You are here

Terratec M3PO

Cutting Edge By Dave Shapton
Published March 2000

Terratec's M3PO is a hi‑fi unit which plays MP3 files directly from CD‑R, or from an internal IDE hard drive.Terratec's M3PO is a hi‑fi unit which plays MP3 files directly from CD‑R, or from an internal IDE hard drive.

Dave Shapton explores the consequences of new, media‑independent formats for music distribution and reproduction.

Did you get a Minidisc player for Christmas? Or a CD recorder? Or a DVD machine? Well, enjoy them while you can, because something has just happened that could make all these formats disappear faster than the dinosaurs. The asteroid in question is an MP3 player from Terratec. From the outside it looks like a rather stylish CD player, finished in brushed aluminium and with a big LED display. But the difference is that it plays MP3 files directly from CD‑ROMs.

Actually, with all due respect to Terratec, it's not their M3PO player that's the most significant thing here, but rather what it represents. What it is is a computer that doesn't look like one or even make you behave as if it is one. And it shows us how virtually all of us will use computing devices in the 21st century. Technically, the M3PO is a device for playing files. It isn't at all fussy about the media it gets its music data from — whereas a conventional CD player can only understood data that is laid out in a very specific way on the surface of an audio CD (and nothing but an audio CD). The M3PO has an extra layer of software that lets the player search for suitable files on any media to which it is connected, and I think this could reasonably called an Operating System. What is it? Windows CE? BeOS? Something else? I don't know and I don't care, because I don't need to know. If I can get an MP3 file into this machine, it will play it, and it doesn't matter how it gets there.

The thing about digital audio media, such as DAT, CD and Minidisc, is that they are, of necessity, good at data storage; data DAT tapes have become a standard for computer backup, and we all know about CD‑ROMs, while Minidiscs were once promoted as a possible successor to the floppy disk. Conversely, however, few consumer formats have ever really presented music as data.

This is hardly surprising because, until recently, the general consumer had no way of accessing digital audio as data, other than through a soundcard with an S/PDIF input. Even then, people could only manipulate a 'bitstream': we had no access to information about tracks or titles. Moreover, even if you make a digital 'clone' of an S/PDIF bitstream, you still have to press record and stop, or you risk getting silence or, worse, parts of the adjacent tracks in your recording.

The rise of MP3 culture has changed all that. With CD ripping software, audio tracks can become files. The files can be organised into playlists, complete with track and title data. Diamond Multimedia's Rio was the first of dozens of portable MP3 players which liberated MP3s from the desktop (with the important limitation that you could only fit about a CD's worth of audio into its expensive memory). I'm sure it is only the fact that they're portable, jog‑proof and, let's face it, cool, that has made MP3 players sell at all. If a hi‑fi‑type unit could only hold one CD's worth of music at a time and needed a connection to your computer's serial port to load up the next one, people would just think it was daft.

The M3PO and the other devices that will surely follow it, however, don't have this kind of drawback. If you have a computer with a CD‑R, you just put your MP3 files (about 10 CDs' worth!) onto a blank disc, put the disc into the player, and you have several hours of music that you can play through your hi‑fi. It's even got space for an internal IDE hard disk, which can be as large as you like. Think how many MP3 files you could fit onto a 27Gb drive costing around £200. I make that equivalent to about 500 CDs, which could be your entire CD collection available in an instant, searchable and playlistable.

Put an Internet connection onto a device like the M3PO, and you can download your music directly to the player. You won't have to worry about the cost of phone calls, because ADSL and cable modems are permanent connections: you pay your Internet Service Provider a fixed monthly fee for unlimited access and that's it (see last month's Cutting Edge). The chances are you'll be able to download MP3 files in real time or even faster. And if you haven't got a high‑bandwidth connection, just subscribe to BT's unmetered Internet access, and who cares how long it takes? You could start your download in the morning, and it'll be there when you get back from work. You can do this all day, every day, and soon you'll have a gigantic record collection. For nothing.

If you don't believe me, just go With software like this you can search for any track you like and be downloading it within seconds. Now imagine a software search engine like this as the interface to the CD/MP3 player in your hi‑fi rack. Why would you ever want to buy a CD again?

Well, maybe the fact that, unless you have the copyright owner's permission to copy a piece of music, then you are at the very least infringing their rights and quite possibly committing a criminal act. Copyright abuse is effectively theft, and you are doing it every time you download an MP3 file. So, by suggesting that you visit Napster, or similar sites, am I encouraging you go out and steal something? No. Because if I told you and the owners of a car park that you could walk in with no risk of getting caught, and drive the cars away, I would expect the owners to do something about it. They'd put up a fence, employ a security guard, or install closed‑circuit television.

Did you get a Minidisc player for Christmas? Or a CD recorder? Or a DVD machine? Well, enjoy them while you can, because something has just happened that could make all these formats disappear faster than the dinosaurs.

What are the record companies and copyright organisations doing to stop MP3? They are proposing alternative formats that incorporate copy protection. Well, that's fine, but it will never work, because unless you copy‑protect music to the extent that you can never hear it, then the moment it comes out of a loudspeaker, you can copy it. The chances are that you can tap into a digital bitstream before the copy protection kicks in, or download a 'cracker' program from the Internet. The fact is that copy‑protecting music is a practical impossibility. Anyway, if you had a choice between a freely available format that you can copy to whatever extent your conscience will let you and another, which you have to pay for — and which requires a specific kind of player (one which dutifully prohibits you from copying copy‑protected tracks) — then you'd most probably opt for the free one!

Now, the record companies might argue that the quality of MP3 files is not quite up to CD standard, and that people would rather buy 'full‑quality' CDs. Quite right. MP3 compression typically works at a ratio of 11:1, which means that it is a 'lossy' compression technique. In practice, however, the data thrown away in the compression process represents audio you wouldn't miss anyway. MP3 isn't great, but it's certainly good enough for most people — and in any case, there is absolutely no reason why people should stick with using MP3. There are other great compression algorithms out there: if I were Sony, one of the first things I'd be doing about the potential loss to my revenues would be to license ATRAC compression (as used on Minidisc players and recorders) for general use, primarily as a competitor to MP3. (I'd probably make Minidisc players capable of playing MP3 files as well, and give them a USB connector at the same time!)

So what does all of this mean? Are CDs really going to disappear? Well, there are enough CD collections out there to make me think that people aren't just going to throw them away, but I can imagine sales of new CDs being hit severely once this type of MP3 player becomes commonplace. I can see CDs, Minidiscs and DVDs being relegated to the role of data‑carriers, and hard disks as the place where your music collection will reside. It even has implications for the future of DVD‑Audio and Super Audio CD, which are ultra‑high‑quality audio formats that make use of the additional capacity available on DVD. You see, if the majority of the record‑buying (or downloading) public think that MP3 files sound OK, then they are by definition not going to be interested in a format that is even better than standard, uncompressed CD audio. Which would you buy? A Super Audio CD player that would require a hi‑fi system as expensive as a house to hear the difference, or a machine that could play anything you throw at it?

Format‑Independent Playback

Utilities like Napster allow you to easily build up a huge collection of MP3 files. But is it ethical?Utilities like Napster allow you to easily build up a huge collection of MP3 files. But is it ethical?

I recently tried playing an MP3 file on a Windows computer that didn't have an MP3 player installed. What happened amazed me. The Windows Media Player came up and told me it didn't have the correct codec. Fair enough — but then it told me it would go onto the Internet and find one. Sure enough, within seconds I was connected to a site called, and a couple of minutes later I was listening to my — previously unplayable — track.

Which means that as long as your media player, be it a computer or stand‑alone playback device, has an Internet connection, then you should be able to play any file. Just as long as someone posts the codec to a site like!