Since I moved six years ago, I keep my CDs in binders (four of them, plus one for DVDs and two for CD-ROMs) and the jewel cases in storage. I just finished ripping the first folder’s worth, about 250 CDs and SACDs in iTunes. The bulk of the time spent is actually in cleaning up inconsistent CDDB metadata and locating scans of the cover art. As I mentioned earlier, I am ripping to Apple’s lossless encoding, which is a lossless zip-style compression of the 16-bit, 44.1kHz stereo PCM CD audio stream. There is no loss of quality and my iTunes library should now be a bit-for-bit exact copy of my CD collection (or at least the third or so I have already ripped).

iTunes status

Because there is no loss of quality, I won’t have to go through the effort again, whereas if I had ripped to a lossy format like MP3 or AAC, I would need to do so again to play on my HiFi setup or if the level of compression was too high. Hard drives are cheap, and storing 250GB of music is no longer the daunting prospect it was a few years ago. Lossy formats like MP3 take detail away, rather than introducing noise, and thus it is not immediately obvious just how much damage was done, but side-by-side listening makes it clear. I always find it very amusing to read people nit-picking about subtle details of audiophile gear, and then basing their subjective judgment on testing with MP3s or (even worse) video game soundtracks played over a PC sound card.

Due to electromagnetic interference, a PC chassis is the last place you want to put quality analog audio circuitry. The way to go is to hook up a PC or Mac’s Toslink optical or SPDIF coaxial digital audio output to an external digital to analog converter (“DAC”, such as the one built into every home theater surround receiver). This situation is reminiscent of high-end CD players, where the laser pickup mechanism (“transport”) is in a different box from the DAC to improve quality. I do most of my listening from my Mac connected to my Yamaha home theater connected by Toslink, or from Sennheiser HD-650 headphones connected to a Headroom DAC and headphone amp (via USB).

There are alternatives to a direct connection, such as a Squeezebox, Apple AirPort Express, or one of the lesser devices that allow you to stream music from your computer to your amplifier via a wired or wireless local area network. WiFi may be fashionable, but I don’t recommend using it for streaming audio or video because the jitter introduced by interferences degrades sound quality.

Streaming sound over the house is of course the first step in building a home network. Market studies show most people use a home network only to share Internet access or a printer between several computers, and they haven’t yet reached even this first stage. One of the most obvious uses for home networking is remote monitoring using a webcam, but this hasn’t been marketed effectively. Remote control of TiVo is another non-contrived application, much appreciated by their users.

Given the overwhelming amount of gadgetry that clutters my tiny San Francisco-size apartment, it is natural I have a home network, entirely wired, although I do have WiFi for visitors. In an idle moment, I mapped it (PDF) as a practical exercise in using OmniGraffle instead of Visio. One conclusion I drew from a cursory analysis of it is that all the networking gear combined did not amount as much in value as my headphones alone. Home networking as a category is not going to dominate consumer electronics anytime soon…