Dude, what MP3 quality should I rip my tunes in?

Recently a friend asked me (and I’ve got this question a lot since I started compressing my own and friends collections since the late 90’s) – what kbps should I choose when ripping my music to mp3s?

Well, not mp3 format firstly – that’s so 90’s! ;-)

Sure, there’s the withering away argument that it is still the most universal format and not hindered by any licensing issues per se (keep reading).  But over the years more and more devices and software have come to support it’s replacement: MP4 (MPEG layer 4) with AAC – you might know it as the file type m4a.  If you’re an iTunes user or have an iPod or iOS device you’ll know this format all too well.  But there are other choices, let’s look at the options:

  • mp3: Okay, it’s still worth considering if you absolutely must ensure that any possible antiquated device or software you try to play it on will work, and at the highest 320kbps (LAME encoder preferrably), it’s essentially indiscernible to uncompressed CD quality.
  •  m4a: highest quality mp4 (essentially the AAC (advanced Audio Codec) wrapped in the m4a container. This is the default iTunes Store settings these days is 256 plus which ON MOST speaker systems and ears is indiscernible from the CD quality – which by today’s standards itself is not considered hi-fidelity.  That would be DTS digital surround and the likes but limits what you can play it on.)
  • ALAC: Apple Lossless Audio Codec (also in m4a container but is file compressed to half the size with no lossy audio!).  For example: a typical hour long CD will be reduced to ~350MB file size. You might be surprised to know this has been an option in iTunes for many years now, but often overlooked if you don’t dig into the Preferences.  A couple weeks ago, Apple announced that they were finally open-sourcing this format, essentially equating it to FLAC in my mind but far more accessible: it will play in iTunes obviously, as well as any of your iOS or iPod devices!*
  • FLAC: The Free Lossless Audio Codec was developed by the Vorbis group as a file compressed non-lossy file type unhindered by patent restrictions.  It sounds great, can be quite commonly seen trading around the interwebs, but has limited playback ability.  With system plugins (such as Perian on Mac OS) you can get it to play in Quicktime-supported apps, but good luck taking it on your portable devices.  Until the recent open-sourcing of ALAC, this was a very attractive option to me but, alas it has never been supported by Apple on their players.*
  • PCM (the raw original CD tracks): sure just drag the original files right from the cd into iTunes (no conversion), but there are better options here, and you’ll limit yourself to playing only off your computer generally. Ok, you could re-burn another CD but…wait, what’s a CD player!?
  • AIFF/WAV: common uncompressed audio file types used by professional audio apps mostly.  Both are universally supported by most software/devices.  This is a good choice if you absolutely have no concern for storage capacity.
* non-lossy audio: before any audiophiles out there get on their mantle with me on how there are slight deviations from the original audio, remember where’ talking real-world usage here, not audio-spectral analysis that only a computer could care about!  It’s generally agreed that these non-lossy audio compressions can not be told apart from the original — even by most professional audio engineers on top-end amplifiers!
So my suggestion?
If you have an iOS device or just use iTunes — go with Apple Lossless.  It’s the last time you’ll ever need to rip those old cd’s, it sounds equal to the original quality, and it’s now an open-source free alternative!  Plus with the ever-constantly dropping prices of storage media, it’s an excellent compromise between quality, accessiblity and space.