Tech Toys Guide: Digital Audio and Music

This year was the year of legal online music services, with Apple's trend-setting iTunes Music Store leading the way, particularly considering the belated release of a Windows-compatible version in October. Of course, iTunes isn't the only game in town; Dell, MusicMatch, Napster 2.0, Rhapsody, and other services are currently available, and many more are on the way. But iTunes' ease of use and friendly Digital Rights Management (DRM) terms make it more palatable than most. You can even purchase iTunes gift certificates ($20 to $200) for your friends—possibly the ultimate gift for any music lover.

The Apple iPod is still the world's most elegant portable digital audio player, and it now ships in 10GB ($300), 20GB ($400), and 40GB ($500) versions for both Macs and PCs. (The same models work on both systems, a major change from last year.) Skip the 10GB model, however: The two higher-end models include valuable add-ons you don't get with the 10GB model, including a handy dock with true line-out, a wired remote control, and a surprisingly nice carrying case with a belt clip. Otherwise, all iPod models are virtually identical, with an elegant no-moving-parts scroll wheel, the simplest UI in the business, and compatibility with MP3 and Protected AAC (which songs purchased from the iTunes service use).

Let's take a look at some of 2003's most exciting tech toys:
PDAs
Cell Phones/Smart Phones
Digital Audio and Music
Digital Photography
Digital Video & Movie Making
Wireless Technologies
Cool Mobile Technologies
TV/PC Integration
Input Devices, Game Controllers, and PC Games
Video and Computer Games

Most iPod users will need some accessories, which make excellent gifts. Windows-based iPod users might not have the FireWire connector necessary to connect the iPod to the PC, so you can get a FireWire Adapter Card ($20-50, various manufacturers), or Apple's iPod Dock Connector to FireWire and USB 2.0 Cable ($20), which works with the USB 2.0 ports on most PCs. For car use, consider the Sony CPA-9C Car Cassette Adapter ($20) or Griffin's iTrip ($35), which plays music through your car stereo's FM radio. Belkin also offers two intriguing iPod add-ons, the iPod Voice Recorder ($50), which lets you record memos, lectures, interviews, or conversations on your iPod, and the iPod Media Reader ($100), which lets you back up images from a digital camera to your iPod.

After 2 years on the market, however, the Apple iPod isn't the only game in town. We're finally starting to see some viable competition from the PC market, which includes support for the popular Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 format. Chief among the PC alternatives is the excellent Dell Digital Jukebox (DJ), which ships in 15GB ($200) and 20GB ($300) versions. Weighing just 7 ounces and featuring a unique scroll wheel that many people find less finicky than Apple's, the DJ utilizes USB 2.0 out of the box and features 16 hours of battery life—more than double that of the iPod.

Another interesting hard disk-based portable audio player is the Digital Networks Rio Karma ($400), a diminutive but expensive unit that offers 20GB of storage space in a tiny 5.5-ounce package. The Rio is a good bet for those who consider size a primary concern, but the price and the tiny pointing stick for navigation are questionable. Still, the device is worth your attention.

If you find hard disk units too expensive, check out the many solid-state portable audio players, which have come down in price as their capacities have risen. The most interesting of these players are the Rio Nitrus ($200), a 1.5GB unit with USB 2.0 compatibility, and the Creative MuVo MX, an ultra-light MP3/WMA player, removable USB storage drive, and voice recorder that's not much bigger than a standard USB memory fob. Available in 128MB ($125) and 256MB ($165) sizes, the MuVo MX is perhaps the smallest portable audio player available.

Gift-giving audio lovers should consider blank audio CDs (from a variety of manufacturers) or headphones, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The hottest headphone category is the noise-canceling variety, a wonderful gift idea for frequent travelers. The best of these is Bose's QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Canceling Headphones ($300), which offer a full over-the-ear design and fold up into a small travel-size package. If full-size headphones aren't your thing, take a look at the tiny Sony MDR-NC11 Noise Canceling Fontopia Ear-Bud Headphones ($99), which give you 60 hours of use out of one AAA battery.

Finally, no digital music fan should be without a digital audio receiver, which can take your PC-based music collection and move it into your living room. The best digital audio receiver is still the Turtle Beach AudioTron 100 ($265), which is compatible with WMA and MP3 audio and connects to your Windows network via Ethernet.

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