The New Music Media Format

When I heard that Apple announced it was dropping DRM from music in the iTunes store, my first response was to say, "Yay!" My second was to pat myself on the back.

That's because the Apple announcement may end up revolutionizing the music format of choice. Right now, it's MP3. Thanks to Apple's decision to make their music portable and copyable, it may change to AAC, the format used by the iTunes store.

Several years ago, I ripped all my music CDs, about 450 of them. It was a laborious and tedious task. It was complicated by my decision to first rip to a lossless FLAC format and then transcode to MP3. The transcoding part was automatic, but took a very long time; it's a computationally intensive process. It would have been a lot easier to just rip to MP3.

At the time, the wisdom of that choice may not have been obvious. First, many people were questioning the value of lossless—or even extremely high bitrate compressed—encodings. There were side-by-side tests on the net that you could use to tell if you could hear a difference. They seemed to show little audio difference. (Although I contend they were more a test of crappy computer audio gear than encoding formats.) Also, the resulting files were more than an order of magnitude larger—at a time when disk space was much more precious than it is now.

The other reason why my approach may have seemed odd is that at the time MP3 wasn't merely the format of choice, it was the only reasonable format available for portable media files. That continued to be true up until last week. Apple's announcement changed everything.

There are two facts about compressed audio encoding you should know. First, AAC sounds better than MP3. Second, there are problems converting from one compressed form to another (such as from MP3 to AAC), but you can perfectly convert from a lossless form (such as FLAC) to anything else (compressed or lossless). Those two facts, when viewed in light of the Apple announcement, make clear that I made the right choice: rip to a lossless format for archival purposes, and then transcode to the portable format of choice.