Although audiophiles often prefer to use a number of different programs for copying CDs to their music server library, I like to keep it simple and just use iTunes for that purpose. After all, the whole point is to extract bit-perfect copies to our hard drives, right?
For me there’s a lot to like about iTunes – at least on a Mac. I enjoy the fact that it comes pre-installed and I don’t have to download something else (Yep, I’m lazy). Then it’s the Apple eco system. I can get iTunes to talk to our family’s iDevices. Thus far we have never experienced any serious issues save for the occasional hickup. In addition, nothing beats having a single app to sync my iPhone, calendar, movie and music library. Mac users can even replace the core playback engine of iTunes with something “better sounding”.
Despite being not so well integrated into Windows, I found iTunes more intuitive than other software – maybe because I’m just used to it, who knows. It should take no longer than 10 minutes to get it up and running with the correct settings for best quality.
If you want more flexibility – either to have a wider range of audio formats available (including FLAC, OGG or other rather more exotic derivates) – you might want to investigate Max, that is if you’re on a Mac of course. Max is Open Source software so it won’t break the bank. It supports a whopping 20+ formats and lets you customise the entire ripping process to your needs. Get it from sbooth.org/Max
By default, iTunes will prompt you for the next steps you wish to have carried out once you insert a Compact Disc. If you choose to import the CD into your library, iTunes does so at 256 kB/s AAC lossy compression. But as I have explained in an earlier article, I’m not a huge fan of compression. Getting the bits off your discs with a “lossless compression” encoder means you are getting exactly the same audio quality as on the original disc albeit at half the file size it would normally take to archive those tracks in WAV or AIFF.
To change iTunes default import settings in favor of a lossless audio encoder, open the iTunes main menu and hit “Preferences…”. On the “General” tab next to the desired action associated with inserting a CD, click “Import Settings…”.
Next, you get to choose the actual Audio Encoder. I personally use “Apple Lossless Encoder”. Fortunately, there are no further settings :)
Make sure to check the box “Use error correction when reading Audio CDs”. What this does is read error correction codecs from the disc to prevent audible glitches (pops and clicks). Apple didn’t enable it by default because this feature could bog down older machines with less CPU horsepower.
To round out my quick tutorial, let’s briefly go through the available Audio Encoders found in iTunes:
On a side note, iTunes does not natively support the widely popular FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Compression) format. It’s truly a shame. While you can add third-party plugins to make FLAC files at least playable, I don’t see a point here. Apple could break compatibility of these plugins with the next iTunes release. Either convert your FLAC files to ALAC – this can be done with no loss of quality, or use something else to rip your CDs like Max (see above).
AAC – Known as the successor to MP3 with better sound quality. Although it’s still a lossy encoder, you can get pretty good sound quality out of it – especially in tandem with VBR (Variable Bitrate) encoding. It supports up to 96kHz sample rates. Combined with VBR you benefit from a better quality-to-space ratio. I find it difficult to tell a decent AAC VBR file apart from their lossless counterparts – even on a good DAC.
AIFF – Developed by Apple, AIFF is basically an uncompressed “file container” format and at home on a Mac. AIFF can be used to store lossless audio in pure PCM format, however it supports no meta data which is a pain for properly tagging your music. File sizes tend to be large due to being uncompressed.
Apple Lossless Encoder – Lossless encoder format also known as ALAC with full metadata support. It can store CD-quality music in 16-bit format as well as 24-bit high-resolution tracks. This is my personal choice and I find it convenient on both Windows and Mac platforms. ALAC can be thought to be some sort of zip file cutting the size of an original CD into half. File extension of ALAC is usually .m4a but be careful not to confuse them with lossy AAC stuff purchased on iTunes as both share the same file extension.
MP3 – Lossy encoder that is well known. You are going to lose quality but save space. Advantage of MP3 is its wide support. You can play an MP3 file on almost any device. If you absolutely must use MP3, I’d pick 192Kbit/s as the absolute minimum to get halfway decent sounding tracks.
WAV – Similar to AIFF, this is an uncompressed PCM container format supporting 44.1 kHz up to 48kHz audio sample rates. File extension is .wav and you can estimate an average file size of 30-40 MB for a 3 minute audio track.
2020 Update: iTunes is still a great way to extract lossless audio data but I’ve come to appreciate dbpoweramp which is of course a paid tool (I paid about 39 Euros for my license) but works even more comfortably. It runs both on Windows and Mac computers. If you primarily use Windows and don’t want to pay anything, I’d still stick with Exact Audio Copy (see my references above).