Back in the 1990s, the most popular format for storing recorded music and other audio content, was the ubiquitous compact disc. At that time, CDs had largely replaced cassette tapes and vinyl records, and had every appearance of facing no viable competition. Only a tiny percentage of audio consumers — even some of the most tech-savvy audiophiles — had yet heard of MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3. Fans of CDs could boast that cassettes and records were obsolete media formats, and that their vastly superior CDs would reign supreme for years to come.
But all of that began to change in the late 1990s, with the advent of a combination of technologies that essentially freed the music from the CD: audio file formats, CD drives commonly available in computers, and software that could read the music off those CDs and convert them into audio files. Within just a few years, most Internet users became well aware of the MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 format — usually referred to as "MP3", since that is the file extension used for naming the files in that format. MP3 made it possible for an individual to copy his entire CD collection onto a hard drive, and then promptly sell those CDs through online aftermarket venues, such as the then-popular Half.com.
This movement received a huge boost with the advent of various file-sharing networks and the peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies that made them possible. These networks included such pioneers as Audiogalaxy and Napster, and allowed people to copy music and other files from one another's computers. Years later, the BitTorrent file distribution standard solved the problem of any given download not completing as a result of the file sharer turning off her computer, or some technical glitch, such as a lost modem connection.
The big record companies — and, years later, the movie industry — initially did not pay much attention to these file-sharing networks. In contrast, public interest in obtaining music for free, as should have been expected, increased at a phenomenal rate, and still shows no signs of declining. It did not take long before seemingly everyone with a computer connected to the Internet was uploading and downloading music, if only to try it out and discover what everyone was talking about. For many people, this resulted in countless nights watching the progress meter for one music file after another downloading — especially during the short period before Napster was shut down by the courts, when file sharers had only several days to download as much music as they could, before the party was ended.
The Quintessence of Online Music
The most commonly used operating systems — Microsoft Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X — have built-in programs that play MP3 files, sending the audio content through the computer's sound card and along to whatever output device is plugged into that sound card — typically computer speakers, although some people prefer headsets. Most if not all of these native music players are adequate; but like so many of the applets built into operating systems, they do not offer nearly as many features as stand-alone alternatives. Furthermore, the operating system vendors oftentimes put little effort into adding new functionality to keep pace with the stand-alone competitors, partly because that is not the focus of their business, and partly because in most cases they would make no money from enhancing applets bundled with their operating systems.
Some of the third-party music players support two or more of the major operating systems, while other players are specific to just one OS. In this article, I will take a close look at one of the most highly-regarded free Windows-specific music players, Quintessential Media Player, from Quinnware.
(For those readers who are running PeerGuardian or any of the other peer-to-peer privacy utilities, the Quinnware website may be blocked, so you will need to shut down or disable any such program in order to access the site.)
If you have a Windows computer, and you would like to try out Quintessential, then simply click the large green "Download" button on their home page, and you will be taken to a page listing the three options: Quintessential Media Player + Media Library 5.0, Quintessential Media Player 5.0, and Quintessential CD. That first option is the music player bundled with a media library and other resources for managing your MP3 collection, such as setting song names inside of the ID3 tags. The third option on that page is for those people who only want a program to play back music directly from CDs, and not MP3 files. In this article, I will choose the second option, to download the Quintessential MP3 player only.
Save the installation file to a folder where you can easily find it, or to the Windows desktop. Note that the Web page you land on has buttons linking to two additional pages, offering language packs and plugins. The language packs are for Chinese (simplified and traditional), Japanese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Greek, Hebrew, Norwegian, Swedish, and various other Asian, east European, and Middle Eastern languages.
Plug-ins can be thought of as components that can be easily added to an application, and that provide complementary capabilities. In the case of Quintessential Media Player, all of the plugins are free, and they allow you to listen to additional music formats (such as FLAC), convert music files to MP3 from other formats (such as the increasingly popular Ogg Vorbis), improve sound playback with signal processing, display animated graphics coordinated with the music, and change the icons within the program's user interface.
In order to install Quintessential on your computer, open the file you have downloaded earlier, at which point you will be presented with the license dialog box.
Once you have agreed to the license, you will be shown a dialog in which you can choose the type of installation (complete or custom), as well as the individual components in the program. In this example, I will not make any changes to the default selections.
Having specified what exactly you want installed, you have the option of accepting the default installation folder (C:\Program Files\Quintessential Media Player) or designating an alternate one. I will use the default value.
Assuming that no problems occur in your installation process, you will then see a dialog showing that all of the components have been unpacked and installed.
Finally, you will be informed that the installation wizard is done. At this point, you are ready to run your newly-installed copy of Quintessential.
When you run Quintessential for the first time, it will attempt to connect to a server at cddbp.net, apparently to register your copy of Quintessential. You will see this immediately if you are running a firewall that detects and blocks such outbound requests, such as the one shown in the figure below, Sygate Personal Firewall Pro. (If you have no such firewall in place, you definitely should add one to your computer's security setup.)
Fortunately, the registration is not needed for Quintessential to function, so you can safely block this initial attempt and any subsequent ones. When the media player first starts up, you will find that it has a clean and attractive user interface.
In the upper left portion of the interface, there are three menus: Menu, Skin, and Plug-ins. The first one is the one that you would most often be using, because it has menu items for setting preferences and for adding individual files and entire folders to the player queue. The other two menus, as well as the Preferences link to the right of them, are all self-explanatory.
At the lower edge of the green track area, there are controls for such capabilities as having Quintessential automatically repeat playing all of the tracks loaded, randomly reordering them, etc. Below this area is a horizontal row of much larger controls, for playing or pausing the current track, stopping the track, jumping forward and backward to other tracks in the queue, etc.
When Quintessential is playing a track, as shown in the figure above, it displays the current position within the track (in seconds and minutes, by default, but not hours), as well as the song title, album name, and artist — assuming that that information has been embedded in the particular MP3 file (using the aforesaid ID3 tags). When the current track is paused, you are shown the total length of the track.
Regardless of what type of music you like to listen to on your PC, if you are looking for a free and capable media player, consider giving Quintessential a try.