Best Of '99: Digital Nation: Exceptionally Clean Music

Cutting-edge equipment goes for a spin — at the laundromat — and survives.

[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 Wednesday, Sept. 22.]

Staff Writer Chris Nelson reports:

When the engineers at Creative Labs wanted to test the durability of their

Nomad portable MP3 player, they dropped it on the floor. They gave it to

folks to use in sweaty workouts. They even sent it out to Woodstock '99,

where it survived scratches, bumps and its fair share of mud.

But they didn't put it through the washing machine.

They left that to me.

Actually, my wife put it through after I forgot to take the device —

which measures about 3.5 inches high, 2.3 inches wide and half an inch

thick — out of the pocket of my olive drab flannel-lined work shirt.

This wasn't just any washer. This was one of those massive, multicycle

front loaders you use when you want to get clothes really clean.

Of course, it also gets them extra wet, so my wife put an extra quarter

in the dryer just to be sure they got good and dry.

When I arrived at the laundromat and started pulling out clothes for

folding, I realized what had happened and my heart sank. I unbuttoned

the pocket and pulled out the Nomad. The prognosis was not good. Its

faux-leather carrying case was waterlogged, and the device itself still

had a droplet or two on it.

I hit the power button, and the machine offered only a faint signal, via

an LCD window, that it once held Bruce Springsteen's "Loose Ends"

(RealAudio

excerpt) and other tracks in its memory before apparently giving

up the ghost.

But I held out hope. Partially because I really enjoyed the player, and

partially to ease the fears of my wife, who was sure she'd killed it.

Back at home I pulled out the extra memory card and the batteries, and

I let it rest for a day. Then two.

Eventually the player recovered almost completely. I say "almost" because

occasionally I hit the volume button and it switches from MP3 to FM mode.

But considering the trauma it endured, I was pretty happy to live with

that quirk.

The folks at Creative Labs were as surprised as I was.

"In our marketing materials, we could state, 'Will even function after

you put it in the washing machine,' " joked Christi Wilkenson, a

product-development manager at Creative.

The small size of MP3 players brings up some interesting questions. For

the first time, people have CD-quality or near-CD-quality music that they

can literally lose in the washer and other such places.

That could never happen with a turntable or a boom box. A Walkman tape

player is too bulky and heavy to overlook even in the baggiest of cargo

pants.

"The whole idea is to make something that people can use that's portable,"

said Dave Arland, a spokesperson for Thompson Consumer Electronics, which

makes the RCA brand Lyra MP3 player.

"But you also want something that people won't lose, and that they can

get dirt in [without ruining it]," he said. The Lyra, which measures

about an inch longer and half an inch wider than the Nomad, will be

available on the Net in the next week, and in stores in the next few

weeks.

Just as important, manufacturers say, is conveying a sense that the player

is substantial, particularly when the price of portable MP3 players still

hovers around $200. How do you convince listeners to cough up that much

money if a player is so small it seems almost disposable?

Internet entertainment analyst Mark Hardie of Forrester Research said he

went snowboarding with his Diamond Rio PMP 300 several times last winter.

He said it never gave out, although six months of banging around in his

gym bag took a toll on the player's buttons. (SonicNet's parent company,

MTV Networks Online, owns a portion of RioPort, which manufactures the

Rio.)

"I think you'll reach a point where smaller is not necessarily better,"

Hardie said. As devices become ever more miniaturized, their controls

are harder to manipulate, and they become easier to lose.

Or wash.

"Just like with pagers and phones, consumers will identify with their

pocketbooks what they like," Hardie said.

Some of the people in Creative Labs' focus groups are itching for an MP3

player that's even smaller than the first edition of the Nomad, Wilkenson

said.

"There's going to be a certain market that would love to have something

they could hang around their neck," she said. "Or [use] in a headphone.

Something smaller, like a watch-type thing. I can definitely see it going

that way."

* * *

Sarah McLachlan is offering new live recordings of "Plenty" and

"Elsewhere" for free download in Liquid Audio format through Amazon.com.

The tracks are from the new "Mirrorball" DVD and video, but are not on

the live album of the same name. ... Amazon is also now offering MP3s of

lesser-known bands, similar to what sites such as MP3.com and Riffage.com

are doing, but on a smaller scale. ...

Dogg Pound rapper Kurupt has posted four advance tracks

from his Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha (Nov. 2) for download through

Mjuice.com's hip-hop section. The title song, "Girls All Pause," "This

Is Me" and "Trylogy" are available for free in encrypted MP3 form. ...

A Musicmaker.com spokesperson said live songs featuring Eddie Vedder

could not be offered in the site's Pete Townshend free download

promotion because of complications securing rights to the tracks.

Pearl Jam singer Vedder guests on a bonus disc that comes with the

new Townshend album, Live: A Benefit for Maryville Academy. All

11 songs from the main concert album — including songs Townshend

wrote while in the Who, such as "Magic Bus" and "Won't Get Fooled

Again" — are being offered as free MP3 downloads this week. ...

The 64-megabyte version of RCA's new Lyra MP3 player will come with a

cassette adapter so listeners can use the device in their cars. An RCA

spokesperson said the company is looking at adding compact flash memory

ports to boom boxes and home stereos, so they, too, can make use of

computer memory.