Sound bites: Fast Forward: MiniDisc versus MP3 - the audiophile's world just got more complicated.

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Indy Lifestyle Online
At its launch last year the Rio MP3 player - a device to play music downloaded from the Internet - was hailed as the future of music. However, at the same time it was subject to legal attempts to prevent its distribution. Record companies were concerned that, by downloading tracks from the Internet, the Rio would violate copyright and threaten the structure of the music business. The Recording Industry Association of America tried to halt shipment of the Rio in the

States, as pundits proclaimed the death of the traditional record company and the demise of music retailers.

Since then things have calmed down. The Rio is sold in high street shops and the giants of the recording industry are looking into ways to exploit the new technology. The British Phonographic Industry's position is that the recording industry always wants to embrace new technology, but will also vehemently challenge copyright piracy. For their part, the manufacturers of the Rio point out that it has no recording facility and does not permit further copies of tracks to be made. They are involved in an industry working group setting security standards for Internet music delivery.

The Rio utilises MP3 compression, a way to store and handle music files on the Internet. Music is stored on memory chips so it does not require a disc of any sort and there are no moving parts. This means that there is no jumping during playback even when subject to extreme movement and vibration. Currently the Rio has 32Mb of memory, which provides about 60 minutes of digital quality music. It provides 16 hours of voice-quality audio playback, making it useful for books and news broadcasts. Extra Flash memory upgrades of half an hour and one hour are available. Users can either download music from an Internet site on to their PC, before transferring it to the Rio, or they can convert CD tracks into the MP3 format (via the PC) to be played back on the Rio.

But is this the future of music entertainment? Critics point to the quality, which is not always up to scratch compared with other formats, and the limited storage capacity - what do you do with a Walkman that only lasts an hour? Unlike tape, the user cannot take a selection of albums on the road: you are limited to what you have already downloaded on to the Rio. The MP3 format also currently lacks infrastructure. Though in development, there are as yet no players for cars or for assimilation into hi-fi systems. Internet download times are still quite slow: downloading a four-minute song takes about 15 minutes from a legal site, making a trip to the megastore more appealing.

The format currently making the breakthrough is MiniDisc. Originally poorly marketed as a replacement for CDs, MiniDiscs are actually the natural successor to tapes - neat and portable, more practical to take out and about than CDs and harder to damage. Storage capacity is 74 minutes and quality approaches that of CDs. Units are now beginning to appear as standard in hi-fi systems at all levels (anyone looking to upgrade a tape deck should seriously consider MiniDisc). Personal players overcome jumping with anti-shock systems, so it is possible to run and exercise with them.

MiniDisc is probably more practical for most people's needs, but it's still early days for digital compression players. Rather than challenging MiniDisc or CD, music delivery via the Internet offers something different. Though large record labels are mainly interested in the Internet for marketing, some are prepared to put parts of back catalogues on websites. The greatest potential is for independent labels or unsigned bands who have the opportunity to distribute their music widely and cheaply. With faster Internet access and larger memories, it's not difficult to imagine a time when we are all pulling our top tunes off a website

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