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We live in a digital age. It's only appropriate that we listen to digital music. We want our music where we spend our time, and for many of us these days that's on our computers.
This article was previously published on the AudioJungle blog, which has moved on to a new format in 2010. We'll be bringing you an article from the AudioJungle archives each week.
Do you remember the good old days? Our lounge rooms would be full of racks of CDs, cassette tapes, and even records. We'd pick an album or two that we wanted to listen to, hit play, and listen to the songs in order. We were impressed with auto-reverse cassette players, and CD players that would play one album's songs in a random order. The last CD player I bought can play three CDs at once, and play songs from any of the CDs in random order. I thought it was amazing.
Today, most of us have our entire music collections on our computer - hundreds or possibly thousands of albums. The flexibility of playing a single album, or all the songs by an artist or group of artists, or just shuffle through our entire collection, seems normal. And most of us take our music collection - or a big hunk of it - with us on portable media players.
Many of us listen to our music using fairly standard software: either Windows Media Player or iTunes. But there are literally hundreds of similar programs available for Windows, most of which are free. They all do the same basic job, but may have unique features or a different interface.
I perused many of the players that cost a bit of money, but couldn't find any that gave me a convincing reason to pay up. So I've only included free software here (although some of the players have "pro" versions). However, if you paid good money for your favorite player, I'd love to hear in the comments what made it worthwhile.
Here are 13 free MP3 players for Windows.
1. Windows Media Player
Windows Media Player comes with your computer, and works pretty well, so many of us use it and enjoy it. It has all the features you'd expect, including the ability to rip songs from your CDs, a pretty good music library, and enough skins to give you a look that suits you.
Since you're likely to be aware of WMP already, I won't say much more about it. I've never really been a fan, but that's probably because I love exploring the alternatives. If you are a fan of WMP, please let me know why in the comments. You might give me a whole new appreciation for the program!
I first used iTunes after buying an iPod around five years ago. If you own an iPod, using iTunes is virtually a requirement. I was pleasantly surprised by the experience.
iTunes (like most Mac products) is attractive, easy to use, and has most of the features you need. I especially liked the way iTunes handles smart playlists, and created a handful of them, including songs I had never played, and songs in specific genres that had three or more stars.
Although the program is quite big, I have recommended it to many computer novices because it is easy to use, makes it easy to use more advanced functionality, and most of all, it is free!
Winamp was my favourite for many years, and remains a favourite of many people, including a teenager I ran into yesterday. It is light, skinnable, and covers the basics very well. And you can add more features through installing plug-ins.
In the last few years Winamp has been adding features to compete better with the alternatives, including the ability to sync with iPods and import iTunes libraries, song recommendations, album art, and podcast support. The pro version includes ripping and burning CDs.
Songbird is an open source music player that seems designed to look very much like iTunes. Like Winamp, you can extend its feature set using plug-ins. You can read more about Songbird from our previous article, 10 Things Songbird Does that iTunes Can't.
5. Media Monkey
MediaMonkey is one of my favorite Windows music players. Formerly called Songs-DB, its emphasis is accessing your music through a useful tree-based database. MediaMonkey calls itself "the music organizer for the serious collector." I agree with that description.
While it excels at organizing and tagging music, MediaMonkey can also sync with a wide range of devices, handle podcasts, and report on your statistics.
Though I've never used Foobar2000 as my main media player, I've heard great things from its fans for many years. They strongly believe that Foobar is the best music player in existence.
Foobar2000 supports many audio formats, and is incredibly customizable, including skinning and keyboard shortcuts.
1by1 is a "directory player" - basically a very simple music player that just plays all of the songs in a folder. I used to include it on the CD when I was sharing some MP3 files with friends. It is very small, very fast, and does not use databases to organize your music.
Aqualung claims to be an "advanced" music player that plays audio CDs, internet radio streams and podcasts as well as sound files in just about any audio format and has the feature of inserting no gaps between adjacent tracks. I haven't tried it yet, but it looks very promising, playing a wide range of audio formats on a wide range of platforms.
Some of its unique features include multiple playlists (similar to tabbed browsing), command line control, use of LADSPA plug-ins, and the use of an XML-based database for storing information about your music. Looks like a great player for geeks, and possibly for the rest of us.
Billy is another light player. The biggest complaint about Billy is its lack of skins, but the website counts lack of skins as a feature! Like 1to1, it is designed to play an entire directory of MP3s.
10. Quintessential Music Player
The Quintessential Music Player is a highly skinnable music player that supports a wide variety of music formats. The program can be expanded with plug-ins to enhance playback, encoding, use of effects, tagging and more.
Zinf is an open source Winamp clone, and was previously called "FreeAmp". It has features very similar to Winamp, and some nice skins.
12. Spider Player
The Spider Player website calls this product "the ultimate music player". The feature list is very long, and includes conversion between audio formats, support for a wide range of formats, a lot of customizability, support for custom MIDI soundfonts, streaming audio support, and a DSP effects manager. However, it does not support DRM-protected files.
dBpoweramp includes a wide range of helpful audio utilities. These include "CD ripping for those who take ripping seriously", "audio conversion perfected", "CD burning made easy" and "batch ripping on the Industrial Scale". It can play music, too. The software has good audio codec support, and was one of my favorite tools a few years ago.
In writing this article I came across hundreds of other programs. Some may have been very good, many didn't look like there were. The programs above are among the best of them, but may not include all of the best. If you have a favorite media player I haven't included, please let us know about it in the comments.