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Digital Music

Report from CES: A Future Studded with Rhinestones

By Published: January 16, 2005
It seems safe to say satellite radio will catch on. There's something to be said for CD-quality ad-free broadcasts not just of jazz, but of playlists aimed at specific tastes such as fusion, traditional and Dixie. A pretty good crowd lined up to buy portable receivers by XM (the industry leader with 2 million subscribers) for $199 instead of the $350 stores are charging. But they are still stuck paying the same monthly fees of $10 a month or so. A competing player from Xact Communication using Sirius (800,000 subscribers) got its share of attention as well, but questions about both such as inconsistent reception and battery packs that make them far from ideally portable indicate there are wrinkles to iron out.

There's also questions about competing content (XM has exclusive rights to pro baseball and Sirius to pro football, for example) and how many consumers are willing to essentially "rent" music. Xact touts the ability to download and store music on its player, for example, but the files can't be transferred to a computer or other player for permanent playback.

"I think that's a personal choice," said Mark Alford, vice president of Xact, when asked if consumers are likely to accept such restrictions. As for differing content offered by each company, "hopefully we'll have the majority of what they want."

Media centers combining computer, video and audio functions are also gaining momentum, with some companies like HP focusing on products with a more convention component feel instead of a computer-centered one. But the idea of keeping entire audio and/or video collections on a hard drive instead of stacks of discs is nothing new, just part of an evolving technology that still looks to be a step or two from being ready for widespread acceptance.

Among the issues to be resolved are playback quality and copyright protections. The inferior quality of compressed audio like MP3s isn't necessary a huge issue on car stereos, portables and basic home systems, but becomes much more noticeable on high-end home systems. Bill Neighbors, acting CEO of the newly formed Music Engineering And Technology Alliance, said one of the coalition's goals is educating consumers about what requirements are necessary to achieve what industry officials consider quality digital audio.

But even though a coalition statement says its focus is "implementation of optimum standards and practices for the highest quality recording and delivery possible," they don't appear ready to tackle the issue in the online music arena yet.

Cook: Although some fundamental aspects of CES went awry - wireless access for the media was spotty throughout the week, for instance - organizers and sponsors went out of their way to make sure the press was well-fed. Here a chef cooks pasta to order during a vendor preview show before the official opening of the expo.

"I don't think it's appropriate for any of us to talk about a favorite anything," said George Massenburg, chief technical officer and standards committee chair for the group, when asked what he considers a format high enough in quality to meet standards.

It's also pretty clear copyright issues won't be solved anytime soon. The Home Recording Rights Coalition collected several hundred signatures on a petition essentially asking Congress not to pass a law that could eliminate copying of digital music files for personal use, but organizers acknowledged the issues are complex and most signees were most likely agreeing to the general concept than the specifics.

Among the signers was Rodney Stansfield, a Garden Grove, Calif., resident and marketing director for the nonprofit artists' support group . He said he hadn't seen enough of the show to decide if the future trend is encouraging or discouraging, but believes there is considerable possible potential - such as making every recording ever available digitally - that will be realized and needs to be emphasized.

"The technology is always promising," he said. "The holdback is the human mindset to let the technology do what it can do."

So after stampeding with the hoards through what I'd guess is at least 10 miles of exhibit space, I head home with no plans to adjust my multimedia setup in any significant way. Maybe I'm just getting immune to hype, but nothing in all the flash and splash was as exciting as when I first discovered the limitless free collection of public domain concerts and albums at the Internet Archive .

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