Electronics Giant Thomson Buys Into MP3

Upstart digital audio format MP3 received some heavy-duty validation with the announcement on Wednesday, April 27 by Thomson Multimedia SA that it has made a 20% investment in MusicMatch Inc., a maker of MP3 player and management software. "Jukebox," as the software is known, is used to play, encode, and manage MP3 files. Thomson makes RCA, ProScan, and Thomson brand electronics.

The investment was seen by many industry observers as an indication of MP3's growing importance and potential as a consumer audio format. A compressed music-file format (whose full acronym stands for Motion Pictures Expert Group, layer 3), MP3 shrinks audio data to about one-tenth the volume of a normal CD. One minute of music equals approximately 1MB of data when encoded by MP3. Proponents of the format and computer-industry journalists are fond of calling MP3 audio "near-CD quality," for which they have been roundly criticized by many audiophiles. "MP3 is nowhere near CD quality," says Stereophile's outspoken senior contributing editor, Michael Fremer. "It's ridiculous that anyone---especially a supposedly knowledgeable journalist---would think it is." Fremer has been engaged in a protracted battle of words with the New York Times over what he sees as the irresponsible and misleading use of such terms.

Critics such as Fremer, who has long complained about the limitations of the CD format, may be dismayed to discover just how little importance average music fans attach to the ultimate resolution of the music they listen to. Lucas Graves, an analyst with Jupiter Communications Inc., believes that MP3 may become the next big wave in popular audio. "The more that digital music is easily playable on standard consumer electronic equipment, the faster it will take off," he said. "If you can have digital playback of audio files on home audio electronics systems, this will be big." An easy interface to ordinary audio systems is all that is needed.

"We think that this whole industry is going to undergo a quick change that will shift the way we listen to music," said Dave Arland of Thomson Consumer Electronics Inc. "MP3-playing car audio, stereos, and TV set-tops are all possibilities." Arland's predictions may come true. Convenience, not quality, has always been a huge factor in audio playback formats. The cassette tape replaced open-reel tape for that reason, as the CD did the LP. Graves believes the market for MP3 is approaching "critical mass."