Windows 2000/XP operating systems, you're out of luck. The pro: a nice selection of audiobooks. The con: The store offers only the Apple-supported AAC format.

Napster (www.napster.com). Remember Napster? Now, instead of helping facilitate free music downloads, it provides music for sale. The pro: With everything from chat rooms to an online magazine, Napster has a nice community feel that the other sites can't match. The con: The quality of the Napster WMA files is lower than that of WMA files from other retailers, such as MSN Music.


The number of digital music players available dwarfs the number of formats and retailers combined. But really, you need consider only three things:

First, get a player that supports the format(s) you want. For example, although the sleek, silver Rio Carbon ($249.99, www.rioaudio.com) doesn't support AAC, it does play MP3, WMA and Audible (audiobook) files.

Second, figure out which features matter to you. For example, iRiver's iFP-790 ($149.99, www.iriveramerica.com) has a built-in radio and voice recording, and can also record from anything you can plug into it, such as your TV.

Finally, consider whether you want nifty extras. For example, Dell's Axim X50v PDA ($499, www.dell.com) is a personal digital assistant as well as a digital music player, so you can listen to MP3 and WMA files while creating documents and surfing the Internet. S.J. Sebellin-Ross

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