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How to Get the Highest Quality Digital Music Files

An iPod® or iPhone™ makes a great music player. The convenience is undeniable, but unless you've made a little tweak to your iTunes®, you might not be getting the best sound out of your player.

Here's the problem: most of the music imported into iTunes is compressed down from its original file size, a process that strips out the full depth and detail of the original track. Might not seem like a big deal. But anyone who's ever experienced the impact of a movie's soundtrack in the theater, and then felt less than impressed hearing it through TV speakers, understands the difference good sound can make. That same concept applies to music: just like with a movie's soundtrack, more detailed and dynamic sound means a more engaging, fulfilling listening experience.

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So who cares about compression?

When an audio file is compressed, various bits of sonic information are discarded. The current default sampling bitrate of 128 kilobytes per second (kbps) that most music programs (including iTunes) use represents something of a compromise. It keeps file sizes small, so you can store a lot of songs on your player, but it gives up quite a bit of audio quality.

An uncompressed track ripped from CD is about ten times the size of its 128 kbps counterpart. So how much sonic information is discarded in the process? Well, imagine the difference between the appearance of a high-definition image on a flat-panel TV and another displayed on the same screen at 1/10 the resolution. The basic image may be there, but the missing detail makes it less enjoyable to view (or in some cases hard to make out).

Fortunately, iTunes makes the compression issue a simple problem to solve.

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Changing the iTunes defaults for better sound quality

iTunes has a default import setting of 128 kbps. This setting affects tracks ripped from CDs, as well as sound files imported from other sources, such as audio editing programs. It does not affect music purchased from the iTunes store. Downloaded iTunes tracks come in at the resolution they're sold at (currently either 128 kbps, or now they offer higher-quality 256 kbps files).

Even if you get most of your music through iTunes store purchases, changing the default import setting for music from other sources is still a good idea. And it's easy to do.

Just go to the "Preferences" menu (depending on which version of iTunes you're running, it could either be under "Edit" or "File"). Then go to the "General" setting. You'll see a button labeled "Import Settings." In older programs you might have to go the "Advanced" tab, and then chose "Importing."

Either way, you'll soon see a choice of file formats. Some of the formats give you a choice of resolution. Don't worry about remembering numbers — Apple's helpfully labeled the choices with phrases like "Good Quality" and "High Quality." Below, you'll see the format choices you'll be offered, in descending order of sound quality. If you're not sure which format will give you the highest sound quality you can hear, try a simple test. Import the same track with two different settings — listening to them side-by-side can be the best way to determine which format works best for you.

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WAV files are the largest in size, because your CD tracks are ripped with no compression. While this is good from a sound quality standpoint, there is a disadvantage — you won't be able to attach album art to these files.

AIFF files are Apple's version of a WAV file, but they allow a little bit of room in the file for metadata. This means you can attach album art to an AIFF file.

Apple Lossless files store data more efficiently than either WAV or AIFF, and have virtually the same sound quality while taking up about half the memory.

AAC is Apple's proprietary file format for audio. Songs purchased from iTunes are AAC files.

MP3 files are similar to AAC, and both compress music about the same amount, while using slightly different algorithms to do so.

Whether to use AAC or MP3 is a personal choice. Some people hear a difference between the two, and both have their supporters. One advantage to the latter format is that you can transfer MP3 files to non-Apple digital music players.

The MP3 and AAC settings also let you select compression rate, conveniently labeled "Good Quality," "High Quality" and "Higher Quality". Or you can use the custom setting to enter in a different sampling rate, including ones that are either higher or lower than the offered settings. Remember that not everyone notices higher sound quality with a larger size file. If you don't hear a difference between a 192kbps (higher quality) and 160kbps (high quality) MP3 file, then by all means go for the lower file size.

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