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Where to Find Online Audio Content

5 of 8 in Series: The Essentials of Accessing Digital Content for Home Theaters

Downloading online music instead of buying a CD at a store is pretty convenient, but music isn't the only audio content you can find online. Audio book and free Internet radio are also available. Audio preceded video in terms of Internet portals, largely because audio content could be listened to via dial-up Internet connections (due to the much smaller file sizes).

Some of the most popular online audio content providers include:

The pricing and options for these services change rapidly, so it's tricky to describe the services in detail. Instead, here's some advice about how to find the best service to match your needs:

  • Number of songs: The bigger services offer more choices — it’s as simple as that. If you are concerned about the variety and depth of content, you should be aware that there is a big variance in the number of songs — and the number of songs from high-profile artists — each service makes available. Big services such as iTunes, Rhapsody, and Amazon.com’s MP3 store have many millions of titles.

    In general, the wider your tastes, the more you want to go with the larger services. But smaller services (by comparison) such as eMusic have a lot of interesting music too — and may offer independently produced content that the big guys don’t have.

  • Flexibility in use: If you want to own all your own tracks and movies and have no problem limiting your player choice to iPod models, iTunes is a great option for you. It’s simple, has an extensive catalog, is leading the pack with video purchase options, and allows things such as sharing over your LAN and on multiple PCs. The downside of iTunes is that you can’t play your iTunes-purchased music or video on alternate players, set-top boxes, and so on — only Apple’s own Airport Express will play iTunes Music Store-purchased songs remotely.

    On the other hand, if you go with the more widely accessible Microsoft Windows Media Audio-based systems, you open up your entire home to a range of players, set-top boxes, and other platforms to access your digital content. The most flexible, for music at least, are Amazon.com and eMusic, which do not use any sort of DRM system, so you can use them on anything that plays the MP3 format.

  • Quality desired: Digital content has a range of quality as well, mostly based on the encoding sampling rate used. None of the online digital content services store content in a lossless fashion, so all of them end up compromising the original recordings to some extent. You can truly notice a difference between tracks encoded at 128 Kbps, 160 Kbps, and 192 Kbps, for instance. You do trade off the amount of music you can store on your player, though, because the file sizes are larger for higher sampling rates.

  • Try before you buy: If you like to try out lots of new bands and watch all the new indie movies, you should look at subscription services because you can listen and watch to your heart’s content and buy what you like. If you go the download route, you’ll buy a lot of content you end up not liking — and that’s simply a waste of money.

  • “On the go” services: If you are constantly downloading your content and then hitting the road, you need to look at the available to-go services, such as Napster To Go and Rhapsody To Go, which package their subscription services. For about the cost of a CD each month, you can grab your music player, download anything in their full catalog, and hit the road. Only specific music and video players are supported, so check their sites.

If you like audio books, check out Audible.com for audio content you can download to your portable music player. Also, if you like Internet radio, be sure to check out the following Internet radio hosting or search sites for cool stations:

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