What Format Do You Rip In?

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A recent post on B&W speakers' website discussed ripping CDs. And while I thought it was an excellent beginning overview of ripping CDs for both PCs and Macs, it avoided several of the issues and problems currently associated with ripping CDs to a computer, any computer.

The first major problem in ripping CDs is choosing a format to rip to. Mac users have it relatively easy since there are only two high-quality choices for Redbook spec CDs - AIFF and Apple Lossless. Early on when I first began ripping CDs I used 320 BPS MP3 because hard disc space was expensive and my iPod only held 60 GBs. I soon went to Apple Lossless, and as storage costs continued to plummet, switched to AIFF for all my rips and never looked back.

For PC users the options are different, but equal. Your high-quality options are WAV and FLAC. The problem for PC's is WAV doesn't support changes to meta-data. Fortunately FLAC does support meta-data alterations, but FLAC is a compact lossless format that is NOT supported by iTunes. Sure, there are quite a few programs that can convert FLAC to a format to a more compatible iTunes, but it does involve extra steps.

But if you are a Mac user who wants to play higher resolution music files, they will most likely be either FLAC or WAV. Often I use a different player such as Audirvana Plus or Decibel for higher resolution files, and I keep them in separate folders from my iTunes files. But doing this makes it impossible to play those files on the Logitech Touch since it uses the iTunes library for its source. My solution is a second set of high-rez files in the iTunes library.

As to what programs to use for ripping, some audiophiles have a clear preference for something other than iTunes. I've tried other rippers and aside from ergonomic differences, I haven't noticed any differences between ripping program's sonic results. I suggest choosing the program that gives you the most easy-to-use workflow and that may not be iTunes.

My own primary complaint with iTunes ripping isn't the quality of the music files, it's iTunes' often bizarre placement of the files. Very often instead of putting a ripped CD's music files under the artist's name folder, iTunes will put the files in the "Compilations" folder. And if you move the files to where they should belong you will have to re-link them to your library. Also if the meta-data on an album includes special featured artists for particular selection iTunes will put it in its own separate folder. The only way to fix this I've found is to go into the iTunes "file info" section and delete the additional artists in the meta-data so the files will be reunited in one folder.

So, what's my point?

Simple, as ripping becomes more universal we need a higher level of cross-platform standardization. There really is no excuse for the incompatibilities and inconveniences of the different digital music file formats we are forced to use. Due to the airtime involved in downloading uncompressed high-resolution files, FLAC will be the most attractive option for sites such as HD Tracks for quite some time. Even though end users have little need for file compression since storage space costs have come down so much, for transmission lossless compression is still the way to go. That means FLAC, and that means Mac users will still need to go through extra steps during playback (that's until Apple decides to support FLAC, which could be never.) And until PC users have an uncompressed format that permits changes to meta-data, FLAC may be their best option.

One final point - neither PCs or Macs are ideal for music playback, yet. Whichever you choose will require some work-arounds, compromises, and adjustments to the way they WANT to work. I hope this will change eventually, but don't hold your breath till it happens... 

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