Thursday Afternoon Ripping Experiment

At about noon yesterday I found myself with an hour to kill, so I did something that I've been meaning to do for years (yes, literally that long) -- convert digital music files between numerous lossless music-file formats to prove to myself once and for all that the lossless file type you initially rip to, compressed or not, is irrelevant, because you can convert files to other formats many times with no degradation or change. This is something others have done numerous times, so there was really no need for me to do it, but with that hour on hand, I felt compelled to since I could then tell someone that I in fact did it myself and witnessed the results.

We Go Home

The tools I used in this experiment were nothing special: a Windows 7-based Samsung laptop running JRiver Media Center 18 (I haven't upgraded to 20 yet). The laptop obviously has a drive in it (DVD), and I set JRiver's ripping option to secure to ensure I was getting a perfect rip. I didn't feel it necessary to use a library of songs, since one would prove my point, so I picked Adam Cohen's "Song of Me and You," which is on his newest album, We Go Home, released in Canada a few days ago.

First I ripped the CD to the hard drive in FLAC format, with a resulting file size of 17,765 bytes. The ripping process indicated no errors. Next I took that file and used JRiver's conversion tool to convert the file from FLAC, which is lossless but compressed, to WAV, which is lossless but uncompressed. The resulting WAV file was 33,593 bytes -- almost twice the size (precisely the reason many use a compressed format such as FLAC). Then I used JRiver's conversion tool again to convert that WAV file back to FLAC and ended up with a file size of, you guessed it, 17,765 bytes. And in case you're wondering, the song length was the same for each, as was the sound. In other words, I went from one lossless format to another, then back, and the result was the same as when I started.

We Go Home in drive

Next I re-ripped the CD to my hard drive in WAV format with a resulting file size of 33,593 bytes, which is obviously the same file size as when I converted the FLAC file to WAV. Then I converted that WAV file to FLAC format and was presented with a file size of 17,765 bytes. You can take from this that regardless of what lossless format you initially rip to, compressed or not, you can convert it to something else without penalty.

Convinced that I could rip in FLAC or WAV formats and be able to convert back and forth perfectly, I got more ambitious: I took the WAV file that had been created from the original FLAC file I ripped and converted that to Apple's ALAC format, which, like FLAC, is lossless and compressed. Then I converted it back to FLAC again, with a resulting file size of 17,765 bytes. In other words, I did three conversions (FLAC to WAV, then WAV to ALAC, then ALAC to FLAC) without issue. Next I did yet another conversion by taking the ALAC file and converting it to Monkey's Audio lossless format (which was invented by Matt Ashland, the main technical guy at JRiver), which is again compressed. Then I converted that file back to FLAC and wound up with, not surprisingly, 17,765 bytes, as well as the identical song length and sound as my original file. That's four conversions on the original FLAC file without any changes. Could I have done five, six, seven, eight, or more conversions without problems? No doubt.

Rip results

Is any of this surprising? No. From time to time I've read comments from audiophiles who have doubts that a lossless compression format can in fact be lossless; however, these guys really don't know what they're talking about. Lossless compression algorithms have existed in the computer world for decades, and have been used by pretty much everyone who has ever used a computer. For example, take the ZIP format. It's a lossless compression format that was created in the '80s and is now ubiquitous in the computer world -- it's even embedded into operating systems. So why anyone thinks that lossless audio-based compression formats would be different is beyond me. Furthermore, since no data are actually lost, it's possible to convert back and forth between lossless compression formats (e.g., FLAC, ALAC, or Monkey's Audio), or non-compressed ones (e.g., WAV or AIFF), as I did, and not lose a thing. That's why it's called lossless -- and, no, they aren't lying. If you use a lossy compression format such as MP3, mind you, that's a different story.

Still, what I did wasn't a waste of time, because it allows me to now bring up something that I’ve brought up time and again to those who are thinking about getting into computer audio but who don't because they fear that they'll pick the wrong file format to rip to. My advice has been and still is this: If figuring out which format you have to use to rip your discs is the only thing that's holding you back from getting into computer audio, don't wait any longer. Any lossless format will do, because if you don't like what you ripped your discs to now, you can always convert it to something else later without concern. If you don't believe me, go try it yourself -- even if you don't really have to.

Doug Schneider
Publisher, SoundStage!