Where do I get music?
Back when the cassette Walkman ruled the portable audio domain, you didn＊＊t have to seriously think about whether your player would play the music you bought. And when the first widespread digital format (the compact disc) was introduced, consumers faced relatively minor compatibility issues; you had to buy a CD player but could record cassette mixes from CDs without a lot of hassle. With an MP3 player, you have to consider where your music is coming from to ensure your device will play your music. Here＊＊s what you need to know about music compatibility.
Where＊＊s it coming from?: Existing music on your computer / Compact discs /Vinyl/cassettes
Online music stores / Subscription-based music services / P2P networks /
Existing music on your computerIf you＊＊ve already ripped and/or downloaded lots of music, choose a player that supports the format(s) you＊＊re already storing. If it＊＊s MP3, you＊＊re OK with any player, but rarer formats are supported by only certain devices. When you＊＊re reading one of our MP3 player reviews, check out the Features or Specs tab to find out which formats the device takes.
Fix up your music collection
Compact discsIf all of your music is still on CDs, you can buy just about any MP3 player since you＊＊ll first need to convert your discs to MP3, WMA, OGG, or one of the other formats mentioned earlier. Normally, the necessary software is included with the player, but if not, try Musicmatch. You＊＊ll typically use that software to organize the music files, set up various playlists, and transfer music to your device.
Online music storesHere＊＊s where it gets really tricky. If you plan on buying music downloads from an online music store such as the iTunes Music Store or Napster, you need to make sure your player will work with the formats offered. In an ideal world, you＊＊d be able to play any legally purchased music on any MP3 player, but due to format wars and DRM (Digital Rights Management), that＊＊s not possible. If you know you＊＊re going to buy tunes online, you＊＊ll first have to select a store you like, then a player that supports the store. The general rule of thumb is that iPod players support songs purchased from iTunes, Zune players support Zune MarketPlace, and pretty much everything else (mostly known as PlaysForSure devices) supports WMA stores such as Rhapsody and Napster. A handful of stores--eMusic, LiveDownloads, and Audio lunchbox--sell songs in the always-unprotected (and universally compatible) MP3 format.
One important note: Digital audio devices sometimes support the unprotected version of a certain codec but not the secure version. For instance, some MP3 players play normal, unprotected WMAs that you create from your own CDs but not the secure WMAs sold by online music stores such as Napster, Rhapsody, Yahoo Music, and so on. On the plus side, the music industry is starting to show an inclination to sell more unprotected formats online. For example, EMI has already agreed to sell DRM-free AAC files through iTunes. These files can then be played on, say, the Microsoft Zune, which supports AAC files, but only if they are unencumbered by DRM.
The files sold by these stores come with usage restrictions that commonly limit playback to three computers and stop you from mass-producing burned mixes. These restrictions can cause device compatibility problems, but the trade-off for consumers is that those safeguards make the labels comfortable enough to license their songs to online stores.
Subscription-based music servicesImagine legally filling up your MP3 player with endless gigabytes of tunes from an online music store and paying less than the price of a CD. How is this possible? Well, you＊＊re not actually buying the tracks; instead, you＊＊re renting them in an all-you-can-eat scenario for a monthly subscription fee. Sounds attractive, no? Welcome to the fresh new world of the on-the-go music subscription service. For more information, check out our guide to on-the-go music subscription services.
P2P networksMost tunes available on file-sharing networks (also called peer-to-peer or P2P networks) are already in the MP3 format, so there are no compatibility issues in this situation. Since someone else did the encoding, however, the audio quality of files on these services varies. Also, the legality of these sites is seriously questionable, so there＊＊s a risk of getting in trouble with the RIAA, which could lead to hefty fines or even jail time.
Vinyl/cassettesIf you have lots of music on vinyl, cassettes, or even 8-tracks, you can record it on to your computer, turn the files into MP3s, then transfer those to any MP3 player. In order to simplify the process, consider buying a player that has line-in recording and allows you to encode MP3s directly from your stereo. If your stereo has a digital optical output and you want to record MP3s this way, make sure to find a player that has a digital optical input; this will preserve sound quality during the recording process. If there＊＊s no digital optical output on your stereo, any player with an analog input will do. If you end up with a player that lacks line-in recording, visit our Weekend Project for digitizing LPs and cassettes.