Digital Audio Away From the PC
By Jimmy Guterman

(FORTUNE Magazine) – For those of us music fans who don't think in zeros and ones, convergence can be confusing. First we learned to encode music from audio CDs onto our computer hard disks as MP3 files and to download other people's MP3 files from the Internet via Napster. But being music fans, we want to listen to music wherever we are, not just in the room where the computer resides. So we got CD burners to turn our collections of MP3s into disks that we can play on our home or car stereos and portable CD players. And now here comes yet another device, called a digital audio receiver, that lets us play all the MP3 files in our computer on stereo systems in other rooms of the house, using a home networking system.

One of the first of these devices is the Dell Digital Audio Receiver, which costs $299 and is about the size of a cigar box. You don't need a Dell PC for it to work, although you do get a $50 break if you buy it along with a new Dell computer. The Dell receiver can be plugged directly into a stereo system's receiver, or, if you want to hear MP3 music in a room that does not have a stereo, it can stand alone on any desk or shelf with its own pair of speakers. The receiver has its own ten-watt amplifier, so any speakers will do, although Dell will be happy to sell you a pair for an additional $99.

The MP3 files get from the PC to the receiver over the regular phone lines, or, if you're geeky enough to have an Ethernet local area network already in your house, you can use those cables instead of the phone lines.

The music flowing through the phone lines won't prevent you or other family members from using the phone. (Although why you would be talking on the phone while the stereo is blaring is your business.) Either way, you'll need a networking card for your PC. Dell sells the receiver in a bundle with either an Ethernet or a home phone line networking (HPNA) card for $319. There also has to be a phone jack in the room where you want the music.

The audio receiver comes with software that works only with Windows 98SE, ME, and 2000. If you use Windows 95 or 98, or Macintosh or Linux, you are out of luck. The software installs easily. It comes with MusicMatch MP3-management software, although RealJukebox G2 playlists work, as do Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, if you're one of the three people outside Redmond, Wash., who use that format.

Once the card and software are installed, and both the PC and the receiver are connected to telephone wall jacks on the same phone line, voila! All those Backstreet Boys MP3s you downloaded for your kids are now available to the biggest and loudest speakers in the house. Lucky you.

The software on the PC looks for MP3 and WMA files on your hard disk, as well as for associated playlists, and makes them available on the Digital Audio Receiver. A dial on the receiver lets you choose what you want to hear from an LCD display. The display is small, so make sure you label each track precisely and tersely: "Disk 13-Track 02" is not useful information in this context. The random play button is particularly welcome; listening to every song on your playlist in an unexpected order can be like listening to the world's greatest (as far as you're concerned, anyway) radio station.

How does it sound? Not bad. Expect a brief delay getting each track to identify itself and begin playing. When I played music using just the Digital Audio Receiver's optional speakers--with no stereo receiver in between--the songs sounded a bit less sharp, although not enough for me to want to stop listening.

And because you can attach several Digital Audio Receivers to the same in-house network, your PC's hard disk can act as a universal MP3 jukebox for the household: Junior in his room can be pulling his favorite music off your hard disk, your spouse can be cycling her playlists from the same computer through the living room stereo, and you can be at your PC listening to your favorite tunes through the PC speakers. So in this case, digital convergence can lead to a happy divergence. It takes a little work, but what music junkie isn't willing to put in some hard labor to scratch the itch?