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Alternatives for the Mediaplayer
The look of the default Windows Mediaplayer and/or cd-player can be redone to the max. Actually it's skinnable itself now, but there's some pretty nice, decorative replacements available, which came forth out of this whole MP3 madness... plus, some basic info. These are only some of the freeware players:
 
Players
The A2 Mediaplayer is a quite advanced player. Support for .mp?, .mid, .wav, .mpg, .cda and .kar (playlist .m3u and .pls). Skin format is fullfeatured, lots of animation, advanced. Specific are current and coming "karaoke" features, featuring some advertisements... had a great response with the skinning audience, so might just be your choice!

C-4 is a lightweight player that supports a lot of formats and is really powerful. It supports .mp?, .vqf, .cda, .wav, .mid, .mod, .mdz, .s3m, .xm, .itz, .it and zipped tracked modules (playlist: .m3u, .pls). Skin format is freeform, and there's different modes (docking (4 sides of the screen), winshade, details/no-details) and a playlist. Complicated, but the structure seems very clear.

CoolPlayer is a more basic player, less options, but all that's needed basically. Small and fast. It supports all mp? variations (playlist: .m3u, .pls). Skinning is freeform and simple. Just one mode and the playlist, though there's some effects (pressed buttons, sliders), so can be slick looking nonetheless. Community favorite.

I guess K-j÷fol was the first one to play .vqf files, to have freeform skinning etc. Development is stopped, since the makers joined the WinAmp crew; download is at the developers homepage, though. Pity. Still using it, too. Most beautiful skins on the web are made for this player, and it's a pretty advanced player, with at least most common features, visualisation and more. Supports .mp?, .aac, .vqf, .wav, .mod, .cda (playlist: .m3u, .pls, .vql, .aal). Skinning: freeform, complicated (thoug the structure is clear), different modes (docking/winshade) and a playlist.

PAM is an audio/video player, with a skin format easily understood. Download is kinda big, but Pam supports .mp3, .mp2, .mpa, .mpg, .mpeg, .mpv, .m1v, .avi, .mov, .qt, .asf, .wav, .wave, .au, .snd, .aif, .aifc, .aiff, .mid, .midi, .rmi (playlist .pls, .m3u). Encoder frontend, renamer, skins, playlist editor, id3/lyric editor, timer, multi-language support are included.

Sonique is, with WinAmp, the biggest and also most commercial player. Free, but with commercial interest - expect some unique features, a real good player, some features that are really hard to turn off (autostart!), complicated, fullfeatured...

Ultraplayer is a rising star with allready loads of features, visualisations, animation in the skin, etc. Supports: .mp?, .wav, .cda, .wma (playlist: .m3u, .pls). Skinning is freeform, lots of features, so complicated. Skins ship as an .exe, self-extracting a .uhk file. You'll need the "skin developer kit" to create them.

WinAmp is the standard, period. Quite a commercial effort, like the default mediaplayer it encorporates your system fully. Ofcourse, it's good, supports lots of formats, can look awfully good (cause loads of good skins available) and version 3 adds freeform skinning. Supports .mp?, .wma, .mjf, .as, .voc, .wav, .cda, .it, .xm, .s3m, .stm, .mod, .mtm, .dsm, .mid (playlist: .m3u, .pls). Skinning: only one not freeform (soon...), but lots of options, decks to show or hide, a very clear structure, just complicated because there's loads of buttons/sliders to skin.

Even Microsoft has entered the skinning area. Windows Mediaplayer 7 has support for skins. Quite advanced, quite complicated too. It supports .cda, .ivf, .aif, .aifc, .aiff, .asf, .avi, .wav, .wma, .wmv, .mpeg, .mpg, .m1v, .mp2, .mp3, .mpa, .mpe, .mpv2, .mp2v, .pls, .mid, .midi, .rmi, .au, .snd (playlist .m3u, .asx, .wax, .wvx). Skinning is, ofcourse, totally freeform and has some advanced extras too. Visualisations and more are available. Format is quite new (.xml), so quite complicated too.. even more than the others.

Can't find it yet (?) - check out the most complete list available (thanks, Scarebear!), located at Skinbase :). Additionally, everything free has a listing at Skinnables.
Some differing a bit...
For anyone not wanting a fullfeatured desktop player, here's one running from the systray. STP (SystrayPlayer (3), free, all versions) supports .wav, .cda, and .mp3 (playlist .m3u and .pls). Buttons (and hovering) of the popup and minibar are "skinnable" - fast and cool player!

At 545studios you can find Velocity. Yes, it's skinnable, for the desktop, but it only features a couple of buttons (play, stop, next etc). Place them anywhere, aligned or scattered around, great concept!

If you are using winamp, there is this quick plugin that will add a winamp control to the taskbar (thanks idvah for pointing it out).

Another option, cool little tool: "Simple Control is a WinAmp control program that is free form skinnable. It allows you to run winamp and leave it minimized in the systray. (...) with version 2 new skinnable features have been added such as Skinnable Volume Control buttons, Show Playlist button, as well as Show EQ button. All buttons now have Mousedown images as well."
Also for Winamp, there's a couple of tools that will create an html page with your current track info, and upload it with ftp on your server, SDO:SD, and SpyAmp. Plus, "CurrentlyHearing is a general-purpose plugin for Winamp2 that allows you to display what you're currently listening to in Winamp on your website."
There's loads of cool plugins for winamp (complete list here) but here is one standing out: TransparentFX changes the transparency level of any Winamp windows (depending on its state: active, mouseover, or inactive) under Windows 2000/XP, and can even fade between each state.
Tools
For your own mp3 creating there's EAC (Exact Audio Copy), a professional, but free (actually, postcardware! for all versions) "cd-ripper", it converts .cda files to .wav (so you can encode them to .vqf, .mp? etc). Decent program!
For encoding, we were recommended (thanks, Groo) LAME. Open source project, and said to be "the best encoder, even better than most of the costly Fraunhofer products. Being command-line driven, you have two choices: you can use it with EAC and produce great-sounding MP3s directly from EAC. Or you can use a front-end, like the nice RazorLame. Open source too, of course. (...) For a nice LAME/EAC-oriented site, visit R3Mix. No banners, great info and terrific boards. For the sound quality obsessed only, though :)".
Another option is CDex, a freeware ripper that can create mp? immediately, a nice tool again.

Need more tools, add-ons etc ? dMusic seems a great portal on digital music matters.

For cataloging your collection Groo recommends MAC (MPEG Audio Collection, free, all versions).
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