Audiophiles and CD clutter

Last week we replied to the following question from a reader:

My boyfriend and I are audiophiles, and between us we probably have over 1,500 CDs. We do not own a house yet, which prevents us from installing a ton of custom-made shelving on our walls. We can’t find any pre-made solutions that hold more than 350 cds. Any creative suggestions?

At the time, we responded with advice suited to a general audience. We did however, promise a future post better suited to the needs of serious audiophiles. To that end, I shall now geek-out.

The best way to eliminate the clutter of 1,500 CDs is to eliminate the need to have the CDs at hand. For that reason, we’re still standing by our general advice of ripping your physical media before putting it into some kind of long-term storage. It is important to note, however, that the particular needs of audiophiles present a few challenges that need to be addressed.

While the heathens may be content to use 128 or 160 kilobit per second lossy MP3 or AAC compression, you obviously understand that approach won’t cut it in terms of quality. You’ll definitely want to use a lossless codec when ripping your media. Doing so will preserve the full quality of the CD recording while saving considerable space. Who cares if you only get 2:1 compression instead of 10:1 compression? Hard drive space is cheap these days–at least cheaper than your unobtainium-plated interconnects sheathed in endangered panda skin for optimum voodoo-shielding.

You have a number of lossless codec options, the two most popular of which are the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) and the Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC).

The iPod doesn’t support FLAC, which might dictate the use of ALAC. A number of network media players, such as the Squeezebox from Slim Devices, support both formats. This means the choice is really up to you. I manage my music through iTunes and own an iPod, so I favor ALAC.

Full CD sound quality does comes at a cost. ALAC or FLAC files will require more storage space than MP3s. As an audiophile, you probably also have a larger-than-average music collection. To get around this problem, I use an Infrant ReadyNAS to store my media. It’s basically a low-level server with four SATA bays and a RAID controller. The most practical and cost-efficient route is to buy a diskless model and add SATA drives as you need them. You can also buy a unit already outfitted with drives if you prefer.

Going the ReadyNAS route has a number of advantages:

  • You get the redundancy of RAID. If a single drive in the unit fails (and multiple drives are present) you shouldn’t lose your data.
  • The NAS is on your network, so you can actually put it in another room so you don’t have to hear the spinning hard drives. Putting the unit outside of your listening room will basically make it a quieter solution than the quietest CD transport available.
  • You can access the media from multiple computers and devices in the house.
  • The ReadyNAS consistently receives better reviews than other home NAS products, like the Buffalo TeraStation.

The final step is integrating some kind of network music player into your sound system. If you’ve been using optical outputs on your CD transport until now, you can basically just replace the CD transport with a network music player with an optical output. The AppleTV is a decent solution if you have a TV present and want to use the onscreen menus to browse your music collection. Don’t be alarmed by how inexpensive the unit is. As an audiophile you’ve probably spent more than $299 on little wooden blocks to keep your speaker wire off the floor, but if you’ll be using optical outputs along with another (presumably higher quality) DAC, it really doesn’t matter.

If you don’t have a television in your listening room but you have an good external DAC, you should consider the Squeezebox from Slim Devices. It has a sexy fluorescent vacuum display for song selection.

If you want a network music player with a good onboard DAC, you should consider the Transporter (also by Slim Devices). It is a component-sized unit that features the AK4396 “Miracle DAC.” Stereophile gave this device a stellar review in their February issue.

You’ll still have to make a decision about what to do with your physical media. A number of good suggestions were mentioned in last week’s post. I store all my media along with the jewel boxes in corrugated plastic boxes from Bags Unlimited. Each one holds 100 CDs and they’re sturdy enough to stack.

17 Comments for “Audiophiles and CD clutter”

  1. posted by John Zeratsky on

    Great post! I just went through this myself…

    I have a very similar setup — iTunes, ReadyNAS, Apple TV, Toslink to Cambridge 540, Usher V-602s. Only difference is that I rip everything to 320kbps MP3 instead of Apple Lossless. The aural differences are imperceptible to my ears and MP3 is much more widely supported than ALAC.

    I don’t call myself an audiophile, but I’m very discerning and I couldn’t be (much) happier with my system.

  2. posted by PJ Doland on

    I probably couldn’t hear the difference myself, but going lossless means I’ll never have to worry about changing my mind. I also know that I’ll be able to convert to another lossless codec in the future without suffering the degradation that accompanies transcoding.

  3. posted by Mike Torres on

    Great write-up. I do much of the same except I use a 2TB Iomega StorCenter NAS and rip to WMA Lossless. I actually dual-rip to MP3 for those tracks I want to get onto my iPod, but otherwise WMA Lossless works great.

    I would recommend the Xbox 360 as a *fantastic* streaming solution for folks. It works like a charm with PCs and Macs and it’s a lot more functional and useful than Apple TV (you can download movies directly, play games, etc.)

  4. posted by Mike Steinbaugh on

    If you have a PC, I highly recommend using dBpoweramp to rip your CDs to Apple Lossless. It supports AccurateRip and uses the allmedia (AMG) guide for metadata, including the UPC of each CD. The program also supports secure extraction like EAC but can rip directly to ALAC or FLAC.

  5. posted by John Zeratsky on

    PJ — Good point about transcoding. I probably erred on the side of compatibility at the expense of quality and longevity. Oh well… if it really bothered me I would’ve ripped everything to AIFF :-)

  6. posted by zed on

    I was so excited when I read the reader’s question, because I too have many CDs (probably more like 800) and I’ve wanted to invest in a good CD cabinet, but have never quite found one that would hold enough.

    I understand the argument to go digital, certainly – but I’ve gatta say, this answer really didn’t address the problem. There is something to be said for keeping the physical CD – the artwork that comes with the CD, if nothing else. And for those of us who do still collect music physically, putting those CDs in lidded boxes that stack – your only proposed solution – will not give any sort of easy access to the music. The boxes would also make it difficult to arrange CDs alphabetically, for example, because each box has small cubbies that hold (it appears?) 10-15 CDs each, and every box would have to be rearranged when a new CD is added.

    Any other solutions, that actually address the question? I’d be curious to know.

  7. posted by PJ Doland on

    If the experience of the CD packaging is really important to you, then nice shelving is probably your best bet. Last week’s post about this had some good options regarding different types of replacement jewel cases that take up less room.

    Although, you could always go the ReadyNAS route in addition to shelving, and create less clutter by not having to open every CD every time you want to listen to it.

  8. posted by k2 on

    5 years ago called, said the idea isn’t new.

  9. posted by PJ Doland on

    Nobody ever said it was a radically new approach to music management. The reader asked for a good solution for dealing with the clutter caused by a large music collection. That’s what we presented.

  10. posted by k2 on

    good thing you linked this on digg then, so people can catch up.

  11. posted by Kort on

    As an audiophile myself with roughly 1,000 CDs I made a tough decision this year. I got rid of all of the packaging. The jewel cases were so heavy they ripped through the garbage bags I was bringing them out with. Jewel cases are ridiculously bulky! I kept thinking as I was taking them out how happy I was to have gotten rid of all of that crap. Honestly, if you are a true audiophile then the music itself is the most important part of your collection. I kept all of the front booklets from the CDs, but since I have yet to want or need to look back at them I am guessing I’ll soon part with those as well. As for the CDs themselves, I alphabetized them in the same way that iTunes/iPods do and they reside in rolling case designed for DJs. I’m so happy that I decided to declutter in this way and I find it so easy to locate a CD I’m looking for now. Do this or something similar, you won’t regret it!

  12. posted by Adam on

    ‘unobtainium-plated interconnects sheathed in endangered panda skin for optimum voodoo-shielding’

    Thanks for that… I have feared that this blog was a little too serious for its own good, but this restores my faith!

  13. posted by Clara on

    It’ll be good if those discarded or to-be-discarded CD cases can be put to other good use, otherwise many times we unclutter at the expanse of contributing to more waste…this cycle does not seem to end.

  14. posted by Kurt on

    I am all for getting rid of clutter, and I am an audiophile, but I just don’t consider CDs to be clutter. I like having shelves full of organized music. Clutter is a mess. If your CDs are organized, it isn’t clutter.

  15. posted by Sunspot on

    There is something to be said for keeping the physical CD – the artwork that comes with the CD, if nothing else. And for those of us who do still collect music physically, putting those CDs in lidded boxes that stack – your only proposed solution – will not give any sort of easy access to the music.

    I ripped my 500 CD library to my computer almost 5 years ago and now seldom if ever even look at the actual physical CDs. Most of the tiny booklets that come with CDs are a joke – you can find out far more about most discs online, at Wikipedia or Amazon, than the labels themselves ever got around to telling us. You can even view larger representations of the artwork.

    I store my CDs at the back of the closet. One of these days I’ll work up the energy to pluck the disc themselves out of their jewel boxes, along with the booklets and possibly the back cover art, and file the whole mess away in a drawer somewhere.

    Physical media is so over.

    Oh, and totally go with a lossless format. Hard drive space is cheap. Re-ripping is time consuming, especially if you correct all the crap metadata you’ll get off the net. MediaMonkey allows you to create a synchronized copy of your library in another format. I ripped my library to FLAC, then I used MediaMonkey to create a synchronized copy as 256kpbs mp3 files for use on my iPod in my car. The next version of MediaMonkey is slated to support AAC compression, so at some point I’ll probably create a synced library of 192kpbs AAC files for use on both the car iPod and my iPod Shuffle. Having those original lossless files means never having to be stuck with just one lossy format.

  16. posted by Jason on

    You might also consider the Sonos Digital Music System (http://www.sonos.com) for a system that is easier to setup than Squeezebox. It was reviewed in Stereophile (http://www.stereophile.com/news/062606sonos/) and also by David Pogue for the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04.....pogue.html)

    For simple, true multi-room audio, it’s hard to beat!

  17. posted by Jason on

    A little late to the party, but I’ve been using storage boxes from Ikea along with CD sleeves (originally Case Logic, but I switched to the cheaper ones from Staples). That way, anything that isn’t in a digipak takes up a hell of a lot less space, which helps when your collection’s pushing 2,000 CD’s; the boxes I use are only supposed to hold about 25 CD’s, but I fit almost 75 discs in each one (assuming they’re all in sleeves, and the digipak CD’s fit neatly in the space along the side).

    Also, another big help as far as clutter? If you’re not going to listen to a CD, get rid of it. I went through my collection, tossing the ones I had no intention on listening to (even though I’ve ripped them all already) and purged almost a quarter of the CD’s. (They’re all up for sale, which should help recoup some money I wouldn’t otherwise have.)

    Alas and alack, I haven’t found much of a use for the jewel cases. I unloaded most of them on thrift stores, but I think one of the employees said they throw out the empty cases. Ah well.

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