Article by Kevin Savetz

First Published:
Date Published:
Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


In the car, at the gym, or on your home stereo, digital music files aren't just for the PC anymore. Whether you're partial to MP3s on an iPod, Ogg Vorbis in Winamp, or any other combination of audio format and player, one thing is certain: You need a way to convert your music collection to your favorite digital audio format. For that, you'll need an audio encoder.

All encoders aren't created equal. Some features are available in practically every encoder, such as the ability to fetch information about a CD's title and artist and track names from an Internet database, usually Gracenote's CDDB or freedb.org. Other features aren't universal, such as the ability to encode from sources other than CDs and support for the popular, free Ogg Vorbis encoding format.

I tested eight media encoders, many of which can do much more than encode. Some play music and streaming video, some manage your digital audio library, and some seem to do everything but mix drinks. (For more on media players, see our roundup in January 2003's CPU.) I focused primarily on the apps' encoding abilities, and I got some intriguing results. Some otherwise great programs earned low ratings because their encoders weren't up to snuff.

All of these programs offer free demonstration versions or a time-limited trial mode, so download a couple first to find the encoder that suits you best.

Apple iTunes 4
Free
Apple
www.apple.com/itunes
Platform: Mac OS 9/X
CPU Rating: 4.5

Apple's iTunes is the yardstick against which every other Mac audio encoder is judged, and there's a reason why: It rocks. The program can encode MP3s, plus AIFF, WAV, and AAC formats. You can encode MP3s at up to 320Kbps with variable bit-rate encoding, adjustable sample rates, and low-frequency filter options. Ogg Vorbis encoding isn't built in but is available via a plug-in available from www.illadvised.com/~jordy.

For marathon CD-ripping sessions, there's a mode that will quietly encode songs and automatically eject the disc to ready itself for the next one. Encoding is lightning-fast and glitch-free.

The program can also manage your digital song library, burn audio or data CDs, and move songs to your portable music player. iTunes is also the gateway to the iTunes Music Store, which offers an inexpensive alternative to ripping your own CDs. The online music store offers more than 200,000 downloadable songs without as many digital rights management limitations that other legal music download services are burdened with. You can download a single tune for 99 cents or an entire album for around $10.

For all its features, iTunes is blissfully easy to use, uncluttered, and generally Mac-like. Best of all, it's free.

Audiograbber 1.82
$20
Audiograbber
www.audiograbber.com-us.net
Platform: Windows
CPU Rating: 4

Audiograbber is a fast, focused, and quirky encoder. In short, it's an encoder for power users.

Let's start with the quirky part. This app's only internal encoder is for WAV files, a tired, inefficient format that creates files much larger than MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WMA, and other more modern formats. To add support for MP3 and other formats, you need to download, unzip, and install external encoder DLL files. But then you're really in business.

With the open-source LAME MP3 encoder installed, you can have 320Kbps encoding with variable bit rates and multiple stereo modes to choose from. Audio- grabber also works with the free BladeEnc and Fraunhofer MP3 encoders, Windows Media Audio, Ogg Vorbis, and other encoders. If you already have encoder DLLs on your PC, Audiograbber does a good job of finding and using them.

Audiograbber is strictly an encoder; it doesn't catalog your music, burn CDs, or do other tricks. But it gives you more control than most other encoders. Choosy geeks can fine-tune the rip method (Buffered burst copy? Dynamic sync width? Take your pick), digital audio extraction speed, and other techie parameters. A checksum feature lets you compare your encoded files against an online database to assure your files are complete and glitch-free. A simple macro system lets the program create music files with filenames in the exact format you want. You can even give exacting instructions to the Normalizer, adjusting the volume only in specific situations. In addition, the program does a good job of ripping copy-protected discs, a task many encoders won't even try.

Audiograbber can encode from line-in sources, and the program shines here, too. It's the only encoder I tested with a scheduler that can record multiple events, not just a single upcoming program. If you're encoding from a cassette tape or record album, the Auto Split option will listen for breaks in the sound and automatically create separate tracks.

Audion Laboratories Audion 3.0.2
$29.95
Audion Laboratories
www.panic.com/audion
Platform: Mac OS 8/9/X 
CPU Rating: 4

Like iTunes, Audion can meet many of your audio-tainment needs. It plays, encodes, organizes, and can move files to your portable player. The encoder includes two MP3 engines (Coding Technologies and LAME), plus MP3 Pro and AIFF encoders. (It can play Ogg Vorbis but not encode them.) The MP3 encoders support bit rates up to 320Kbps, plus two stereo modes. You can easily rip from your audio CDs; a Batch Encode mode will automatically encode and eject discs. MP3 encoding isn't quite as fast as iTunes, but the choice of encoding engines is a fair trade-off. Audion can't burn CDs, but it will feed your playlists to Roxio's Toast for burning.

The Record mode lets you capture audio from a microphone, line input, USB audio device, or digital video input. There's also a mode for recording from a SHOUTcast, Icecast, or other Internet audio stream. However, there's no scheduler function to record a program in the future, which is strange because there's an alarm clock function for playing music at a scheduled time. The program also includes a waveform MP3 editor. Although it's rather simplistic, it's handy for lopping uninteresting bits from the sound files you rip or record.

Audion costs about $30. That's $30 more than iTunes, but for the features it adds, Audion is certainly worth trying.

J. River Media Jukebox 8
Free (Basic); $24.98 (Plus) 
J. River
www.musicex.com/mediajukebox
Platform: Windows 
CPU Rating: 3

At first glance, Media Jukebox 8's encoding features seem rather sparse. The app is a bit slow, and there aren't many advanced options to tweak. But such extras as a full-featured sound editor and no-fuss plug-ins make the program worth a second look.

Media Jukebox can rip from CDs and line-in sources. The program includes built-in encoders for WMA, Ogg Vorbis, and WAV, and you can add support for MP3, MPEGplus, and Monkey's Audio (APE files) formats via plug-ins. The free plug-ins download and install automatically and hassle-free the first time you need them. The MP3 encoding plug-in, which only works with the Plus version of Media Jukebox, is based on the LAME encoder. The implementation isn't the fastest encoder around, but the quality is excellent. You can encode at bit rates from 32 to 320Kbps, including variable bit-rate encoding, but Media Jukebox doesn't give access to any advanced encoding options.

The free version has enough features to get you interested but keep you frustrated, with such limitations as reduced-speed CD burning. The Plus version adds the killer features: scheduled encoding, a CD label printer, and a waveform sound editor. The editor offers plenty of useful features for fine-tuning your encoded files, including fades, equalization, and reverb effects.

My tests of Media Jukebox didn't always go smoothly. On my system, the program locked up during encoding twice, an occurrence that can definitely harsh your mellow.

Microsoft Windows Media Player 9
Free
Microsoft
www.microsoft.com
Platform: Windows 98/Me/2000/XP
CPU Rating: 2.5

Microsoft's Media Player 9 is a darn nice media player, but its encoding capabilities are disappointing. Microsoft's obsession with digital rights management (that is, copy protection) means that the encoding formats many users want aren't directly supported. The default encoding format--indeed, the only format the program can encode natively--is Microsoft's own WMA format. MP3 encoding is available via plug-ins. In fact, Microsoft lists three MP3 encoder plug-ins to choose from, each from a third party and each with a price tag of about $10. For other encoding formats, you'll have to scrounge around.

If you're willing to add plug-ins or just stick with WMA, Media Player is a passable encoder. It can't encode from sources other than CDs, but there is a batch mode that will automatically encode and eject discs. The app can also copy encoded files to portable players and burn your songs to CD.

Chances are you already have an older version of Media Player on your PC. If you don't like Media Player 9 and want to revert to the older version, well, you can't. The only way to remove it is to run System Restore--a drastic measure.

A separate program, Windows Media Encoder, is meant for professional content producers who want to create video and audio content for the Web, CDs, etc. Media Encoder only works with Windows XP and 2000.

MusicMatch Jukebox 8.0
Free (Basic); $19.99 (Plus)
MusicMatch
www.musicmatch.com
Platform: Windows 98/NT/2000/XP
CPU Rating: 4.5

MusicMatch Jukebox 8.0 can encode MP3s (at up to 320Kbps with a variable bit-rate encoding option), plus MP3 Pro, WAV, and WMA files. The MP3 encoder is quite speedy. Advanced encoding features include fade effects and digital audio-extraction settings. The encoding interface, relegated to a squat window that can't be resized, isn't pretty but manages to get the job done. If you need to create short segments of each song (a la the preview snippets found on music sales Web sites), the Track Clips tool will create them automatically.

In addition to snarfing tunes from CD, you can encode from a microphone or line-in source. The Delayed Recording feature lets you encode an upcoming radio broadcast or streaming Internet program, VCR-style.

MusicMatch also includes a CD-burning tool, which can burn audio, MP3, and data discs, and as a bonus it will print labels for those CDs and their jewel cases. If there are more songs in your playlist than can fit on a single disc, the SmartSplit tool will reorganize the tracks to squeeze the most tunes onto each disc. The program can also copy files to your portable player.

The free Basic version gives you a taste of the program's features, but it's hobbled in terms of encoding and burning speeds. All in all, MusicMatch is a competent, well-rounded, and affordable encoder. (See page 73 for our complete review of MusicMatch Jukebox 8.)

Proteron N2MP3 Pro 2.1
$59.95
Proteron
www.proteron.com/n2mp3pro
Platform: Mac OS X
CPU Rating: 1

N2MP3 Pro bills itself as a Macintosh audio encoder "for professionals." It talks the talk, but in my tests, it couldn't walk the walk. The program was plagued by bugs and constant crashes that rendered it unusable in my tests. I tried it on two Macs but wasn't able to encode a single song.

That's too bad, because the program offers three MP3 encoding engines (Fraunhofer, LAME, and MPegger), plus MP2, Ogg Vorbis, AIFF, and WAV encoding. There's a live encoding tool for digitizing audio from a phonograph or tape deck--a function that iTunes lacks. The program is strictly an encoder; it doesn't play or organize your music. Unfortunately, it wouldn't encode mine, either.

RealNetworks RealOne Player 
Free (Basic); $19.99 (Plus)
RealNetworks
www.real.com
Platform: Windows 98/Me/NT/2000/XP; Unix/Linux; Mac OS X
CPU Rating: 2.5

The RealOne Player is a full-service media program that plays audio and video, manages your digital music library, and so on. But software has never been the primary focus at Real, except as a vehicle for delivering subscription content from the company and its partners, such as streaming radio stations, live sports broadcasts, news, online games, and so on. With the focus on consuming media rather than making your own, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that the program's encoding functionality isn't particularly stellar.

There are two versions of the program: Basic and Plus. Both versions can encode CDs in the proprietary RealAudio format (naturally); MP3s are encoded up to 320Kbps with variable bit-rate encoding. It's simple and it works, but the encoder doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles. The Plus version ($19.99 or included if you subscribe to any of Real's subscription services) adds the abilities to convert audio files between RealAudio, MP3, and WAV formats; record from line input; print CD covers, and create playlists. Both versions can export music to your portable player and burn audio CDs. The Plus version adds multi-session burning, cross fading, and other enhanced CD- burning features.

Reprinted with permission from Computer Power User magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz