This is a topic that's sure to cause some bickering from the audiophile crowd, even from those that agree that MP3 is the way to go. That's because many people actually have very strong opinions about which applications you should use to rip audio CDs to your hard drive. I have to be honest here: I really couldn't care less. I happen to use iTunes and it appears to work quite well. Note that while I'm not an audiophile, I don't expect you are either. If you are, you really don't need my advice anyway: This is a guide for more typical users.

As noted in the article One True Music Format, you should focus your digital audio energies on MP3, which offers just decent compression and quality but is by far the most compatible digital audio format available today. And given that you'll be using MP3 to rip CDs to your PC, I do have some advice about the "bit rate" you should use when ripping audio to MP3 format, however. This bit rate is essentially a measure of quality: The higher the bit rate, the higher the quality. (Confusingly, because different audio formats use different compression schemes, you can't always make 1:1 comparisons across formats.)

Today, most online services (except for iTunes) use a high-quality 256 Kbps bit rate format. (Apple does use 256 Kbps, or kilobits per second, AAC files for its limited iTunes Plus service, but most iTunes songs are a decidedly lower quality 128 Kbps.)

With the understanding that this is a bit forward looking, I don't think it makes sense to rip songs in anything lower than 256 Kbps. Over the years, I've adjusted my thinking on this: Originally, it was 160 Kbps, and then I moved to 192 Kbps because it happens to be a preset in iTunes. And while I can't say I've ever done a serious "taste-test"-style listening comparisons, my argument about hard drive capacities (both on PCs and portable devices) above renders any concerns about file sizes moot. If there is a happy middle ground between supposedly "CD quality" 128 Kbps MP3 files and lossless WMA/AAC tracks, and I believe there is, it's 256 Kbps. Anyway, that's what I do.

The other debate you'll see around MP3 and other audio formats is whether to use Constant Bit Rate (CBR) or Variable Bit Rate (VBR) encoding. CBR files are generally smaller in size because VBR files literally use more bits to encode more complex passages in songs. So whereas a 256 Kbps CBR MP3 file utilizes a constant 256 Kbps encoding rate, a VBR version of the same file will use a variable bit rate that will be at least 256 Kbps but will exceed that quality level when required by the complexity of the music. According to more sophisticated music listeners than myself, the end result is that VBR songs are slightly superior to CBR versions of the same songs, depending on the sophistication of the encoder you're using. So the primary advantage of VBR is quality at the expense of a bit of disk space, as VBR songs tend to be a bit bigger than their CBR alternatives.

I've never really warmed to the VBR/CBR debate, but I've had a change of heart in recent days and now recommend VBR encoding over CBR. This precludes using Windows Media Player to rip CDs, as that application only supports CBR MP3 ripping. (It does, however, support VBR WMA ripping.) As noted previously, the disk space issue doesn't seem like an issue to me unless we're discussing lossless files. So I now use VBR, which is not typically the default setting in most media player applications. This will require some tweaking.

To configure CD ripping in Apple iTunes, open the application and navigate to Edit then Preferences. Then, in the Preferences dialog that appears, navigate to the Advanced tab and select Importing (Figure).

Under Import Using, select MP3 Encoder. Then, under Setting, select Custom. An MP3 Encoder dialog will appear (Figure). Under Stereo Bit Rate, choose 256 kbps. Then, check the box next to the item titled "Use Variable Bit Rate Encoding." Then, choose a Quality setting; Medium is the default. Click OK to close the dialog, and click OK to close the Preferences dialog.