How To Rip Your Music (Part 2)

Where do you start when converting a music collection to data files for home (and portable) playback? In the January 2011 issue, we defined key terms and explored the pros and cons of both lossy (data-compressed) and lossless (uncompressed) music-file formats. Now we'll put that knowledge to use. With space at a premium in these columns, instead of debating all the options I'll just tell you what I do and why, and hope that you can work out your best strategy from there.

Formal Fit
Which format and bit rate? When I rip lossy, I use MP4 (AAC), because I think it has a tiny sonic edge, very occasionally, under rare combinations of bit rate and program material, over MP3. (I participated in some early listening tests of perceptual coders, so I recognize just how small these differences can actually be under controlled, double-blind conditions.) These days, just about every hardware and software music component will play both MP4/AAC and MP3.

Back when hard disk space cost actual money, I used to assign different formats and bit rates to different program material. Nowadays, with data-storage costs nearing free (you can buy a 1-terabyte internal drive for $50 - around a penny per CD's worth of storage), I just rip everything to either lossless or lossy 320k and call it good. One caveat: Some devices won't play Apple Lossless files (Onkyo receivers, for example), while some others won't play FLAC. So lossless aficionados will need to investigate other hardware options, such as the High Resolution Technologies Music Streamer II USB DAC ($150) that we covered in our "Experts' Guide to Great Gifts '10" (December 2010).

Let It Rip
Which ripper to use? Numerous software applications "rip" CDs, converting the PCM digital audio to another format. (By the way, it's unclear whether this term derives from the slang term "rip-off," or is some obscure lateral borrow from "raster image processor." In either case, whenever you rip a disc that you own for your personal, place-/device shifting use, you're not ripping anyone off. But when you e-mail the files to your ex-roommate in Elkton, you are.) As I said, there are a million software rippers; like nearly everyone else, I mostly just use iTunes. The one strike against it - and it's a biggie - is that iTunes doesn't do FLAC, which brings us to . . .