After all the media coverage in the past few years about digital music file trading, playback, storage, and related topics, I'm surprised by the number of requests I get asking which application or format to use to rip CDs. And often, the messages include a comment such as, I'd use Windows Media Player (WMP), but then I can listen to the songs I rip only on the same computer that I used to rip them. So this week, I'd like to offer my input on the topic of digital music file formats and management tools and put to rest some misconceptions about the various technologies.
WMP isn't a bad music-management tool, and WMP8 in Windows XP has received quite a bit of good press. WMP isn't my primary music-management tool; I use it as a backup on the systems I use for managing music files, and I'm not particularly upset if it's the only tool available to me. There's no truth to the statement that WMP can rip only digitally protected music. WMP defaults to digital-rights management enabled, and you simply turn that feature off. After you turn off digital-rights management, you can play back the music you rip on any device with a player for the format you choose.
MP3 versus WMA
If you've followed my articles over the past few years, you know that I'm a Windows Media Audio (WMA) fan. When I first started ripping CDs, the 96Kbps WMA 7 format was as good as the 128Kbps MP3 format, and because I planned to rip thousands of files, the file-size advantage WMA offered was appealing. My only concern was that none of the portable digital-media players supported WMA, but I was sure that the industry would deal with that problem. I was right. Almost every major portable media player manufacturer now supports WMA. The only glaring exceptions are car stereo manufacturers; they have just started releasing CD units that read MP3 files. Many car stereo manufacturers have announced that their next offerings will add WMA support.
Since I began ripping CDs, hard-disk prices have dropped dramatically, and storage size has become less of a concern. I'm still on the WMA bandwagon, but I've switched to the 128Kbps WMA 8 as my standard. If you feel you must use MP3 as your format, I won't argue with you, but you won't lose anything by using WMA; I believe WMA is a more efficient format. I've tested the same music ripped in 96Kbps WMA 8 format and 160Kbps MP3 format and have yet to meet anyone who can tell the difference between the two formats.
Other formats, such as MP3Pro and Ogg Vorbis, are also available, but few playback devices support these formats. At the moment, there's no compelling reason to use them instead of MP3 or WMA.
I currently use four music-management programs: WMP, Sonic Foundry SIREN Jukebox 2.0, Nullsoft Winamp, and Illustrate dbPowerAMP (see URLs at the end of this commentary). My primary program is Sonic Foundry SIREN Jukebox, but I no longer recommend it to other users because the current version doesn't support access to Gracenote's CDDB Music Recognition Service.(http://www.gracenote.com) CDDB is far and away the best music database on the Web, so I consider support for the service a must in any primary tool. WMP also doesn't provide CDDB support.
Winamp and MUSICMATCH Jukebox are probably the standards by which you should judge all shareware music-management tools. I run Winamp primarily to keep current with the product because so many of my friends use it. (Just as many are now using MUSICMATCH Jukebox, but I haven't spent any real time with the program yet.) dbPowerAMP tools include a music converter and music player. Visit the company's Web site for lots of interesting downloads, many of which are freeware with no ads or spyware.
Basically, the media player software you use is a personal choice. The product that works for you and that you're most comfortable with is the product you want to use. For additional product choices, check out the audio player section of the multimedia tools page at TUCOWS for dozens of media player options.
Windows Media Player
Sonic Foundry SIREN Jukebox 2.0