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.
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.
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.
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.