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PC Entertainment

There's a small entertainment revolution going on in most homes at the moment. Faster broadband, more powerful computers and huge advances in data storage technologies mean that for many, their laptop or PC is fast becoming the central provider of home entertainment. Unlike cable and radio networks, you can watch or listen to what you like when you like, and with terabyte (1000 gigabytes!) USB drives now selling for $100 in the US, you can the store the equivalent of 1600 CDs or nearly 250 DVDs on a device no bigger than a thick paperback. And terabyte DVDs are apparently on their way.

In the BVI this is particularly applicable, even more so for those spending time in the confined space of a boat or a rental property, so what does the home user need to consider for their set up, and what's out there? We'll discuss both audio and visual media over this two-part article, starting this month with the audio side of things.

Audiophiles know sound will never be as clean from a laptop as from a good Hi-Fi system. Laptops cram multiple small electrical components and power boards into as small a space as possible (literally the opposite of what most good “separates” systems do), so this is hardly surprising, but good results can still be achieved. Macintosh hardware is better designed for this by default, whereas PC laptops can vary hugely from manufacturer to manufacturer. More powerful models marketed as 'media centres' generally perform better here, with less interference being heard on the output.


Computer speakers are also very important—don't just buy on looks! Ask to listen to speaker models before purchasing (take your laptop in with you), but remember, budgets needn't go through the roof. Surprisingly good results can be had from some $50 Logitechs with a well designed subwoofer, with more than enough power and detail for the majority. Try to have a minimum of six feet between the front channels for a decent stereo effect. The sub can be hidden anywhere nearby. If you're someone who habitually plonks down the speakers together on either side of your Hi-Fi or PC, you'll be surprised at what this alone can do. Of course, if you already have good Hi-Fi, just get the right lead to plug the computer straight into your existing system's amp, usually a lead with a stereo headphone jack to twin RCA/Phono, and of a reasonable quality.

What software though? On PCs the default Windows Media Player (WMP) can be a bit clunky, and though it’s fully featured, it can be a bit of a system hog. The most popular amongst the tech and audio community are Winamp, Media Monkey and Foobar2000, the latter being a particularly lightweight audio player. All of these have the ability to utilise another plugin, ASIO4ALL, which offers great gains for those seeking Hi-Fi sounds. This nifty plugin can bypass Windows XP's default behaviour of resampling any audio being outputted, instantly giving a cleaner sound. Register on www.head-fi.org and search the busy forums for tutorials on configuring this, along with some other great audio advice, from simple to hardcore tech.

Regarding source material, try and stick to high quality music files. There are many file types currently in use. MP3s trade sound quality against file size via their “bitrate”, higher being best. 192kbps is the minimum recommended for near Hi-Fi quality, 256kbps being equivalent to CD quality.   AAC is a common Apple/iTunes high quality format. Lossless formats with no trade-off in sound quality are also becoming much more popular. WAV files are the original lossless format though they’re too large to be of real use. M4A is effectively Apple's version of MP4, whilst M4P was iTunes' previous copyright-protected version (i.e. it won't play on many MP3 players), and FLAC and Monkey Audio (APE) are two more popular cross-platform lossless formats.  Always look at what file formats your portable media or MP3 player can play before buying, and compare to your existing music collection.  For example, the iPod won't play WMA, Windows Media Player's default audio format when ripping audio CDs to your computer hard disk (you can change this format to MP3 in WMA’s options).  Confused yet?

There are also thousands of fantastic, free streaming radio stations out there, many of them offering commercial-free radio all day long, and often dedicated to particular music styles. You'll often find access to many from within your chosen media player itself. If you're using WMP, then make sure you visit www.orban.com/plugin to gain the ability to play high quality AAC streams over low bandwidth connections. Go through the links at the end of this article for some places to start looking.


Finally, saving the best until last, there been a pair of incredible new additions to online music sites, allowing you drag and drop your own playlists online, as well as play uploaded user mixes.  Visit grooveshark.com and soundcloud.com and see where online music is heading. Enjoy!

winamp.com, mediamonkey.com

Further reading:
Head-fi.org, avforums.com

Online Streaming:
bbc.co.uk/radio – high quality, varied and commercial-free radio stations

windowsmedia.com/Mediaguide/Radio – large range of choices, listed by genre

radioparadise.com – mix of contemporary and classic rock, pop, jazz, world and this magazine’s favourite

tuner2.com – lists stations using the hi quality orban AAC plugin, with currently played track

ibizasonica.com, dogglounge.com – Balearic beats and mellow deep house

grooveshark.com – create your own live playlists from extensive online music catalogues

soundcloud.com – a favourite with musicians and DJs, who upload their own mixes


Dominic Bufton is IT Support manager for BVI IT solutions company Fresh Mango Technologies. He has previously worked as an AV Tech, and sold, built and installed professional audio systems.   www.freshmango.com


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