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Building a Better CD Player--MP3 and CD Playback

Robert A. Starrett

March 2000 | The compact disc player has been called the most successful consumer electronics product in history. Surely, it has made the handling and storage of music easier and given us quality sound, although some will say at a price (for content) higher than necessary. As technology marches on, the CD player is now becoming a more versatile machine. It not only plays Red Book tracks from music CDs, but has additional capabilities like the ability to display information on CD-Text discs. But the biggest change we will soon see in the compact disc player is its ability to play files, in the form of MP3 or perhaps other compressed formats.

It is no understatement that the MP3 (MPEG-1-Layer 3) audio file format has taken the music world by storm. To gain some sense of the popularity of the leading Internet music format consider that a recent PC Data poll found that the radio and the Internet locked almost even (38 percent to 36 percent) as the place music fans look to hear new songs first. And it is not an overstatement to say that MP3 will outlast and beat down every new compressed or secure music file format that lays claim to the wide territory that MP3 has so quickly established. The record industry's Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) seems even less likely to take hold. Its promise of a format and portable players by Christmas was so unrealistic as to be laughable. SDMI is generally seen now as the Divx of the audio world. Liquid Audio, Yamaha VQ, a2b Music, and all other pretenders have failed to gain anything that could be considered market share, and their future is uncertain at best. This Christmas, the hot audio gadget of the year will be the portable MP3 players available from many manufacturers, including Diamond Multimedia, Creative Labs, and RCA. But next Christmas, the hot audio item will be the hybrid CD/MP3 home and portable player.

While few have gone so far as to convert all their tunes to MP3s on hard disk or CD-ROM, and sell their disc collections to the used CD store, Compact Disc and MP3 are a perfect match. With a compression ratio of about 10:1 and no loss of quality to any but the finest "ears," (quality depending on the source of the compression) the compact disc can hold hundreds of songs at a listenable 128kbps and hundreds more at lesser rates. It is also suitable for spoken word works, where the compression ratio can reach 24:1 with excellent quality for the intended purpose. With the capabilities of current ripping and encoding software, and the speed, low cost, and versatility of today's CD-R/RW drives, such a move may not be far away, nor will such activity be as far out as it first appears.

THE HYBRID CD/MP3 PLAYER

What is a hybrid CD/MP3 player? In its ultimate form, it will look like the Audio CD player that you have today. And it will cost little, if any, more dollars than you would pay today for an audio player or changer. Sixty-nine dollars is currently the going rate for a five-disc changer from Philips/Magnavox. You can save another ten bucks if you skip the Philips badge and opt for a Symphonic. What's in a name here? Not much--compare the two side by side--they are the same unit. If this prediction seems a little odd, suggesting that MP3 functionality will be added to CD players for little additional cost--especially considering the high prices of the portable MP3 players--we need merely look at the technology necessary to build such a player. When MP3 started heating up, more than one hobbyist pulled out his toolkit and began to build the ultimate music machine: one that could play thousands of songs on command, the capacity being only limited by one's hard drive budget. But what the hobbyist initially made as a novelty is far different in configuration and cost than what will ultimately come off the mass production lines in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.

It's easy enough to turn your PC into an MP3 jukebox. Just download WinAmp or any of the dozens of other MP3 players, download MP3s from the internet, or rip them from your current CDs. Put them in a subdirectory (or several), set up a playlist, plug your sound card output into your home stereo input, and play away. Now this is simple enough, but hobbyists like things a little more integrated, something without the bulk of a monitor and keyboard that you could place in your stereo component rack, and something that would not have you tripping over a hundred-foot cable every time you went for a beer.

HOBBYISTS AND SMALL SHOPS

The hobbyist box consists of a motherboard, a hard drive, a sound card, memory, a power supply, an LCD display, and operational buttons to replace the monitor and keyboard. The operating system is generally Linux, because it is easy for the programmer to manipulate, and free software and source code, like the Xaudio SDK for MP3 decoding, are widely available. These devices are functional, but bulky and overkill also describe this approach. While fine for the hobbyist, a commercial CD/MP3 player would need to be more in keeping with a stereo component than with a computer that looks like a stereo component. Price, obviously, is a main concern. Using a complete computer sans keyboard, monitor, and mouse to play MP3 files is fine for home brew, but too expensive for a consumer electronics item. Commercially available players from Vertical Horizons (Eclectic), NetDrives (Brujo), ReQuest (AudioRequest), and Terratec (m3po) range in price from $129 to $799. Some of the price differential between the different systems reflects features, but one of the main differences in price disparity is, surprisingly, whether the unit uses a CD-ROM drive or a CD Audio mechanism. Although CD-ROM drives are cheap, CD Audio transports are even cheaper. The Eclectic uses an audio transport mechanism. Selling at $129.99, it is easy to see why major manufacturers could price these players well below the $100 mark. Perhaps topping out the hybrid lineup in functionality and in price is Princeton Disc's CDXpress PLUS ($1,599-$2,399), which not only plays CDs and MP3 discs, but also copies them, allows recording at speeds from real-time to 8X from digital and analog sources, and incorporates a hard drive that lets you produce compilation CDs all in one standalone unit. [See Peter Schworm's review, August 1999, pp. 57-99--Ed.] These hybrid players can obviously be based on a CD-ROM drive. The latter has all the necessary capabilities: read and play Red Book audio and read and play files (MP3). These drives need not be top-of-the-line readers, while all reading of standard CD-Audio discs is of course done at 1X in accordance with the Red Book spec. Any speed higher than 10X to 12X should be sufficient for reliable readback of MP3 files. Net Drives' Brujo uses a 36X drive.

The second component needed to create a hybrid unit is an MP3 hardware decoder and a controller for the CD-ROM drive. The front panel must have several controls at the minimum: Play, Stop, Next, Previous, and Eject. The whole setup works like this: You push Eject to open the drive tray. This function is accomplished by wiring the external Eject button into the CD-ROM drive itself, or implemented in the controller, sending the Eject command over the IDE cable. When you insert a CD Audio disc, the CD-ROM drive recognizes it as such and can begin playing it, much like the autoplay function on a computer. Previous, Next, Stop, and Play functions are passed from the front panel switches to the controller, and from there to the CD-ROM drive through the data cable. Output from the CD-ROM drive is taken from the rear jack of the drive--the one you would normally connect to your sound card--and passed through the controller to the RCA output jacks on the back of the unit. The power supply can be either internal or external, but in either case, there is no need for a fan as internal heat generation is minimal.

When you insert an MP3 disc (that is, a data disc with many MP3 files recorded or stamped onto it), the CD-ROM drive recognizes it as a data disc, again, much like the autoplay function on a computer. The next step for the drive and controller is to scan the disc and determine the directory structure and number of files on the disc. Some hybrid players also support M3U (WinAmp) playlists, and will find and follow them. Once the structure and existence of MP3 files and playlists are known, the number of tracks can be displayed, and the playlists can be displayed on the LCD screen. The player is now ready to read the files and play them by decoding the MP3 files through the controller containing the decoding chip. Hook the unit up to your stereo and play away, 100 to 200 songs per disc.

THE THREE-MONTH PARTY

This, of course, brings to mind even larger units, changers with massive music quantities. Since a CD-Audio mechanism is adaptable to MP3 reading, a 200- or 300-disc changer could easily be modified to read MP3 data files, resulting in an unbelievable 45,000 songs available online in a jukebox that costs $300 or so. Translate that to hours of music and you can stay on the couch long enough to starve to death. At three minutes a tune, that's a little over three months of music.

BIG-PLAYER PLAYERS: PORTABLES, YES--HYBRIDS, NO

Translate taht to hours of music and you can stay on the couch long enough to starve to death. At three minutes a tune, that's a little over three months of music.
While CD/MP3 players are being released by smaller companies like Vertical Horizons, NetDrives, and others, the major consumer electronics manufacturers have yet to take the plunge. Implementation is easy enough, with an exciting chassis easily able to hold the additional electronics or, in the case of a ROM-based player, the CD-ROM drive. The reason for the silence on the part of the major component manufacturers can only be speculation: some have associations with record labels; others are surely slowed by their sheer size. But the reason we have not even seen announcements from Sony, Pioneer, Panasonic, Kenwood, and the others is elusive. Even some of the more likely candidates like Goldstar and Samsung have been quiet on the hybrid player front.

Whatever motives, policies, or practices that have precluded hybrid announcements, however, have not prevented major manufacturers like Philips, Matsushita, Toshiba, and Sony from announcing portable MP3 players. Sony will likely use its own Memory Stick technology in its digital Walkman. Less expensive than flash storage, this, along with a big ad campaign, will make Sony a player in the portable market. Philip's announcement promised a portable player by first quarter 2000--SDMI-compliant, of course. Matsushita's player will reportedly play only its own format, surely dooming it to early failure, despite the fact that it is apparently working with Universal and BMG in a venture to allow the downloading of some of those catalogs.

VALUE TO BE ADDED?

With DVD Audio in turmoil, and its timing now uncertain because of the cracking of the Content Scrambling System (CSS) on DVD Video, manufacturers have a perfect opportunity to enhance the audio capabilities of DVD players by adding MP3 capability. When something innovative and easy to implement is available, those who take advantage of it are likely to do better than those who do not. Given all the bad publicity that DVD has had over its lifetime, new capabilities in the players would be a shot in the arm. Imagine an MP3 DVD-ROM: with 27 or so times the capacity of a CD-ROM, you are talking about discs that hold 4,000 songs. There has got to be a place for something that awesome.


Will There Be a Market

While the record industry is unlikely to take any clues from a company like mp3.com (If it had, it would be making tons of money online by now), there is a lot to be said for the form of the CDs that are delivered by that company. When you order a Digital Automatic Music [DAM] CD from mp3.com, you get not only the Red Book tracks that you requested, but you also get each file in MP3 format on the data portion of the CD. Included, too, is a copy of the WinAmp MP3 player, just to make sure you have everything you need to play the CD on your CD player or on your computer.

Is there a market for the record companies to sell enhanced CDs like this, to give its customers more material, more flexibility, more value? Could the record companies improve their image by making things easier instead of harder? Would they even think of releasing the entire Bob Dylan collection on one CD as MP3 files? Unlikely. The recording industry's trade association, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), has tried everything but joining in to avoid innovation in the digital distribution of music. Last year's failed suit against Diamond Multimedia's RIO portable player gave them more bad publicity than they could buy, and their misguided "educational" efforts on their SoundByting site are laughable. Better that they wait for DVD-audio to try such a project. Then they will be so far behind that they will never catch up to the reality of compressed music and digital distribution.

As hybrid CD players become common, if they don't adjust their distribution approach, the recording industry will likely fail to take advantage of the versatility that these players offer. They will soon be complaining again that sales of 10-track discs at $16.99 are falling, and that piracy, MP3, recorders, media, and their crooked customers are all to blame. Hopefully, some of the smaller labels and indies will catch on and release MP3-laden discs, with or without audio tracks at a reasonable price.


Companies Mentioned in This Article

BayCom Hard- und Software GmbH
Johannes Kneip, Bert-Brecht-Weg 28 30890 Barsinghausen; ++49-5105 585050; Fax ++49-5105 585060; oscinfo@oscar-mp3.de; http://www.oscar-mp3.com/baycom.html

Corporate Systems Center
3310 Woodward Avenue, Santa Clara, CA 95054; 408/330-5538; Fax 408/969-2655; sales@corpsys.com; http://www.corpsys.com

McPower USA, Inc.
560 S. Melrose St., Placentia, CA 92870-6327; 714/993-6970; Fax 714/993-6023; GPELECT@aol.com; http://www.macpower.com.tw/Content/ main.htm

NetDrives
227 Cherry Street, Ithaca, NY 14850; 888/556-5650; Fax 607/272-5626; info@netdrives.com; http://www.netdrives.com

Princeton Disc Company, Inc.
600 Bay Avenue, Point Pleasant Beach, NJ 08742; 800/426-0247, 732/892-5655; Fax 732-6186; 74037.1310@compuserve.com; http://www.pricetondiskette.com

ReQuest Inc.
435 2nd Avenue, NY 12182; 518/237-5423; Fax 630/214-8485; vasqus@developrequest.com; http://www.audiorequest.com/home.html

TerraTec ProAudio, Inc.
176 Oxford Road, Fern Park, FL 32730; 407/331-4002; Fax 407/331-8239; info@terratec-us.com; http://www.terratec.net/ttus/sales/welcome.htm

Vertical Horizon, Inc.
12646 Hoover Street, Garden Grove, CA 92841; 714/373-9266; Fax 714/373-6987; info@evhi.com; http://www.evhi.com/html/page51.htm

Visual System One
http://www.visualsystem.com


Robert A. Starrett (bobs@cdpage.com) is a contributing editor for EMedia, co-columnist for The CD Writer, and an independent consultant based in Denver, Colorado. He is the co-author of CD-ROM Professional's CD-Recordable Handbook.

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