This morning I got a message from a musician friend inquiring about putting together a stereo. He wrote, "I'm looking to buy a stereo for the first time in well over a decade and would love some advice. I'd like to get something that sounds good without spending too much, and I'm wondering about what exactly to get in this day and age. I don't buy many CDs anymore but I do have some. I mostly have music on my computer and iPod. That said, I'm tired of listening to MP3 format and want some more fidelity.
So do I need a traditional amp? And what kind of speakers would you recommend? Is there digital to analog technology to covert my digital music as I listen? If so, do I need to buy songs in a different format? I'd really appreciate your feedback and advice. thanks!"
Rather than immediately recommend particular products (that's for later), I want to first look at "the workflow" of playing digital music. Before you can play music you have to HAVE music. Digital music used to come only on physical media such as CDs, but now is primarily available as files via Internet downloads. Whether your music comes from CDs or directly via the Internet, all your music should be kept in a one central location - you music library.
What's a music library? Basically it's a folder on your computer where all your music is located. I keep all my music in a Network Assessable Storage or a NAS drive that any computer with local network access can use.
Some programs, such as iTunes let you "rip" CDs directly into a music library, (I've always hated this term "rip", dating from when it was possibly illegal to move music files off of a CD onto your computer; it implies some sort of violent or illegal act, neither of which is the case.) The first thing I do when I get a new CD is rip it into my library.
This is a good place to delve into digital formats. MP3 is a digital format; in this case a lossy (it throws away data) format that makes music files smaller and easier to store. MP3s are a compromise for storage sake. In 2013 there's no need to use the MP3 format (except for your smartphone) since storage has gotten so inexpensive, there is no reason to use any format that throws away data. If you use iTunes as your ripping program you will need to go into the "import settings" and change the default, which is 320 MP3, to AIFF or WAV, both of which are full-resolution formats with no data loss. If you need MP3 files for your smartphone iTunes can automatically generate these files while copying music onto your phone.
Once a CD is ripped or a file downloaded into your music library you can play it back through any number of music playback Apps. iTunes is the most ubiquitous of these playback programs, but other free and paid Apps are available for both the PC and Mac.