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The sound of tomorrow…today

Sure, some audiophiles still cling to analog sound technology, but most headphone-toting beat buffs are drawn to digital tunes. Here’s a sampling of some cool ways to listen.

Cassette tapes and vinyl are going the way of the 8-track. Sure, some audiophiles still cling to analog sound technology, but most headphone-toting beat buffs are drawn to digital tunes. And even CDs are getting passé. Detractors rightly say that low-res MP3 files can ruin good studio recordings, but well sampled digital files don’t get scratched, hissy, or stolen at parties–and you can edit them and take them with you, in ways that your old C90 mix tapes could never aspire to.

Portable digital music players

iPod

It’s smaller than a packet of Cigarillos, lighter than two CDs, and can hold more than 7,000 songs. What’s not to like? The iPod is also a stylish piece of work, with some great extras, such as a “fall to sleep” mode that plays you to dreamland and an alarm clock that jolts you out of it with your favorite tunes. It sports FireWire and USB connections, is compatible with Mac and Windows, and plays MP3s and the more compact Apple format AAC. List price: from $299 (10GB storage) to $499 (30GB).

Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen NX

It’s no iPod, but the Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen has the goods where it counts. It’s a mite heavier and bulkier than the sleek 30GB version of the iPod, but it’s only slightly less stylish. It has a mind-boggling capacity of 60GB (more than the average desktop PC!), and sells for $100 less than Apple’s stylish portable music pack. Does style matter more than substance to you? If not, encode 16,000 songs at 128Kbps and take them on a Jukebox Zen. It won’t take overly long to transfer them, either–the Zen uses a USB 2.0 port to transfer data at 10 times the speed of regular USB. List price: $300 (30GB); $249 (20GB).

Downloadable music

eMusic

Need some music to play on your iPod or burn to your Verbatim CD-Rs? Everyone’s seen ads for Apple’s iTunes–a legal music download service that charges a buck a song for loads of cutting-edge music, and which should now be available for Windows as well as Mac users. But if your tastes are more eclectic than the mainstream offerings at iTunes (or rivals pressplay.com and RealOne Rhapsody), eMusic.com is a great alternative. It provides hundreds of thousands of MP3 songs with no technical copy restrictions, in an eclectic mix of styles from classical to Gothic. True, there are more mainstream tunes available online, but for indie and classical music, this is the place to go. Better yet, the service charges a flat monthly fee for unlimited downloads. Rock on! Price: $9.99 per month (for a year’s commitment); $14.99 per month (three-month commitment)

Sound editing software

Microsoft XP Plus Digital Media Edition

Microsoft’s Plus packs get a bad rap for bundling really useful features that should have been in the operating system, and padding them with fluffy eye-candy features that you don’t need. This is true of the Digital Media Plus pack for Windows XP, but the great features in this $20 download are worth having.

Plus Audio Converter can convert individual files or whole folders full of music (MP3, WAV, or WMA) and convert them to WMA files with volume leveling and your choice of fixed, variable, or lossless compression. In most cases, this crunches files down in size nicely without perceptible loss of quality. There’s also an analog recorder that records tracks from tapes or LPs, processes out the crackles and hiss, splits them into individual tracks, and adds them to a Media Library for Windows Media Player. Sweet! List price: $19.95

Pinnacle Clean Plus

The big promise of PCs with CD-R drives is that you can convert your old tapes and vinyl albums into digital music. But most of us find that even if we have a working turntable, the output is so quiet that it’s next to useless.

And then, of course, there are the scratches and tape hiss of those old recordings. Pinnacle Systems handles all these objections with its Clean Plus package. It provides a quality Steinberg pre-amp to boost the sound signal before it reaches your sound card (the unit draws power from a USB port, but doesn’t use it for data).

And the Clean software takes care of all the usual hiss and crackle problems. It can even compensate for turntables that run a couple of RPMs too slow or fast. The unit uses WAV files, which eat up the hard disk pretty quickly, but you can’t knock the quality. List price: $100.

Cool Edit Pro 2.1

Budding recording stars take note: Whether you’re recording your own band or producing a soundtrack to jam over or put into a movie, Adobe’s Cool Edit Pro 2.1 has you covered. For serious studio work, there’s a 64-track mixing desk, graphical EQ and a slew of groovy effects. It handles any digital audio format, records analog sound through your PC’s line-in or microphone. This and a pair of headphones will keep budding Brian Enos quiet for hours on end–especially if they download free loops from Syntrillium’s Loopology site and start building their own songs. List price: $249.

CD-R media

Verbatim Digital Vinyl CD-R

Everyone’s swapping CD-Rs nowadays, and the discs seem to fall into two categories. They either look like library archives, with lines and boxes for reference numbers, or they’re plain silver. Call us superficial, but the retro vinyl look of Verbatim’s Digital Vinyl CD-Rs just brings a smile to our faces. If you’re giving the gift of downloaded music this year (cheapskate!), for heaven’s sake, put it on one of these discs. If not, give a five- or ten-pack to your favorite CD-R jockey.

They have a 700MB/80-minute capacity, use Super Azo dyes (which have a longer shelf-life and greater UV tolerance than cheaper CD-Rs) and can record at speeds up to 16x. So they look hokey. Big deal. ‘Tis the season of Frosty the Snowman…hokey products fit right in. List price: $10.60 (10-pack, with full jewel cases).

Noise-canceling headphones

Sony Fontopia MDR-NC11

The trouble with listening to music through headphones is the other sounds that creep in–traffic noise, ambient clattering, and the general racket of the outside world. You have to pay a premium for noise-canceling headphones, but it’s worth it. And the only commute-friendly noise-canceling earbud phones we’ve found are Sony’s Fontopia MDR-NC11.

They provide excellent suppression of outside noises in low, midrange, and high frequencies, and played a great range of tones where they count–in the music you’re listening to. And if you shop carefully, you can find these great phones for less than a c-note. List price: $149.95.

Headphones

Skullcandy LINK

Everyone listens to their portable music with earbuds or headphones. But what about that inconvenient moment when the cellphone rings? Instead of tugging off one set of headphones while fumbling with the phone, Skullcandy has a more novel approach–a set of headphones that plugs into your phone and your portable entertainment units. Like many headsets, Skullcandy’s LINK has an inline volume control with a shirt clip on it, but this one also sports a button that picks up your cellphone when it rings. Suddenly, your tunes fade and you’re on the phone, talking into a concealed microphone in the volume control. List price: $29.

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