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Published: 2010-11-09 - 11:34:04
Home Theater : Ask The Expert

What’s the Best MP3 Converter?

By Geoff Morrison

Question:

Dear Big Picture Big Sound,

My boyfriend finally took the hint and got me an MP3 player for my birthday (he's a little slow but I love him anyway... mostly).  I have a pretty big CD collection which I've amassed over time and I'd like to listen to it on my player.  From what I've read, I need an MP3 converter to convert my CD tracks to mp3 files.  I know I can use iTunes but I've tried it and it seems a little limited to this tech-savvy nerd-in-high-heels.

So, what's the best MP3 converter for someone who cares about quality but doesn't have an unlimited budget or an unlimited amount of space on my MP3 player?

Thanks,

-Penny in Nebraska


Answer:

Hello, Penny,

Best MP3 converter, huh? We're glad you asked. For those like you just starting to convert CDs to MP3 or those who are tired of the limited interfaces of iTunes or Windows Media Player, there are many options to get what you want out of an MP3 converter.

The Basics

Let's start with the basics. In order to play back music on any digital audio player, you need to get the music from your CDs onto your computer. This process, called ripping, can be done by many different programs. Some have more settings than others, and it's generally these settings that determine the sound quality of the result.

If you were someone who wanted to download all of your music, then none of this would matter, but for those with a sizable CD library, finding the best MP3 converter is an important, yet often overlooked, task.

iTunes

As you have seen, the easiest way for a beginner and/or Luddite to convert CDs to MP3 is just to download iTunes, particularly if you're planning to listen to those tunes on an Apple product. iTunes is free, it's user friendly, and has all the options the average user needs. It also gives you access to the iTunes Store, where you can download music, movies, TV shows and so on.

Although you say you've tried it, we did want to point out a few settings to enable in iTunes before you start ripping, in case you weren't aware of them, because these can drastically increase the sound quality of your ripped files using a tool you already have on your computer.

After you've launched iTunes, click Edit, then Preferences. On the General tab, about halfway down on the right, you'll see "Import Settings." Click this.

iTunes PreferencesJ
iTunes Preferences

On this next window, the first thing to do is click "Use Error Correction when reading Audio CDs." Though this slows down the speed at which CDs are converted, it ensures that every bit of data on the CD is read.

From here, there are many options to choose from. For a detailed description, check out "How to rip your CDs to your computer with iTunes." The short version is whatever encoder you use (AAC, MP3, etc), select Custom and increase the bit rate. Higher bitrates mean larger files, but much better sound quality. On all but the smallest of portable devices, the increase in file size won't be much of an issue, but the increased sound quality is always good and will stay with you forever.

iTunes settings window
iTunes import settings window

If you have a Windows based PC, you can use the included Windows Media Player. You can read a detailed description of that in our article: "How to rip CDs using Windows Media Player." To be honest, unless you have a hatred of Apple (or a love of Microsoft?), iTunes is easier to use and has more options to get better audio.

But if you're looking for something more advanced, with more options, or is entirely not Apple or Microsoft, keep reading.

More Information or to Download iTunes:

FreeRIP Basic

FreeRIP interface
The FreeRIP interface

While it's neither pretty nor particularly friendly to use, FreeRIP is a fairly robust CD ripper that lets you encode CDs or music files from iTunes or Windows Media Player for free. Your output options are MP3, WMA, WAV, Vorbis (also called Ogg Vorbis) and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). The latter two are not found in iTunes nor WMP. FLAC is great because it preserves the full quality of the original music in about half the amount of storage space.  A 700 Megabyte music CD can be ripped to around 350 MB to 375 MB in FLAC files.  FLAC playback support is fairly common among digital audio devices. Also, because it's a lossless format storing a bit-perfect copy of your original music, if you purchase a device that won't play FLAC, you can convert your files later to a compatible format with no loss in quality (other than the loss introduced from whatever your final format is).

To adjust settings, find the sprocket and wrench icon in top toolbar, or go to File, Settings, then Options. The Output tab is where you select what type of files you want to convert the CD to. Then the Encoding tab is where you set all the options for the different encoders.

free_rip_2.jpg
the FreeRIP Output settings menu

MP3 options (lossy) include Constant Bit Rate, Average Bit Rate and Variable Bit Rate. CBR and ABR are available in rates from 16 and 320 kbps. VBR has adjustable bit rate settings. ABR and VBR have a quality setting option selectable between 1-5.

WMA only has 28 kbps to 128 kbps available.

Vorbis and FLAC have only quality options available, between 1 and 5.

FreeRIP's Encoding options.
FreeRIP's Encoding options.

FreeRIP Basic has a lot of options for the advanced user, and the ability to create FLAC files and be free of iTunes as a ripper certainly has merit. If you're looking to move away from Apple or Microsoft, FreeRIP Basic is a pretty decent way to go.

More Information or to Download FreeRIP:

jetAudio

jetAudio's main interface
jetAudio's main interface

More than just a simple CD ripper, jetAudio is a full featured digital music organizer, similar to what iTunes does well and Windows Media Player does poorly.  But I must offer one important caveat: this is not technically an MP3 converter since MP3 is not one of its output encoding options, nor does jetAudio create AAC or Apple Lossless files, for use in iTunes and on iPods.  It rips CDs like nobody's business, but if your player doesn't support one if its output file types, you'll need to create a redundant catalog of music just for your player, which is not ideal.

jetAudio impresses out of the gate with a simple initial settings window that lets you fine tune how you want to use the program, complete with a small preview window that shows your choices. Sadly, the next step after this is creating a library of all your music, which in my case took a while.

jetaudio1.jpg
jetAudio's initial setting options

Perhaps jetAudio's cleverest feature is a thin bar that sits on top of your taskbar, showing file data and giving you playback controls without having to tab over into the main program.

jetAudio playback bar
jetAudio playback bar

The overall layout is similar to iTunes, with a large main window with all your files. There's a graphic EQ visualizer at the top and in the bar along the bottom. If you have crappy speakers, you can even EQ the output. If you have decent speakers, don't do this. Keep it flat. Keep it accurate to the original. Yes, I'm a snob. Overall the program is a little slow to respond to commands, especially when you have a large library and ask it to re-sort by title, album, or anything else.

A speeding donut-looking button next to the visualizer brings you to the ripping menu. One downside here is you have to tell it to query the CD database in order to retrieve meta tags (song and album title, genre, artist, etc.). Not a big deal, but the first time in a while I've seen this needed to be done manually.

jetAudio's ripping interface
jetAudio's ripping interface

At the top, next to where it indicates your CD drive, click "Config." Leave the Options for Reading CD alone, unless you have problems with CD reading. The important thing here is at the bottom, enable Jitter correction. Click Ok.

Now at the bottom left is where you can select the different encoding options under Output Format. There are many options available here.

APE - Monkey's Audio File Format is a lossless audio file format. It is claimed to create smaller file sizes at the expense of extra encoding time. Few products can play this format natively.

FLAC - Free Lossless Audio Codec. This format has been discussed earlier. Among the open source file formats, this one has the widest amount of hardware support.

MPC - Musepack is an open source lossy file format. Options for bit rate range from 60 kbps to 350 kbps with 180 being the default. Little hardware support.

OGG - Ogg Vorbis has three main options, Constant Bit Rate and Average Bit Rate both have 48 kbps to 500 kbps bit rate options. Variable Bit Rate has 80 to 450 kbps options.

RealMedia - Really? Anyone use this anymore? Party like it's 1999.

Speex - Speex Encoder is one I had to look up. Wikipedia says it's a patent-free audio compression format designed for speech. Not for us.

TTA - True Audio is a lossless audio codec. No options here.

WAV - Wave is the standard PCM audio format for PCs. Uncompressed audio is cool and all, but a big waste of space. This is the audio exactly as it is stored on the CD, bit for bit.

WMA - Windows Media Audio. There are multiple options here, including the older WMA 7 formats and Windows Media Audio Lossless (hidden in the options for WMA 9). Compression options are Constant Bitrate (sic) from 5 kbps to 320 kbps and Variable Bitrate (sic, again) from 48 kbps average to 256 kbps average.

WV - WavPack is another lossless audio compression format. There is a hybrid mode that when the music is too complex and the encoding exceeds a certain selectable bitrate, the encoder switches to lossy. A neat idea to somewhat limit excessively large files, though if you're encoding lossless, is file size really a priority?

jetAudio's encoding options
jetAudio's encoding options

For the advanced user, jetAudio is fantastic. It's fairly easy to use, has countless options, and has a few features (notably the taskbar humper) that are actually better than iTunes. What's missing is AAC and MP3 encoder options. I would imagine that some people looking to rid themselves of Apple or Microsoft influence wouldn't have minded a universal compressed file format that didn't have Uncle Bill's touch in it.

Like any of the available rippers, be careful with the more esoteric encoding formats, as you may have trouble down the road if you try to play these files over a network to a streaming audio device, or play them on your iPod Zune portable media player.

More Information or to Download jetAudio:

We played around with a few other MP3 converters and CD rippers but met with only limited success.

MediaMonkey

MediaMonkey
MediaMonkey's main interface

This software has roughly the same number of options as jetAudio, and in some encoding areas, even more. But I couldn't figure out how to get it to identify and tag all the meta data from the CD I was trying to rip. To have to enter this data manually for every CD or song you rip is a deal breaker.

More Information:

VLC Player

While theoretically capable of ripping and playing back FLAC and Ogg Vorbis, VLC Player is not a user friendly ripper. Nor does it have the advanced management functions of some of the others here. If you're looking for a straightforward playback program for a myriad of audio and video files types, VLC Player works for audio and video, though for the latter, I'd highly recommend Media Player Classic instead.

More Information:

Conclusion

There are other options available, but most of these are either crap or cost money. With the options above all available for free, we're not sure why anyone would bother paying for a CD ripper. For most people, iTunes will suffice, particularly once you get to know the available options. It's easy to use, has lots of ripping options, and is the most widely supported. jetAudio would be my second favorite if you don't want to go the Apple route, or like open source codecs.

Hope that helps!

Regards,

-Geoff

Keep those cards and letters coming! if you have a question for one of our home theater experts, shoot us an e-mail to "Ask The Expert." We'll select among these for future installments in this column. Due to the volume of requests we receive, we cannot reply to each question personally.

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