When Apple released their Airport Express back in 2004, it changed the way I used my hi-fi. There was no longer any reason to use CDs: I could rip them all to my hard drive, play them in iTunes, and they’d be streamed wirelessly to the Airport Express, which was connected to the hi-fi.The move to lossless
In 2006, hard drive prices were low enough that I decided to have a second music library, which would contain lossless rips of all my music. That way, all my physical CDs were backed up in another medium, and the collection was future proof, because I could re-encode these files into whatever lossless or lossy form I liked.
I started playing music from the second library more and more: instruments sounded more realistic, and recordings sounded less dense, like there was more room around the notes, their edges more distinct.
At that point, why have more than one library, if I was so happy with the lossless files? Primarily, the reasons related to portable use:
- The iPods I had at the time were 4 GB and 20 GB. Today, I’m using a 16 GB iPhone as my main music player.
- My laptop didn’t have sufficient hard drive space for a fully lossless library, but if I only had one library on my Mac mini server/media PC, I wouldn’t be able to make changes to the music on my iPhone when I was away from home.
- Tangentially, I have some high resolution1 music files in my lossless library. The only thing that’s capable of making those worthwhile (and the jury is still sort of out on that) is to play them on my Mac mini, connected directly to my stereo’s digital analog converter (DAC)—Airport Express only plays 16/44.1 or 48. So I might not want to move away from having a library on the mini2.
- Also tangentially, it would be very tedious to merge the libraries so as to maintain the playlists and play counts in one, and impossible to combine the play counts of both.
- Again tangentially, people that borrow music from me would probably be pissed off at long downloads.
When the first iPod shuffle came out (the one that looked like a USB drive/pregnancy test3), the base model was only 512 MB, so Apple introduced a kind-of-cool feature: music at bit rates higher than 128 kbps could be automatically transcoded to that bit rate on-the-fly as they were copied over. Considering much of my music was 160 kbps, there wasn’t much reason to re-encode it, but the idea was good. Inital iPod syncs would be very slow, but after that only new or changed content would have to be re-encoded.
In fact, for people with losslessly-encoded libraries, it was a great idea. Have full quality music on your computer (which had lots of storage), and convert that to a lower quality for your portable player (which had less storage). In fact, that addresses my first problem with having a lossless library. A hard drive upgrade could address the second. See the footnotes for a possible answer to the third. The fourth, is, honestly, me just being anal4. The fifth, well, they can deal—download and re-encode. Or go lossless. The Kool-Aid’s yummy, I swear.
Oddly, though, this feature remained limited to the iPod shuffle5. I love Apple, but there are plenty of times when they choose UI simplicity over power, with the result being that an almost perfect solution falls just short enough to be unusable for my purposes.New developments
With iTunes 9.1, an update most notable for adding iPad support, Apple finally supported on-the-fly re-encoding for all iPods, iTunes, and iPads (though I’m not sure about the tv).
Except it’s still hard-coded that the transcoding targets 128 kbps. Meanwhile, Apple has moved on to selling 256 kbps files through iTunes (come to think of it, that may be the motivation for this change). I’ve switched to using them as well, and I think they sound pretty fantastic.
Often when Apple doesn’t want to clutter the UI with a power user option, they leave an option that can be set via the command line. I poked around and couldn’t find one for this, however.
So, I could do it. But it would require me to compromise on bitrate, and on some of the other points above.
It’s under consideration.24 bit and 88.2 or 96 kHz, versus CD standard 16/44.1. ↩ Although now that I think about it, I could probably just have the mini stream audio from the laptop. I think that would work, especially over an 802.11n network. ↩ OK, so that was just an excuse to post this video: ↩ To be honest, the others probably are too. ↩ Well, and the original Motorola ROKR and SLVR phones, but those were so horrible that they don’t even really deserve this footnote. Seriously. I had a SLVR. I know. I broke my contract over that awful phone. ↩