Best Of '99: Compact, Revolutionary MP3 Device Makes Music Omnipresent

Eight square rockin' inches clipped to my belt let me bring favorite tunes everywhere I go.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Sunday, Sept. 19.]

Editorial Director Michael Goldberg writes:

I own thousands and thousands of CDs and vinyl record albums. I rent

storage spaces to hold them all. They dominate rooms of my house, surround

me in my office and snake out into other areas of the West Coast SonicNet

office. What to do with all this damn music!

Last week, the solution to my problem (though I hate to call music's

takeover of my environment a "problem") arrived in the form of a 3

1/2-inch by 2 1/4-inch device: the Rio 500.

The Rio 500 is a portable MP3 player that comes with software to let music lovers easily turn any of their CDs into MP3 files. Those files can then be quickly loaded into the player. (SonicNet's parent company, MTV Networks Online, owns a portion of RioPort, the company that makes the Rio.)

A laptop hard drive can also store the music files. So, at the moment,

I have 18 entire albums on my three-pound Sony VIO, with another two

currently loaded into the Rio.

By utilizing removable hard drives such as my 1.5 gig Syget, I can store

thousands of albums in the space currently occupied by a few dozen CDs.

All of that sounds pretty dry and geeky, I know. But I'm no geek (though

I do love cool technology almost as much as I love music).

But these eight square inches have changed my life. This is the coolest

way I've found to listen to music, whether I'm in my car, lying on the

beach or just walking the city streets.

Some devices are so cool, so easy to use, so essential that they practically

become part of one's body. My cell phone and pager are like that, as is

my Sony VIO laptop (the first laptop that became more than just a portable

computer for me). The Rio is one of those. I've had it a week, but it's

already made my portable CD and minidisc players irrelevant.

The Rio, currently loaded with all of Sleater-Kinney's Call the Doctor

and Dig Me Out as well as Garbage's B-side "Trip My Wire"

(RealAudio

excerpt), goes with me everywhere. Since it's slightly bigger

than a pager and clips to my belt, I don't even think about it.

It's just there.

In my post-Rio world, I can carry more music than I can possibly deal

with, wherever I go. Flying to New York for a few days? My laptop and

Rio allow me to bring Yo la Tengo and Captain Beefheart, The Third Sex

and Vitamin C, Garbage and GBV, Beth Orton and Tom Waits, Wheat and an

advance of Matthew Sweet's upcoming In Reverse (Oct. 12) along

for the ride.

And of course I can acquire new songs by obscure and well-known bands in

a matter of seconds (yeah, I'm on a T1 with DSL at home — so sue me).

If the company can drop the price of these players down below $100

— a $40 price would put one in millions of stockings — it's

sure to be a winner.

The mega corporations that dominate the music business have been fighting

MP3s until fairly recently. They sued Diamond Multimedia, the company

that manufactures the Rio — but lost the suit. Now they've accepted,

it seems, that MP3s are here to stay, but are speeding along with their

Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), which will make it difficult to

make more than a few copies of a secure MP3.

With my Rio on my hip, Sleater-Kinney's "Words and Guitar" cranked, I

can tell you that the MP3 is an example of a great thing taking over

not because anyone marketed it, but because it is truly a great

thing.

And I gotta tell you, my purple Rio 500 is damn cool-looking, too.