Linux Audio Players, Tested and Graded

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One longstanding Unix tradition is best summed up thus: "Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together." On a Linux machine, this philosophy is most clearly visible from the command line, where Unix hackers continue to provide simple, flexible tools that talk to one another and don't have the huge overhead of a graphical user interface.

The "discrete tools for discrete tasks" concept does not always translate well to the world of GUIs. Most end users, raised on Windows and Mac interfaces, are accustomed to monolithic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink tools. In many cases, this makes perfect sense: Why should you need separate programs for receiving e-mail, sending e-mail, and filtering e-mail? The answer is, you shouldn't, and Mozilla's Thunderbird (for instance) does a great job at handling all your e-mail related tasks.

I use my main Linux desktop for a lot of things, but music-related activities are key. For quite some time now, I've been very pleased with some tools that, in old-school Unix fashion, focus on specific tasks, and do them very well: Muine for playing music in my digital collection, Streamtuner and XMMS for listening to Internet radio, Sound Juicer for ripping CDs, Ex Falso for editing tags in my music files, and Serpentine for burning CDs. All of these Gnome apps are more or less first-rate. They get the job done, and do it well.

But over the holidays, while visiting my family back home, I encountered Windows Media Player 11. I was surprised to discover not only that I really liked its all-in-one approach, but that Microsoft had crafted an interface that made all the pieces fit together naturally. (Readers who chastise me for "constantly bashing" Microsoft, please take note: I just praised the UI in one of its flagship apps.) Many of my friends have found similar nirvana with Apple's iTunes. I began to wonder if there were an all-in-one music application for Linux that I could love.

To find out, I put the following integrated music apps through their paces on a machine running Ubuntu 6.10: Rhythmbox, Banshee, Listen, Amarok, and Exaile. (I started with Rhythmbox because it's Gnome's official music player, and then I worked my way through the rest, saving Amarok and Exaile for the end since the latter is a clone of the former.)

I've given each program a letter grade in each of five areas:

  • Browsing and searching: The app should provide an easy means of browsing my music collection by artist or album, and a solid search function for artists, albums, and songs. A grade of A cannot be earned here unless the browsing interface properly alphabetizes The Beatles along with other "B" artists and The Information along with other "I" albums.
  • Playlist management: I should be able to craft and save custom playlists with ease, and export them in M3U or PLS form for use in other apps.
  • Rip and burn: It should be simple to pull music off shiny discs, and to put tunes on them.
  • Tag editing: Fixing the inconsistent tagging that crops up in any digital music collection should consist of a wee bit of typing and a few clicks.
  • Internet radio: I want a straightforward means of tuning in to Net radio streams and bookmarking my favorites. For an A grade, I should also see a way to browse Shoutcast listings directly, as I can on my Squeezebox.

Anything else is gravy for me, and that includes the app's ability to decipher the scrambled files and folders that inhabit iPods. (My 20GB iRiver H120 acts as a standard USB mass-storage device, with all files stored in human-readable files and folders; I tend to just use the Nautilus file manager to move tunes back and forth.) I will note iPod support as I reveal the marks for each program, and I'll also mention any extra pluses or minuses that affect each player's final grade.

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