iTunes and Format Confusion

My foray into music formats was the WAV (waveform audio format)…

My foray into music formats was the WAV (waveform audio format). If you rip a CD into the WAV format you are getting an uncompressed, lossless, and very large audio file. When I was using this format, and considering hard drives were pretty small in the late '90s, I didn't rip many CD's.

When I purchased our first MP3 player, an RCA Lyra, I started to dig into the common media formats at the time: MP3 and WMA. Based on my research at the time, and given that the Lyra had only 64MB of memory, I needed a format that sounded good at relatively low encoding. Since the Lyra supported WMA, I decided at the time to use that format. So, for years, I've encoded all my music in the WMA format. I actually messed up a first, since I left licensing turned on. Needless to say, when I needed to move my media to a new computer it didn't work out too well for me. When this happened, I decided it was time to encode my music at a higher bit rate, so I choose 160kbps, the maximum my Lyra could handle. That meant, when I purchased a 128MB compact flash card, I could get about 40-50 songs on our player. Not too bad.

Years later, our use of computers grew and the family wanted to listen to music on multiple computers. Since Windows Media Player was growing as well, and the new maximum was 192kbs, I started encoding in that format. My collection grew. My 30GB hard drive was filling up. I could use my WMA media on any computer in the house. I'd moved my music through various computers, across different versions of Windows Media Player, and even MCE and my trusty Xbox 360. Up until January of this year, 2008, this was my media of choice. Needless to say, my choice was about to bite me in the ass.

Enter the iPod and its preferred media player: iTunes. Minor issue here, but iPod's don't play WMA. Instead they use their own AAC format. Although AAC is nice, Windows Media Player doesn't care much for it. Needless to say, I needed an alternative. Yes, iTunes will convert WMA to AAC, but it seems silly to have my music in two formats and the conversion process isn't all that great. More modern formats like Ogg Vorbes aren't natively supported. So, I turned back to a format I dabbled in for a short time and discarded: MP3.

I originally went to WMA because it sounded better and was smaller then MP3's at lower bit rates. However, I no longer needed to stick with 64 or even 128kbps. Since I was already encoding WMA at 192kbps, I did my own tests. I encoded some CD's in 192kbps MP3 format and then compared them. Surprisingly, the MP3's actually sounded better to me. I was hooked and began converting my collection to MP3. Yes, I choose to use iTunes to convert my collection to MP3. Many people would say the Lame encoder is better, but I actually find that iTunes does a pretty good job. WMP also supports MP3, but since I was now an iPod user, I've stuck with iTunes. Since I prefer to purchase CD's, I don't typically care about AAC. Sad to say, I'll probably use Rhapsody or Amazon to purchase digital music since they sell 256kbps MP3's without the restrictive DRM. I avoid Walmart, for CD's and MP3's, since Walmart censors the music they sell.

So, the only problem I have is how long will MP3 continue to be the standard? Will I have to encode all my music again in another 8 years? Will I be able to still play my CD's in another 10 years? Saddly, I'm sure I'll need to go to another format at some point. Hopefully my 25 year old CD's won't rot anytime soon. Heck, I still haven't converted all my WMA's to MP3. I have a mixed library on my Media Server. But that is a problem to solve another day.

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