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If I rip a CD in flac format using Windows Media Player is the resulting file of lower audio quality than it might using another means? If so, what is a low cost alternative?
"If I rip a CD in flac format using Windows Media Player is the resulting file of lower audio quality than it might using another means?"
It shouldn't be..... The only question will be whether the starts and endings of tracks were marked accurately, based on the drive ripped from.... (The "offsets" vary from drive to drive.) Using a tool to resolve this (Accurate Rip on Exact Audio Copy, for example), should get this right, provided that the model number of the drive you're ripping from is in the Accurate Rip database.
The only advantage a good ripping program has over WMP is in cases where there are errors encountered when reading the disc, WMP may rip those errors directly to the WAV or FLAC file, where Exact Audio Copy or dBpoweramp would first try to resolve the errors.
The "low quality" you're hearing could be due to the FLAC conversion.... I've never liked how FLAC sounded when decoded during playback in real time. You may want to convert the FLAC back to WAV first, and then listen, you might realize the rip was otherwise fine.
There's a technical component to my question that I omitted. I assume that if WMP perfectly converts the 1's and 0's on the CD and doesn't add any random bits of information on its own (i.e., noise), the output file is as good as it gets. Right? The same can be said for any other conversion software.
By design a bit perfect copy is not guaranteed.
This is inherent to the CD audio standard (Redbook).
At design time, they decided to maximize capacity at the expense of bit perfect reading.
An audio CD uses all 2352 bytes per block for sound samples.
A CD-ROM (bit perfect reading guaranteed) only 2048 bytes. The remainder is used for error correction code.
A 15% reduction in capacity compared with the audio CD.
So most of the time the rip will be right as CD's are pretty reliable.
Occasionally is will be wrong and that is where dBpoweramp comes in.
Instead of interpolating will try to re-read troublesome sectors.
As bit perfect reading is not guaranteed, that is where AccurateRip comes in. If your rip matches those of others, it is likely a correct rip.
The Well Tempered Computer
I expect the result identical most of the time except when the CD is hard to read.
I ditched WMP years ago but at that time there was an option to set secure mode when ripping.
Your best bet is any ripper using AccurateRip.
This compares your rip with those of others.
Freeware like Foobar or MuiscBee do this.
My personal preference is dBpoweramp, indeed the inventor of AccurateRip.
The Well Tempered Computer
+1 for dBpoweramp!
...but if the OP can go along with the small additional cost then buy dbpoweramp bundled with PerfectTUNES as this goes a long way to sorting out the metadata issue.
"We need less, but better" - Dieter Rams
The version of dbpoweramp I have is old (too cheap to update), but works well. The batch converter from FLAC to Apple Lossless, for example, also works wonderfully.
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