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MP3 Mailbox Monday: Back to basics

Get the answers to all of your questions about MP3 players, headphones, and more in this weekly feature.

After enjoying a brief hiatus, MP3 Mailbox Monday is back--and back to basics. Perhaps one of the most confusing things about portable music devices is audio format compatibility, and yet this is an elemental feature of any player. So which format works best? It all depends on the user, but one of the answers below will help you sort it out. Also, learn how to burn MP3 CDs in iTunes and find out possible reasons for your MP3 player only playing tracks in alphabetical order.

Q: I'm sure that you've answered this question many times, but I'll ask it again. I'm in the process of ripping my CD collection to my PC so which format is really the best: MP3 or WMA? I use an iPod almost exclusively now but also have an LG Chocolate and an older Sansa MP3 player. I also help my father with his players, too. I only want to do this once and want to do it right -- Tony, via e-mail

Which audio format for all three?

A: MP3 is what I like to call an "antique" format: it's old. It plays on pretty much any device, but it's not as advanced as some later formats such as WMA and AAC. It is generally agreed upon that a file ripped into WMA/AAC at a lower bit rate, say 64kbps, will sound better than that same file ripped at 64kbps MP3. In turn, that allows you to have a smaller WMA/AAC file that sounds as good as an MP3 that takes up more space. That is, a 64kbps WMA/AAC may offer sound quality roughly equivalent to a 128kbps MP3 but takes up half the space (1.5MB versus 3MB, say). For me, that makes WMA or AAC a better format, but this is subjective. Also, as the bit rates get higher, most normal listeners can't tell the difference between the various file types.

MP3 is still the most universal format, and some people think that it is a better format. In your case, for instance, you mention three different portable music devices: an iPod, a Chocolate, and a Sansa. While the iPod and Chocolate play AAC, the Sansa plays WMA, but they all play MP3. So for you, MP3 may be the best option. Of course, these are all lossy formats; most audio purists stick to formats such as WAV and FLAC, although the resulting files are significantly larger.

Q: I have CD player that can play MP3 CDs. I want to put a large amount of songs (~30 songs) on one CD. Can you please tell me how to burn a CD with MP3 instead of WAV on iTunes? -- Jeff, via e-mail

A: Open iTunes and go to Edit > Preferences. Then, select the Advanced tab, and next, the Burning tab. In that area, check the box for MP3 CD and then click OK. Now, burn a CD just as you normally would: create a playlist of the desired tracks, put a blank CD-R in the drive, highlight the playlist, and click the large Burn Disk button. If you want to go back to burning standard audio CDs, follow the same steps, but check the box for Audio CD instead.

Q: I have an MP3 player (Insignia 4GB) but will be the first to admit I don't have much time to mess with it. I use it mostly for audiobooks, so it must be compatible with audiobooks. My problem : I have a large music collection, but when I put songs on the player, the damn thing plays them alphabetically (All songs that start with "A," then "B", etc) instead of by album, in the album's order. I use Rhapsody on my computer. -- Larry, via e-mail

A: Rhapsody should transfer all of the ID3 tag info to the player, and the Insignia recognizes ID3 tag info itself, so I don't think it's a software or hardware issue, but a matter of navigation. Now, if you go straight to all tracks (Music > Songs), the default for any MP3 player is to play all the tracks on the device straight through in alphabetical order. Not much you can do about that, I'm afraid, besides put the player on shuffle, which will not play things in album order either. If you navigate Music > Artist > Album, or just Music > Album and play from there, the tracks from that album should play in numerical order, with the first track playing first, the second, second, and so on.

If you're already navigating this way, chances are there is missing info in your ID3 tags (which is where the track data lives). Most likely, this is track numbers. You can fix these by hand in Rhapsody by right-clicking on a track and selecting Edit Track Info (a time consuming process), or you can let software do it for you. One program people seem to like is TagScanner.

(Note: this article has been updated to include more up-to-date data and links to back up sources.)

CNET Networks/Corinne Schulze

MP3 Mailbox Monday is a recurring feature where I answer a selection of questions about MP3 players and accessories, such as headphones, speakers, and music services and software. Check back often to see if the advice presented here might be of some use to you, or send your questions directly to me. (Note: We never include last names, but if you prefer to remain completely anonymous, please state as much in your e-mail.)