Opinion

Wireless wall of sound

You could buy a budget MP3 player with a 1,000-song capacity for about $80, and with some luck, your friends won't notice that it's not an iPod Nano. So why would you want to pay $230 for an Ibiza Rhapsody?

It's simple: To be ahead of the game. Or maybe just to stay on the bleeding edge.

The slick Ibiza, from Chinese appliance company Haier, is the latest portable player with built-in Wi-Fi, a technology that consumer electronics manufacturers are still figuring how to incorporate into products. Players such as the Ibiza, Apple's iPod Touch, the Sansa Connect, Microsoft's Zune and the forthcoming one from Slacker, each use Wi-Fi to deliver a different experience. For example, Apple lets users buy music wirelessly, Microsoft enables them to share songs between players, and Sansa allows them to download an unlimited number of tracks wirelessly from Yahoo's subscription service for a flat monthly fee.

The Ibiza takes Wi-Fi one step further: It lets users stream songs wirelessly from a subscription music service (in this case, Rhapsody), with no downloading delays or capacity concerns. In other words, it makes the service fully portable, giving subscribers much the same experience as they have on their computer at home. It's truly kid-in-a-candy-store stuff, at least for those with a large appetite for music.

Say you're at the airport with a few hours to kill. There's a commercial Wi-Fi hot spot, so you fire up your Ibiza and log on. Don't have an account? That hurdle would stop the Sansa Connect, but the Ibiza has a Web browser, so you can enter your credit card and buy a day's worth of connection time. You then tune into a Rhapsody channel — say, New Wave — and up pops a Nick Lowe track, "Half a Boy & Half a Man," from his greatest hits record. You know Nick's an interesting guy, so you click on the Ibiza's main button a couple of times to display his biography on the 2.5-inch screen. The song's good, but it's not your favorite, so you click the main Ibiza button again and browse through other tracks on the record. The titles remind you of Lowe's former bandmate Dave Edmunds, so you click a few more times to summon a lineup of similar artists, where you find Edmunds. Another click and you're scrolling down a list of his songs. Soon you're listening to "From Small Things." The fast-forward button now takes you through Edmunds' collected works. A few clicks on the main button and you're scrolling through new releases, artists and key tracks in the same genre. The music keeps playing as you browse, with artists' photos and album covers flashing across the screen. Every step you take on the Ibiza enmeshes you deeper into music's web of interrelationships.

That's the beauty of subscription music services in general and Rhapsody in particular, and the Ibiza does a better job than its predecessors of bringing the experience to a portable device. In fact, you don't even have to connect the Ibiza to a PC, or even own one, to get the full measure of its abilities. There are other nice features, such as its podcast capabilities, and some irritating ones, most notably the quirky square pad that is the main tool for operating the device. (For a full review, go here.) The most interesting thing to me about the device, though, is what it suggests about where we might be headed.

One of the main drawbacks to subscription services so far has been the kluginess of their portable versions. To take Rhapsody on the road with the typical non-Apple MP3 player (it doesn't work with iPods, which don't support Rhapsody's anti-piracy technology), you have to download the songs you want to hear onto your computer, then load them onto your device. That eliminates one of the prime benefits of these services: the enormous musical landscape they provide for users to explore, with no meter measuring how many songs they play or how often they play them. The Ibiza restores that benefit through Wi-Fi and streaming, making it easier to realize the full value of Rhapsody.

Granted, Wi-Fi isn't ubiquitous. But wireless broadband will be eventually, whether it be through Wi-Fi or some other technology. At that point, devices such as the Ibiza will realize their full value too. And when they do, you won't need a hard drive to carry around your music collection. You may not even need to collect music. You'll simply need to be able to access a source online filled with things you'd like to hear.

The combination of ubiquitous wireless Internet and devices like the Ibiza could kill off music radio too. Why listen to broadcasts for the masses when you can tune in programming from the Net that's customized to match your particular tastes — especially when it's free and advertiser supported? And yet it may be just as likely that subscription services never take off. The advertiser-supported versions may not pencil out, and the paid versions may never overcome the public's reluctance to pay for music without obtaining a permanent copy of it. Listeners who want access only to a few CDs wouldn't get much out of a service such as Rhapsody. Nor would consumers who feel no compunction about downloading bootlegged copies for free from file-sharing networks.

Nevertheless, I think the public will inevitably shift from collecting copies of individual songs to buying access to the whole catalog. That's because of devices like the Ibiza Rhapsody, which show what it means to be able to hear anything, anywhere, anytime.

Jon Healey is a Times editorial writer; he runs the BitPlayer blog.

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