Optimizing the Classical Music Listening Experience on the iPod

by Daniel McAdam.

To say that Apple's iPod is not designed for classical music listeners would be unfair. The iPod, at least in default mode, was designed primarily for a market that listens to popular music which, for better or worse, greatly outnumbers the classical music market. Consequently, the focus is on individual songs as opposed to larger works, on performers as opposed to composers, and on storing a large number of tunes as opposed to optimizing sound quality. Fortunately for lovers of classical music, there are easy things that one can do to to better accommodate his or her personal preferences.


Sound Quality

Let's start with a reality check. If you make absolutely no adjustments at all, and simply copy (or rip, or import) one of your classical CDs into iTunes, Apple's free software program, then put that music onto your iPod - all of which is simplicity itself - you'll get a reasonably good listening experience. Many of us listen to music on our iPods in environments that are a far cry from listening rooms anyway, such as on a commuter train or in the park. Nevertheless, individuals who appreciate classical music also tend to appreciate great sound quality, making the subject one worth examining.

ALAC for iPod, But Not FLAC

Generally speaking, the more something is compressed, the less space it takes up. Conversely, the less something is compressed, the better the sound quality. Digital music that you purchase from the iTunes Store (which I personally never do any longer), or from Amazon (which I do occasionally) are in a compressed format called MP3, a shortened version of MPEG Audio Layer 3. MP3 formatting is not bad for most music most of the time, but it is technically unable to provide as rich a listening experience as a lossless format, of which there are two we should know about: ALAC, or Apple Lossless Audio Codec, and FLAC, or Free Lossless Audio Codec. Theoretically, ALAC and FLAC are equally as good, and either would be better in sound quality than MP3. Since the iPod is made by Apple, it will not surprise readers to learn that the iPod can play music in either the ALAC or MP3 format but not in the FLAC format. Thus, the first step in improving your listening experience on your iPod is to listen to ALAC files, rather than MP3 files, whenever possible.

Just a note here, which will seem obvious because it is - ALAC files are larger than MP3 files. It makes no sense to convert an MP3 file to ALAC, since you cannot add back what was lost during compression to MP3, and you'd just end up with a larger file. You can, if you wish to sacrifice sound quality, convert ALAC files to MP3 files.

We already stated that the digital music we usually buy is in MP3 format. Where, then, do ALAC files come from? For most of us, they come from CDs that we've ripped. There are also online stores for high-resolution enthusiasts, such as Linn Records. I personally don't use the online stores because it is less expensive to simply buy the CD and rip the music to a lossless format - and I also have the CD.

For changing the way you rip CDs directly into iTunes, go to Edit, then Preferences, then General. You'll see a box that you can click on called Import Settings - click on it. There's something that says, "Import Using:" with a drop-down menu. On that menu, select Apple Lossless Encoder. Also check the box that asks if you want to use Error Correction.


Organizing Your Music

Taking a few additional steps to keep your classical music organized on iPod is worth the effort.  There are actually a couple of things to consider here, the first being that you want a nice flow of music, and the second being that you want your music easily accessible. 

Flow - which, in this case, means less "dead air" between tracks - is important, especially if you're an opera lover.  This is something you want to consider when you're importing a CD into iTunes, because it's at that time that you have an opportunity to join tracks.  All you need to do is to highlight the tracks you want joined, go to Advanced, and then select Join CD Tracks.

An example is in order. You have a CD with two major works by Bartók; his Concerto for Orchestra (tracks 1 through 5), and his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (tracks 6 through 9).  You've got iTunes running, you've inserted the CD, and you've got a screen in iTunes showing the 9 tracks. Highlight tracks 1 through 5, go to Advanced, and click on Join CD Tracks.  Then highlight tracks 6 through 9, go to Advanced, and click on Join CD Tracks. Then just hit the button in the top right corner that says, "Import CD."  You've just boiled down nine tracks to two works, which makes sense. 

The only downside with joining tracks is that you can't later access each track individually; so, in our example, you can't just choose to listen to the Finale of the Concerto for Orchestra. If this is an issue for you with certain works (there are people who only want to listen to the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, but personally I think this is a terrible injustice), then don't join the CD tracks for those works.  But really - do you actually want each of Brahms' 21 Hungarian Dances to have its own listing, that you'll have to scroll through?  I sure don't.

Use foobar at Home and dBpoweramp CD Ripper for Ripping

Nowadays, I do not use iTunes for anything other than putting music onto my iPod. My software of choice for ripping CDs is dBpoweramp CD Ripper, and if you're curious as to why I would pay for software to rip CDs when iTunes does it for free, you owe yourself a visit to their website.

I also do not listen to music on my computer via iTunes; instead, I use foobar, which is actually free as of the time of this writing.


As you can see from the above, the iPod is a reasonably good portable device for storing and listening to your classical music collection. If you already own an iPod, these few tips will enhance your enjoyment of the classical iPod experience.  If you don't yet own an iPod, I hope this article will help you in your decision as to whether or not you would benefit from purchasing one. There are alternatives, such as the Astell & Kern AK Jr. Hi-Res Music Player, which you might want to also consider. In any event, happy listening!


Of related interest:

Classical Music – Where to Start



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