Today software jukeboxes programs do a lot more than play music. They let you work with multiple audio-file formats, create and save playlists, copy files to a CD or portable MP3 player, and even print CD covers and inserts.
And most jukeboxes now support skins and visualizations. Best of all, because many are available for free in some form, so you can try them all and decide for yourself which one is best.
•IN THIS ROUNDUP: Eleven MP3 Jukebox Programs.
|J River Inc. Media Jukebox 6.0||Read Review||Download|
|Lycos Sonique 1.90||Read Review||Download|
|Microsoft Windows Media Player 7||Read Review||Download|
|MusicMatch Jukebox 6.0 Plus||Read Review||Check Prices|
|MusicMatch Jukebox 6.0||Read Review||Download|
|Nullsoft Winamp 2.72||Read Review||Download|
|RealNetworks RealJukebox 2 Basic||Read Review||Download|
|RealNetworks RealJukebox 2 Plus||Read Review||Check Prices|
|RioPort Audio Manager 3.2||Read Review||Check Prices|
|RioPort Audio Manager 3.3||Read Review||Download|
|Sonic Foundry Siren Jukebox 2.0||Read Review||Check Prices|
J. River, Media Jukebox 6.0
Don't let the clunky interface put you off: J River's Media Jukebox 6.0 is a powerful media player. It can play more than 20 audio-file formats and encode to four different formats, and it supports Nullsoft Winamp plug-ins. You can even use it to view DVDs and television broadcasts.
At first glance, Media Jukebox 6.0 from J. River isn't that impressive. The interface is cluttered with a row of 23 buttons and relies too much on lists and scroll bars for navigation. Plus, while the layout is extremely functional, it isn't likely to win any design awards. Once you dig deeper into the program and its features, however, you'll find a powerful and logically structured media player. Like a Swiss Army knife, it provides a lot of utility, even if it is a bit unwieldy.
The program is billed as "the one that plays it all," and that's not far from the truth. Media Jukebox currently supports more than 20 media-file formats, including MP3, Windows Media, RealAudio, QuickTime, and LiquidAudio. It can rip audio CDs and encode to MP3, Windows Media (WMA), OGG (Ogg Vorbis), and AGE (Monkey's Audio). You can even watch DVDs with the program if you have a DVD-ROM drive or view broadcast and cable television if you have an ATI TV tuner card.
Media Jukebox also supports a variety of portable players including the Creative Labs Nomad and Sonicblue Rio product lines, Mplayer3, and Windows CE-based devices. The Media Search feature lets you choose which audio file formats to search for on your hard drive and conveniently sorts them by artist, category, and the date that they were imported. A conversion tool lets you convert between file formats (such as MP3 and WMA) and between bit rates (such as 128Kbps to 96Kbps).
Media Jukebox uses its plug-in architecture for a wide range of functions including visualizations, input-file formats, encoders, support for specific portable players, and DSP engines for audio processing. The plug-in architecture is compatible with Nullsoft Winamp, so you can use the hundreds of visualizations and audio manipulation plug-ins that have made Winamp extremely popular. Installing plug-ins is easy: A built-in browser window helps you make your choice, and the download and installation is handled from within the application.
Until version 6.0, Media Jukebox was entirely free. Now when you download the program, you have access to all the features for 30 days. After that, you lose some features including use of the software-based DSP for audio manipulations; a Media Scheduler that lets you automate playback and recording sessions; a Media View for browsing audio files by artist, type, album, genre, year, or your own criteria; and the ability to encode at up to 320Kbps. To get those features back permanently, you'll need to ante up US$24.95. But at least J. River's approach lets you try all of Media Jukebox 6.0 before you buy the upgrade.
Terra Lycos Sonique 1.90
It's far from a full featured jukebox program, but Sonique's millions of users couldn't care less. They're too busy creating, exchanging, and experiencing the best skins and visualizations available. If eccentric interfaces and dazzling eye-candy is your idea of a good time, you'll want this free download to spice up your MP3, Windows Media, and WAV files.
It doesn't support CD burning. It can't connect to portable MP3 players. It can't even write audio files. It has no built-in Internet radio stations or digital-rights management, and can't automatically create playlists based on your search criteria. Feature-wise, Lycos Sonique 1.90 is a simple Windows-based audio player. So why are there five million copies in distribution with 10,000 new users every day? The answer is simple: This free audio player has the best skins and visualizations anywhere. If you like exotic interfaces and sweeping images that gyrate to the music, this one's for you.
Not that Sonique is a slouch as an audio player. Its proprietary AE 4.8 MPEG decoder is one of the best around, and the program supports a wide range of audio file formats, including MP3, MP2, WAV, OGG, MOD, XM, IT, S3M, CD audio, and the full range of Windows Media files. There's also a 20-band graphic equaliser with separate controls for balance, amplification, and pitch. The equaliser now works with all the supported audio types, including CDs. Recent updates have added support for DSP plug-ins and multiple monitors (so you can send a full-screen visualization to a separate display), as well as full-screen scaling for visualisations (switch from 2:1, 4:1, and 8:1 ratios using the Page Up and Page Down keys).
Built on top of this capable, although hardly outstanding, audio player, is an extensive plug-in architecture. Lycos freely distributes the software tools that tap into this architecture and make it easy to create highly original skins and breathtakingly stunning visualizations. In fact, there are so many plug-ins for Sonique that the company has instituted a ratings system so users can vote for their favorites. A top-ten list shows the current overall favorites, as well as the popular choices for each category. Skin categories include metallic, tech, organic, sci-fi, gothic, anime, theme and movies/TV. Visualisation plug-ins exhibit a similar diversity. You can choose exploding fountains of colour, spinning star gates, rippling eddies of fluid light, or shimmering geometric patterns.
There's even a friendly competition between the visualization developers to see who can top the others. And you can usually see a steady improvement from month to month as they build on each other's accomplishments. Visualization plug-ins are so important to Sonique's audience, in fact, that many skin designs have change buttons for the visualizations that are larger than the change buttons for the audio tracks.
If dazzling eye-candy and eccentric interface designs aren't your cup of tea, you would probably be better off with one of the other free jukebox programs, such as the free versions of MusicMatch Jukebox or RealJukebox 2. But if you would like to add some spice to your desktop, you owe it to yourself to try Sonique. It will add an element of adventure to every audio file you play.
Microsoft Windows Media Player 7.0
Microsoft Windows Media Player has evolved over the years to become a relatively full-featured jukebox program. Its best feature is its immediate support for the latest Windows Media compression algorithms. Plus, various free bonus packs add a bunch of useful audio tools. Unfortunately, its limited support for non-Microsoft file formats is a major drawback.
Whether you know it or not, you probably already have Microsoft Windows Media Player on your PC. It's included with Microsoft Windows Millennium, and you're encouraged to download it just about any time you encounter a Windows Media file. And while the program has evolved over the years into a relatively full-featured jukebox program, its limited support for non-Microsoft file formats limits its overall usefulness.
The best reason for using the free Windows Media Player, however, is its immediate support for improved Windows Media compression algorithms. The Windows Media (WMA and WMV), file format is about twice as efficient as the MP3 format, which means you can store about twice as much music on a portable player without sacrificing any sound quality. And while Windows Media Player 7 can read Windows Media, MP3, WAV, AVI, and MPEG-1 files, it can only write to Windows Media files. Although, if you only use MP3 and Windows Media files that shouldn't be problem.
The program has many of the features that you would expect from a contemporary MP3 jukebox program. You can view all the compatible media files on your hard drive, for instance. Plus audio files, video files, radio tuner presets, and playlists are displayed as separate folders on the same file-management screen -- making it easy to switch among them. And various free bonus packs for Windows Media Player 7 let you convert MP3 files to Windows Media files, import Deluxe CD Player track data into Windows Media Player, add additional visualisations, and import Nullsoft Winamp skins.
In what is undoubtedly a reflection of the bitter rivalry between Microsoft and RealNetworks, Windows Media Player 7 streams Windows Media formats, but doesn't stream RealAudio. As you might guess, the Internet radio tuner only pulls in stations that are delivered in Windows Media formats, although there's a fairly broad selection of radio stations to choose from. Microsoft also supports its own version of digital-rights management associated with Windows Media, so the program isn't compatible with the InterTrust digital rights system that RealPlayer supports. And like RealJukebox 2, Windows Media Player includes a 3D audio effect. In Microsoft's case, the 3D effect is the same SRS WOW technology that's included in many Sony televisions.
While Windows Media Player 7 isn't the most full-featured player available, it does offer the convenience of having all your Windows Media needs served from a single program. Audio fans, however, should use it along with other jukebox programs to get the best of both worlds.
MusicMatch Jukebox 6.0 Plus
Often cited as the best all-around MP3 jukebox program, the latest version of MusicMatch Jukebox Plus has a revamped user interface, a personalised radio component, and the ability to associate art and lyrics with your music. And despite all these new features the program is easier to use than ever.
If the competition thought MusicMatch would stand still long enough for them to catch up, they must have been knocked for a loop by the latest version of the company's popular jukebox software. Often cited as the best all-around jukebox program, MusicMatch Jukebox Plus has always excelled in ease of use and overall versatility. Version 6.0 continues in this tradition, reworking the interface, adding a personalised radio component, and letting you incorporate art and lyrics into your music.
The redesigned interface makes the program much easier to navigate. Instead of the previous mix-and-match approach (no more clunky modules that won't stick together), Jukebox now organizes its functions into two sets of tabs. A row of content tabs lets you switch among multimedia files, radio stations, and CD tracks. It remembers your place so you can quickly go from your most recent MP3 playlist to your favorite Internet radio stations to the current CD in your CD-ROM drive.
A row of function tabs lets you switch from My Library (where you can find your saved audio files), Radio Stations (where you can select from popular genre-specific stations or create your own stations), Music Guide (where you can search for music that suits your tastes), and Now Playing (where you can purchase commercial CDs related to the music you're currently playing). The track info, record and play transport controls, and visualisation window are scrunched into the upper left-hand corner.
While MusicMatch supports visualisations and skins, there are few available. The implicit message here seems to be that this program is for grownups who have better things to do than continually hunt for plug-ins. The program supports a broad range of digital audio players, however, as well as several types of digital-rights management (IBM's EMMs, InterTrust's MetaTrust, and Microsoft's Windows Media). MusicMatch can also read and write to most forms of MP3, Windows Media, and WAV files, as well as burn standard audio CDs and create data CDs with MP3, Windows Media, or WAV files.
Even the free version (as opposed to the Plus version) lets you record an unlimited number of CD-quality MP3s. Currently, most of the competition either restricts the sample rate (capping the quality) or limits the number of times you can write MP3 files in the free versions of their programs.
If you decide to plunk down US$19.99 for the Plus version you'll get to burn CDs 12 times faster, rip MP3 files from CDs 25 percent faster, print your music library and playlists, print CD covers, customise equaliser settings, and display cover art as wallpaper. The US$19.99 version doesn't include upgrades; you'll need to pay US$29.99 if you want the full program with lifetime free upgrades. At either price, however, MusicMatch Jukebox Plus 6.0 is a great buy.
MusicMatch, Jukebox 6.0
The free version of MusicMatch's excellent jukebox software lets you record an unlimited number of CD-quality MP3s, a feature that the competition often limits in its free software. Version 6.0 continues offering excellent ease of use and versatility, while reworking the interface and adding a personalised radio component. Upgrading to the Plus version (US$19.99, US$29.99 with lifetime free upgrades), however, lets you burn CDs 12 times faster and rip MP3 files from CDs 25 percent faster.
Nullsoft Winamp 2.72
One of the first MP3 players available for the PC, Nullsoft Winamp continues to be one of the most popular. Its straightforward design, simple controls, 10-band graphic equaliser, and broad selection of visualisations make it an excellent choice for audio buffs who don't want to become bogged down in technical complexities and don't need a player to burn CDs or support their portable audio devices. Best of all, it's free.
Maybe you couldn't care less about burning CDs, listening to Internet radio stations, or managing your music files from within your jukebox program. After all, you may prefer to do these things in other, more specialised programs. Perhaps you're more interested in a program that just plays audio files -- and does that job extremely well. If this is your view of the perfect jukebox program, you should feel right at home with Nullsoft Winamp 2.72. It was one of the first Windows MP3 player programs available for the PC, and it continues to be among the most popular.
Winamp supports a basic group of audio file formats, including MP3, Windows Media, and CD audio. It also lets you create simple playlists. You can have it search for all compatible audio files in a directory and each of its subdirectories, and you can perform elaborate searches by file type or keyword, much as you can with a more full-featured jukebox program. The 10-band graphic equaliser includes a number of presets, so you can experiment with settings that represent different musical styles and sizes of rooms. You can also add a mini-browser window, which while doubling the size of the onscreen program, provides easy access to Internet radio stations, extra skins, and extra plug-ins.
Just because Winamp was one of the pioneers in this category, don't think for a moment that it hasn't kept up with the times. Like competitor Lycos Sonique, Winamp has an army of fans who take advantage of the program's open architecture to create stunning visualizations and eye-popping skins. Winamp also supports plug-ins that add new, and unique, audio features to the program. For example, one third-party plug-in (titled DFX) adds a 3D ambience effect and boosts the bass. Another, titled Pacemaker, let's you independently adjust the tempo, pitch, and speed of your music.
If some of the visualisations seem familiar, it may be because there are similar visualisations available for Sonique. And while Sonique's skins are definitely more impressive, the quality of the visualizations is about even between the two. Winamp, on the other hand, easily wins the competition for most unusual plug-ins. For example, the Infrared Receiver plug-in lets you use an infrared receiver to control Winamp from a standard remote control. And the Pig Pen plug-in lets you play a Pac Man-style game complete with rampaging cows, chickens, and horses.
With its simple and colourful interface, basic format support, and lively community of plug-in developers, Winamp is an excellent choice for audio buffs that don't want to be bogged down in technical complexities. And the price is tough to beat.
RealNetworks, RealJukebox 2 Basic
The latest version of RealJukebox is a major upgrade, supporting almost every audio-file format and digital-rights-management technology. Throw in a beefier track editor, redesigned interface, and generous selection of audio effects, and you have a very competitive program. The free version lacks some of the esoteric features of the Plus version, such as variable-bit encoding, the 10-band equaliser, and the crossfade option, but if you don't need the extras, this version will be just fine.
RealNetworks, RealJukebox 2 Plus
If you've tried previous versions of RealJukebox and found it less than thrilling, check out this most recent upgrade. It supports just about every available audio-file format and most digital-rights-management technologies. Throw in a beefier track editor, redesigned interface, and generous selection of audio effects, and you have a very competitive program.
You've got to hand it to the people at RealNetworks. They're determined to make RealJukebox the best it can be. This latest version is a major upgrade, and while it still lacks a few necessary features, such as allowing you to burn MP3 files straight to a CD, it can now go head-to-head with most of the competition. For starters, RealJukebox 2 supports just about every available audio-file format, including MP3, RealAudio 8, Windows Media (WMA), Liquid Audio, IBM's EMMS, AT&T's a2b, and Sony's upcoming OpenMG. These include most of the available digital-rights-management technologies, so you'll be prepared for the coming era of not-always-free digital music.
The program also offers several unusual features that add significant value. You can crossfade your songs for continuous play, similar to the seamless song transitions you might hear from a DJ on the radio or in a club. The built-in music librarian is much stronger than before and a beefed-up track editor lets you associate lyrics, cover art, or other information with a track or an entire album. You also have the option to record in MP3, RealAudio, WAV, or WMA format. Plus RealJukebox includes support for analog recording from a cassette, phonograph, microphone, or line in.
RealNetworks has extensively reworked the interface to allow for easier navigation. Most of the key functions are available from a Navigation Bar. The main portion of the program window changes to reflect the new function, which leaves the rest of the window uncluttered. Audio effects -- such as the 10-band graphic equaliser, crossfade effects, and iQfx2 3D audio -- are called up using small icons that are always visible, but never in the way.
Automation is also improved. You can have the program automatically update itself for new file formats, software upgrades, and device plug-ins. A new AutoPlaylist feature automatically creates a mix of tracks that matches your specific preferences, so you can create, say, a playlist with only jazz and blues artists with no songs over 10 minutes and a total play time of 120 minutes. The program also supports the widest range of portable digital audio players that we've seen so far in an MP3 jukebox program.
If you've tried a previous version of RealJukebox and found it less than thrilling, check out this latest iteration. The free version lacks some of the more esoteric features of the US$29.99 version, such as variable-bit encoding, Pentium III optimization for faster CD ripping, the 10-band equaliser, CD printing, playlist printing, audio-file-format conversions, and the crossfade option. If you don't need the extras, however, the free version will suit your needs just fine.
RioPort Audio Manager 3.2
Originally designed to shuttle MP3 files from your PC to your Sonicblue Rio portable player, RioPort Audio Manager 3.2 has evolved into a more full-featured jukebox program with excellent support for file transfers to the Rio 300 and Rio 500. But it still can't match the more robust programs MusicMatch Jukebox Plus 6.0 and RealNetworks RealJukebox 2.
The built-in file manager in RioPort Audio Manager is severely limited and doesn't compete with the more robust file management functions offered by MusicMatch Jukebox Plus 6.0, RealNetworks RealJukebox 2 , or Sonic Foundry Siren 2. You can, however, search for all compatible audio files and then sort them by type, time, size, title, or artist.
Creating a playlist is fairly straightforward -- mainly because there are so few options to get in the way--and you can easily combine tracks from your database and the current CD. Reading from and writing to a CD is also a snap. The program can connect online for automatic album-and song-title information, and can read embedded ID3 tags hidden within MP3 files. You can even edit the track info yourself and associate CD art, artist Web sites, bit rates, and other relevant data. Plus, you can convert CD tracks to either MP3 or Windows Media (WMA) formats.
Among the features that helps RioPort Audio Manager graduate to the next level of audio players is its ability to play secure audio files that use the MetaTrust system from InterTrust, as well as MP3, WMA, RealAudio, QuickTime, and AVI movie files. RioPort Audio Manager also supports skins, visualizations, and audio plug-ins, although the selection consists mostly of skins and is rather limited. One noteworthy exception, however, is the WOW Thing plug-in that adds convincing 3D surround-sound to the RioPort's audio playback.
Another plus to the program is a miniature set of transport controls that are temporally installed into your system tray when you run RioPort. The controls are especially convenient if you like to listen to music files while working in other programs.
The best feature of RioPort Audio Manager, however, is the way the program interacts with a Rio 300 or 500 when it transfers files. You can see the current contents of the player's memory by track title, size of file, and play time. There's also a bar chart that visually displays the amount of memory that's used, selected, and available. Competitors take note: This is how every program should handle file transfers to portable players.
Unfortunately, the free version allows only 50 MP3 recordings and 25 CD track burns. It'll cost you US$9.95 to add unlimited MP3 encoding and US$9.95 to add unlimited CD track burning -- or you can purchase both for US$18.95. With its limited functionality, however, and unless you own a Rio 300 or 500, your money is probably better spent elsewhere.
RioPort Audio Manager 3.3
Originally designed only to support Sonicblue Rio portable players, RioPort Audio Manager 3.3 has evolved into a more full-featured jukebox program that also features excellent support for the Rio 300 and Rio 500. Another plus: a miniature set of transport controls placed on your system tray when you run RioPort for quick access while working in other programs. The built-in file manager, however, is severely limited, and the free version allows only 50 MP3 recordings and 25 CD track burns.
Sonic Foundry Siren Jukebox 2.0
On the one hand, Siren Jukebox 2.0 supports a broad group of file formats, has an interface that's intelligently laid out (even in compact mode), and can write data, as well as audio, CDs. On the other hand, the program is copy protected and can be sluggish when first accessing your playlists. Fortunately, you can preview the jukebox with Siren XPress 2.0, although the free version limits you to 20 MP3 encodings and won't burn CDs.
It's easy to develop a love-hate relationship with Sonic Foundry Siren Jukebox 2.0. In many ways, it's the most flexible jukebox available. It supports a wide range of file formats including the new OGG (Ogg Vorbis), an open-source MP3 alternative, and PCA (Perfect Clarity Audio), a lossless, highly compressible alternative to WAV.
Plus, the latest version of Siren lets you rip directly to WAV files, write hundreds of MP3 files to a single CD using the program's data-CD burning option, and print your own CD labels and jewel-case covers that automatically incorporate your playlists.
On the downside, Siren isn't cheap (it lists for US$49.95, it was available for US$34.97 through a direct download from the Sonic Foundry Web site). It's also copy protected, so you won't be able to run it on both your desktop and notebook. And it can be horribly slow when it first reads your playlist.
If you find MP3 jukebox programs to be too confusing, however, you'll probably love Siren. Instead of having attachable modules or trying to cram tiny controls into too small a space, Siren looks and feels like a full-fledged Windows application. You can easily resize and relocate the onscreen components, and save the layout for later use. Even Siren's compact mode manages to retain intelligently lay out with buttons, dials, and pull-down menus that make sense.
While skins and visualisations are supported, there aren't nearly as many available for Siren as there are for some competing programs. One big plus on the visualizations, though: You can blow them up to full-screen and choose the resolution (320 by 240, 640 by 480, 800 by 600, or 1,024 by 768) that best suits your graphics adapter.
Like to tweak the audio? Siren provides plenty of powerful audio effects, including a 16-band graphic equaliser with preprogrammed settings for classical, dance, jazz, and pop music. Add an ambient effect with the built-in reverb control. Slow down or speed up the audio playback with the time-stretch effect. You can even encode to both MP3 and Windows Media formats and save the results to your hard drive, CD recorder, or portable player (SONICblue Rio or Creative Labs Nomad players) at bitrates as high as 320Kbps.
A free version, Siren XPress 2.0, is limited to 20 MP3 encodings. It also restricts your Windows Media encodings to 96Kbps, doesn't allow CD burning, and doesn't include the audio effects. Despite the restrictions, however, it's an excellent preview for Siren Jukebox 2.0.