Futureproofing Your Music

Why you should insist your library stays lossless.

8 years ago (2013-07-25)

My digital music library was spawned around the time when Limewire was still edgy and the iPod had just revolutionized portable audio. Like many others, I took what I could, and ended up with a pretty sizable folder that stuck with me for years.

When I started to get more serious about my music consumption, I got my first pair of entry level Audio Technica cans and absolutely loved them. There was one issue though: that sizable music library consisted entirely of terribly encoded, badly tagged, 96-160 kbps MP3 files. Maybe the odd LAME 320k or V0 interspersed for good measure, just to tantalize with its crisp, airy tones.

Of course, I wanted to fix this as soon as possible so I could start appreciating my new investment. Fortunately, iTunes had very recently launched the "iTunes Plus" format, which was DRM-free and 256k AAC--a pretty decent encoding. Most people (myself included) will tell you that, at reasonable bitrates, AAC is effectively transparent. To successfully distinguish it from its original source, you need to have very sensitive hearing and a trained ear.

So that's cool, right? Why could I possibly need anything better than transparent, when it'll just cost more and take up more space?

Well, when my portable music needs were handled by an iPod Mini, I thought the same. Managing my library and bringing it on the go was effortless, and I could fit just enough music on that tiny hard drive (yes, it had a hard drive).

However, when I decided I wanted more space, I got a Sansa. This was a while before the e200v2 had stable Rockbox ports, so I had to transcode those AACs to clunky MP3s. The thing is, to keep them transparent, my nicely sized files had to get larger! A lot larger! My new player with double the space was now reduced to carrying marginally more songs.

The reason is that transcoding from lossy to lossy is one of the worst things you can do to an audio file--the psychoacoustic models used to make the compression work start sounding like crap as they layer up and cut out conflicting parts of the signal.

There's an easy solution though: just don't do it. Starting out with a lossless source lets you pick your formats later, so you can adapt as encoding technology evolves or you change hardware.

So, the tl;dr is: keep your library lossless so you'll never again have to worry about transcoding.

Or don't, but please stop complaining that a lossless library is pointless just because you can't hear the difference. Neither can I.

I've since sent my old music library into the void. The replacement is composed entirely of lossless sources encoded in FLAC. For portable listening, I re-encode that library to Vorbis and stick it on my Sansa Clip+ (a great player). Once there's a better, more efficient lossy format than Vorbis, migrating will be one or two commands away. Once there's a more efficient lossless format than FLAC, it'll be just as easy.

If you're struggling to find lossless audio online, don't panic. There are lots of sources out there: try out your favourite artists' websites (e.g. NIN), HDtracks, and Bandcamp (awesome for many other reasons).

Or maybe, just maybe, order a CD.