Problem Solving Guy #3 – iPod and iTunes Music Collection

Nemo asks, and Guy answers, this time with personal insights into getting the best audio quality from your iPod and iTunes music collection — in the car, in the house, and wherever else your songs may reside.

Here is the third installment in our irregular, irreverent, idiosyncratic series of “Help me, Guy!” collaborations between John “Nemo” Nemerovski and Guy “Problem Solving Guy” Serle.

Make sure you check out the previous two postings, linked from Guy’s archive, at:

Nemo: Which audio format do you use on your new iPod, Guy?

Guy: It’s kind of a hodgepodge, much like my so-called life. My iTunes library has songs from my personal CD collection in their original digital form, which is in the AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) format. Interestingly (to me anyway), this format was apparently developed in part by Apple. In some circles, it is also called the “Apple Interchange File Format”. During the great digital debate of 1986 they…hold on, you asked me a question didn’t you?

Nemo: (Sigh) Yes, which audio format do you use on your iPod, GUY.

Guy: SOMEONE didn’t have his coffee this morning. OK, most of my iTunes library is a mix of AIFF, MP3, AAC, and DRMed AAC files. As far as the iPod goes, it’s mostly a mix of MP3s and DRMed AAC files. iTunes is nice enough to take my very large uncompressed (Well it’s digital, so there is some compression. But not as much as..jeez. Getting sidetracked again) AIFF files and convert them to much smaller MP3s. On an iPod mini 1st generation model, you could only hold about 5-8 uncompressed CDs, but with MP3 compression (which reduces it by a factor of 10 or more), you can fit Apple’s claim of a thousand songs or so.

I have a bunch of songs purchased from the Apple iTunes Store as well and they come over as DRMed (Digital Rights Management) AAC files.

Nemo: And what bitrate, or whatever it’s called?

Guy: For absolutely no reason I can sanely think of, I have my MP3s set to 192Kbps (Kbps stands for Kilobytes per second). Can I tell the difference between 128Kbps ripped tunes and 192Kbps? Nope, and neither can most people. Especially since I usually listen to my iPod either through Apple’s pod-like earphones or my somewhat ragged out Ford Explorer stock stereo system. I guess it just gives me a feeling of false superiority over those people who use 128Kbps or less. Is it petty on my part? Sure, but I haven’t changed it back either which says more about me than I care to think about.

Nemo: Is this the same format and quality you have in iTunes on your Mac at home?

Guy: Except for the uncompressed files from my personal CDs, I would say yes. Because I’m lazy, I’ve never synced my G4 Tower and iBook iTunes Library. Since going wireless, I mostly use the iBook anyway. The only time I fire up the G4 tower beastie is when I’m going to burn a DVD or for security/OS updates.

Nemo: How is a higher Kilobytes per second (Kbps) bitrate rating relevant to sound quality in compressed music files?

Guy: OK, think of the original song as a big bowl and the compression rating or bitrate as water. Wait, scratch that. Think of a song recorded at a very low bitrate like going to a Jimmy Buffet concert and you just know he’s not going to sing Margaritaville. No, that blows chunks as an example as well. Imagine its like an Almond Joy candy bar with the coconut sucked out by a drunken pirate with a diseased parrot. Hmmm. Well, it’s apparent that I suck at analogies today.

Simply put, the higher the bitrate, the more information encoded per second or in other words, less compression was used. Less compression means more information per second means more of the original non-compressed file or music is there. If sound quality is really important to you (as compared to just having more songs), set the bitrate in your iTunes preferences (I think its in the “export” category) as high as you want. Just remember that the higher the bitrate, the bigger your files are going to be.

Nemo: Do you think there is any difference between AAC, MP3, WAV, and any other of the popular formats?

Guy: As far as sound quality goes, I don’t really think so. Depending on what kind of music you listen to or what kind of digital player you have, you may have a preferred format. Some people like MP3s, others like WAVs, still others like OOGs (Apparently very popular with the Linux crowd). What it really comes down to is how much can each compress a song and still have it some form that is listenable. Some of these MP3 players (as in not iPod) claim to hold ungodly amounts of tunes. What they don’t tell you (except in itty-bitty teeny-tiny print) is that they base this claim on a bitrate of 64Kbps. At this bitrate, songs can be very tinny with high and low-end frequencies clipped to make them sound like they come from the other end of a sewer pipe. Considering the type of music that passes for popular these days, maybe that’s a good thing.

Nemo: Does size matter? Should we be concerned with how much disk or Pod space is being taken up by individual tracks?

Guy: Does size matter? Man oh man, that’s almost too good to pass up. Unfortunately this is a PG rated website so I can’t use all the obvious jokes. In my opinion (and those of most audiophiles..which I am not), the file size is not nearly as important as the bitrate. Using iTunes preferences, you can encode audio down to a bitrate of 16Kbps, but I wouldn’t want to listen to music compressed down that much. Every time you go down to another level of compression, something gets lost.

Should you be worried about file sizes? That will depend on two important factors.

One, how big is your music collection? If your music collection is measured by how many external FireWire drives you can cram onto your G5, you’ll need to be concerned about file sizes on your iPod. Especially if you’re one of those people that just HAS to have every song in your collection available at all times.

Two, how big is your iPod? If you have a 40-60 Gb full size model, you shouldn’t have too much trouble using higher bitrates unless your collection approaches the size of the Library of Congress (see factor one). If you have an iPod mini or Shuffle, then you’ll need to start making choices on bitrate sizes and what music you just have to keep with you.

I don’t use it so far myself, but one of your choices when importing your CDs into iTunes is an Apple proprietary format called “Apple Lossless”. According to a highly paid spokesman from Apple that would say with a straight face they were constipated if it was on the press release, Apple Lossless preserves the music file without a major loss of audio quality at half the size of the original. If true, this would be the best way to preserve the quality of your music without the compromise of MP3/WAV/OOG (oh THAT again)/AAC compression.

Nemo: How much static or buzz are you getting on that transmitter gadget your just reviewed?

Guy: Once I found a clear frequency, I get very little static or buzz. One nice feature that the Belkin TuneBase FM for the iPod mini (Belkin dudes, I’m gonna need more payola if this keeps up) has is that you can choose any empty FM frequency between 88.1 and 107.9. As I live near the Baltimore/Washington D.C. corridor, this was not as easy as it may seem. Because of FCC regulations, these types of devices must accept any interference that comes its way. Having that kind of frequency range is a big plus over many like devices that I have seen with 1-4 locked preset frequencies.

I’ve used a different type of device (The iRock FM transmitter) to plug into my laptop for audio in the car. Why the heck would I need to? I use my laptop for movies on long trips for the kids, and the sound from my iBook is rather muted when it has to compete with wind and road noise. It has four locked preset frequencies (88.1, 88.3, 88.5, 88.7 MHz) and in busy metropolitan areas, it’s very difficult to find one that works reliably.

Nemo: Would you consider it acceptable in a home stereo? And does it work there too?

Guy: In the case of the Belkin device, I suppose you could use it in the home if you had an automobile DC power adapter in your home. Only a sick, twisted mind would put such an adapter in their residence. Though now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder what my wife would say if I…no, NO! NOT going there.

Actually there are several other options for getting your audio files from your computer to your home stereo. You can use Apple’s Airport express IF you have wireless set up in your home and in the computer you wish to stream music from. There are also RF wireless based solutions as well. Some of these (with a little help) can be set-up to transmit video to your home system. You can make your Mac a central part of your home theater system. Imagine playing movies or games from your Mac, but displaying it on a large screen TV. I do this now with direct wiring (for movies), but there are Mac-friendly products out there to do the same without having to connect a jumble of wires between your home component system and your Mac.

Nemo: Have you tried a range of formats and bitrates to determine your optimum settings?

Guy: I’m way too lazy to go through all the settings and options between iTunes and my iPod. The base settings seem to work pretty well and quite frankly my ears were blown out from too many Blue Oyster Cult concerts (“Don’t fear the Reaper” just frigging ROCKS MAN!) in the 1970s.

True Audiophiles will play with their settings until it sounds exactly the way they want it to. With EVERY song in their collection. Strangely enough, this doesn’t mean that a different Audiophile would use or enjoy those same settings. Ever been to a chat room with these people? Or read some of the posts they log in at various audio related forums? They make the Mac vs. PC wars seem pale by comparison. Tokyo got more respect from Godzilla than an audio newbie will get at these sites.

From a dictionary site that you’ll never find even if you look real hard came this definition of an Audiophile: Audiophile (ah-dee- oh-file) – adjective – A term describing an individual who spends more time and money buying equipment and making settings changes on their equalizers (see: ridiculous waste of 19” of rack space) than they do actually listening to, enjoying, or buying music. Sub-genre: Unmarried, Living in parent’s basement, PC Gamer.

Nemo: Can vary from song to song, or between genres?

Guy: Apple’s iTunes has a built-in equalizer with a number of pre-sets based on musical genres. These are very basic settings and obviously will not please everyone. Fortunately, you can change them and even create your own saved settings to apply to any song in your collection. I’m not sure if iTunes saves each setting when applied to individual songs. If not, it should be included. It would certainly please all those unmarried, basement dwelling, PC Gaming, Audiophiles out there. And that’s a GOOD thing.

Nemo: Why should readers and listeners care about these matters, anyway?

Guy: Music is an important part of most normal (even me) people’s lives. It brings pleasure, relief from pain, and relaxation. It helps to define many of the different cultures around the world. It can bring back memories from the past (both good and bad) and is an integral segment of many activities that people enjoy. Live sporting events for example almost always have music playing in the background. Well, except for Professional Bowling and Golf. Imagine Tiger Woods lining up for a putt just as Baha Men’s “Who let the Dogs out?” starts blaring from speakers hidden in the woods. Heh. Sometimes I crack me up.

I guess the point is that our lives would be so much less enjoyable without the different types of music we enjoy. While I’ve made fun of those people who may be a little more serious about it than I am (gee, ya think?), I can understand their passion about music.

Leave a Reply