Digitizing your music collection--Ask the Editors

CNET Editor Jasmine France answers all of your questions about MP3 players, accessories, headphones, and more in this regular Ask the Editors feature.

Jasmine France Former Editor
4 min read

If there's a lesson to be learned from this week's MP3 Mailbox Monday, it's that flattery will get you everywhere. And that it's hip to be square. Oh, also, there's something about digitizing music and recycling CDs in here, too, though I like to delude myself into thinking you stop by for my self-indulgent-yet-somehow-still-witty intro chatter. What do you mean witty, you say? Ha! Good one. Read on for the skinny.

Q: I just joined CNET--great site, just love it! Here's the thing: I'm old, I'm out of it, and I need help. I only started downloading music a year ago, and now I'm hooked. Love having digital music and want to get rid of my physical CDs. I work non-stop and don't have time to do this myself. I've looked into ripping services and wonder if anyone can recommend one service over another? They all seem pretty much the same as far as cost so I'm looking for actual positive experience with a specific service. I'm in the New York City area but it's fine to ship to a distant location if it's a good service.

Also, what format should I convert to--MP3 or AAC? I have an iPhone, a Mac laptop, and external back up (a time machine). And what do people do with their old CDs? Are there places to donate, recycle, etc.? Thanks a ton!--Clare, via e-mail

One of many services that takes the work out of CD ripping.

A: We haven't done a comparison of CD-ripping services at CNET, but I found one over at Digital Trends that is nicely laid out and includes a wide variety of options. (As usual, I also invite other CNET users to leave feedback below.)

Now, the question of format is a good one, and I'm afraid the answer isn't entirely straightforward. What format to use depends on your purposes. If you're looking for archive-quality audio, lossless is the way to go. The most common lossless format is WAV, but in your case, I'd recommend Apple Lossless, which offers some compression while still preserving the data of the file. (This means the Apple Lossless file will be smaller than the WAV, but will arguably sound just as good.) Apple Lossless is supported by iTunes and most iPods, including the iPhone.

However, lossless isn't all roses. The main issue is the large file size--it's significantly larger than an AAC or MP3 ripped at the highest possible bit rate. For example, a 4-minute track ripped in Apple Lossless will be about 29.5MB, while that same file ripped at 320Kbps AAC will be around 9.5MB. (As a WAV, it's 41.2MB.) That means you'll be able to fit a lot less of them on your iPhone or hard drive. And one more thing to consider: Apple Lossless isn't a highly compatible format, meaning a relatively limited number of devices can play it back. A larger variety of portables support AAC--Sony Walkmans, select Creative Zens, and the Zune among them--but MP3 is by far the most universal format. If you're considering branching off of the iPod tree in the future, a more universal format may be more appealing.

Operation Gratitude takes more than just CDs.

All that being said, you can always convert from Apple Lossless to a "lossy" file type such as AAC or MP3 for your portable player, but that is an extra step for you. However, my thought is that the extra effort is worth it if you want to keep your main collection in the highest possible digital quality. Now, if you're not concerned with the best audio, you could get the CDs ripped straight to AAC or MP3 at 320Kbps--either one is a reasonable choice, but I'd keep the bit rate high.

As for what to do with the CDs once you're done, you can donate them to places like the Goodwill or Salvation Army, or other organizations, such as Operation Gratitude, which sends care packages to our troops. Used book stores and libraries may also accept donations of media. Or you can recycle them.

Addendum: as a commenter below so astutely points out, you should technically hold onto any hard backups for legal reasons--such is the tetchiness of digital copyright law. You can, of course, do as you see fit, and civil liberties discussions abound should you wish to join the fray.

What the RIAA has to say:

  • It's okay to copy music onto an analog cassette, but not for commercial purposes.
  • It's also okay to copy music onto special Audio CD-R's, mini-discs, and digital tapes (because royalties have been paid on them) - but, again, not for commercial purposes.
  • Beyond that, there's no legal "right" to copy the copyrighted music on a CD onto a CD-R. However, burning a copy of CD onto a CD-R, or transferring a copy onto your computer hard drive or your portable music player, won't usually raise concerns so long as:
    1. The copy is made from an authorized original CD that you legitimately own
    2. The copy is just for your personal use. It's not a personal use - in fact, it's illegal - to give away the copy or lend it to others for copying.
  • The owners of copyrighted music have the right to use protection technology to allow or prevent copying.
  • Remember, it's never okay to sell or make commercial use of a copy that you make.
  • 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.)