Everyone running a “Wintel” PC has Windows Media Player. Sooner or later, most of us need to add other players for file formats not supported by Windows Media Player. Most of the competing players want to be the “default” player for all, or at least most, media files in your system. You have to be careful in the install process to select ONLY the file types that you WANT the “new” media player to handle, or it will simply take over. Some media players put so many “hooks” into your system that they are almost impossible to remove. My take on all this is that you want to be careful about installing media players, and choosy about which ones you install and use.
On this page I will detail the players, codecs, and related tools that I use. Some of these I use because I like them, others I use because I have to. All of these work on my system, but I make no guarantees about their suitability for your particular needs.
If you want to use RealAudio files or streams, you must have a compatible player. Unfortunately, RealPlayer is one of those “take over the world” applications that digs its way deep into your system. I will not use it. Fortunately, there is a Real Alternative player that gives you RealAudio compatibility without taking over your system and annoying you with ads and such.
My current favorite media player is Foobar 2000. It is not as fully developed as some other players yet, but it has a smaller system footprint and is less intrusive than some other players, as well as actually sounding cleaner than some. I highly recommend it.
My previous favorite player was Winamp. It can play most types of media files, although in some cases you have to add a plugin. In fact, there are a variety of free plugins for Winamp available at Nullsoft’s website.
A favorite of mine is for Gapless Audio Output, available here. This plugin actually solves 2 different problems for me. The more obvious one is where you have a playlist of files from a CD, and some cuts are supposed to run together with no pause in between: Winamp will normally go silent for a fraction of a second while loading the next cut, and this plugin makes the playback continuous. Another thing that bothered me was the fact that, if there wasn’t a long enough silence at the end of a file, there would be a slight “blip” repeated after the end of the cut. The gapless audio output plugin solves that problem too.
If you want Winamp to play FLAC files (see below), there is a Flac Plugin for Winamp 2 and Winamp 5 that can be found here.
By now you are probably aware that there are a lot of different kinds of media files out there, each using its own encoded format, or “codec”. The more popular media players will handle several different codecs, but in some cases a player will either need some kind of addition (like a plugin) or may not support a certain codec at all.
One of the most popular file formats for music is the mp3 format. It is supported by most players, and, depending on the data rate used for encoding, has a sound quality anywhere from very good to absolute garbage. (This variation in sound quality holds true for all “lossy compression” formats.) The big problem with mp3, IMO, is that the method of encoding it was developed, and is owned, by Fraunhofer, a company that expects to be paid for its work and does not tolerate theft of what they created. Now, I am not in favor of stealing, but I see no reason to buy a technology when I can get something as good or better for free.
A growing number of online music sellers, including Mindawn and Magnatune, use a different compression format called Ogg Vorbis. Some contend that ogg files sound better than mp3 files.
The strongest argument for using Vorbis instead of mp3, though, is that Ogg Vorbis is FREE. There is no one wanting to collect royalties for its use, and this is good news for people wanting to encode and distribute music. The down side is that not all players support ogg files, and some players that do require you to install an added codec for it. Most new computers are ready to handle mp3 files right out of the box, but usually you have to install ogg support yourself. This is not hard to do, but it requires a little extra effort and attention, and many computer users are not accustomed to making that kind of effort.
Not everyone likes the idea of having all their music library as lossy compressed files, and for them there is the Free Lossless Audio Codec, usually written as FLAC. This can shrink any wave file by as much as 50% without any loss of quality. When the file is decoded, you are getting an EXACT copy of the original (full CD quality) audio. Some music (including what Chinese Puzzle Recording offers) can be purchased in this format.