Hardware

Peripherals - Sounds systems

Listening to digital music - the speakers

So you want to know what is a good speaker to buy for your computer when listening to quality digital music?

For music lovers wanting to listen to their favourite music in the best way possible, we recommend visiting the music studio direct or standing in front of a quality stereo system with BOSE speakers. We say this because no computer with their tiny inbuilt speakers (or even most external speakers) can properly reproduce the quality of digital music on a CD.

"But I've got a quality amplifier and headphones that can plug straight into my computer!" Well, that's much better.

When buying a good pair of speakers for your computer, look for quality brand names like Sony with built-in low-noise amplifiers. These will reduce inherent noise to its absolute minimum while maximising the frequency range of sounds to help give you a much richer and better experience of the music and sounds you wish to listen.

Enhancing your sound experience on a laptop

Now that companies like Apple prefer to drop stereo microphone jacks (or make recording very poor in the latest models) and in providing fairly lousy amplifiers in laptops, a company named Creative has released a PCMCIA sound card for PC laptops known as Audigy 2 ZS Notebook. As of March 2005, the price of A$369 is considered slightly expensive. But you do get "THX-certified playback, Dolby Digital and DTS-ES audio-encoding, 24-bit output for DVD-Audio, and full 7.1 surround sound". Many different sound formats are supported and the quality of the sound is exceptionally good for a sound card.

Recording sound to your hard disk is just as easy. Quality of the recording is excellent with virtually no noise and an extremely clear sound.

Playing digital music - the MP3 player

We hear you want to jog around the street and listen to your music at high quality? Consider an MP3 player (and not your laptop please!). MP3 players have no moving parts meaning they won't skip or jump like tape and CD players. Furthermore, they are extremely compact while pumping out a very high quality sound.

Choice of MP3 players is endless. The latest Apple iPod nano remains a popular choice for consumers, especially after the company has improved the plastics to the point where you won't need to worry too much about scratching it. Or some mobile phones and PDAs will come equipped to play high quality MP3 music whenever you need a break from greedy manufacturers and a demanding boss.

MP3 players of the hard disk variety

There are also available on the market a few portable MP3 players with built-in hard disks (roughly 6GB) or tiny drives designed to read the small Iomega PocketZip disks (roughly 40MB each). While the idea of storing MP3 music on a 6GB hard disk sounds pretty tempting, you should remember they are not cheap. Expect to pay around A$700 for the player, and they are not that small to jog around as well (although ideal on the road if it comes with a car adapter kit like the Creative Labs DAP JukeBox). As for the smaller PocketZip disk drive units, they are fine for the music-happy jogger. Expect to pay around A$500 for one of these little blighters.

MP3 players - with or without the hard disk?

Our recommendation for true longevity is to stick to the MP3 players with no moving parts and with quality construction and connection ports. And that means going for the players with built-in RAM. While they may be limited in how much music can be stored on them at the moment, if you wait long enough, the price of the RAM will go down further and soon the players will be able to store up to 10GB of solid music (and certainly more than enough music to help you run an Olympic marathon several times over!).

Sound editing software

Have the music companies been chasing you lately for all those illegal MP3 music files you have been downloading? Thought you might like to create your own music instead?

There is a good piece of software to help you digitise, clean up, add special effects (eg reverbs), multitrack, combine, and play/burn sounds and music all in one professional package. The Cakewalk SONAR 3.1 Producer Edition for A$1,195 and the sibbling Cakewalk SONAR 3.1 Studio Edition for A$895 have just been released as of June 2004 with a major overhaul of its interface and many great features. The interface is so good, you will find it incredible intuitive and simple to use.

For the low down on this great product, considered by experts to be comparable to the superb Steinberg Cubase, visit http://www.cakewalk.com/.

Video iPods and TV tuner USB sticks

Now that music and movies are inextricably linked in our digital age, it is possible to download what are known as podcasts. This is the downloading of snippets of audio and/or video information from various online sources to your video iPod and watching it in your own time in the comfort of any position (now there's a thought for all those older couples wondering how to spark up their sex life!).

Dare we say it, we don't recommend video iPods for listening and watching video music clips as you run a marathon as you might not see what you are doing.

Seriously though, you may find at some point the need to expand your music listening and watching to include news and your favourite television programs. To this end you may be interested to know that there are small USB sticks with built-in TV tuners capable of receiving free-to-air television programs. Interesting to see if one of these doovy-lackies can be plugged into a video iPod!

Apple users may be pleased to know there is an excellent TV tuner USB stick called the Miglia TVmini USB 2.0 SD/HD Digital TV-Mac (MLH007) for A$199.95 inc GST as of November 2006 (at http://zytech.com.au/). Comes with a powerful and easy-to-use EyeTV software for viewing and recording TV programs in high digital quality. Infra-red remote included (in case you are not already overwhelmed by remotes — you lucky devil). With EyeTV, you set the time for recording and the software will save TV programs as files to the hard disk (e.g. 2-hour programs may use up 7GB of space unless you decide to tell EyeTV to save with video compression using file formats such as Xvid and DivX as standard). Nice! Only requires a G4 PowerPC with 500MHz processor or higher to run this product.

Quality of the pictures in viewing and recording mode is excellent — it has to be for the price. You can buy cheaper TV Tuner USB sticks such as the Pinnacle PCTV USB Stick for US$169.95, but recording quality and/or viewing quality will be sacrificed. At $259.95, you do get a decent quality picture in both viewing and recording mode.