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An Audiophile's Guide to OS X

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Gift

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While portable digital audio has lost quality in some areas, it makes up for it in others. The highest quality of digital audio, for example, is lossless, which is typically stored in an large, uncompressed format. This is by no means optimized for playback on all machines, nor is it easy to carry on a mobile device—a single four-minute song can be ten times as large in file size as the same track in MP3 or AAC.

If, however, you must have high-fidelity audio on your Mac, there are some things you should know. In this tutorial, I’ll show you the various ways to rip your CDs to lossless audio and play back, that audio, on your Mac.

Defining Audiophile and Lossless

If you aren’t already an audiophile and wonder what on earth the term means, the word is an informal term for a high-fidelity audio enthusiast. In other words, if you can’t tolerate even the slightest unintended crackle or the lack of EQ on your home surround sound system, you may be an audiophile. Don’t worry, it’s something to be proud of! 

If you’re not an audiophile, you can still learn some valuable stuff about the process of playing back music in the digital era.

A glimpse of my CD collection.

There are two types of compression: lossy and lossless. The former is most common, often being delivered in MP3 and M4A file types that are a mere 5–8 MB in size on average. 

The latter uses the Free Lossless Audio Codec, or FLAC. Even lossless audio is compressed, but it loses no quality in the process. The average compression rate of FLAC is 30–50%, but since it’s a lossless format, none of the original quality is lost in compression. That means you’ll find yourself with massive 40 MB files for each song, and a 400 MB album of ten songs. Not optimal for an SSD.

To compare lossy to lossless, I'll use an everyday example. iTunes offers 256 Kbps variable bit rate (VBR) music, which is near the top of the AAC spectrum. Lossless, on the other hand, can have a bit rate up to 1411 Kbps. That’s not an example of quality, but of compression. 

An AAC or MP3 file will be far smaller because it focuses on making space for more songs rather than playing it back at nearest-to-original quality. The highest bit rate both of these formats compress at is 320 Kbps stereo.

If you want to learn more about lossless audio compression, peruse Monkey’s Audio explanation of the process. It explains all the numbers and math that result in a file compressed to exactly 1411 Kbps.

Importing Audio Without Losing Quality

An external disc drive for the next-generation MacBook Pro.

Dig up all those old CDs. I’m not going to address vinyls here because it requires its own separate tutorial. Also, in regards to quality, there are some noticeable differences in most cases: noise and distortion. And yes, I’m talking about that crackling and bits of dust making their way past the needle. There will be more noise from a vinyl than a CD any day, no matter how scratched the latter is. 

Therefore, as someone in the pursuit of the cleanest playback possible—unless the noise was added to the recording by the artist—I will only be looking at ripping CDs at lossless quality. Also, if you are looking for the vinyl experience, as most seem to, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to take things digital.

The iTunes Method

Configuring lossless audio in iTunes.

If you’re wondering whether you can use iTunes to import your CDs as lossless files, you can, but you’ll be using Apple’s ALAC encoder. iTunes will treat it like any other audio file. To use iTunes for lossless audio, go to the app’s Preferences, select the General tab, click Import Settings near the bottom, and select Apple Lossless from the Import Using drop-down menu. Confirm by clicking OK on both windows and you’re all set.

The Manual Method

Some of XLD's many settings.

That was simple. Now for something more custom: FLAC. 

iTunes, and OS X in general, does not support this format, so don’t expect this to be easy. The benefit of FLAC is that it’s easier to find. Websites like Beatport and Bandcamp allow you to download lossless audio in the form of FLAC. While QuickTime and iTunes don’t play nice with it, there are always third-party solutions. Plus, you can always convert FLAC to ALAC and even MP3. But more on that later. First, let’s focus on importing a CD in the format of FLAC.

  1. Download, install, and launch X Lossless Decoder, XLD, a free tool that will decode audio of nearly any format.
  2. Open XLD and adjust the output format in the General tab to FLAC. Alternatively, you can change it to Apple Lossless or MPEG–4 AAC to convert a FLAC file to one that’s fully compatible with OS X.
  3. Click Options beside the output format type and adjust the Compression Level to fit your preference. You can choose to not compress the audio at all, but that will yield an extremely large file.
  4. Save your settings by clicking OK.
  5. In the File menu, hover Import Audio CD and select the disc you wish to import. XLD will detect the pregap and process the metadata for the disc.
  6. Verify the track names and organize them if needed, then click Extract. XLD will ask for a directory to save the files and begin processing the audio.
  7. Playback time!

Playback

While you can use iTunes to listen to your lossless audio, it may be easier use a lightweight focused app–plus, iTunes does not support FLAC, only ALAC. There are a few options out there, but my favorite is VOX. It’s free, plays nice with your iTunes library, supports AirPlay, allows you to customize the equalizer for any song, and always tells you the quality of the audio you’re listening to. 

If VOX sounds too basic, there’s always Fidelia, a lightweight-looking player that supports Audio Units so you can tune every little thing to your liking. It does cost $19.99, though.

You don't necessarily need something this fancy, but it does affect the sound.

Another factor in playback is the device you’re outputting to. Your Mac’s built-in speakers, no matter what model you have, will not be nearly as good as, say, a pair of Sennheiser headphones or a basic 2.1 channel speaker system. 

For the fullest sound, it’s best to use decent headphones—my favorite earbuds are Apple’s EarPods—or speakers of the same grade—for the price, the Genius SW-G2.1 1250 system is great for a desk or small room.

Before audio reaches the speakers or headphones, it must run through your computer’s integrated audio interface. If you want the highest possible quality to reach your speakers, you could get a gold-plated 3.5mm auxiliary cable, but that wouldn’t be the smartest purchase since you’re headphone port is still plain old steel. 

Instead, you could consider an external audio interface that connects via USB, FireWire, or ThunderBolt. These will also boost your maximum volume, something that apps like Boom do with compromise: distortion. Beware, they can be pricy, so be ready to research thoroughly before purchasing the highest-rated one.

Lossless and the Future

That’s the wrap. I’ve highlighted the basics of lossless audio and given you two simple ways to use it on your Mac. One is more universal than the other. You can always convert FLAC to ALAC, so you never have to worry about losing the original file.

Lossless audio is difficult to acquire if you don’t have a CD. There are a couple of websites that sell FLAC, but they don’t have a large selection. Back in 2012, Apple introduced a new standard of digital audio for their own store, calling it Mastered for iTunes. It has undergone quite a few comparisons to lossless and high-fidelity audio and mostly failed, as Ars Technica’s venture shows. 

The future of high-fidelity audio, then, is lossless, but small iOS device sizes and SSDs are limiting the size of your library. You could purchase an external drive and carry it around with you everywhere, or upgrade your existing hard drive to a better one. Let me know your thoughts and advice in the comments.

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