Last summer, I began the arduous task of converting my audio CD collection to MP3 format; the process involved inserting CDs one at a time into my PC, running a software program such as Real Jukebox or MusicMatch Jukebox, and ripping audio from the CDs--one song at a time. I stored the songs in digital format on my hard disk, and because of the quality settings I used, each CD album occupies about 50MB of space, for the most part. If you follow a similar process, you'll need a pretty big hard disk, not to mention some sort of backup strategy, to archive your whole CD collection. But when the process is complete, you'll have the beginnings of a digital music collection that can be used in a variety of ways. I say beginnings, because copying music to the PC is only the first step.

But I didn't understand that a year ago. Just copying my hundreds of CDs took time, and I did it, robot-like, in the background while I worked at the computer. A hundred CDs or so into the job, I had to replace my SCSI-based Plextor CD-R drive, which used an annoying caddy system; I think the constant wear on the caddy brought it to an early death. I also had to consider quality and disk-management issues. I decided to rip CDs using a 160Kbps MP3 format, which gave me the quality I needed, although I've since switched to a 128Kbps Windows Media Audio 8 (WMA8) format, which offers similar quality and smaller file sizes. I also organized the ripped audio into an Artist/Album folder hierarchy under a Music folder on my data drive, which satisfied my internal need to be organized.

When the process is completed, you can handle new CD purchases easily enough, of course. But that's when the fun really starts, because now that the audio is on the computer, the possibilities are almost endless. You can play music while you work, of course, but that only applies to time spent on the computer. Unless you're a real computer potato, you'll want to bring your music out of the office. And today, that's surprisingly easy to do.

For home users, SonicBlue, Dell, Gateway, and other companies offer a variety of digital audio receivers (DARs) that connect to your PC using some sort of networking scheme. The Dell DAR I use can connect through Ethernet or a Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) -based network, which lets you use your home's internal telephone lines to make the connection. DARs let you play digital music from your PC anywhere in the house, and they can connect to your existing home stereo through RCA inputs or drive self-powered speakers; the Dell unit offers both connections.

Here's how you set up the system: Install a HomePNA networking card (about $30) on the PC that houses your music collection, and connect the PC to a phone jack with a standard phone cord. Place the DAR (about $300) anywhere in your house; mine is in the dining room, but you might place it with the rest of your stereo components. Then connect the HomePNA jack from the receiver to a phone jack. Now all you need to do is install the bundled software on your PC, scan the PC for music and playlists, and turn on the DAR. You can access your entire CD collection through a home stereo without loading a single disc. The sound quality is excellent, and the onscreen menus make it easy to select the music you want to hear. You can even create theme playlists on your PC and play them through the DAR--perfect for a dinner date or Sunday afternoon pool party.

To bring your digital audio on the road, you can use one of two primary methods. You can record your own audio CDs using the digital music stored on your system, taking advantage of the portable or car-based CD player you might already have. Or you can invest in a good portable digital audio player, such as the SonicBlue RIO or the Iomega HipZIP ($200 to $250). Each choice brings various trade-offs.

Creating your own mix CDs is a great idea if you already have a CD player you can use on the road. Programs such as Windows Media Player (WMP), Real Jukebox, and Easy CD Creator let you create audio CDs that are compatible with other audio CD players. And blank CDs are inexpensive--often less than $1 each. The downside of audio CDs is that they're write-once, which means you can't change the song order or selectively edit the disc after you make it. On the other hand, it's easy to recreate an audio CD, especially if you saved the song list you used during its creation.

Going the portable audio route will cost more, but it's ultimately more flexible. Leading portable audio devices include removable media (e.g., CompactFlash, SD-RAM, or HipZIP cartridges) that let you bring a lot of music with you in a format that's rewritable. So if you get tired of a certain song order or want to replace a music collection, you can do so easily enough. The downside is cost. Portable audio devices are expensive, as are most forms of removable media (with the possible exception of the HipZIP, whose media runs about $15 per 40MB disk). But because most of them don't have any moving parts, you'll also get longer battery life out of most of these devices.

However you decide to share your music collection, remember that the options are almost unlimited. Today, you don't need to be tethered to your PC to listen to your music; you really can bring it with you.

Resources

Dell Digital Audio Receiver
SonicBlue Rio Digital Audio Receiver
HomePNA
Iomega HipZIP
SonicBlue Rio portable audio players
Real Jukebox
MusicMatch Jukebox