Monday, June 5, 2006
Posted by Damion Chaplin in "ARTICLE" @ 12:30 PM
First, a little history: I don’t consider myself an ‘audiophile’--more of a ‘music lover’ really--and frankly I’ve always thought a high-bitrate MP3 was ‘good enough’. My wife is a big fan of Annalee Newitz, a proponent of lossless digital audio, and has often asked me “But don’t MP3s throw away data?” I then explain to her that the real-world difference between a 256 kBit/s MP3 and a CD were too small for either of us to hear. My wife’s not that technologically-inclined, so I didn’t bother explaining that lossless formats also take up a lot of space and don’t work with the majority of portable media players. Or that it would take a really long time to re-rip all my CDs, turning my 60GB collection into who knows how large? So for more than a year now, I’ve been resisting the idea of ripping to lossless.
All the while though, there was the voice in my hindbrain telling me “But there must be an audible difference between a CD and MP3, no matter how high the bitrate. That’s why they call it ‘compressed’.” Well, this weekend I found myself with that rare thing called ‘free time’ and decided it was time to give in to the voice and at least give it a shot. I’m very glad I did.
As I’ve stated, I’ve always been a huge fan of Exact Audio Copy, a free CD ripping program that does exactly what its name says and no more. Together with the also-free LAME MP3 compression codec, it can be a very powerful tool for those wishing to get the best-sounding MP3 files from their music CDs. Although it’s been possible for some time now, I’d only recently learned that EAC is capable of ripping CDs into lossless formats too. I figured if EAC could do it, I should at least see what happens.
The first decision I had to make was to decide on a lossless format. I should probably mention here that I don’t own an iPod, don’t use iTunes and really don’t plan to in the foreseeable future. That narrowed a very short list down to the two main competitors: FLAC and WMA Lossless. I had known that this tough decision would be ahead of me, but that didn’t make it any easier to choose. I had experience with FLAC and had never used WMA Lossless before. FLAC is supported on some players, but no current PMP supports WMA lossless (except the ill-fated Portable Media Center). In the end I decided on WMA Lossless, a decision mostly based on instinct. I guess I just have more faith that Microsoft’s format will be around longer. In addition, my current PMP, while not supporting WMA Lossless, does support WMA files. I can still hold out hope that they release a firmware update that gives my player lossless capability. It’s a slim chance, but much better than them giving it FLAC support! :)
So, decision made, the first step was downloading Windows Media Encoder 9. After suffering through the hell that is the Windows Genuine Advantage Validation process, I finally downloaded and executed the file, installing it without problems.
Next, I needed to configure Exact Audio Copy to use the WMA Lossless compression profile. If you’ve never used EAC before, I encourage you to try it. As I’ve said, it’s a very powerful CD ripping program that produces the best-sounding MP3s I’ve ever heard. I won’t go into configuring EAC for initial use here, though if enough people are interested, I suppose I could be convinced into writing a guide to that. :wink: Changing EAC from MP3 compression to WMA Lossless was as easy as going into the Compression Options dialog, selecting ‘Microsoft WMA9 Encoder’ as the Parameter passing scheme and ‘Lossless’ as the Bit rate.
It was so far, so good at this point, so I grabbed a CD off the ‘to be ripped’ pile and popped it in the drive. As usual, the CD contents were read and, after a brief consultation with freedb, displayed in the main EAC window. To my amusement, the CD I had grabbed happened to be almost exactly 60 minutes in length, which I took as a sign that my testing was going in the right direction. Crossing my fingers, I clicked the now-mislabeled ‘MP3’ button. The drive spun up and EAC began reading the first track. Thankfully, it was a short track and I didn’t have to wait long before EAC launched the WM9 Encoder in command line mode. I watched with a small sense of victory as the numbers went up to 100%, the box closed and EAC moved on to the next track. I sat back and relaxed while the entire CD was ripped to the hard drive.
A beep sounded when ripping was complete, and I went immediately into Windows Explorer to check out the results of my experiment. My initial reaction was shock at the massive file sizes, but I had somewhat expected that as I remembered FLAC files being quite large themselves. Then I realized that I needed comparison data, so I re-ripped the same CD into different folders as uncompressed .WAV and 256 kBit/s CBR MP3 files. My results were fascinating, to say the least.