The Audiophile Desktop System doesn’t have to have a computer hooked up to it, but you’d be missing out on the ability to access and play your music instantly without ever having to get up and flip a disc. It will take some work and software to get there though. In this section, we’ll provide you with some recommendations to get you through the mire of junk solutions out there, but you can certainly take your computer audio system far beyond what we’re going to be able to cover here. Let’s get a few basics out of the way.
Sound Quality: Unless you’re total computer geek or setting up a high-end digital audio workstation like recording studios use, just forget about getting better than 16/44 cd quality audio from our computer; it’s just not worth the effort. CD quality audio is easily attainable and .WAV files played on your computer through its USB connection into HeadRoom digital to analog converter card are roughly equivalent to cd players in the $1000 to $3000 price range.
The more contentious issue is whether mp3 sound quality is any good. Our experience is that well ripped, 320kbs, LAME encoded mp3 files are very difficult to tell from the original 16/44 .WAV file. Sure, the 16/44 file is better, but for the most part you’d have to be listening on a very high-quality audio system to hear the difference clearly. Our point is that when you are going portably with an iPod or like device, or setting up a laptop with a portable music library, there’s no overwhelming reason not to use a compressed file format.
Formats: Oh boy! There are many audio file formats out there. We’d like to offer you some simple advice so that you have broad compatibility with the variety of software and hardware players out there: Use .WAV for uncompressed files and 320kbs MP3 for compressed files. These two formats will work on virtually any hardware or software player and tend not to be hobbled with digital rights management issues. Hard drive space will only become cheaper and the fact that these two formats are not as efficient as others is significantly outweighed by their wide acceptance as a standard format. If you’re Apple-only, there’s certainly justification for going the .aiff (uncompressed) and .aac (compressed) route. More info here. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audio_file_format )
Drive Space Requirements: An average music CD has about 700 megabytes of uncompressed data and plays at a rate of about 10 megabytes per minute. If you have a collection of 200 CDs and want to store them uncompressed, you’ll need about 150 gigabytes of space. Lossless compression formats reduce file size by roughly 30% to 40%; 320kbs MP3 files are about ¼ the size of uncompressed files.
Drive space is getting cheaper by the minute; the biggest mistake people make is ripping their entire music collection to a compressed format only to find a year later that they can afford the drive space to hold uncompressed files and end up re-ripping their entire music collection. (We know about this first hand.) We highly suggest you buy an outboard hard drive for your computer big enough to store your collection uncompressed. Then, if you want to carry music on your laptop or iPod, make compressed copies of the tracks you want to carry around. Better yet, buy an even bigger outboard drive and create both compressed and uncompressed libraries of your music.
Rippers: A ripper is the program that takes the music off the disc and saves it as files on your computer. These programs are usually also capable of looking up the disc in an on-line data base, creating a filename based on the track, and storing them in a user defined directory structure. We suggest using music directory/artist/album/tracks.
Our favorite ripper is Exact Audio Copy (http://www.exactaudiocopy.de/ ) because it is extremely good at detecting and repairing data from scratched or difficult to read discs. Be sure to rip your MP3 files with the LAME encoder and at 320kbs. The good news? It’s free!
Another excellent choice is CDex (http://cdexos.sourceforge.net/ ).
Music Players: Window Media Player and iTunes will work just fine for most people, but the best music player out there is Foobar (http://www.foobar2000.org/ ). It’s extremely light-weight and low-overhead so it won’t use a bunch of clock cycles painting pretty pictures on your screen. It plays many file formats, and has broad third-party software support for skins and additional functions like bypassing the K-mixer in Windows for ultra-clean reproduction. Free, too!
Music Managers: All you really need is a ripper and a player to get music off your PC, but some folks want to be able to do more complex music library management---maintaining more than one library of music; batch tagging and renaming; complex searches; ect. Maybe the best reason for a good music management program is if you’ve got a large and poorly sorted or named library of music. Helium Music Manager (http://www.helium-music-manager.com/ ) is the best music library management program that we’re aware of. Although a bit complex to learn, it is extremely powerful and will do an excellent job of restructuring your music library.
Playlist Generator: Once you’ve got your library of music sorted and safely stored, there’s still one ongoing job to do: selecting what you are going to listen to. This isn’t so easy at times and you might find yourself in a bit of a rutt. We’ve found a terrific computer program that will have you finding lots of rarely listened to music in your collection. MusicIP Mixer (http://www.musicip.com/mixer/index.jsp ) literally listens to each track in you music library and characterizes tracks based on their musical structure. Things like tempo, harmonic movement, complexity, and many others are analysed and a “fingerprint” is made for each track. The, when you want to listen to music, you simply find a track that suites your mood and tell MusicIP Mixer to make you a playlist of similar music. In an instant, the program constructs a playlist, and you can begin playing music that suits your mood. We found this program simply amazing as it indeed does find similarities between tracks, and can be set to ignore genres so that music will be wide ranging and interesting while retaining some essential similarities keeping the mood. Playlists generated may also be sent to Windows Media Player, Apple iTunes, and SlimServers.
Apple Users: Unfortunately, we’re pretty locked into Windows machines, so we don’t have very much direct experience with Apple OS, but we do know that the basic suite of Apple media playing software works well and has many attractive features built in, and because one of the beauties of Apple machines is the simplicity of use, we suggest most people just stick with the stock software.
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