Linux Media Players

Part 6

Welcome to part 6 of our series. In this installment, we'll be bringing you Rhythmbox, Songbird, Totem and one of our previously missed media players, Aqualung.

Now, on a subject of interest to our readers, I'd like to address a question that was thrown to me not too long back as to why I only covered four media players at a time. The idea behind this is to present you each month with a reasonable number of possible choices from the wide range of Linux media players available out there to make it easier for you to consider each. After each part, you then have an entire month to install, test and evaluate each of them without causing too much trouble or work for yourself.

I know that there's no way you'll be able to make a proper decision on each media player to determine if they'd meet your needs or not, so to be considerate I decided to stretch things out a bit to give you enough time to properly take each one for a test drive if you wanted to before I brought you the next batch.

In short, I was thinking of you, the reader, while coming up with the layout for this series. :) There's nothing worse than a full blown information dump when one is not required or requested. Information dumps are good at times, but when there are a lot of choices that depend a lot on each of our personal tastes, and possibly a lot of homework on your part, a slower pace with good information is usually the best. I hope this helps clear that up. And now, on to our media players!


Rhythmbox is a dedicated media player for Gnome which sports some rather interesting features that, while common to other players, seem to perform better, both together and overall. Loading a library is extremely easy, a bit easier than some other players I've encountered. Just a couple of clicks and away you go. It did a splendid job handling my 2500+ song collection with no complaints, and even cataloged everything, grabbed the appropriate album art automatically, sorted by album, category, or whatever I wanted. While it's not a player that suits my tastes, I really can't say many bad things about it.

Well, I could actually, but those complaints are mostly aesthetic. The visualization system was easy to activate, being just a click away, and worked incredibly well, producing visuals that were both gorgeous and slightly freaky at times. You should have seen some of the visuals it showed for Jingle Bells. The multiple playlist support is very good, quick to setup, and allows for a lot of flexibility in how to propagate lists. It also includes a powerful click to search system, allowing you to search by artist, album or title.

Its podcast and web radio support are good, even if the built-in default web radio station list is a bit lacking. The five included stations will get you started, but a more detailed and extensive web radio library system, similar to what BMPx has, would be a lot better. But adding new ones is very easy, so no worries there, even though I still think that a large included list of the best on the web tends to be better than forcing you to have to do your own surfing to find them.

Rhythmbox also has an interesting feature you don't see on many other players: lyrics display. You can choose to have the player lookup and display lyrics for you as it plays each song.

Also, don't panic if you find that there's no or Jamendo support. It's available via a fairly well designed plugin system that allows you to add just about anything under the sun. The only problem I found with that is that the plugins included with the player seem to be the only ones available right now. While that's not bad, it could be a lot better.

It does include plugins for the Magnatune music store as well as the iPod and MTP capable media players. I'd explain what MTP is, but as I've found in the past, if you don't know what MTP is, you don't have it, so if it's not enabled for you, then there's no worry because you won't need it right now anyway. But in the future if you do, it's there.

The preferences dialog is pretty simple, consisting of four tabs with just a few configurable options. But I wouldn't count that against the player. Sometimes simple is best, especially when all you care about is your music and not a jack of all trades that can mix your tunes and fix your breakfast while it's at it. ;) As for what file formats it plays, since it uses Gstreamer and Xine as it's core, it should only be limited by the formats they can play, which is essentially everything.

Rhythmbox is available through the package systems of most major distributions. Rhythmbox is written for Gnome, but will play on any window manager of choice.

For more information, please check out the Rhythmbox homepage.


Songbird is an all around music management system. It's unique in the fact that it's not just a music management system, it also is a web browser built upon the Firefox framework. Now this isn't to say that Songbird is trying to be the next big Firefox competitor by any means, but the integrated web browser does give Songbird a lot more flexibility than other players, especially in web-centered items like podcasts, web radio and more.

One of the first things that stands out about the player is its library feature. Since the included web browser is directly integrated into the player, it adds a lot of flexibility into the player and the library. Songbird is supposed to be the next big challenger to Amarok and several of the other main stream media players. But I don't think so, at least not yet.

I say this because I found Songbird in a state where I wouldn't consider it ready for primetime. Obviously it is still in early beta, but it has a lot of performance issues with it. Even without loading the library of songs, I found it a bit sluggish and it dragged the system down. Add your music library and things get even more fun as the lag adds up. But aside from the lag, the feature set of Songbird is amazing. If they can fix the lag, they'd have a winning product. Songbird can very easily beat every other player out there with just the total number of raw features it has.

The birdhouse is the default "homepage" for Songbird. It takes you to a special page with music blogs, featured sites and services, and the SkreemR music search engine. SkreemR is pretty good as a music search engine, finding things I didn't even know were possible to find. When you get a page full of results, it'll actually index those results, let you preview them, and even download them if you like.

A word of warning though. There's legitimate copyrighted music tracks that get mixed into those search results along with lots of great free stuff. So be sure of what you're downloading before you do it. While I like the idea of such a powerful search engine in Songbird, the involvement that SkreemR has with lots of shady, or even illegal music download sites is a huge turnoff for me, and may be a legal risk for Songbird and its users in the future.

Now if you do decide to download some tracks listed on SkreemR or anywhere else via Songbird, it does an excellent job of tracking what you've downloaded, who it's from and more. Playlists are another great feature. They're very easy to set up and with just a couple of clicks, you can create custom playlists exactly to your liking. And of course, what media player with an included browser would be complete without a well designed bookmarks section. Obviously this is just using the built in Firefox bookmarks, but hey, at least they kept what makes Firefox's bookmarks great. ;)

Songbird also has a complete web media history archive. So if you've listened to some songs on the internet, Songbird keeps a complete cataloged history of that, complete with song details. Songbird's control center is also very reminiscent of Firefox. But the number of configurable options far exceeds that of Firefox. Of course, that's to be expected since you're mixing over half of Firefox's features with Songbird's. The player also has iPod and plugin support to allow you to expand or improve what Songbird offers you.

Songbird also has full featured support for nearly every type of audio file out there, including a few you wouldn't expect. So if it's a standard sound file, Songbird can probably play it. And if not, there's probably a plugin that'll give you that ability.

Songbird will run well on any window manager out there, although it seems to function better under KDE. To learn more about Songbird, just check out their homepage.


Totem is an all around multimedia player that is similar in many ways to both VLC and the Kaffeine media player. Its support of media files is very good as it uses either the Gstreamer or Xine backends for maximum compatibility. Totem can also play audio cd's and even DVD's. One of the things that may interest many more seasoned Linux users is Totem's simple interface. For those who are feature fanatics, liking their players to have everything, including the kitchen sink, Totem won't be for you. But that's Totem's primary selling point, its simplicity.

One of the primary uses for Totem in most distributions is its support of DVD's natively. It has full support for DVD menus, which is good news, given that its earlier (pre-2.x) dvd menu support was questionable at best.

Totem also makes a good music player, although it seems more tailored to playing movies than music. This is especially true regarding the design of its playlist. While it can support multiple playlists, the way the playlists function leaves something to be desired.

Large media collection support is a bit shaky, and collections over 500 items cause the player to lag severely. Preferences in Totem are limited, but the preferences control center does reveal some interesting features that you wouldn't find in the player in any other way. Things such as TV-out, streaming media and even full visualization support. There's no sign of plugin support anywhere in the player, so it's essentially a WYSIWYG experience with no real chance for the player to grow through the use of plugins.

Totem is available by default in most distributions, or via your favorite package manager if it is not already installed. Totem is designed for Gnome, but will run in any window manager. For more information, check out the Totem homepage.

Previously Missed players:

And now we move on to one of our previously missed media players.


Aqualung is a rather interesting media player. It's both minimalistic, and yet it's fully featured. Aqualung is also the only Linux media player that can claim completely gapless play between tracks. One interesting test that was proposed was to take your favorite song, chop it up into pieces, make a large number of different adjustments so that each of the parts were as different from each other as possible, and then load them in your playlist in order. If you do it right, the song should play so flawless that you'd think that it was the original uncut song, with no gaps, pauses or stutters. That's quite a claim. I wasn't able to test it, but I believe them.

One of the things that I found a bit frustrating about Aqualung is that it's not directly intuitive. But after you play with it for a bit, it does start making sense. But you shouldn't need to explore a player for twenty minutes just to figure out how to use it. A user should be able to master the basics within the first two minutes of using it.

Another feature you'll be interested in is the "Music Store". However, it's not what you think. It isn't there for buying music. It's actually your music management tool. With it you can enqueue music, create playlists, rip and encode cd's and more.

The main player window is just that — a player. Ripping and playing songs is also very easy. Just pop the disk in, and a couple clicks later you're listening to brand new MP3's, ogg or whatever format files you want to create.

Aqualung also does a good job at handling large media libraries and a wide range of media files, including everything from popular file formats such as mp3, ogg or flac all the way up to rare formats such as mod, musepack and more. Regardless of what you have running in the background, or how many songs you have playing in the playlist, the player does a very good job of handling all of it.

Aqualung also has an extensive ability to expand its support and features through a simple plugin system. The music store and the player both do well at handling ID3 meta data. Streaming support takes a little bit to get working, but it's there if you want it. Aqualung is designed for use in Gnome. For more information on Aqualung, you can check out their project page.


Well, that's all for part 6. In the next part we'll be exploring VLC, XMMS, Xfmedia, Xine and one more previously missed media player, the "Listen Media Player".