Why rip your CDs? And why rip them to lossless?

Why rip your CDs? And why rip them to lossless?

Ripping music – transferring it from a physical format into a purely digital form stored on a computer drive – was once regarded with suspicion by those who prize sound quality. Surely changing music, even music already stored in digital form on a compact disc, from one format to another would result in a loss of quality that would outweigh any gain in convenience?

But it’s an opinion that just doesn’t hold water anymore. Formats like MP3 and AAC may sacrifice some quality in order to keep file sizes small, but the emergence of lossless digital audio formats, able to preserve every piece of information from a CD recording, means that the ripped file can be sonically indistinguishable from the original.

You might still ask why you should spend precious time ripping your CD collection. It’s all a question of convenience: a lossless digital music collection saves shelf space and is easy to move and back up; for larger collections, it also makes it far easier and faster to locate individual songs and albums. You can also access a digital music library from multiple sources simultaneously, for example from several network music players located in different rooms in your house.

On the hardware side, storage devices like NAS and external hard drives offer huge amounts of space at low prices. And with high quality DACs widely available, computer hardware now offers excellent playback and can be easily connected to your existing hi-fi setup.

File types: which should I use?

So you’ve decided to rip your CD collection to a lossless format, but which format should you choose? Here are the main contenders.

FLAC

The Free Lossless Audio Codec is fast becoming the most popular choice for audiophiles. Like MP3, OGG and AAC, FLAC is compressed to keep file sizes relatively small, but unlike those formats it’s lossless and therefore indistinguishable from CD quality. CD audio converted to FLAC will typically be reduced to around 50 percent of its original size; a typical three-minute song on a CD will take up 30-40MB of space, while a ripped FLAC version of that song is 15-20MB.

FLAC supports metadata (artist and song information can be embedded into the file and artwork can be referenced by the file) and will play back on a wide variety of software and hardware, some of which we’ll explore later in this article. Crucially for many, it’s not currently supported by Apple products like iTunes or the iPod.

Apple Lossless

As you might guess from the name, the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (or ALAC) was developed by Apple and works with the company’s products like iTunes, the iPod and the iPhone (as well as being supported by a number of other hardware and software players); if you’re an avid user of Apple gear, this will probably be the format for you. Like FLAC it’s compressed and supports metadata, and files ripped from typically take up around 40-60 percent of their original size.

AIFF and WAV

AIFF and WAV are lossless but uncompressed, so ripped files take up the same amount of space as they would on a CD (around 10MB per minute of stereo sound). This large file size makes them less desirable than FLAC and Apple Lossless, as you’ll need about twice the storage space for the same library, but they are compatible with a wide range of devices and software. WAV handles metadata but in a clumsier way than FLAC and ALAC, so if you transfer a WAV library to another device there is a chance some of the information may not appear as it should.

Ripping software

Max (Mac)

Available for Apple computers running Mac OS X 10.4 and higher, Max is a free app able to create audio files in a variety of formats, including all four lossless codecs mentioned above. If your CDs are slightly scratched, Max incorporates “Cdparanoia”, which corrects any errors that might occur during the ripping process. It also features MusicBrainz, which looks for CD information online and then embeds this metadata in the ripped files (this works for FLAC and Apple Lossless, but not WAV and AIFF).

Max’s interface isn’t the slickest or most user-friendly thing we’ve ever seen, and if you’re not au fait with ripping software you might need to consult its built-in help documents. That said, once you’ve got to grips with it, it’s a fast and accurate ripper, and should you wish to rip your CDs to more than one format (perhaps you want one lossless copy for home listening and one lossy but smaller MP3 copy for your portable player), you can do so simultaneously.

Exact Audio Copy (PC)

If you’re using Windows and want to convert your CDs to FLAC, Exact Audio Copy does the job very ably indeed, and its accuracy and error correction make it extremely popular with PC-owning rippers. It uses the freedb CD database for metadata retrieval. Oh, and like Max it’s 100 percent free.

iTunes (PC and Mac)

Chances are, you already have iTunes on your PC or Mac – and that could save you downloading and installing another ripping app. iTunes can rip CDs to three lossless formats (Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV) and features error correction for damaged discs. iTunes automatically retrieves album and artist information from the Internet.

Playing your files

Of course, iTunes also functions as a software player for several lossless formats, as well as a way to get the files onto your iPod or iOS device for portable listening. As mentioned above, iTunes will not play FLAC files, so if that’s your audio format of choice, you’ll need to find something else.

Windows users have a wide choice of FLAC-compatible players, including the highly popular likes of Winamp and MediaMonkey; you can also add a plugin to Windows Media Player in order to make it play FLAC. There’s also VLC, Songbird and XBMC Media Center, all of which work on both PC and Mac.

In terms of portable hardware, Apple Lossless, WAV and AIFF will all play on iPods and iPhones, as well as a handful of other physical players. FLAC won’t play on Apple devices, but it works on many Samsung Galaxy smartphones, a number of AV receivers and almost every portable audio player made by iAudio.

51 Comments

  • paw says:

    It might be worth mentioning that jRiver seems to be a very popular windows option but it isn’t free.
    AIFF to my ears sounds better than FLAC. Since FLAC is lossless if space isn’t at a premium then it is probably worth converting to AIFF.
    I think discussing how to get music from an internal/external hard drive to the amplifier in good condition is worth a mention.
    Audioquest (of cable fame) have a usefull downloadable walk me through guide.
    Perhaps there is a site out there which helps with choosing what options to put in the drop down boxes. Wikipedia is good but not especially task dedicated.
    With a computer there are streaming audio and video sites to be found on the web. However listening to these through the laptop’s internal speakers while the hifi speakers are silent is very frustrating. Suggestions wellcome.

    For the record (sic) I am using an ASUS AIO P1801 computer, with an ASIO driver (drop down box) for a musical fidelity v-link 192 thing (USB2 input) which inputs via an XLR connection into my NAD C390DD amplifier digitally which can play hd music upto 192/28. The other output of the v-link goes to a musical fidelity v-dac II and analogue amplifier for another area. I am using external HDD via USB3 for storing music, music videos & school projects.
    I can control the jRiver media centre from various iPads/iPhones etc. with jRemote app. This is good for selecting music from the hard drive.
    Using the web based features of jRiver or browsers doesn’t really work with J Remote.
    The current version of splashtop streamer is great with the ASUS tablet screen but not with the iThings (size resolution issues- a large desk top really doesn’t fit well).
    I am also beginning to look at how to control the amplifier volume via wifi with the iPad etc. It looks like logitech may have a solution.
    Returning to online streaming- I just tried via control panel ->sound setting the speakers to v-link. Lots of warnings came up but it does seem to work. An ABC app seems to allow live listening but I’m struggling to get sound from previous programs without downloading first.

  • Jon Paterson says:

    I rip all my music to both Flac and MP3. MP3 for phones iPods etc. Flac for HiFi quality, I use a Sonus system to feed my Cyrus amp and QM9 speakers, and various other Sonus products round the house that can be separate or synced up. These also can feed internet radio or various streaming services. All controlled by phone apps.
    I’m very happy with the setup and find the sound quality of Flac through the Cyrus/QM9 seup to be excellent.

  • Gary says:

    Bull do a white noise test and compare them

  • Craig Allison says:

    I am a former, 20 year B&W dealer. High resolution audio via high-rate PCM or DSD is a great new path to music enjoyment. But the process must be made much simpler or the public as a whole will not change their preferences. Someone needs to come out with a “Musicomputer” that can only download music files from any site and organize them for the user, with a slot for DAC of choice. As a high-end sage said recently, “The only problem with computer audio is the computer.” As it stands, one needs J-river but such as HD Trax must be imported into it., and a fair amount of cyber-manipulation and perseverance is needed. As long as this state of affairs continues, I-Tunes/MP-3 will continue to badly pollute the musical waters at a time that is critical to re-engage the masses with good sounding music. And what does B&W think of Pono?

  • Srinath says:

    Thanks for recommending Exact Audio Copy.

  • Harry Sillen says:

    The prospect of transferring my CD collection to a storage device is daunting to me. I have an all-McIntosh system with B&W 803 Diamonds and need something that is comparable in sound quality. Maybe some of your readers know of some equipment that can import from it’s own CD drive and store the files internally, to be connected to my pre-amp? I love my CDs and am loath to give up all the info on the jackets, as I was giving up the LP sleeves some time ago, but space considerations dictate this. Added to that is the fact that more and more recordings are no longer available on physical discs, but as downloads only. I thank all the writers above for their valuable input. I’ll pour over the information in the hopes of learning something. Thanks!

  • Taras says:

    Harry, you may try XLD on your Mac for ripping the CDs and organizing them on your Mac and then transfer to a NAS device (Synology can be connected to external DACs and then to your amp).

    Otherwise consider something like Bluesound system that may rip and organize the discs itself.

    Or consider one of CD ripping services, so you just pack your music collection and send it to a company that does the rest for you.

    I’m currently using 2-disk Synology NAS for my music collection (ripping has been a time-consuming process, but I only had to do this once). The music is then streamed to Sonos/Rotel/B&W combination which works just fine.

  • Andreas says:

    How about high resolution discs. I don’t know that much about different discs.
    The only one Ive come in contact with are DVD-Audio, and after some searching there are software to rip those.
    There was some free software cant remember the name but it was a bit clumsy in handling the files.
    There is also DVD Audio Extractor wich is not free, but if you want to have those discs on your computer like the rest of your library its a good option to have.

    Since you guys are the experts, what about SACD or Blu-Ray Audio discs is there any way to add those to a digital library ? I find high quality music interessting, but if it can’t be integrated into the collection its a waste to purchase those discs.

  • Linky P says:

    I agree with Craig Allen’s comment above — it’s just got to get simpler. Other than iTunes, I don’t really know of a dependable library manager that has a decent interface. I’m looking for one now (the newer versions of iTunes have really messed up what use to be a pretty stable system). I’ve got 3,000+ CDs yet to rip, and about 40,000+ songs already digitized. None of that does me any good if I can’t get to them easily, find and play them easily. And, you know, this isn’t my full time job.

  • Linky P says:

    Sorry, Craig Allison, not Craig Allen.

  • Harry Sillen says:

    Have had no opportunity to visit the site again and want to thank you for the suggestions. I getting some experience in this field by transferring some files to USB drive and playing them in the McIntosh MPV 891 Blu-Ray player which can play files up to 24/192. Sounds great, but obviously not a permanent solution.

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