I recently decided that going forward I will have two sets of digital music files: One set for listening on my portable music players, and one for listening on my networked home stereo. Oh, and of course I’m going to hang on to my CD collection, too.
Some people might argue that having three sets of audio files (plus backups of the ripped files) is overkill. They would probably be correct, but I don’t care. You see, hard-drive storage space is cheap, and I have some perfectly geek-worthy reasons for expanding my audio collection. The number one reason: Because I can.
My Music, Twice
My logic is simple. When you’re on the move, lower-bit-rate audio is just fine. If I’m at the gym, pulling weeds in the yard, or riding the train, my music need not be pristine (though I won’t settle for poor-quality sound, either). However, when I sit down in front of my home stereo to listen to music streamed through my network-connected Squeezebox, from Slim Devices, I intend to really listen. And it had better sound good.
That’s why I’ve never been a big spender at Apple iTunes or any other online à la carte music store. It forces you to accept its digital rights management (DRM) scheme, and you have to settle for its low bit rates. Yes, Apple’s 128-kilobits-per-second AAC files sound better than MP3s at the same bit rate, but they’re still not true CD quality.
Don’t get me wrong, I love online music. I’m a big fan of the Rhapsody music service, which lets me pay $10 a month to try out all the new music I want (it even works with my Squeezebox). But when it comes time to buy music, I still purchase CDs. They give me the luxury of being able to choose the quality of my rips, typically there’s no DRM, and CDs act as the ultimate real-world backup file.
The music I plan to set aside for my portable players (currently a first-generation 4GB iPod Nano and a 5.5-generation 80GB iPod) consists of my current 33GB collection of 5260 audio tracks. About 99.5 percent of these files are MP3 files that I’ve ripped at 192 kbps from my CD collection. The rest are a smattering of impulse iTunes purchases and Audible.com audio books.
My second collection of tunes will eventually include most–but not all–of the same songs from my first collection. Instead of upping the MP3 bit rate, however, I’m going to rip them using FLAC, the Free Lossless Audio Codec.
As I pondered what format my higher-quality collection should take, I decided early on that it had to be lossless. Lossless compression means that no audio data is lost, so the music should sound just as good as the CD from which you ripped it. The benefit of lossless is better sound quality; the downside is that the resulting files are notably larger than files created using a lossy codec like MP3. So, for example, DJ Shadow’s classic “Endtroducing…” album takes up about 88MB when ripped as 192-kbps MP3s, while the FLAC version weighs in at 360MB.
Before settling on FLAC I gave serious consideration to Apple Lossless. The Squeezebox also supports that codec, and it would let me easily put my higher-quality stuff on the iPods, too. However, I really didn’t like the idea of ripping all of my music into a proprietary Apple codec. And should I decide that I want lossless playback on my iPod Nano, I can install the FLAC-supporting Rockbox firmware. Unfortunately, this free, open-source audio player still doesn’t run on my 80GB iPod.
Another major reason I went with FLAC is precisely because iTunes doesn’t support it (yet). I use iTunes every day (mostly for podcasts). By using FLAC I run no risk of accidentally mixing my two collections, resulting in duplicates in iTunes.
Finally, I picked FLAC because it’s just a cool idea: an audio format with source code that’s open to the public. How great is that? And did I mention that it sounds fantastic?
I really do enjoy listening to my music more when I use FLAC files. Describing the difference between a 192-kbps and 128-kbps MP3 is easy: Think FM versus near-CD quality. The difference between a 192-kbps MP3 and a FLAC file is certainly more subtle, even with the best audio examples. I hate to resort to audio-review-magazine speak, but to my ears the lossless files sound more open and three-dimensional than the MP3s.
Can I always tell the difference between a FLAC file and the MP3 version? No. But I do think there’s something to be said for the psychological benefits of lossless. Why waste precious music-listening time wondering if you’re missing something with an MP3 when you can just go lossless?
Next time around I’ll talk more about some of my favorite apps for creating and listening to FLAC files.
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