Ask the Smartest Man You Know: Compressed Audio

Today I debut a new (recurring) section on the blog which I've humbly titled Ask the Smartest Man You Know. Most of these questions will be about technical issues but the four readers of this blog are encouraged to send me questions about anything you think I might know something about. You may leave your question in the comments or email it to me. If you read this blog you already know my email address.

The first questions comes from a J.S. in Omaha, NE.

if i rip a cd into itunes, then burn the cd is that quality any better/worse than using software (nero) to strictly "copy" the cd from the disc to a cd-r?


First, a formality. Always, always capitalize the T in iTunes. You don't want to make Steven P. Jobs angry do you?

Now, with that out of the way on to the actual answer.

Technically, yes copying a CD directly is higher quality than ripping and encoding to mp3 and then decoding back to CD. Although if you have iTunes set to rip into mp3 with very high bitrate (192 kbps or higher) it will be almost impossible to tell unless you're using a very high end audio system for playback. Some people say they can tell the difference but I have never been able to. Typically these people are the idiots that pay $1,000 for gold plated audio cables and vacuum tube amps because the sound is "warmer."

Still you do lose some fidelity when you encode CD-DA into mp3 (ripping in iTunes) and then decode the mp3 file back into CD-DA (burning a CD in iTunes).

If you want the files in iTunes anyway it's probably worth the tradeoff of fidelity loss because if you just copy the CD you don't have the files in your iTunes library, obviously. If all you really want is the CD and don't care if you can listen in iTunes then you should just be copying the CD directly.

If you want the best of both worlds (copy of CD in hand and songs in iTunes) without fidelity loss, and you have gobs and gobs of hard disk space you could consider setting iTunes to rip your CD's to ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), which as the name implies is lossless of any original fidelity, but it takes up about the same space as a regular CD (i.e. about 500 MB per album)!

There is another alternative which is to use FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). The advantage of FLAC (in addition to being Lossless like ALAC) is that it is not proprietary and slightly superior in quality to ALAC. The major (and it is major) disadvantage of FLAC is that iTunes (and the iPod) do not support it. That's a deal breaker for most people given how great iTunes is for organizing your music collection.

Secret Tip: There are rumors circulating that the next version of Mac OS X will have native support for FLAC. This could mean it will find its way into iTunes but I wouldn't hold my breath (especially on Windows).

Stay Tuned for the next laboriously mind-numbing installment of AtSMYK!