Monthly Archives: September 2008

Digital Music Encoder and Bitrate Recommendations

When I got my first iPod, I did not realize that the default setting was to rip music in AAC format at 128kbps – which is a very lo-fi bit rate. Once I realized this, I did some listening tests and even on the iPod I could hear a distinct quality difference between 128 and 160kbps. But I could not hear a difference between 160 and 190kbps – so I began ripping at 160kbps in AAC.

[If you’ve not reset this on your iTunes player, do it right now: Preferences / Advanced / Importing]

All along my friend Ankur was encouraging lossless formats, but I wanted to balance iPod battery life (it takes more juice to play the hi-fi files), storage (lossless requires 10X the storage space), and discernable sound quality (these old ears have been beaten and abused at live rock shows for decades).

Even so, it wasn’t long before I needed to buy an external hard drive to store my music files, and when I did I bumped up the bitrate to 190kbps because the marginal storage demand seemed reasonable and why not improve the audio quality (even if I couldn’t obviously discern it).

Years have gone by, storage is cheap and I now have a 500GB drive for music files only and an 80 GB video iPod. I’ve also built a really fine music system for listening to my digital collection (currently 24,000 tracks). So in the last few months I have embraced Ankur’s advice – and I am ripping my new music in lossless format using AIFF encoder. My belief is that music affects us on a number of levels – physical, spiritual, emotional – and the full spectrum of recorded sound should not be compressed without necessity.

My advice: always buy the music you enjoy in the greatest audio spectrum possible: CD, LP or lossless digital. If you must buy “lossy digital” – seek out the highest bitrate available.

My Digital Music Journey

My wife and children gave me an 4 gig iPod Mini many years ago, and it turned out to be one of the best gifts I ever received… It nudged me into using my computer as a music server and I immediately began ripping my CDs using iTunes.

The Mini was a great first iPod for me, because it forced me into using Smart Playlists to sync a “fresh” portion of my collection onto the device. I really like this element of the iTunes interface, and the random play features occasionally pull some obscure track from my old recordings that I’d forgotten about completely – but really enjoy a lot upon rediscovery. It helps keep my collection in front of me – rather than just the most recent stuff I’ve been into.

Nonetheless, I’ve got a very diverse collection of music and some of it does not really want to be played together randomly! So I began using groupings to provide some additional intelligence to the “smart playlists” that I was constructing. I hope that you utilize this feature of iTunes, which allows you to “program” virtual DJs to put together playlists that refresh themselves. In a sense it provides a crude artificial intelligence of sorts – and by providing a a little “feedback” you can tweak how the iTunes compiles the playlist.

I will say that I am not a fan of the stock iPod earbuds, and replaced them promptly with Shure E3 earbuds (with Shure foam sleeves), which made a huge improvement in sound quality. If you listen regularly to your iPod on headphones, good quality earbuds is one of the best investments one can make.

Well, after I wore out the battery on the iPod Mini, I bought an 80 GB video iPod – which allows me to carry a good portion (but not all) of my music collection with me.

Most recently, I replaced my Dell desktop with a Mac Pro – which is an exceptional computer for use as a music server. And I added a Sonos system to tie the music server into my house stereo as well as my new office listening system.

I’m one of those people who worry that too many young adults today have not been exposed to hi-fi sound, and don’t know what they are missing. Digital music can sound like crap – but it also can sound fantastic. It’s primarily a function of source bitrate, amplifier quality and speaker quality. You’ve got to hear the difference!