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WRONG NOTES: a blog of ear reverence

Wrong Notes collects posts on music, art, culture and fun stuff. Also included: news about the Ear Reverends.

Get beyond mp3: go lossless now!

Over the past few years, I've gotten more systematic about ripping my CD collection. And I've finally filled one hard drive—with lossless files, not mp3s.

I remember how, about 10 years back, I was doing the math to figure out how large a hard drive I would need to rip my entire CD collection. I don't recall the exact number, but let's approximate things and say it was something like this: 1,000 CDs turns into at 640 GB of .wav (or.aiff) files (that's 1000 CDs X 640 MB per CD).

At that time, 640 GB was seriously expensive and required multiple physical discs. But, today, one can buy a single 640 GB drive for only about $60. And, it's an even better deal (cost per GB) to get the now more common sizes in the 1+ TB range.

So, practically, a few years ago, we saw how quickly drive sizes were growing vs cost, and switched from ripping mp3s to ripping Apple Lossless (ALAC is the common acronym, with m4a being the common file extension). ALAC cuts the file size almost 50%, so the above equation ends up being more like 1,000 CDs turns into about 350 GB of m4a files.

The main point I want to get to is this: if you are ripping music from CDs, you should consider switching to a lossless format now—there's almost no reason why you'd want mp3s instead of a lossless format. If you already use iTunes and have a lot of drive space (or can afford larger drives), you can just flip a switch in iTunes, and all new CDs you rip will be ripped as lossless.

(In iTunes, it's Preferences / General / Import Settings and then switch to using Apple Lossless Encoder. That's it.)

And, one other point: if you buy digital files from online stores, please join me in pestering these stores to offer lossless versions, rather than mp3s, which are, in several ways, an inferior format, as I'll describe below.

Now, in case you're unfamiliar with the file formats and lossy vs lossless, let me explain a bit more:

Some Basics: Lossy vs Lossless

CDs store sound as digital information—when we want to get at that information on a computer, we see digital files that usually appear as wav or aiff format files. Basically, you can think of each track on a CD as being a wav file. And the large size of the wav files corresponds to the high quality of sound on a CD—they are big files (a 5 minute song is about 50 MB) because CD audio is pretty high quality audio. Generally, in this context, higher quality = more information = bigger file sizes.

When you get an mp3 file, you're getting a file where the sound quality has been reduced to make the file smaller (a 5 minute song can end-up around 6 MB—a lot smaller size!). High quality mp3s actually do a good job at sounding similar to the original sound by removing just the parts of the sound that humans tend not to notice. But, this kind of translation between CD and mp3 is called "lossy" because sound / information is always removed to make the file smaller.

Note that some lower-quality mp3s sound obviously lower quality. But, even with very high-quality mp3s, some people can hear the difference on some songs between an mp3 and an original CD. With the Ear Reverends, I've actually had several people tell me that the Err or Man CD sounds noticeably better than the mp3s, and I certainly hear differences that make me prefer the CD quality version over the mp3s.

With a "lossless" format like m4a, no sound or information is removed. Instead the file is made smaller only by using the file space more efficiently (to put it really simply). This is very similar to how ZIP files work, if you're familiar with those. Instead of removing parts of the sound, a lossless file removes only internal parts of the file that in no way alters the sound. The original 5 minute song / 50 MB wav file gets shrunk, with all of the audio fidelity preserved, to a m4a file that's about 25 MB.

Some Pros of Lossless Files / m4a

  • 100% true to fidelity of the CD
  • fitting an entire collection of music on a hard drive is do-able
  • m4a is easy to use in iTunes and on iPods
  • m4a is also supported by some open source music players and devices
  • you can burn a full-quality CD starting from m4a
  • you can transcode from m4a to other lossless formats at 100% true fidelity
  • several lossless formats support even higher quality audio, beyond CD quality (see below)
  • you can always transcode down to mp3 (or other lossy formats), and get the best lossy results

Some Cons of Lossless Files / m4a

  • lossless files are larger, so you can fit only 5-10 days of music on an iPod, which may be less than your complete library
  • lossless file formats are less universally supported than mp3s: almost everything supports mp3, not everything supports m4a
  • m4a is not a patent free / unencumbered format (see below)

"Free and open" formats

My original plan has been to use the "more open" Free Lossless Audio Codec / FLAC format. I like FLAC in every way, but, at this point, with much of my music listening happening via the iTunes / Airport Express / iPod universe, ALAC was just way more convenient to use.

Note that mp3 is also not a free format. But, both mp3 and m4a are widely used and are available at no cost to us, the so-called "consumers." However, if you are committed to using open / free formats for any reason, e.g., you already use ogg instead of mp3, then you should look to FLAC, rather than ALAC. Again, I think FLAC is awesome and I can totally recommend it. And I certainly will look to converting all my m4a to flac in the future of my dreams where there are many better music player / libraries than iTunes, that nevertheless support iPods, etc.

A couple tips

The hard drive I just filled is 250 GB (we bought it many years ago). I also backup that drive onto a couple other drives, one of which is always kept "offsite." You don't want to have to re-rip 1,000 CDs just because a hard drive crashes (which it will). So, keep a complete backup of all of your music files. For a couple hundred dollars, you can get two 1 TB drives, which would be enough for a 2,500+ CD collection and a complete backup.

Beyond CD Audio

Finally, it's worth mentioning that most of the music recorded today, when it's digitally processed, is done at a higher quality than CD audio. Technically, CD audio is 44k / 16 bit, and many people work at 96k / 24 bit (what I use), or higher.

This higher quality difference is most important during the digital tracking / mixing / multitrack summing / mastering portions of the recording process. It's not a difference that's easy to hear on a final stereo recording, like we find on a CD. For this reason, when we want to listen to music, it's not super important that we strive to replace our CDs with higher quality audio.

That said, higher quality audio is and will be an option for much of the music produced today and into the future. And, if you are interested in getting more fidelity out of the recorded music you listen to, at some point, you may want to get higher than CD audio quality files. Why not, right? Some artists and labels are already offering this—I / HereJam would certainly do so if there more demand for it.

While this is a step beyond just moving from mp3 to m4a, it's actually a step that can happen with the same m4a (or flac) format: these lossless formats can support much higher quality audio. And, as with the changes in hard drive prices over the past 10 years, you can expect that you'll have more and more space to store higher quality audio. (As an example, the wav file version of Err or Man, which is about 70 minutes in length, is about 700 MB of files at CD audio quality, and about 2.2 GB at 96k / 24 bit. The m4a version would be about half those sizes: 350 MB / 1.1 GB.)

Conclustion: switch to lossless!

So, I hope, if you haven't already switched to using a lossless format, that you will make the change now. The time has come. I've realized, in talking with friends, that not enough people know that they can make the change so easily in iTunes. So, I thought I'd write about it here—please pass it along to others.

Also, again, please help me pester stores who sell mp3s, like Amazon and eMusic, to offer lossless files as well. And, while you're at it, ask them to make PDFs of the liner notes available with every album! (Yeah, that's a whole other post…)


Have you switched to lossless yet? Are you ready to switch now? If you aren't going to switch now, why not?


I remembered that Suzanne Vega (who’s called the “mother of mp3,” because her “Tom’s Diner” was used by the scientists who created the mp3 compression method) had this interchange in 2007 with the mp3 scientists:

“The panel beamed at me. ‘See?’ one man said. ‘Now the MP3 recreates it perfectly. Exactly the same!’

“‘Actually, to my ears it sounds like there is a little more high end in the MP3 version? The MP3 doesn’t sound as warm as the original, maybe a tiny bit of bottom end is lost?’ I suggested.”

The creators of mp3 didn’t agree with her, but I thought this was a good example of how some people notice differences in mp3s of some songs, even if that’s beyond what many people experience.

That quote is part of a great, long essay, “Tom’s Essay,” that Vega wrote for the New York Times “Measure for Measure” blog in 2008:

I also remembered this 2009 interview with Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, that’s all about his opinions / impressions of listening to music on mp3s vs CDs and LPs.

Dithering: Jonny Greenwood, by Sasha Frere-Jones

Again, Greenwood notices a difference in mp3s. But, he points out that this difference isn’t necessarily bad or unacceptable (which I generally agree with, too).

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