Making the Right Choice
Lots of choices, lots of potential compromises. Which type of compression, file format, and bitrate is the best choice for you?
It really depends on how and where you listen to your music.
If your focus is on the best music reproduction on a quality home audio system, then you want to go with one of the main lossless compression formats – Apple Lossless if you’re wired into iTunes and the Apple ecosystem, WMA Lossless for Windows converts, or FLAC for the die-hard audiophiles. With today’s hard disk prices hitting rock bottom, you can easily afford a 1 terabyte disk to hold a few thousand albums in lossless format.
There’s no way, however, that you’re going to pipe lossless files to your iPod or other portable music player; the files are just too large. This dictates some sort of lossy compression. AAC is a good file format if you’re an iPhone or iPod user, MP3 is a better choice if you have mixed apps or equipment. (Not a lot of portable devices support WMA, so you might leave that one out of the mix.)
When you’re talking about the best bitrate for portable music, you’re looking at something in the 128Kbps to 160Kbps range. Anything higher is wasted effort, as you won’t be able to hear the difference through stock earplugs. Anything lower, you’ll probably notice. Going in the midrange, bitrate-wise, creates file sizes that fit a lot of music on a typical device.
But what do you do if you want to play your digital music library both in the home and on a portable device? That’s a tough one. If you choose a lossless file format for best sound quality, you won’t be able to fit your entire collection on your portable player. If you go with a lower-bitrate lossy file format, you’ll definitely hear the difference when listing through your big living room speakers.
There are really only two ways to solve this problem. One is to willingly make a compromise, typically in favor of a lower bitrate, so that you can play all your music everywhere. The second solution is to create two libraries – a lossless one for home use and a lossy one for your portable devices. That means ripping your music twice, but it may be the only way to get the best results from all devices.