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The Digital Beat: PCs vs. Stereos

May 8, 2001 12:00 AM ET

Digital music isn't just changing how we get the music we want, but how we listen too. Case in point: A recent study by a technology research firm called Mercer Management Consulting found that college students spend a third of their music-listening time tuned in to their PCs. Only about half of these students, in fact, said they even possessed a stereo system in their dorms or apartments, while a full ninety-eight percent had computers.

At this rate, record stores might not be the only endangered species in the MP3 era. Fetishistic jet-black, monster component systems are rightfully joining the endangered species list too. Why rightfully? Because if you really think about it, they're an incredible pain in the ass. The lengths that listeners must go to in order to enjoy music are cumbersome and costly. We'll spend thousands on outfitting and wiring a home system alone.

Computers at least offer the prospect of a more efficient listening lifestyle. A college student could literally have one machine -- a laptop -- to take care of all her musical needs. Plug the laptop into a set of speakers and it's a home stereo. Take in on the road and it's a boom box or a Walkman. And with better and better multimedia sound systems (subwoofers, surround sound, THX) and smaller and smaller hardware (Palms, cell phones) what really is the point of the big, black stereo stack?

If stereo makers want to remain relevant, they're going to have to face the music and focus much diligently on creating MP3 compatible players for the home, the car, and the jogging track. Portable player manufacturers like Rio have already managed to muscle in on the territory. Things will only get worse for the stereo makers of the world when wireless networking comes into mainstream play.

Wireless systems mean that they'll be able to simply make a Net connection to their MP3 database and choose songs on the fly. Already, students are ditching their cumbersome CD collections by ripping them into the more portable MP3 format. Soon, they won't even have to schlep discs and minidisks around. Same goes for the car stereos, boom boxes and even the big bulky home theater. Everything will be networked for fast, easy access and downloads.

So who stands to win in this scenario? Speaker manufacturers. No matter how the MP3 wars play out, computer listeners will continue to demand high-quality speaker systems for their PCs. Already, many recognizable stereo companies are getting into the field. Boston Acoustics, Bose and Harman Kardon are all busy creating products for computer listeners' needs. Of course, audiophiles will always want to shell out the extra bucks for a high-end stereo system, but their days are numbered. Pretty soon, they won't be viewed as enthusiasts, they'll be seen as eccentrics.

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