Technology For Your Tunes

By Tim Murphy

Here's what you need to know about all the ways to get tunes aboard your ride.

Summer 2011 was the season of Spotify, of Amazon's Cloud Drive, and Apple's iCloud — the season, some critics said, that Rdio and Pandora Radio got left behind. The trouble today is not so much about finding a favorite song or album for your collection, but in deciding where to look in a field that's changing so fast.

Let's start with a few words about your boat's stereo, then turn to gathering songs. For several years now, we've enjoyed the revolutionary space-savings of leaving all those CDs or cassettes at home, to say nothing of the mind-boggling volume of music that fits in a tiny corner of the nav drawer. To make the technology sociable, to actually play the music beyond earbuds, you obviously need some kind of stereo. On my own boat, I've made do with a portable battery-operated boom box, available for less than $50 at any WalMart or Best Buy. If you go that route, just make sure it has a 1/8-inch digital aux port to accept your MP3 player. Being able to carry it to the beach or to dock parties or other people's boats is nice; the downside, apart from sound quality, is that you need to carry plenty of batteries and remember to recharge the MP3 player if you're away from shore power or other AC electricity.

For a more permanent solution on your own boat, there are a host of marinized MP3- or iPod-ready units available from JBL, Jensen, Kenwood, Poly-Planar, and other car-stereo makers. You can expect to pay between $150 and $300 for the receiver, plus the cost of speakers and installation. The big advantages of a permanent installation are the sound quality of separated speakers and the ability to power the stereo directly from your boat's 12-volt system. If you're shopping for a new receiver, make sure it has an adapter that plugs into the MP3 player's data port, not just the 1/8-inch digital output port. By connecting directly to the data port, you'll be able to control your MP3 player — songs, artists, albums, playlists — directly from the receiver, even with the stereo's remote; best of all, the battery of the MP3 player will recharge as it plays. If you already have a receiver installed in your boat, it may include a port on the back panel that will accept a $25 adapter to connect to the MP3 player's data port. If you're using an iPod, Apple calls its data port the "dock."

Photo of electronics for playing music on your boat

Once your stereo is set up, you're ready to go exploring the musical terrain. Digitally speaking, your two basic choices are to download or to stream. If you prefer to own the music you collect — just as you would have done with CDs, cassettes, 8-track tapes, or 78s — then you'll want to download the music. Apple's iTunes and Amazon's MP3 service are the standard bearers. Both offer individual songs for purchase between $0.69 and $1.29, and whole albums for about $10. In each case, you hold the music files on your own computer or MP3 player, and you can play your music whether or not you're connected to the Internet. Of the two download services, iTunes is the more restrictive about sharing music files from one computer to another; for that reason, I prefer Amazon. With iTunes, there's a social-network service called Ping that lets you share playlists (but not ownership of the songs) with friends. This past summer, both Amazon and Apple introduced "cloud" services that let you store your music and other data on remote servers, allowing you to access it from any device in any location. The downside for boaters underway is that you need a live Internet connection to get to the cloud, including any music you haven't downloaded to your MP3 player.

If you're not interested in actually possessing songs, you can use a streaming service. This is more like listening to the radio, except that you make all the decisions about what gets played. To stream, you'll need a live Internet or smart phone connection any time you listen to music. Several years ago, Pandora Radio came on the scene with its free streaming service based on a clever algorithm that lets you enter a single song title, artist's name, or genre. It then crafts a playlist on the fly, based on music it thinks you'll like. Pandora remains a great way to discover new music you hadn't heard before. But it doesn't let you listen to a string of songs you already know you want to hear.

Other services — Grooveshark, Rdio, Rhapsody, Zune — offer free packages or subscriptions that let you stream exactly the music you want to hear. Last summer, the much-hyped Spotify was the latest of these. By press time, there will surely be others. 

— Published: February/March 2012

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