The main function of an audio converter is to change audio file from one file format to another. Sometimes, it’s good to experiment with different audio codecs to see which ones fit you. Some prefer MP3 or AAC, but others like OGG. Why? Different sound quality, smaller file sizes, for playing files on other devices (iPod, mobile phone etc.), it all boils down to your personal perference.
This is how it works: load the file you would like to convert to another format into the converter, choose the output format you want for your file and the converter will first decode the file and then re-encode it to match the output format.
So we’re sort of talking about two things here: Converters and codecs. Let’s start of this article by explaining what codecs are. When we are planning to backup our CDs onto our computers, we have several choices to make: what sort of audio quality we want, our target output filesize and which media player we’re eventually going to play our music on. All this will determine which codec to use. A codec compresses your songs to a smaller filesize. And what differentiates each codec is the quality of the sound it produces for the same bitrate. (For instance, some argue that 128kbps AAC will sound as good as a 190kbps MP3)
FLAC, APE, ALAC, WAV, AIFF. The list of audio codecs is endless. Ok well, not endless but quite long. Due to user preferences, there will always be a myriad of codecs to please the various ranges of audio perception. From lossless encoding for audiophiles, to MP3 or WMV for others who aren’t so picky about the quality of their music collection.
As an audiophile myself, I personally prefer to have my songs uncompressed or encoded in a lossless format. I would like to believe that I can actually hear the difference between songs encoded in 256kbps MP3 and AIFF. I don’t really buy into Apple Lossless because I feel that any song which is encoded in a lower bitrate will have some quality loss. Although, there are arguments that we can’t tell the difference in songs encoded in a bitrate higher than 320kbps. If you would like to find out your sensitivity to music quality, check out ABX Testing.
When choosing which audio codec to backup music CDs with, FLAC seems to be the most popular lossless codec, with APE coming in a close second place. Unfortunately, our very dear iTunes music player recognizes neither of the two. So, cue the role of audio converters to convert these files into formats which iTunes does recognize i.e. AIFF, MP3, AAC, etc.
Two of the most prominent free audio converters are Max and XLD. I decided to try them both out and see which rises to be more superior. Let’s go with XLD first.
XLD (X Lossless Decoder)
I’ve been using this application for a while and I’m quite pleased with the results. The interface is simple and the preferences aren’t confusing at all. It recognizes and converts between almost every audio format except for WMV:
It can read and split files with a cue sheet (.cue), manually add album artwork directly to output files and preview songs with its internal player. Where XLD fails to win my total support is the inability to edit output song names before decoding, the fact that it only decodes one file at a time and doesn’t utilize multi-core processing, and if the need arises to cancel a batch convert – XLD only allows me to cancel each item separately.
Next up is Max. You’ve probably heard about it. It’s one of the more popular CD-ripping utilities for Mac. In addition to that, it is also a pretty decent audio converter. Like XLD, it supports all of the popular codecs (FLAC, APE, AAC etc.) and about thirty more. Because of that, setting up the output format is pretty confusing. It is so highly configurable that it has several OGG, MPEG4 and AAC output formats; and plenty more formats which I’ve not heard of.
You may choose one or several output formats but beware, if you select more than one, there isn’t a prompt selection window just before decoding. Max will decode the files in all the formats selected resulting in one file but with several different formats!
Where XLD fails, Max triumphs. It provides me with the option to edit filenames before decoding them, along with customization of ID3 tags and album art via Amazon Album Art downloader.
Max utilizes multi-core processing and it will decode/convert two songs at the same time, speeding up the process for those who can’t wait to listen to their spanking new songs. And again, bringing XLD to shame, Max allows me to cancel a batch convert with a single click.
Max is :
- Confusingly highly-configurable
- able to edit ID3 tags before decoding
- tricky if several output formats are selected
- able to download album art from Amazon and attach them to output files
- utilizes multi-core processing
However XLD is :
- Simple to use
- easy to choose output formats
- able to preview songs before decoding
- restricted to decoding one file at a time, doesn’t utilize multi-core processing
- difficult to cancel a batch decode
Seems like Max is the obvious winner here. But due to the simplicity and easy of use of XLD – it is one which I would recommend for casual users. For those who need their songs to be configured exactly the way they want it, then Max is the way to go.