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Music to your ears

A restaurant sound system that fits in your back pocket?

When the trendy cafe Hot Chocolate, home to $20 skirt steaks and a sweeping dessert menu from owner/pastry chef Mindy Segal, opened in Chicago earlier this year, the music setup was pretty typical: a CD player, a stack of discs. But a couple months ago a resourceful waiter hooked up his iPod—Apple Computer's small digital music player—to the café's sound system. With the click of a button, Hot Chocolate's airwaves filled with a far more eclectic music mix—from bossanova to Cuban jazz to rock.

"It's easier for us as operators to create the right environment with the iPod," Hot Chocolate consultant Brad Rubin says. "With a click of a button, we can set just the vibe we want to set." Whether it's the iPod, iRiver or any number of other portable MP3 players on the market—which cost up to $399, plus a $40 speaker adapter—operators say the ease of setting up a range of playlists for various dayparts and moods let them put a stamp on their restaurant they weren't able to before.

None other than New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni added (albeit with tongue slightly in cheek) the iPod to his listing of major developments throughout history. Bruni placed the electronic device smack dab between modern refrigeration and "the hand-held doodad for plowing crumbs off tablecloths."

Some places, including Collins Pub in Seattle and Common Ground in Allston, Massachusetts, even host regular iPod Nights. "People bring their iPods, and they bring their friends too," says Common Ground owner Mike Moxley. For Julie Taras, who owns the 500-sq.- ft., 30-seat restaurant Little Giant in New York City, the MP3 player is all about squeezing 9,000 songs into something the size of a calculator.

"It's such a small footprint," Taras says. "Which is key when your restaurant is the size of a one-bedroom apartment."

Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5 20 GB - $299
Another audiophile favorite, the
20 gig Sony player doesn't have
all the flashy extras that come
with the big iPod, but most
restaurants won't need them anyway.
It has a compact and
durable design and beats other
models with its super long
battery life (40 hours). The Sony
also holds 13,000 songs.

iPod 60 GB - $399
Consistently rated among the
best on the market, Apple's
largest model holds up to
15,000 songs, more than
enough to keep customers
humming from lunch through
dinner. While it comes with features
you may not need for
your restaurant (photo storage,
color screen) its sound
quality and interface get
top ratings. Battery needs
recharging after 15 hours.

Rio Karma 20 GB - $199
An affordable model that has garnered
praise for its top-notch sound
quality. Holds 10,000 songs. Its
high-tech design is meant more for
hand-held use than sitting on a
restaurant shelf and has features
suited for computer geeks.

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