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By Cathy Lu

Upgrade Your Acoustics

Illustration: Glenn Mitsui
There's no reason to punish your ear drums with the crummy set of earbuds that came with your portable media player. Laying out a few dollars for a pair of higher-end earphones can enhance your listening pleasure tremendously by offering cleaner, more-detailed audio and a broader frequency range.

Bass fanatics on a budget need look no further than V-Moda's Bass Fréq in-canal earphones (see

FIGURE 13: Round out your player's sound by replacing its stock earbuds with a pair of V-Moda's Bass Freq in-canal earphones.
FIGURE 13). For $50, these colorful buds--they come in eight hues--give you a decent amount of sound isolation without requiring painfully deep insertion inside your ears. And yes, the earphones deliver on the promise of their name, giving tunes a mighty bass boost (though you'll have to contend with some cord noise).

Ultimate Ears' $100 Super.fi 3 Studio earphones provide greater clarity and more encompassing sound than the V-Moda set, which isn't such a big surprise considering that they cost about twice as much as the Bass Fréq earbuds. The sound isolation is similar to that of the V-Moda models, but the Super.fi 3 Studio comes with a lot of nice extras, such as a metal carrying case and five different ear-tip fit options. If you're ready to take your earbud experience to the next level, try Ultimate Ears' $249 Super.fi 5 Pro or $200 Super.fi 5 EB.

Find Unrestricted Tunes

Despite claims to the contrary by music-industry executives, you can download unprotected copyrighted music without breaking the law. Several sites offer digital-rights-management-free tunes on the up-and-up. So you can play them on any device, whether Apple's iPod, Creative's Zen, Sandisk's Sansa, or other models.

At eMusic, you can download 40 songs each month for $10, and all the tunes are unrestricted; just don't expect to find the latest or greatest hits. eMusic caters to independent musicians, though you will still find albums from such big-name artists as Barenaked Ladies, Santana, and Van Morrison. Another option, Audio Lunchbox, offers a slightly more eclectic selection than eMusic for similar pricing ($10 for 40 songs).

The Internet Archive has royalty-free music at no charge from artists who have agreed to noncommercial distribution of their concerts (including bands such as the Grateful Dead and Blues Traveler). To download a concert track, right-click the link to that song, and select Save Target As.

Have an iPod? You don't have to go to iTunes for mainstream music. Rhapsody gives you the freedom to transfer purchased songs to a number of devices--including Apple's popular player. Use the Rhapsody software to buy songs, connect any supported player, and drag purchased tunes (or playlists) straight to your iPod, which appears in the Sources window (see

FIGURE 14: Connect your iPod, or any other music player, to Rhapsody's music-download service.

Get Help With Your Playlists

If you don't want to create your own playlists, the free MusicIP Mixer application analyzes your library and builds playlists for you by matching songs that have similar acoustic characteristics. Import your music (click Library, Add Songs, or select Sync With iTunes), and then choose Library, Start Analysis. When the program finishes, select the song you'll base your playlist on, and then click Mix.

To tweak the way the program builds its playlists, select File, Preferences and adjust the Mix settings (for instance, you can control the number of times it repeats songs from one artist). The mixes the program created for me didn't always make sense on screen, yet when I listened to them, they flowed nicely. If you don't like one of its choices, just right-click it and select Replace This Song. Once you're happy with the mix, transfer it to iTunes or to Windows Media Player by clicking the Send To button.

Take YouTube With You

You don't have to shell out dough to get good video content for your media player. Thousands of free and entertaining videos are posted on Google's popular YouTube service. Tweaking them to play back on a portable video device takes only a few minutes.

First, download the video to your computer's hard drive. To do this easily, use YouTubeX): Plug the video's URL into the field on the YouTubeX page, and click the download button to locate the video. When it appears, click the Download link just below it, and choose a folder to save the file in. You may need to add the extension .flv to the file name (this stands for Flash Video Format, which is the file type for YouTube videos). Unfortunately, you'll have to convert the .flv file to a format your portable player can handle. A free utility from eRightSoft called Super converts .flv files to such video formats as .avi, .mp4, and .wmv. The program even has dedicated iPod and PSP settings.

To convert the .flv file, you simply drag it into Super's window, and from the Select the Output Container menu, choose the format you want to convert it to. For an iPod, choose the Apple - iPod setting; for a Creative Zen Vision:M, select WMV, Which is the format that's compatible with Windows Media Player, the application the Zen syncs to. Next, click the Encode (Active Job-List Files) button, and then look for the converted file in the Program Files/eRightSoft/SUPER/OutPut folder. Finally, transfer the file to your player. Note that this will work for any .flv file you download from any video sharing service, not just YouTube.

Cathy Lu writes the Digital World Insider blog.

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