MP3 Ripping Minefield
September 19, 2005 8:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking to rip my 300 CDs on to my computer in preparation for an portable audio player. What is the best quality compressed format for music? I'm thinking MP3, as its universal - but as far as I can see there are different types of MP3 driver/convertor formats. Help me through the minefield! (As a bonus question, what's considered the ultimate 20gig(ish) MP3 player at the moment?)
posted by wibbler to Technology (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Given the price of hard drives right now, Fry's has Seagate 400GB hard drives for $169.99, I would consider ripping everything to a lossless format like flac and then converting tunes on demand to mp3 for use on your player.

The flac files (or whatever lossless format you choose) retain the full quality of the original CDs, where MP3 files won't.

I would also suggest buying an external USB/Firewire hard drive to backup all your files in case your primary drive crashes.
posted by beowulf573 at 8:47 AM on September 19, 2005

I'm a big fan of the ogg format. Similar file sizes to MP3, but sounds a bit better. If you've got a sensitive ear, you can tell the difference.

For portable players, don't bother buying if it ain't an iPod. Quite simply, Apple's done it right, and no-one else has come close.

I don't even own one and that's the advice I give.
posted by Imperfect at 9:06 AM on September 19, 2005

the best of both worlds would be something like wavpack but as of now the only devices that support it are the iriver h1x0 using the rockbox 3rd party firmware.

if I were to buy a hd dap right now, it would most likely be the iaudio m3 or x5.

otherwise, yeah, store them as flac or alac and then encode for whatever player you end up with.
posted by dorian at 9:07 AM on September 19, 2005

If you're sticking with mp3, I would recommend the LAME encoding engine, and its alt-preset-standard setting. For a ripping program (presuming you're using Windows), go with either EAC (slower, but more reliable, and better on scratched CDs) or CDex (faster, fewer options).

I think the ultimate 20gig-ish mp3 player is the iRiver H120, but it's no longer being manufactured. Anyway, it depends on what you're looking for (ease of use? optical out? firewire? fm radio? recording? format support? battery life? open-source firmware (like rockbox or podzilla)? something else?), and it's a very contentious question. Other candidates, off the top of my head: the Rio Karma (also out of production), the (current) iRiver H10 players and the Archos players. And, of course, there's the iPod.
posted by box at 9:10 AM on September 19, 2005

I did the same thing as you're planning. While I've no quarrel with Beowulf's counsel, the fact is that I'm not an archivist, storing precious irreplaceable music for generations to come. Further, my 54-year-old hearing isn't going to get any better.

My time, tho, is valuable, And you're right, mp3 is a universal, use anywhere and don't worry about it format. So I skipped the lossless step, and just ripped directly to Variable-Bit-Rate mp3, using the highest quality settings on CDex. This creates files about 200-250% larger than CBR 128bit, but they sound much better, in fact indistinguishable to the CD source to my ears.

Took me about a year doing it whenever a I had minute. Then I packed up and stored the CDs. And backed up the mp3 (and all other precious data) on three separate portable HD, one stored off-site.
posted by mojohand at 9:10 AM on September 19, 2005

"If you're sticking with mp3, I would recommend the LAME encoding engine, and its alt-preset-standard setting. For a ripping program (presuming you're using Windows), go with either EAC (slower, but more reliable, and better on scratched CDs) or CDex (faster, fewer options)."

box has it 100% right. Follow his advice if you want the best compromise between sound quality, file size and future-proof music.
posted by ascullion at 9:12 AM on September 19, 2005

If you're ripping on Windows, use EAC. If you want mp3s, use LAME, and use the high bitrate VBR presets.

If you rip to FLAC + a cue sheet, you'll have the advantage of being able to replace your CDs, bit for bit should you ever wish to use some alternate lossy format (or just burn copies for your friends, or your car) FLAC tends to compress to between 1/2 and 2/3 the original uncompressed size.

note: be absolutely sure to backup your collection. Don't even start ripping until you have a method to backup the data. This project is a lot of work to do right, and you really won't want to do it twice.
posted by I Love Tacos at 9:12 AM on September 19, 2005

Oh, and I do take issue with Dorian's advice on players. While Apple does make a great product, I've used lots of other excellent players from Creative and other manufacturers, for a lot less $$.
posted by mojohand at 9:14 AM on September 19, 2005

Oh, and as for mp3s players... I love the iPod line (I have a full-size and a shuffle), but the gaps between tracks and lack of FLAC support are annoying.

If you go for something that isn't iPod, borrow one for a bit, to make sure the controls aren't going to be hard to use in your planned usage environment.
posted by I Love Tacos at 9:16 AM on September 19, 2005

The player i ended up getting is the Cowon X5;
Flac and ogg support. Also works as a backup camera USB device.
FM tuner with record from radio as well.
Also voice recorder and line in recording just in case.
There are other devices than ipods.
posted by stuartmm at 9:24 AM on September 19, 2005

Am I missing something or does Imperfect's advice cause problems? 'Cause as far as I know, iPods can't play vorbis.
posted by skryche at 9:28 AM on September 19, 2005

You'll find more arguments and test results at Hydrogenaudio.

If you decide to rip to mp3 using EAC and LAME (I do), Chris Myden's site is helpful, if a bit superior in tone.

If you rip to lossless and later convert to lossy for your player, dbPowerAmp is great. Actually, it's great under any circumstances.
posted by mookieproof at 9:31 AM on September 19, 2005

I rip everything at 320 Kbps MP3. Mojohand's VBR suggestion might be better, I've just never tried it.

I use CDEX+LAME, it works, sounds great, that's all I care about.
posted by exhilaration at 9:31 AM on September 19, 2005

Personally, I'm engaged in ripping everything to FLAC, then converting the FLACs to oggs for listening on my Rio Karma. More work up front; less work if I ever want to switch to another format. (The Karma's a dead platform and can be had cheap these days -- 20G, small and it does oggs.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:36 AM on September 19, 2005

I use iTunes encoding to MP3 at 160Mhz (whatever that is) and an iPod. MP3 is not the best for space, but a 20Gig player should hold 10,000+ songs. This should be more than enough for your 300 albums and it has the advantages of being easy to use, well supported and future proofed.

I've no doubt that flac, lame, etc sound better, but I'm a pretty average listener and the quality seems perfectly fine to me.

On price. I've had my iPod now for over a year, and because of the ease of use, I listen to it constantly. I just didn't get on with other solutions, so for me, the iPod has been the most cost effective player.

If you consider yourself an average computer user, then I would recommend the iTunes / iPod combination.
posted by seanyboy at 9:45 AM on September 19, 2005

You may have a point, Zed. I suppose in the long run mp3 could become a dead format and I'll have to rip all 4,500 tunes again. But like the man said: in the long run we're all dead, so I'll take my chances. And soory about that, Dorian, I meant Imperfect's iPod advice.
posted by mojohand at 9:50 AM on September 19, 2005

I've used EAC + Lame and also downloaded CDEX this weekend and looked at it, but I ended up just using ITunes to convert my CDS to .mp3. I found the whole EAC/Lame thing to be difficult to use and CDEX would not (for me, anyway) access any track info, so I would have had to type it all in by hand.

ITumes, on the other hand, was crazy easy to use, auto-filled all track info for me, and will even auto-eject the dics. I'm sure there is some kind of sound difference between what I'm doing and the EAC + Lame combo, but I've used them both and I can't tell the difference. (Guess I'm just not an audiophile)
posted by anastasiav at 9:56 AM on September 19, 2005

(actually, kilobits per second)

posted by mookieproof at 10:12 AM on September 19, 2005

Worth pointing out that in blind tests, iTunes produced the worst quality MP3s (google for source). I'd go with CDex personally as its nice and easy.

FWIW, mine are at 192kbps CBR MP3 simply because it is a nice trade off between size and quality. 320kbps produces files that don't, for me, give a big enough quality increase to justify the very large size.
posted by ralawrence at 10:22 AM on September 19, 2005

I'd go with CDex personally as its nice and easy

Is there some way to get it to auto fill CD names and Track info that I'm not seeing? Having to hand type hundreds and hundreds of song names is not, to me, "nice and easy".
posted by anastasiav at 10:33 AM on September 19, 2005

Anastasia: sure there is.
posted by box at 10:38 AM on September 19, 2005

I'd go with an iRiver for a player as the sound quality, in my humble opinion, is superb, particularly in comparison to the iPods. I'd second LAME, but I'd also add MP3Gain for normalization.
posted by juiceCake at 11:25 AM on September 19, 2005

anastasia: you should have a button in the lower right-hand corner of the cdex window that says "Get album information from remote CDDB" when you mouseover. If not, get a newer cdex.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:30 AM on September 19, 2005

You get another vote for CDEX/EAC plus LAME from me. MP3 is not the best format but it's most ubiquitous for portable devices and such.

Just to summarize the encoding, there are basically three ways to encode an MP3:

CBR (constant bit rate): You choose a bit rate (e.g. 128 kbit/s) and the entire track is encoded at that rate. The resulting file size is predictable and consistent.

VBR (variable bit rate): You decide on a quality level (between 1 and 10) and the encoder dynamically chooses the bitrate based on what each part of the track needs to obtain the given quality level. The resulting file size is unpredictable.

ABR (average bit rate): This is like a combination of the two above. You specify a bit rate that you want the encoder to choose, but this will end up being the overall average bit rate of the entire file. The encoder is still free to choose a lower bitrate for passages that don't require it, and a higher bitrate when needed. But it will do the math so that the overall file length is predictable and the overall average bitrate comes out very close to what you specified.

I highly recommend ABR. For the same file size, ABR will sound better than CBR. Everyone will have a different opinion on what the "minimum" bitrate should be, but my personal opinion is that 192kbit ABR is a good starting point, and 256kbit ABR is sufficient for almost all purposes.
posted by Rhomboid at 11:33 AM on September 19, 2005

using the highest quality settings

Best piece of advice EVER.
posted by magullo at 11:54 AM on September 19, 2005

Get a large hard-drive and then save them as 256kbit+ MP3 files. That would be most universal (Windows+Linux+Mac compatible). When they goto your portable media player, I'd shrink them down to something like 128kbit AAC, or 128kbit OGG (depending on what your media device supports). Test different bit rates on the portable device with your ears and headphones and figure out what works the best and is most conservative on space. I wouldn't apply the same logic to your home stereo system, because chances are at some point you will be upgrading. And then you, like me, will be cursing yourself for not saving your music to a higher quality format.

I like my iPod, but I would seriously consider some of the competition if I bought a new device. iPod's have a nice interface, but lots of people complain about poor battery life. I really don't share these complaints, but it does "crash" every so often. Every so often in the middle of a song it will reboot. Recovering from the crash takes about 10 to 15 seconds and then I'm playing my music again. It only happens about once every 3 to 4 days of heavy listening, so it really doesn't bother me that much. Everything computerized crashes at some point, in my experience.

Another problem I've had with the iPod is about 1 out of every 800-1000 songs won't play for some reason or another. Really frusterating when I'm on the road, but usually just removing and re-copying the file over fixes the problem.

I purchased my 4GB iPod 20GB used through back in February for $200, and it was a good buying decision. It was only 2 months used, and it came with some scratches but I've added more scratches then it came with. Scratches don't botther me, i just wanna use it.
posted by nickerbocker at 1:22 PM on September 19, 2005

If you decide to go with mp3, definitely rip at 256 kbps; it's worth it and space is cheap and getting cheaper by the month. Ripping to ogg, you can pretty reliably rip to around 192 instead. IMO, your ears may vary, etc.

iRiver makes very nice players, with superior battery life and better sound quality than equivalent ipods that I've test-driven. They'll play ogg, and you won't need to use any proprietary software to transfer music about--an iriver plugged into your PC is simply seen as an additional hard drive, and you can just drag your entire music directory across. Granted, I don't get to pretend to be a featureless black silhouette when I dance around, but these are the kind of opportunity costs you need to consider when gadget-buying. :)

When you rip your music, I highly recommend figuring out the directory structure you want to place them in beforehand. CDex can be configured as you like for that--all my cds get ripped into a directory structure that's like this:

*\music\*artist name*\*album name*\

...which helps immensely in quickly getting to tracks I'd like to play.
posted by Drastic at 1:50 PM on September 19, 2005

I still favor FLAC. Currently I have 216 hours of music, all ripped from CDs, encoded in that format, and it's relatively easy to make copies in any encoding and at any quality you want while retaining the tag information. Lossless encoding does take more space, but not TOO much... all that music fits in 58GB, and storage is cheap these days. Plus, it's basically future-proof. Unless I lose the data, I'll never have to re-rip.

However, I understand that not everyone's needs are the same as my own, and it might be that you feel the benefits aren't worth the extra space.

As a rule of thumb, you can expect FLAC files to be about half the size of uncompressed WAV files, though I've seen them range from about 0.250 to 0.750 compression ratios.
posted by musicinmybrain at 3:51 PM on September 19, 2005

I have a 40gb Iriver H140--the sound is amazing and you can record cd quality music.. but with the drive full, it takes a minute to warm up. And the navigation between songs is very poorly set up... stick with the IPOD.
posted by mert at 4:39 PM on September 19, 2005

Mert--if you turn off the database function, it'll boot in about 15 seconds and let you navigate by directories. If you use a genre\artist\album kinda structure, this approach may be right up your alley.
posted by box at 5:23 PM on September 19, 2005

Get a large hard-drive and then save them as 256kbit+ MP3 files. That would be most universal (Windows+Linux+Mac compatible). When they goto your portable media player, I'd shrink them down to something like 128kbit AAC, or 128kbit OGG (depending on what your media device supports).

Eh? That would be applying lossy compression twice. Not a wise idea at all. FLAC as the source format makes infinitely more sense.

As for "best" MP3 player, iPods are not the best in quality of sound reproduction. IMO all other considerations come in a distant second to quality of output.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:20 PM on September 19, 2005

Wow, that's a lot of answers. Have fun sorting through that. I'll just add that if you go with iTunes/iPod, you can rip to Apple Lossless format, which is lossless (duh) and plays natively on the iPods. The only lossless format that does, I believe.
posted by smackfu at 6:30 PM on September 19, 2005

Another vote for FLAC here - the files aren't much bigger than 320kbps MP3s and they're lossless. This means you NEVER have to re-rip your CDs when a newer/better lossy format comes along. You can re-create your CDs should they ever be lost/damaged. When you want to transfer to a portable device, you just choose the format & bitrate at the time and convert on the fly.

If you're using MP3 (obvious choice!) for your portable device, make sure you use the LAME encoder with presets as described above. I find 192kbps is fine for listening on a quality stereo and 160kbps is more than good enough for in-car use (I have an mp3-on-cd head unit).

I can provide perl scripts which convert a directory full of FLACs into MP3s with all the correct ID3 tags. I have about 300 CDs, they take up maybe 125GB of space as FLACs and they're constantly playing - I have a linux box connected to the stereo and it's my primary music source. Given the current price of a 200+GB disc, I don't see why you wouldn't store all your music like this - such a disc can fit maybe 500 CDs.

Make sure you rip with EAC or something with the cdparanoia engine like CDex - this is critical.

And I second the call for a backup regime, nothing would suck more than to lose all that data. A portable HDD is the high-cost low-effort solution but I'm a fan of DVD-R. If you already have a burner (only USD50 if you don't yet), about USD20 will get you over 200GB of good media in a neat little box.

A generality about making optical backups: par2 is is your friend. If the media gets slightly damaged (eg a scratch), you can use this to recover the data. 4GB of data and 400MB of redundancy means you can pretty much trash a DVD-R and still get everything off it successfully.
posted by polyglot at 7:51 PM on September 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Avoid Apple Lossless. It works great on iPods but can't be played on many other devices or read by many other applications.

Whatever you gain by using it is promptly lost in its lack of portability.
posted by ralawrence at 12:26 AM on September 20, 2005

MP3 is the way to go. Others above have described how to go about that...

I've been buying mp3 playing hardware since its debut and the best mp3 player I've owned so far is:

It's a little on the pricey side, but hey, it also plays movies (through your TV if you're inclined), it can record through a microphone, and it allows you (this is key) to organize your files in anyway you see fit. So many of the other harddrive based mp3 players will force your music into their own structure based on how it's tagged. This one does no such forcing.

It's tiny, but very solid. It sounds great. The battery lasts 10-14 hours on music, 4 hours on video. And I've dropped mine twice so far without any ill effects.

Do not get a creative zen (or anything) if you are at all clumsy with your equipment. They're cheap because they're cheaply made, and they will not withstand daily abuse. Daily use, yes, but not daily abuse.
posted by jaded at 5:02 AM on September 20, 2005

"Get a large hard-drive and then save them as 256kbit+ MP3 files. That would be most universal (Windows+Linux+Mac compatible)."

Windows and Mac anyway, FC4 for one doesn't ship with mp3 support.

"I think the ultimate 20gig-ish mp3 player is the iRiver H120, but it's no longer being manufactured."

The H320 replaced I assume - that's what I use, with CDs ripped to Ogg.
posted by Auz at 2:02 PM on September 20, 2005

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