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As you know, I build Audiophile iPods here at RetroSonicFidelity. Where I once thought I couldn’t hear the difference between 320kbps and lossless files, I can now hear some imperfections in my 320kbps CD Rips as I listen through my retroMod 3G -> O2 headphone amp -> Sennheiser HD595. So I’ve been thinking about moving my music library back to a lossless one. This introduces a few virtual challenges.

My Goal: To have a retroMod iPod (Audiophile capacitors) with a collection of only lossless (be that FLAC or ALAC) music files, that I can listen to easily in my car and at home. This collection should also be able to be backed up easily.

Converting from 320kbps mp3 to Lossless

If you know much about mp3’s, you know that you can’t convert from 320kbps to Lossless. You have to have a lossless source (like the CD), from which you can rip into a lossless file format on your computer. My question is, Do I want my files in FLAC or ALAC?

I will have to buy CD’s for all the music I already own and rip them again. This is okay, since I can usually find them on Amazon for about $3 shipped. But then there’s the ethical dilemma: I don’t want to keep the CD after I’ve ripped it (see our house size), but if I sell it and keep the mp3 file, I’m a criminal. God, I wish the MPAA had more logical rules.

FLAC = Free Lossless Audio Codec. When you install Rockbox on an iPod, it can play FLAC. FLAC can also be converted to any other format with no loss in quality (unless you convert to a lower bitrate, of course). However, iTunes does not support FLAC. Although there are janky ways of getting FLAC support in iTunes, you might as well use ALAC if you’re going to use iTunes to manage your music.

ALAC = Apple Lossless Audio Codec. The great thing about ALAC is that if you work in a Mac ecosystem, ALAC works flawlessly in iTunes and transferring to an iPod. Although you can put FLAC files on a Rockbox’ed iPod, that iPod won’t transfer playcounts/ratings/etc back to iTunes like it would if the same music files were encoded in ALAC. This is why I’ll probably prefer to use ALAC for my lossless music library.

Another cool feature of ALAC is that it compresses the filesize, while remaining lossless. The way it does it is by compressing repeated digits. For instance, if part of the music file looked like this: 82945833333919, ALAC compression would remove those repeated threes and make it look more like this: 8294583(4)919, to show that there are 4 more threes. You’re not losing any quality, but you’re saving space. It’s really cool.

Downside to ALAC

It won’t play on most non-Apple devices. Once again, my requirements are to play music on my iPod and MacBook Pro, so this doesn’t really affect me, but if I want to play music from another source in the future, I would have to convert the ALAC into an mp3 filetype.

The other possible downside is that I might want to be able to stream my entire music collection to my iPad from my home server through a VPN. I could just pony up the $25 for iTunes match to do this, but that’s no fun! In that case, I would want low bitrates for low data transfer sizes over Verizon’s LTE network, so I would need an entirely separate library of 256kbps files. (Yeah, might just be worth it to use iTunes Match for that.)

Storage Space

The first thing that I think about is the fact that I’ll need lots of space to store just the music I have currently. My music collection is approximately 30GB right now, and that’s with everything at either 256kbps or 320kbps. That doesn’t count podcasts and audiobooks. If I were to expand my music library right now, it would likely be almost 100GB after conversion.

That being said, I will need an iPod with at least 100GB, to start. If I were to add more music, it would be nice to have one with even more space. As I retrofit iPods with compact flash cards, it’s pretty normal to see storage sizes of 128GB or 256GB, with no sizes in between. (The reason has to do with hex addressing and other computer architecture facts.)

I might have to end up using a 240GB hard disk drive in an iPod, since 256GB compact flash cards aren’t in large supply right now, and I prefer CF over SD cards for transfer speed reasons.

Then there comes the storage question for the iTunes library holding these lossless files. My 17″ MacBook Pro is getting really hot lately, so I feel like I want to switch to a different computer that operates at cooler temperatures. If I do that, it’ll likely be one without as much internal hard drive space as I currently have (256GB SSD + 750GB HDD). The most likely scenario is that I keep my entire lossless iTunes library on a dedicated portable hard drive.

Backing Up My Music Collection

I’ll probably need two dedicated music hard drives, so that I have 2 copies, in case one hard drive dies. I would absolutely love to build my own NAS (network attached storage, see Drobo) formatted with the XFS filesystem, so that I can back up my hard drive filled with iTunes files without needing a second hard drive.

If I have a 2-bay NAS in RAID 1 (means 2 drives with the exact same data, so if one dies, you can just replace it and you’ve lost no data), I could simply rip my ALAC files directly to the NAS and not worry about portable hard drives at all. That way, if I wanted to listen to lossless music on my laptop, I’d just plug the iPod in via USB and listen digitally in iTunes. No need for another external hard drive.

Managing my Music

As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to use iTunes for its Smart Playlist capabilities. Smart Playlists not only allow me to basically have a Pandora-like feature on my non-internet-connected iPod, they also allow me to keep my attention on the road while I’m driving rather than searching for another song / album.

With all that said, I will be using iTunes to manage my music. Since this is my choice for music management, I’ll be using the ALAC file format to encode all of my music, possibly with a separate iTunes library of 320kbps mp3’s on my laptop.

My next task will be to build the NAS, so that I can get started on this aspiration of sonic fidelity!