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November 16, 2000|JON HEALEY/

By some measures, music is the second-most popular item on the Internet, behind only pornography. Not only are there plenty of places online to buy music, but the Web also offers several great sites to help you discover new artists who match your tastes.

The online CD stores compete on price and on shipping charges, the latter being the ugly X factor that can really boost your bill. Generally speaking, the more you buy, the less you'll spend per CD on shipping. Some retailers add sales tax to orders placed by California shoppers, and some let you sample extensively from CDs before buying.

Best site to shop: If you have specific artists in mind, stick with the granddaddy of music sites, CDNow ( In addition to offering multiple reviews, it lets shoppers hear or download samples of practically every song on a CD, lessening the risk of buying a pile of dreck wrapped around one great tune. But if you're just exploring, go to MongoMusic (, which streams up to two hours of music picked to match the vibe of a song or band you like.

Best site to buy: Total E (, an arm of the Columbia House music-buying club, is a bare-bones CD, tape and DVD site that offers no sound samples, reviews or other tools to help you decide what to buy. Nor is its selection as impressive as some competing sites. But you just can't beat the prices or the customer service.

Convenience: Unlike some competitors, Total E won't let you order a CD before it's released. But it will remember your account information and several shipping addresses, making it easy to order for yourself and for your relatives every holiday.

Customer service: First rate. Problems are addressed speedily and with a minimum of hassle.

Shipping and return policy: Total E charges 99 cents an order for standard shipping, which delivers in four to seven days, with an automatic upgrade to priority mail for larger orders. CDs can be returned within 30 days for a refund, although you'll have to eat the shipping charges unless Total E was at fault.

How it compares with offline: Unless you buy only what's on sale at the local retailer, Total E has better prices and far more in stock. The savings increase the more you buy.

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