Feel the Burn
We like the idea of being able to record CDs, but the potential trauma of installing a disc burner in the PC almost put us off the idea entirely. The Iomega Predator CD-RW ($269.99, J&R Music World, 21-23 Park Row; Circuit City, Union Square) eliminates the anxiety: It's an external drive that quickly hooks up through a USB (or FireWire or PCMCIA) connection. Unlike similar products, it's a worthy companion to even the sleekest machine (yeah, it's iMac-compatible). It comes with software that not only lets you put MP3s onto CD-R or CD-RW discs but also backs up hard-drive-hogging multimedia files, like digital photo albums.
Kind of Blue
The new Sonic Blue RioVolt Digital Audio Player ($169.99, J&R Music World) looks like any other portable disc player -- only it has the extra brainpower needed to read MP3-encoded discs. What this means, basically, is that it can switch back and forth between standard music CDs and CD-R discs with digital music (in either MP3 or Windows Media Audio format). Even if you have no interest in downloading music, you can use a CD-RW drive (like the Iomega Predator, above) to "rip" and compress up to twenty hours worth of tunes on a single CD-R disc the Sonic Blue can play. How's that for smart?
MP3 players are unlikely to get any smaller than the new Panasonic SV-SD75 ($399.99, J&R Music World), simply because it's not much bigger than what's inside it: a single rechargeable AAA battery and a memory card. An extra 64MB card is included, along with a card reader that quickly hooks up to your computer through a standard USB connection, so you never actually have to tether the SV-SD75 to your desk to load it up with music. And the XBS (extra bass system) gives a nice boost to compressed tracks that otherwise might sound a little tinny.
Napster has had its legal problems, but the verdict on online music is that it's here to stay. So if you couldn't tell the difference between a ripper and an encoder if your Elvis Costello LPs depended on it, you need Listen.com's "Beginner's Guide," a no-nonsense tutorial that shows you how to find, download, and play music. It even includes a glossary to spare you the embarrassment of saying "EMI" when you mean "SDMI." Listen.com can also help you find up to a million downloadable songs -- by everyone from the Backstreet Boys to the Beatles. If you're searching for something specific, try Lycos's MP3 search engine, at music.lycos.com/ downloads. You can search the database by artist or genre (show tunes, anyone?), or try the "independent" area for unsigned acts.
For a more indie vibe, try Insound.com, an online store for "Indiemogaragepunknoiselectronic+essentials" that features a rotating roster of downloadable songs. Up your street cred by downloading tracks by Spanish hardcore band Aina, or "icy post-punk" riffs from the band Gwen Mars.
If all you need is digitized Madonna, you can go to Amazon.com and click on "free downloads" for a menu of chart-toppers from Smashing Pumpkins to Emmylou Harris. It's no harder than waiting for a new CD to arrive in the mail.