My first recommendation for listening to mp3's is to wire your computer up with a stereo system because the sound is just so much better coming out of a stereo than out of computer speakers, in my humble opinion. A trip to Radio Shack should be able to give you everything you need. I don't remember the part numbers, but they usually know what you need if you explain it. The plug in the back of your sound card is a headphone jack, and my mp3's come in to my stereo amplifier through the auxiliary input, which requires RCA cables. Hence I picked up a cord at Radio Shack that converts a headphone cord to RCA cables. Then, because my stereo is on the opposite side of the room from my computer, I have two twenty-five foot headphone extension cords between my computer and the converter cord. When I bought my stuff, the guy at the shop tried to get me to buy something more elegant than this setup, saying the sound would be poor with my setup. However, I certainly cannot notice any degradation in sound, but if you are worried about it, you can spend more money for something more snazzy. I also have a headphone jack splitter plugged into my sound card so that I can listen out of my computer speakers along with out of the stereo if I want. Usually I have my computer speakers turned off, though.
If you are listening to music through your computer and you are doing something else besides working on the computer, it is really nice to be able to control the music by remote control. So I bought myself the following device which does the trick well. It plugs into a COM port, and it is completely programmable. That is, you can send it any IR signal and then choose from a list of commands what you want that signal to mean. I can personally attest to the fact that it works very well with Winamp, and there are other players that it is listed to work with, too. You can buy a remote control with it, or I just use my universal remote which allows me to program in many more functions. I got the device a couple years ago, so it might be worth shopping around to see if anything less expensive has been produced yet. The $35 price strikes me as a little high.
Software for Playing
As I start the software section here, I will make a shameless plug to encourage people to support software that they enjoy using. Even something like $10, which barely even buys two beers, can do a good bit to encourage the development of quality software if a number of us do it. So, in this spirit, I'll mention below which software I have supported. And, admittedly, this might even encourage me to support more software so that I will be able to list it on this page...
Winamp is definitely my choice for players. It sounds good, is easy to use, has lots of features, and there are a tremendous number of plugins to add to it to make it do almost anything. Personally I use Winamp 2.90, but Winamp 5 has been released, which is supposed to be quite good. I supported Winamp back in the days when it was shareware, but now it is owned by AOL Time Warner and freeware.
Having songs crossfade together is quite cool. It gives the impression of listening to music at a club or on the radio. Plus it eliminates the silence between songs. SqrSoft's crossfading plugin for Winamp is incredible. Very, very well made and lots of adjustable features, too. I highly recommend it. Sqrsoft also has a disk writer plugin that creates crossfaded wav files (that can be burned to a CD) from mp3's that you play in Winamp. The songs will still be different tracks on the CD, but if you play the CD continuously, the songs crossfade together. Very cool. I have supported SqrSoft.
When you are not actually using your computer while listening to mp3's, I recommend having your computer create visualization effects from the music. They can be quite entertaining to watch, although sometimes you might find yourself staring at the visualizations for too long... I personally am a big fan of having visualizations running while hosting a party. My recommended visualization is MilkDrop. This is (again) a Winamp plugin, and it was written by the same person who wrote Geiss, which I used for quite some time. There is not too much I can say to describe it other than that it is just amazing. If you have even the slightest interest in finding a good visualization plugin, I would highly recommend checking out MilkDrop.
Software for Editing
Often it is desirable to edit mp3's so that they will sound more like you want them to. There can be parts at the beginning or the end of songs that you want to get rid of, or the volume of a song might be too high or too low in comparison with the rest of the songs in your collection. For making such edits, my first recommended piece of software is mp3Trim. As the name suggests, it allows you to trim off portions at the beginning or the end of songs. It also allows you to add fade-ins and fade-outs to songs, which is nice when you want to shorten a long ending to a song, but you do not want to have the sound suddenly cut off. It further allows you to adjust the volume of songs in such a way that there is no loss of quality. It is definitely a very handy tool. One drawback to it, though, is that you are prevented from using it with songs longer than about seven minutes in length unless you purchase a special edition of it. This is not that unreasonable except that it used to be that the price was $30 just to edit songs up to about fourteen minutes in length. At that point, I discovered that if I cut a long song into smaller pieces, edited each piece using the freeware version of the software, and then put the pieces back together, I could get the result I wanted. In order to prevent there from being damage to the sound quality of a song when doing this cutting and rejoining, the file must cut at the frames. MPEG Audio Scissors is a program that can make such cuts. The price for mp3Trim was later dropped to $20 which seemed reasonable to me, so I supported it at that point. It is more convenient to not have to do the cutting and rejoining, too.
A second editing program that I would recommend is MP3Gain. This program is quite valuable for adjusting the volumes of mp3's. It can do the same sort of volume adjustments that mp3Trim can do, where there is no loss of quality, and it can do this for songs of any length. However, it also does a pretty darn good job of estimating how loud a song actually sounds to the human ear. This is quite useful because this allows you to normalize a group of songs so that they all sound about equally loud. To do this, the program has you to specify a target volume level to normalize your songs to. The default setting for this target volume level is is 89 dB. I, however, find this to be too quiet. I instead use a target volume level of 95.5 dB. I used to use 97 dB, but I discovered that at this volume level two of my songs had brief distortions in sound quality. So, I would recommend not setting the target volume level this high. All of my songs sound fine with 95.5 dB, though. Details on how the loudness of a song is calculated for MP3Gain is available here. If you find yourself repeatedly adjusting the volume of your stereo because your mp3's vary in how loud they are, this is definitely a tool for you.
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