F ive years ago, I acquired what was then the coolest music toy on the planet: a CD changer that stored, cataloged and shuffled 400 discs...

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F ive years ago, I acquired what was then the coolest music toy on the planet: a CD changer that stored, cataloged and shuffled 400 discs. But its limitations soon emerged. It was hard to program, strenuous to load and inserted long, inconsistent gaps between songs.

On the other hand, it expanded the listening experience by allowing me to set the controls on random, hop from song to song and draw from what had developed into an astounding music collection. It was like a private radio station that played only great songs.

Technology is never perfect, but it’s getting closer. Digital music libraries have since evolved into a better version of the giant changer and helped make this method the best way to listen to music at home. This doesn’t mean purchasing one of these wimpy little systems that add speakers to an iPod, but to actually plug a digital source into the auxiliary jack of the best stereo in the house.

On the day I took this plunge, I plugged my computer, loaded with 4,418 of my favorite songs, into an unused stereo amplifier and speakers. It was a blast. The songs downloaded over the past six months — approximately one third of my collection — finally gained clarity and power. Digital music was invented for portability’s sake, but it soon becomes clear it was made for the home.

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There are several paths to do this. The first choice is whether to stream music from a central server or store it on a hard drive. Choose the latter, and build a library from two sources; downloading from a service like iTunes or loading (“ripping”) the CDs discs you already own. Choose the former and you have a huge library with breadth and depth, one that exists as long as you pay the subscription fee.

The best choice may contain two or more of the above. Build a physical library, alternating between it and a streaming source. Copy all discs onto the drive, then use downloads to fill the gaps. The whole point is to develop a way to hear the music you want, when you want, in the easiest way possible. The really cool part of creating a digital music library is how it becomes part of your brain. You can awake thinking about a certain song, then hear it for real as soon as you’re conscious enough to type its name. Or you may remember an old favorite; seeking it out online and adding it to your library. Here, you can include a favorite song, a guilty pleasure hit or an obscure track, paying a dollar or less.

This can be a purchase, or from a streaming service. This control is the real advantage.

Creating a digital music library


Here’s what you need to know

Cabling: Connecting the computer and the amplifier is easy, with a simple cable available at most electronic stores. Unlike video cables, you can go long. If your computer and stereo are on opposite ends of the room — or even in different rooms — sound quality won’t suffer.

Ripping: Loading your own CDs into a digital library — a process sometimes called “ripping” — can be long and painful. Still, it’s possible to amortize the process by loading a few discs each night: “Tonight, we will digitize Hendrix, tomorrow Beethoven.”

Cleaning: Clean your discs thoroughly with a wet cloth before loading them, and don’t even bother if they’re scratched up. A bad disc will hang your PC indefinitely.

Balancing: Find a balance between the familiar and the outrageous. Don’t load the songs you hate, but leave them in if there is any doubt. The best part of a digital music library is its surprises.

Storing: If you purchase a new computer as a digital music library, sacrifice CPU speed and power for storage. An old (but not too old) PC can manage a streaming environment; add a high-capacity hard drive and you can store a year’s worth of tunes.

The software (iTunes or whatever other software supplied by the music provider) offers unprecedented flexibility and control.

Type the name of a favorite album and it appears, minus the songs you hate and omitted at the download. Type the name of an artist and get a list of all their best stuff. Then select shuffle, or let it play through.

Assemble custom playlists for perpetual use (I’ve assembled custom “best of” lists for 30 favorite artists) or for the short term. Plot the mood for a dinner party or something rowdier, all with a few keystrokes. Select six somnolent songs before falling asleep, or five peppy ones for an early workout.

Each digital music library becomes an exact copy of its owner. And looking at someone’s personal song list will tell a lot more than reading his or her palm or looking up an exact birth date. At very least, you will know what year they first fell in love.

Steve’s choice

Apple Computer, we Mac-nuts often insist, is the best option to this music oasis. This isn’t necessarily so. The iPod/iTunes alliance has defined the experience to a degree, but Windows is a lot more versatile. First is the ability to install a streaming environment, like RealNetworks’ Rhapsody, which offers access to unlimited music on a subscription basis. Cancel the subscription and the music library disappears, except for the individual songs purchased.

You can also run iTunes on a Windows machine, by itself or in parallel with a streaming system. The Mac runs only iTunes and doesn’t support the streaming process, except for iTunes’ own radio system. So Windows offers the most accommodating music server, even if multiple music sources can make everything a tad more difficult.

Streaming enthusiasts make the case that it is a wonderful solution for those who don’t need physically tangible representations of their music collection.

“You can connect to an incredible body of music, access to thousands of albums for the cost of a few beers,” said RealNetworks’ spokesman Matt Graves. “The more you love music, the more you get out of this.”

On the hardware side, the only prerequisites for streaming are a Pentium-class computer with 1 gigabyte of hard disk space and a broadband connection. Add an external FireWire-ready drive to hold a music library. The only extra required is a cheap Y-cable that connects the PC’s output jack into the stereo amp.

Streaming, however, removes all tangibility. Many people still like to own CD backup of their personal digital library, in the original cases. Others might require the ability to create discs to play at home or on the road.

The suspicion is that younger listeners, those who grew up in the computer age, to accept this situation more willingly than their elders. Older people have more possessions and youngsters like to live dangerously.

Money sings

Like any respectable hobby the spending possibilities are endless. You can start from scratch and buy a brand new computer to use as a music server, along with a high-end amp and speakers.

Also available are tools like the Roku SoundBridge (www.rokulabs.com) or Sonos Music System (www.sonus.com). Sonos broadcasts music from your digital library to anywhere in the house, bringing sound to two rooms for about $1,200, along with the ability to program each individually.

The SoundBridge, costing from $150 to $400, provides access to a digital library using a cylinder with an LED readout on its side. Plugging directly into your amplifier, it connects to your computer through an Ethernet cable or a wireless router to provide a slick solution for people who don’t want their computer and their stereo in the same room.

Beyond the add-ons, it’s easy to become cynical about the digital “revolution” and how the evil record companies are trying to sell us the same material every few years. In fact, there is a viable low-budget solution.

Download iTunes (from www.apple.com) and load in your own CD music collection. This is a low-end fix that doesn’t take advantage of the convenience of downloading, but it’s a good way to manage the music you already have.

This isn’t a perfect system. It requires you to spend a good chunk of the next month putting CDs into your computer and taking them out again. For a little extra time and effort you can omit the songs you don’t like. It’s convenient, but still excruciating. Tonight, it took nine minutes to import the new Rolling Stones album. Multiply this by the 400 discs in the changer and watch the time slip away.

There is also the notion that quality is relative. Plugging a computer into a stereo amp is a vast improvement over the PC’s speakers but doesn’t quite measure up to audiophile standards.

“When you use a computer for playback, you don’t get high sound quality,” said Derek Reano , a salesman at Magnolia Audio Video in Silverdale. “But a lot of people just don’t care.” He acknowledges that a computer’s sound output is good enough for many people, and said listeners could compensate for these shortcomings “if you get a really good amplifier and speakers.”

Losing tracks

I usually don’t know which of 4,616 songs to play first (yes, the numbers grew from a few short paragraphs ago), but there is always the guarantee it will get interesting. At least twice a week a sound from my own stereo causes me to stop, turn around, and say, “What on earth was that?”

The information is at your fingertips. In this case, “Shut Us Down,” by Lindsey Buckingham, from the “Elizabethtown” soundtrack. I’d forgotten downloading this a while back, so it becomes a wonderful surprise.

Digital music’s rapid ascent underscores that CDs won’t be around forever.

We don’t know about the next step, only that it will be digital, small in size and with a huge storage capacity.

While we wait, it makes sense to cobble together the best system we have from all the available pieces. Connecting the computer to a robust stereo system is the first essential step.

Charles Bermant writes the Inbox column in Personal Technology.