MP3, perhaps you’ve heard of it? If you haven’t, you surely will in the near future. It’s the new music format that’s causing a stir because it provides high quality music to consumers for free! This month, we take a look at the technology behind this new phenomenon, as well as checking out the first-to-market portable MP3 player that’s breaking new digital ground.
MP3 is actually an audio compression format (like a zip disk) that allows music to be compressed and sent as a computer file. In the past, a CD-quality song could take up as much as 40 megs of drive space, but MP3 has decreased this memory size to three to four megs per song. From the consumer’s perspective, there are three aspects of MP3 that make this product compelling:
* the music is digital-a critical attribute because it dramatically affects sound quality. Digital music formats (i.e. CDs) serve up hiss-free playback, unwavering sound and resounding resonance. High notes are truly high and the lows are as deep as bass drums.
* MP3 introduces music afficionados to new bands from all over the world-this is why so many up-and-coming music groups are taking advantage of the format to gain critical exposure and recording contracts.
* the music is free… at least for the time being.
What makes MP3 truly interesting however, is that it is a youth-driven phenomenon. Because the primary consumers of personal audio equipment are inherently young, and because the recording industry has not yet become involved in pricing music for this new tech, teens are currently the sole force behind the popularization of MP3.
How do consumers collect the songs they want? Simple. They find a Web site to search for a particular genre-a few good picks are 2look4, Kermit, Palavista and MP3.com (the latter being the most popular site by far). A link takes them to one of many sites that supply the music, then they click on the tune of choice and download it. Once they have retrieved all of the songs they want, users can mix and match tunes by dropping and dragging the MP3 computer files. Putting together compilations is lightning quick (incomparibly faster than the using the ubiquitous cassette tape), and you can create new mixes whenever you like.
The one thing that isn’t possible with MP3 however, is transferring music to your home stereo-hence our test of the Diamond Rio portable MP3 player. The Rio has gained a solid reputation as a result of being the first portable MP3 player to market, hitting retail shelves in November 1998. Its ad campaign can be found in youth-oriented music periodicals like SPIN magazine in an effort to focus exclusively on young adults who love music.
As a product, the Rio is amazing. The same size as a pack of playing cards, it will play 12 hours of crystal clear music per battery and hold 60 minutes of sound straight out of the box-not bad when you consider that a typical discman eats Energizers at three to four times that rate.
Sound quality is on par with CDs, but without all the physical bulk of heavy, plastic hardware. In some cases, the sound can actually be superior to that of CDs depending on the quality of the downloaded file. The files we retrieved were phenomenal-crystal clear in reproduction. Additionally the Rio is solid state, with no moving parts to break or reasons for defects. That means that the music never, ever skips. Brilliant.
With all of the good however, inevitably comes the not so good. Getting the songs you want isn’t always easy. Legal MP3s of popular artists are rare, with most accessible offerings recorded by unknown bands. Plenty of tunes from bigger performers like the Spice Girls and Puff Daddy are available, but currently in a bootlegged version, which leads to the next issue…
Regulated content is on the way. Major music distributors are uniting to devise a pay-per-download system to eliminate copyright infringement, and more importantly, the circumvention of traditional distribution channels. Right now, MP3 hubs make little, if any, money from on-line distribution of music, generating far more revenue from Web site banner ads.
Finally, the biggest problem with the MP3 technology is low bandwidth and leisurely machine speed, which, even for file sizes of two to five megs, mean really long downloads. Who likes to wait?
Since its November launch, the Rio has sold upwards of 225,000 units. But at US$199, the portable is not cheap. In fact, it’s quite a bit pricier than its main competition-walkmans and discmans. Additionally, the recording industry could easily kill off the popularity of MP3 by becoming overly involved in the evolution of the product-just look at what happened with Beta, mini-discs and Coke Classic. With its groundbreaking new player, Diamond has eked out a significant advantage. Now we’ll have to sit back and see what unfolds on the market.
Next month: Say cheese as The Cyber Space delves into the latest in digital kid cams.
Greg Skinner is the director of Mina, a market intelligence company with expertise in the youth market. He also admits to being a bit of a World Wide Web junkie. KidScreen asked him to do some browsing on our behalf and report on the latest developments in new media and how these innovations are having an impact on the kids entertainment industry. He is still at it. If you have any suggestions or ideas for topics you’d like to see in ‘The Cyber Space,’ please contact Greg Skinner at 416-504-6800 (phone), 416-504-4054 (fax) or firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail).