Freaked out by music on the move

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WHEN I was a kid, my best friend’s father had the most amazing stereo system. The cabinets seemed to have been built personally by Chippendale, the record deck by Brunel, and I hated it. His small record collection contained nothing but light classical, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and a series of stereo test recordings. I do not think he actually liked music.

Today, he would be a serial purchaser of portable sound systems, appealing to him both as a gadget freak and a hi-fi buff. In his pocket would be an Apple iPod, today’s most sought-after music player.

As with all recent portable music devices, the iPod is a direct descendant of the compact disc player. Both replay sounds that have been digitised into a string of numbers. A CD player reads that data using a laser and turns it into music. The fact that the music data is stored on a CD is simply a matter of convenience; it could equally well be on a computer’s hard disk, tape, or any other type of memory.

Storage, nowadays, is much cheaper than it used to be and, more importantly, methods have been developed to compress music files so that they take up less space with little loss of quality. The best-known compression technologies are MP3, Apple’s AAC and Microsoft’s WMA.

Music players store these files and decode them. Usually you need a computer, either to download the music from the internet or to convert CD tracks, a process known as "ripping". Then it is just a matter of transferring the tunes to the player, generally with a USB cable.

Currently, the most desirable players, such as the iPod, use a hard disk to store music. The main advantage of these is that you can fit your entire CD collection on a single device. The downside is that they are relatively expensive, at about 300.

A cheaper alternative is to use a portable CD player that recognises MP3 and other formats. These players cost as little as 40, PC CD writers are 30 upwards and blank CDs as little as 20p, each of which will hold at least ten hours of music. Incidentally, many people do not realise that most DVD players will also play MP3s.

Almost all other portable music players use some form of "flash" memory, which can be designed or combined into a virtually infinite variety of devices. Many are tiny, such as the MuVo which, for just over 100, stores the equivalent of at least four CDs in a device no bigger than a packet of chewing gum.

Gadgets such as these have no moving parts, which means great battery life and the music will not jump as you bounce around the gym. Some mobile phones include music players.

The great benefit here is that the music cuts out when you receive a call, and it means one fewer gadget to carry around. Unfortunately, in my experience, it is not a mix that works particularly well.

What I find is a far more useful combination is the Sanyo Digital Talkbook, a voice recorder that uses MP3 files instead of tape. It has a built-in USB plug, so interviews or dictation can be transferred straight to a PC.

These files can then be e-mailed for typing, or stored for future reference. And you can use it to listen to MP3 music files as well.

In fact, all music players that connect to a PC are dual-purpose, in that they can be used to store any type of data, so they are ideal for transferring programs, pictures or music from one computer to another.

The other thing they almost all have in common is lousy headphones, so do yourself a favour and fork out 20 for a decent set.