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Sounding out the future of audio technology

Friday, January 7, 2005

LAS VEGAS -- Ten thousand songs in your pocket. Millions of tunes on the Internet at your fingertips. And books on tape -- they're going down the path of vinyl records.

Welcome to the new world of digital audio.

Though the first portable MP3 player debuted in 1999, most personal music libraries still consist of piles of CDs, and relatively few people listen to digitally recorded radio talk shows and books.

The consumer electronics industry is doing its best to change that, there being serious financial gain in prodding people to join the digital audio revolution as long as it's convenient.

At this week's International Consumer Electronics Show, it was impossible to walk more than a few feet in the 1.5-million-square feet of exhibition space without stumbling over a digital audio equipment display.

New products in the category included a music system from upstart Sonos Inc., which lets you play your music all over your home, even different songs in different rooms, and control it all wirelessly from a handheld device.

The growing satellite radio audience got a new crop of digital receivers to sample, and digital audio veterans such as Creative Labs Inc. and iRiver America Inc. also debuted new portable players.

Newcomers also mounted the digital audio bandwagon, including camera maker Olympus, which unveiled a media player that can take photos and play slideshows and digital music.

"The digital music devices and accessories, whether they're headsets or wearable clips or necklaces that play music -- the whole category is just exploding," said Tara Dunion, spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association, which organizes the show.

Digital audio isn't limited to music. Many MP3-enabled gadgets can also play audio versions of books, such as those from Audible.com.

And with Internet radio stations rising in popularity, iRiver introduced a portable player that can access content from AudioFeast, an Internet radio service provider.

Digital audio is growing as quickly as PCs in the 1980s, Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates said Wednesday in kicking off the annual trade show. By 2010, all of our audio will be digital, he predicted.

Apple Computer Inc. -- the company widely credited for invigorating digital audio with its iPod player and online iTunes Music Store -- was conspicuously absent from the show and will likely have its own set of products to announce at next week's Macworld Expo in San Francisco.

Other products were aimed squarely at consumers who don't care to know a bit from a byte -- and never traded songs on the original Napster -- but may finally be wooed by digital audio for extreme portability and accessibility.

Many people fear the technical hassles of getting their favorite tunes onto the diminutive devices. For them, Thomson SA debuted a product that tries to make it as easy as copying a record onto cassette.

The Thomson RCA five-disc CD player can automatically convert songs to a compressed digital file format, a process commonly known as ripping, and transfer them onto to a portable MP3 flash player -- all without the usual intervention of a computer.

Behind-the-scenes advances are expected to help propel the digital audio market.

On the battery front -- always a sore point for consumers -- Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd.'s Panasonic will soon introduce a new Oxyride battery that promises to provide twice the juice of regular batteries.

Storage components of portable devices, including cell phones, are also steadily increasing in capacity and dropping in cost.

Just this week, for instance, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, the supplier of the 1-inch hard-drive for iPod Minis, introduced new technology that doubles the capacity to up to 10 gigabytes, and Sony Corp. announced a new 4-gigabyte Memory Stick -- twice the previous maximum capacity.

By the end of 2008, the average selling price of a hard-drive-based portable audio player is expected to drop below $200, predicted IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian.

"That will be a very important driver," she said.


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