[xplorer˛] — Digital media shootout
home » blog » 25 January 2009

It's nearly half a year now that I've moved from London to Thessaloniki. The adaptation had its ups and downs and the odd social uprising but it's going smoothly. One of the tasks I've set myself is to transform my sizeable music collection from vinyl and CD to some digital format, so that I don't need a lorry each time I move house.

The idea is to extract (aka rip) the music out of the physical CD medium and store it on a hard disk. Not only we save on physical storage space but it is possible to reduce the digital storage requirements by an order of magnitude choosing a compression format like MP3. You can fit 10+ albums in a single CDROM. Once you set off you'll realize that there are tons of software that can do this CD ripping and even more audio codecs to choose from. What can a rational mind do?

Legend has it that once upon a time in the University of Paris the philosophers disputed among themselves as to the number of teeth in a horse's mouth. It was argued that the number could not be a multiple of 3 because that would imply disrespect to the Trinity; nor could it be a multiple of 7 for God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Neither the authority of Aristotle nor the ingenuity of the schoolmen could resolve the problem. It was finally settled by a young man who opened the mouth of a horse and counted the teeth. The doctors of the university were unimpressed by this novel and unintelllectual procedure but the opening of the horse's mouth was the beginning of science.

Aristotle to the side! The matter of the best audio ripping software cum codec will be settled by careful observation and controlled experiment. I couldn't find any useful previous comparison so I googled and picked the best ranking free tools and put them to the test on a sample CD from my collection (9 tracks, total length 54:48 min). I was interested on practical issues like how long it takes to rip a CD and how big are the resulting files.

nameUI  installed KBaudio formatsMP3 rip time
1. CDex v1.513054MP3/OGG2'18"
2. Express RIP v1.55846MP3/OGG/FLAC/WMA++2'57"
3. CDRipper v2.51831MP3/OGG/WMA6'10"
4. dBpowerAMP R102784WAV/MP36'18"
5. freeRIP v35020MP3/OGG/WMA/FLAC7'50"

So the fastest MP3 ripper is the open-source CDex followed closely by Express RIP that does nearly all audio formats too. I suspect the rest of the converters were so much worse just because they were free versions promoting a professional version and may have been deliberately detuned. There wasn't much to pick among them in most other features; the total disk space of the 9 converted tracks was ~50MB at 128 kbps bitrate, they all did ID3 tags and could download artist/track information from an online CD database. Annoyingly they all needed to be run with administrator privileges to read the CD.

The size of the resulting digital audio file depends on the format. Like all compression algorithms there's a trade-off between size and quality. When you zip a file then uncompress it you get back the original, that's lossless compression. When you convert a bitmap to a JPEG then some of the color information is irretrievably lost — but the picture is smaller too. Likewise with audio compression: there are lossless formats like WAV and FLAC that preserve the sound quality but lead to bigger files, and lossy formats like MP3 and WMA that shrink the size at the expense of quality. There's also the question of bitrate that improves the quality of lossy formats as well as their size. How can we pick the best format and bitrate? Time for another sound experiment!

Formatfile size (KB)  rip time (sec)
MP3 128 kbps23317.05
MP3 256 kbps46626.59
MP3 variable bitrate20077.0
WMA 128 kbps23456.07
WMA 64 kbps11795.55
OGG variable(~120)212326.04

The above results were obtained using Express RIP on a single 2'29" track. In summary:

  • All lossy formats are similar in size. For comparable bitrate, it doesn't matter whether you rip to MP3 or WMA, the size is almost identical.
  • Bitrate up, size up. For any lossy format, double the bitrate leads to double the file size. Is the sound quality 2 times better too? That's questionable.
  • Rip time is constrained by CD access. The audio format isn't an important factor in terms of speed. Most of the time is lost to extract the basic audio WAV from the CD, then conversion happens in a snip. A slight advantage goes to WMA.
  • Lossless formats are huge. The basic WAV is more than 10 times larger than MP3 128kbps. That's the price you pay for accurate sound reproduction. FLAC does a good job more than halving the WAV file size for lossless compression but I don't know if there are many portable players (I'm talking about the IPod type) that can play them (?)

So how about a verdict? All things considered I recommend Express RIP that combines good performance with good audio codec support. Regarding the audio format the jury is still out but I would probably go for MP3 256kbps and hope that my ear will appreciate the difference <g> Long live Enlightenment!

Addendum: If anybody's got any unripped CDs any longer, I recommend windows media player. It comes preinstalled and can do 1-click rip. Just insert your CD in the drive, wait till WMP reads the contents and click on RIP button. You can get the ripped tracks from MyMusic folder.

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