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Understanding Digital Formats Part 3: Some Advice for Sansa Users

Sansa players can use music files in two common formats: MP3s and WMAs (including the secure WMA audio files used in many online store purchases). They do not use a range of other formats, including AAC, OGG, and ATRAC.

So we have some questions to answer: What format are we going to store our music in? And, do we lose anything if we buy a music player that doesn’t use the less common formats?

Here are some basics that may help you understand digital music formats, and make the decisions you need to make.

  • In Part 1, we discussed some basics of digital formats and compression, and look at the main format used today: MP3s.
  • In Part 2, we looked at the other digital format used by Sansa players, Microsoft’s WMA and we discussed other formats that Sansa players can not play.
  • Here in Part 3, I will offer basic advice on which format to use.

Don’t Worry About the Non-Standard Formats

MP3 and WMA are the two main formats that Sansa players use – and they are quite remarkable ways to compress, store and play music. You can have both formats in your computer library, and transfer them to your portable devices. There are no basic problem with a mixed library like that.

The other formats are either tied to specific corporations (i.e. Apple or Sony) or else are Open Source software that is not widely usable with commercial portable players.

If you own an iPod and use iTunes, you may use their AAC format for your music.

Sony's NetMD players state they are compatible with ATRAC, MP3, and WMA, but the previous generations of this product are actually only compatible with ATRAC. The software converts WMA and MP3 into ATRAC when loaded into the player. An extra conversion could mean a hit in sound quality, so you will want to stay away from players that automatically reconvert files they play.

In any case, Sansa is playing excellent formats and you won't gain anything by switching to competitive formats.

Why I Use MP3s, and Why You Might Not

Personally, my music is in MP3 format converted at 192 kpbs. There are three reason for my choice:

  • At lower kpbs there is more loss of sound quality. I can’t hear the difference, but my wife insists she can.
  • I tend to shy away from proprietary formats (like Microsoft’s WMA) and prefer formats like MP3 that are less connected with corporate strategies.
  • I almost always buy my music as CDs, and rip them to compressed file formats – so I don’t need the kind of secure formats required by online stores.

I discussed my preferences with Matt Whitlock, the resident tech guru over at techlore.com. I asked him, "Got any issues with this?" And he came back "Yes. Of course I do."

Here was his argument in favor of WMA:

Recording music at 192 kpbs takes up more storage space (on your computer, your portable player and on any memory cards you may use.) For example a CD ripped to MP3s at 192 kpbs will take up about 86 MB (megabytes or "meg") – a lot more than it would at lower bit rates.

"Quality is where you want to start," he said. "PC storage is nearly endless these days, so users should rip their CDs using high quality settings. If that's 320 kbps MP3 or WMA Lossless it doesn't matter, as long as you have a great quality rip to start with. Then use the music player's syncing options to bump the quality down to a reasonable level when moving music to a portable. This way the high-quality version is still on the PC to enjoy, while providing flexibility in the ongoing quality vs. space battle."

He then said for those with MP3 players that have limited space (1 GB or smaller), people will want to use lower bit rates, like 128 kpbs to reduce the file size. He argued at those lower fixed bit rates the WMA format will typically outperform MP3."

He added, "One huge advantage WMA has is Variable Bitrate Recording (VBR), which adjusts the bitrate on the fly to maximize quality in the smallest amount of space. I'd recommend the 85 to 145 WMA VBR setting in Windows Media Player, which will produce a file size similar to 128 kbps MP3, but at higher quality. Most SanDisk Sansa products should support WMA VBR."

Finally he pointed out that MP3s can't be secured - i.e. formatted to protect music files from sharing and "piracy" should you want to copy-protect your personal library.

That doesn't matter if (like me) you are buying CDs and ripping them, or if you are getting your music from independent artists online. But if you are buying your music through corporate outlets online, that commercial music will generally be in formats with Digital Rights Management (copy protection), like WMA-DRM (also called "Secure WMA" and AAC.)

So there you have it: I rip my music to MP3s - I like the universality and quality. And I don't like my music "locked down" by various corporate protections.

But if you rely on the online music stores, then you will end up with WMAs in your music library. And if your player has seriously limited storage capacity Matt's advice favoring WMA may prove best for you.

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