Magazine article Information Today

Prick Up Your Ears and Listen: There Are New Streaming Audio Formats of Stunning Quality on the Web

Magazine article Information Today

Prick Up Your Ears and Listen: There Are New Streaming Audio Formats of Stunning Quality on the Web

Article excerpt

Much has changed in the Web audio arena since I last wrote about streaming audio formats and plug-ins in this column almost 2 years ago. That was in March and April 1996. Streaming audio was a brand new concept then, allowing the users to listen to sound clips without waiting for the sound file to be completely downloaded before playback. This was more important than it may sound. At then-typical 14.4-Kbps downloading speeds, I minute of near-CD-quality audio took about 90 minutes to come over the line.

Then came compression programs that took AM-radio-quality sound bites and compressed the daylights out of them--at the cost of further quality loss. The compressed audio could be streamed continuously or almost continuously even through 14.4-Kbps modems. Despite the low quality, this type of streamed audio became an instant success with music stores on the Web, making it possible to get the flavor of some songs on an album after a short wait time for buffering. Buffering before playback is needed to build a small reservoir in case the stream gets blocked for a second or a fraction of a second. It is like Universal Power Supply for your computer for brown-outs anti blackouts.

By late 1997, audio compression technology progressed to the point that near-CD-quality music could be compressed to a level that can be streamed to users with 28.8-Kbps modems with a minimum of wait time before playback. Massive traffic jams may still interfere with continuous playback, but on a modest 33.6-Kbps network connection, and especially on faster connections, I rarely had stuttering audio. And the sound quality is just awesome considering the grueling trip the sound makes.

Newscasts are far easier to compress into thin bitstreams, as AM-quality audio requires one-tenth what CD-quality audio requires in storage capacity. Since my last evaluation of streaming audio, two new formats--MP3 and Liquid Audio--have emerged and an existing one--RealAudio--has improved significantly. Each offers a free plug-in player at least for Internet Explorer and Netscape. These streaming audio formats herald a revolution in music commerce, and also in radio broadcasting.

RealAudio 5: Continual Improvement

RealAudio technology emerged as the absolute winner among those offered by the original group of competitors (Progressive Networks, Internet Wave, StreamWorks, TrueSpeech, Toolvox) for the streaming audio market. Wherever you look these days on the Web, from music stores to radio stations to music publishers, you will find music recordings and live broadcasts using RealAudio.

Progressive Networks, the company that brought us RealAudio more than 2 years ago, has a new name: RealNetworks. The name of the product has also changed, to RealPlayer, and it now includes audio, video (Rea/Video), and animation (RealFlash). RealNetworks deserves credit for not resting on its laurels even though it achieved practically a monopoly by virtue of its ever-improving quality by the end of 1996. I was not impressed with its first version, but I have liked it since version 2.0, and, since version 3.0, I have liked it very much.

Now it is up to version 5.0, and my liking for it increases along with the version number. I have always been a radio fan. It is impressive to listen in Honolulu to broadcasts of WABC from New York, without a glitch or a bit of distortion for hours. I cannot help but be fascinated that while I am working on a desktop application (or just reading the newspaper on the lanai), I can tune in to two excellent news/political/cultural radio stations and two music stations broadcasting from Budapest (true, in mono only). These are streamed in real time and come through phone lines for part of' their journey. The news/cultural stations broadcast their programs at 8 Kbps, which is decent for spoken words, and come through in acceptable quality even with a 14.4-Kbps modern. If there are problems, they are due to congestion on the Internet, or to saturation of the servers used by the radio stations. …

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