Guide to MP3 Stream Players

MP3 streaming is preferred over other streaming formats for many reasons. This non-proprietary format is easier to create and cheaper to serve*. When a streaming station is available in multiple formats, choose the MP3 stream at the highest rate your connection can handle. For examples of the best MP3 streams, see Silent Way's TastyCast.com.

Keep in mind that MP3 streaming is different than playing MP3 files from your hard drive. MP3 streams are live broadcasts that you "tune in to," and don't save to the hard drive. For more streaming tech info, check out KEXP's FAQ.

The default player that came with your computer is pretty crummy. Try switching to a new one. This page has the scoop on: The MP3 Stream Players Showdown, and How to Set Your Default Player.

Also check out Silent Way's Guide to Computer Audio Interfaces (PC or Mac) for getting better audio quality out of (and into) your computer.

The MP3 Stream Players Showdown

Short Version:  PC= iTunes or Winamp.  Mac= iTunes.

Intro:

Most computers have an MP3 stream player pre-installed, but there are better free options and great commercial players. All of the following applications can play both MP3 files from your hard drive and MP3 streams from the net. Most can rip MP3 files from CDs too.

Most computers already have Windows Media Player (Microsoft) or RealPlayer. RealPlayer is full of ads but it now supports Windows Media, Quicktime and OGG. They've taken a big step by building in support for competitor's protected files from online music stores besides their own Rhapsody. But, they've dissed Mac users by not giving them those features. Only RealPlayer can play RealAudio streams though.

Meanwhile, Windows Media Player has actually removed the ability to play MP3 streams, so switch to a better player app or DON'T upgrade WMP! The new version can still play MP3 files. (Microsoft is once again trying to defeat the cheaper alternative.)

The AOL browser's player blows. To use one of the following alternate players, change this setting: AOL keyword preferences > multimedia > uncheck "use AOL media player for supported file types".

Live365 is a company that hosts thousands of independent streams, some of which require a paid membership to listen. Most just require a free registration (unnecessary if you listen with iTunes for Mac). Consider getting their free Player365 app, which enables you to listen in the better-quality MP3pro format. (Or try to find another MP3pro-equipped player.) Player365 also makes it easier for "preferred" members to login to any Live365 stream.



If you are a PC user:

You now have two leading choices: iTunes and Winamp.

Apple released the free iTunes for Windows in October 2003, with many updates since then. This brings the best music jukebox and stream player to Windows, along with the rest of the iTunes feature set and the iTunes Music Store. If you have an Apple iPod, iTunes is your best option, and the only way to play iTMS purchases. iTunes has upped the ante, pushing the former king Winamp to improve itself...

The free Winamp 5 (released 12/2003) added a ton of new features to compete with iTunes. Now it has library management, plays video, and a premium version rips to MP3. Winamp shows recently played songs (when the stream is encoded to do so by the broadcaster), amongst many other features. There's a massive Winamp community of users who have created thousands of useful plug-ins and decorative faceplate "skins." Almost any feature imaginable can be added via plug-ins.

However, eventually Winamp may pass away, because AOL (which bought Winamp's company Nullsoft in '99) laid off most of the development team in late 2004. Version 5 might be the last, so get it while you can. Newsflash 7/2006: looks like Winamp was hiring new people, maybe they're gonna stick around. Cool.



The open-source stream (and video) player called VLC is available for most platforms including WinXP. It supports lots of the newer streaming formats like OGG and AAC streams, plus almost every file format.

Also check out Sonique, which looks pretty. Version 2 would have been much better, but unfortunately it will probably never appear. This company has also been acquired and the software has been let out to pasture.

Another newcomer is LiveWire by East Bay Tech. This has a directory of streams, but it's too new to review.

And, keep an eye on Songbird...



If you are a MAC user:

The completely free Apple iTunes has a simple interface and is compatible with all MP3 streams. There are only a few advanced features that iTunes doesn't have. Versions 3 and 4 are just for OS X, and Apple has seriously jacked it up. iTunes 4 added the built-in iTunes Music Store, a major breakthrough that may achieve what couldn't be done by Napster, Microsoft and all the record companies combined. iTunes has smart playlists, auto-volume-leveling and plays MP4/AAC streams and AAC files. Did I mention that iTunes is free? Yes, I did.

iTunes Version 2.04 was the last version for OS 9 (OS 9.04 is required, 9.2.1 or higher is recommended). If you are still using OS 8.6, you'll need to use this hack on iTunes version 1.1. (Version 1 stalled streams, particularly in the background, and lacks many of 2+3's features.) To extend iTunes with many advanced functions, check out Doug's iTunes Applescripts. (iTunes was created from the code of the long discontinued SoundJam.)

For those still in a Mac OS transition period, you can switch back-and-forth between the OS X and OS 9 versions of iTunes. It is possible to share the two versions' separate libraries, playlists etc by means of judiciously placed aliases. It's easy as long as you are not using iTunes 3 or 4 for OS X yet. As long as both the OS 9 and OS X versions of iTunes are version 2.x.x, you can use aliases to point one of them to the other's Music Library. (This alias must point in a particular direction, ie. one of them must be a real library and the other can be an alias... Sorry, I forget which. Let me know!) Once you start using the OS X-only version, to share lists you'll have to export them from iT 2 and import them into the newer version.

iTunes versions 1 and 2 had an annoying bug. (This was fixed in iTunes 3, but that is only available for OS X, so this bug affects anyone who still uses 9.) Anything that is played or put in a playlist gets automatically added to the library. This is fine for files, but every time you tune in to a stream from outside iTunes, it is added to the library again! These duplicates make iTunes 2 playlists of streams hard to manage. Even after that bug was fixed, I still rely on Finder folders to categorize MP3s, and TastyCast.com to keep track of the best streams. There is still a level of control that only the finder offers, particularly if you use any other pro software to play your music collection (such as Traktor DJ Studio).



Audion 3 (OS X) is a really bitchin' alternative to iTunes, which is worth the $30. It has tons of advanced features including stream broadcasting, MP3Pro support, multiple MP3 encoding algorithms, finder-like playlists and a long list of streaming stations.

Live 365's application for Mac, Radio365 improves audio quality for those Live365-hosted streams which are in MP3pro. MP3pro streams playback at lower quality in other (non-MP3pro equipped) apps. It also has a "last 10 tracks played" window. It's a long free trial before you must purchase, because it is based on the amount of time you actually listen, not based on time since the app is first launched. But, it's only for streams which are served by Live365.

Whamb is available for OS X. It has Ogg Vorbis support, Rendezvous file sharing, stream ripping, and nice customization skins. Unfortunately, it has a few bugs: v1.20 doesn't read custom genre tags in mp3 files, and misreads the length and bitrate of certain mp3 files.

The open-source stream (and video) player called VLC is available for most platforms including OS X. It supports lots of the newer streaming formats like OGG and AAC streams, plus almost every file format.

Another new app is iWire by East Bay Tech. This has a directory of streams, but it's too new to review.

Check out Rogue Amoeba's many cool OS X apps: Audio Hijack Pro, which allows you to rip audio (including streams) to disk; Detour, which reroutes any app's audio output; and Nicecast, which lets you broadcast a stream.

And, keep an eye on Songbird...

(Also check out Traktor DJ Studio. It doesn't play streams (just local files and CDs), but is a kickass professional dual-deck audio player designed for live performance, with independent time and pitch stretching. It allows recording of a set's moves as a saved automated session which can be overdubbed. The latest version CAN send the live mix to a streaming server for a live broadcast.)



Mac Apps that were good but are now gone, perhaps google-able:

MacAmpLite was another good app for OS X that has sadly been discontinued. They offered free unlock codes and downloads before disappearing. (It was temporarily reborn from the ashes of MacAmp by Subband software.) MacAmp was a great app that seemed to do it all. It has lots of functional plugins (not just superficial skins), and even records streams! But, it does not encode MP3 files. Make sure to update the "Millennium MPEG Decoder" plugin to 1.1.3, to ensure compatibility with Live365 streams.

I used to recommend SoundJam because it played audio smoother than iTunes and it had more advanced features like stream broadcasting. It was discontinued, and it no longer plays many Live365 streams (although it is still OK for broadcasting, making playlists and encoding MP3s). There were two versions, paid and free. The full final version was called SoundJam MP Plus v 2.5.3, and the free downloadable version was called SoundJam MP Free 2.5.3. Try to find the free 2.5.3 update now that the SoundJam website is gone.

Mint by Unsanity was a nice slim app (now gone) with a list of streaming stations which could float above other applications.

Winamp was in pre-release for the Mac, but they ditched it. iTunes, ya know.

If you rock it UNIX or Linux style:



Try XMMS. Also there's Zinf (formerly FreeAmp) and MPG123. See VLC too.



• There are more MP3 players available (for all platforms), but not all can tune in to MP3 streams. These include some pretty cool dual-playlist apps for DJs, including Traktor. For more, check out Silent Way's Audio Streaming Software and MP3 Player links. If you want to learn how make your own playlists into web pages, see this iTunes/SoundJam tip.



How to set your default MP3 streaming player:

When you click on a link to an MP3 stream, you download a tiny "pointer" file (file extension .pls, .plu or .m3u), so your computer needs to know which application to launch it with. These files are just a playlist containing the address of the stream. Also, set your app to delete the temporary "pointer" files that get left behind. Most web browsers have preference settings for each filetype, or set it from within each player as follows:

PC:

Winamp:

In the main title bar menu (click on the 2nd button or right-click anywhere in the title bar), select options-->preferences. Choose System-->Media.

AOL:

To use an alternate player since the AOL player sucks, change this setting: keyword preferences > multimedia > uncheck "use AOL media player for supported file types".

All PC apps:

Try the MP3fix application. It allows you to set your default MP3 app without reinstalling the player. I'm not sure if it sets the MP3 streaming app or just the MP3 file app, as I've not used this personally.



MAC:

iTunes (Mac):

OS X: iTunes-->Preferences. OS 9: Edit --> Preferences. The first tab ("General") has an option "Use iTunes for Internet Music playback." Click "Set".

RealPlayer (6 for Mac):

Go to menu: View --> Preferences. The "Upgrade" tab has info at the bottom, under "Media."

Audion 2 (Mac):

Go to menu: Edit --> Preferences. The fourth tab ("Network") has an option "Use Audio as helper for internet MP3 files". Check it.

Under the second tab ("General"), check the box next to "Delete temporary network audio URL files".

SoundJam (v2 for Mac):

Go to menu: Edit --> Preferences. The first tab ("General") has an option "Use SoundJam for Internet Music playback". Click this button and then follow the instructions.

Under the third tab ("Files") check the box next to "delete temporary URL files".RealPlayer (6 for Mac):

Go to menu: View --> Preferences. The "Upgrade" tab has info at the bottom, under "Media."



To manually set the application which launches for any downloaded filetype extension:

Mac OS X:

Select a file of that filetype. File menu --> Get Info (or just command-I). Then open the tab "open with". You can set this change for all files of this type.

Mac OS 9:

Go to Apple Menu-->Control Panels--> Internet.

Go to Edit Menu--> User Mode. Select "Advanced." Click "OK."

The last tab in the "Internet" window should now be "Advanced." Click on it, and check out "Helper Apps" and "File Mappings."

Here you can set the application you'd like to launch when a particular filetype is downloaded.



A final Mac note: Your hard drive may be littered with .pls, .plu and .m3u files. An advanced trick is to attach a folder action to your designated download folder. This will automatically delete any file with a specified file extention. This works pretty well. Here's how to do it.



* <soapbox> MP3 streaming's superiority is earned by a combination of factors, including audio quality, ease of use (mostly by the listener but also the broadcaster), stability and price (MP3 is cheaper to build applications for and stream since it's not proprietary). It also has ID tags which tell you more info: song names, artist, album, etc.

MP3 is a standard which is essentially non-proprietary, and free to end-users. Software companies who make these applications pay a licensing fee to the folks who invented the format. But once the listener (or broadcaster) has purchased the player software, they don't owe the inventors anything more. A cool new format, OGG. (aka OGG. Vorbis), is completely open source but it has to overcome the "essentially" free MP3 format to achieve widespread popularity. The next generation of MP3 is MP4, and there's also the new MP3Pro. </soapbox>

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