Tuning In To Digital Streams

The Internet, once the mighty bastion of government think tanks and university research labs, has become an audiophile's wildest dream come true. Technologies such as MP3, email attachments, downloadable music and sound samples, Internet radio, and of course the prevalence of the now-ubiquitous CD burner, have transformed the Internet into a cornucopia of audio treasures. As students in college dorm rooms around the world embrace file-swapping services such as Morpheus and Gnutella, they are replacing their stereos with PCs. More significantly, though, the ability for content providers to deliver music, movies and sports broadcasts on demand through streaming media has dramatically democratized the digital landscape.

File-swapping services are extremely popular in colleges and universities, partly due to their superfast Internet connections. However, for the vast majority of users who are years out of college, streaming media is what really has propelled the Internet into being a provider of digital content-on-demand. In an era when most home users still experience the Internet through the narrow pipes of a 56K modem, the efficiency at which a large amount of audio content can be streamed through a computer is astounding.

The difference between downloadable and streaming media is enormous — literally. Compression technology really is the secret behind the success of both downloadable and streaming media. For example, a four-minute, uncompressed song copied directly from a CD consumes about 40 MB of disk space. Transferring it over a 56K modem would take upwards of 3 hours. That same pure audio file — usually in WAV or AIFF format — can be compressed, using MP3 technology, to under 5 MB with minimal reduction in sound quality. It is these high-quality, compressed files that are so rampantly traded online. Over a 56K modem, though, that still translates to a 20-25 minute file transfer.

If one song takes nearly a half hour to download, then how are entire concerts, newscasts and baseball games broadcast over the Net? The solution is streaming technology. Streaming allows you to play audio or video directly from the Internet, without first downloading and saving it to your hard drive. The major advantage to this is that you can start listening to your selections within seconds, rather than waiting for an entire download to complete. In brief, it works by breaking a music or video file apart into tiny, manageable clips. The first clip is  loaded, or "buffered", into your computer's memory for several seconds. Then, as that clip is playing, the next clip is being buffered into memory. After a clip is played, it is discarded. Since nothing is actually being downloaded to your disk, continuous Internet broadcasts are possible without chewing up valuable disk space.

The downside to streaming media is the sound quality. In order to squeeze so much audio information through a 56K modem quickly and efficiently, the sound is often compressed far beyond that of MP3. The result is the tinny sound quality so often associated with RealAudio broadcasts. Fortunately, broadband Internet connections such as DSL and Cable support much higher-quality streams, and oftentimes can even play video streams without the jerkiness and "stop-motion" that people generally associate with streaming video.

Perhaps the most important consideration in accessing streaming media is the player. Most people are familiar with the RealPlayer, from RealNetworks. It is available as a free download from www.real.com. Once configured, the RealPlayer can access online radio stations and play music videos on demand. It even comes with a whole list of preset audio channels covering everything from alternative music to talk radio and sports.

Besides the RealPlayer, there are many other streaming players and formats, some of which are not compatible with one another. The most popular are Microsoft's Windows Media Player, which supports Micrsoft's proprietary Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Active Streaming Format (ASF), and Apple's Quicktime Player, which can play practically any type of audio or video format, including RealAudio. All of the major players are available as free downloads, but "pro" versions are available as well, generally for $25-$30. In addition to the regular features, the "pro" versions usually include a graphic equalizer and support for higher-quality streams and more audio formats.

Streaming media enables people to listen to the radio on their PCs while at work, to tune in to sporting events halfway around the country, to keep abreast of news headlines throughout the day, and to preview movie trailers and music videos. The broadcast quality is generally decent even on a 56K modem.


Michael Tanenbaum