As more and more people convert their audio CD collections to digital music for use on PCs and portable audio devices, the question of which format to use becomes more important. You've probably heard of the Motion Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) Level 3 (MP3) audio format, a compressed audio format developed more than a decade ago. MP3 became popular with the rise of the Internet because of the sudden need for an audio format that offered small file sizes and decent sound quality.
Today, most PC software and hardware devices work well with MP3, so it might seem like the obvious format to use. But I'd advise against using this format in many cases; at the very least, consider your options before converting your entire CD collection to the wrong format or—even worse—to the wrong quality level.
As I discussed in the last issue of Connected Home EXPRESS, people's needs differ based on their particular requirements. Consider how you plan to use digital music. You might plan to play digital music only on the PC, but what if you'd eventually like to make your own CDs or copy music to a portable audio device? These scenarios require a few considerations, including compatibility, speed, and file size.
If you plan to listen to digital audio only on your PC, it doesn't really matter what format you use and, in many ways, your decision might depend on the software you prefer. Both MP3 and Windows Media Audio 7 (WMA 7) or WMA 8 offer excellent sound quality at various quality levels. If file size is a concern, stick with WMA, which offers higher-quality sound at lower-quality levels. And experiment a bit with copying at various quality levels to find your sweet spot. 128Kbps is probably OK for MP3; look at 64Kbps or 96Kbps for WMA.
If you create your own audio mix CDs, consider slightly higher-quality digital music for the best results. I use 160Kbps MP3 and 128Kbps WMA 8 files for this purpose.
Portable audio devices are another concern because they often offer small amounts of storage space. Today, the typical MP3 player has 64MB of RAM, although versions with more and less RAM are available, and some, like the Iomega HipZip, offer inexpensive removable storage. Good audio players let you downgrade audio on the fly as you copy music over to the device, so you might convert your files to 64Kbps (WMA) or 96Kbps (MP3) as you copy them to the device. This task takes some time, but it's worth it if you don't plan to change the music on the device very often. Also, because compressed music doesn't convert very well, start with a fairly high-quality source (160Kbps MP3 or 128Kbps WMA) and avoid converting between formats (i.e., don't downgrade a 128Kbps MP3 file to a 64Kbps WMA file).
In general, I prefer the WMA format, but your decision might come down to compatibility because some PC-based audio players and portable audio devices don't support this format. But other audio formats are coming down the road that you should be aware of. The creators of MP3 recently completed work on a new version of that codec called MP3Pro, which offers many of WMA's benefits (smaller file sizes, better sound at lower-quality settings) but without the primary MP3 and WMA benefit—it isn't free. And a high-quality MP3 replacement, Ogg Vobis, should be out by the time you read this. Ogg Vobis is free and offers very high quality. I'll take a closer look at MP3Pro and Ogg Vobis in the coming months.
And here's a related tip for Windows XP (formerly code-named Whistler) from reader Richard Davidson. One of XP's coolest new features is its album thumbnail generator, which automatically places the appropriate album cover art on the folder to which you copy music. But what if you've already copied your CDs to the hard disk using MP3 format? You can download album cover art from a site such as http://www.cdnow.com, then use the new XP folder-customize feature to display the proper image for each folder. But this takes time—you have to manually edit the folder properties for every single folder, and you'll lose customizations if you have to reinstall the OS.
Here's an excellent fix: When you download the album cover art from the Web, save the images as folder.jpg and place them in the appropriate folder. XP will automatically use that image as the thumbnail for that folder and, best of all, will use that image in Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP) if you choose to display album cover art instead of an icon. And the folder customization is automatic, so it survives an OS reinstallation. Good stuff!