What's the best way to transfer your music collection to your iPod? It depends on what you value most: your time, money, or sanity.
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – MOZART WROTE HIS final three symphonies in less than seven weeks. Today, thanks to advances in digital music technology, it takes nearly as long just to feed our audio CD collections into a PC, extract the music, and transfer it to our iPods.

Under the best of circumstances, using a recent-vintage PC with a fast Internet connection, it takes six to ten minutes to convert (rip) each music CD into compressed audio files suitable for storing on a computer, a portable digital music player, or if you're a digital dandy, a home media server. And then there's the time it takes to tag, or "groom," the files, making sure that all the information about the CD-- artist, album, song title, composer, genre, and so on--is accurate. Grooming can take longer than the ripping itself.

My friend Ted did the math and concluded that if he maintained a steady pace of seven CDs an hour, one hour each evening, seven days a week, he would wind up in a lunatic asylum just thinking about it. Hiring a tech-savvy teenager to feed discs into his computer and transfer the songs to his new iPod seemed like a better alternative, but again, the process could take weeks and expose his musical tastes to ridicule. And so Ted, like a growing number of music lovers making the segue into digital convergence, turned to some of the dozens of new commercial CD-ripping services that have popped up in the past year, coinciding with the phenomenal popularity of Apple's iPod music player and PC-based digital music.

For fees ranging from 75 cents to $2 per disc, these ripping services take your CDs, convert them into MP3 files or another digital format of your choice, and return the CDs a few days later along with a set of DVDs that contain all your music, neatly ripped. Then it's a relatively simple process to copy the files into MusicMatch, iTunes, Windows Media Player, or whatever program you use to manage your music. Many of the services will also load your music directly onto your iPod, portable hard disk, or media server, if you so choose.

Ted entrusted 400 of his classical, jazz, and opera CDs to FORTUNE for a comparison test of three of the leading commercial CD-ripping services, Get Digital (getdigitalinc.com), Ready to Play (readytoplay.com) and Slim Devices (slim- devices.com). Deliberately larding the selections with classical and jazz because those genres are notoriously difficult to "tag" accurately, we sent 100 discs to each service and reserved 100 to rip ourselves.

The results: If you want it done right, do it yourself. Classical-music fans in particular seem to be fussy about this. But if you're a typical FORTUNE reader and you value your time at more than minimum wage, the ripping services are worth considering, especially if you've amassed hundreds of CDs. It'll cost a few hundred bucks, but you'll save weeks of your spare time and, as a bonus, receive a handy set of DVD backups of your CD collection.

All three services we tested offered to rip the discs into any compressed audio format we wanted. (Uncompressed audio files take up lots of hard-disk space, so the goal is to compress the music as much as possible while preserving the best sound quality.) The best-known compression format is MP3, but it's old and relatively inefficient compared with newer ones like AAC and WMA. On the plus side, MP3 is not controlled by Apple or Microsoft, and MP3s are free of digital rights management schemes that limit the use of the music you already bought.

All three of the services we tested offer help in choosing the right format for your needs, and all follow roughly the same procedures. First, you designate how many discs you want converted and choose a shipping method. Most sites promise a turnaround within 48 hours, not counting shipping time. The company sends a prepaid shipping box containing protected spindles. Your job is to take your CDs out of their plastic cases and put them on the spindles.

Here's how the services stacked up:

● Get Digital: This Indianapolis-based service is the most polished of the three we tested but also the most expensive. The first 200 CDs cost $1.99 each, discs 201 to 400 cost $1.49 each, and discs 401 and up cost 99 cents. On top of that there are surcharges of 5 cents to 15 cents per disc for bit rates higher than the standard 128 kilobits per second. Standard free shipping is FedEx Ground, with each CD insured for $10. Total bill: $204. The ripped DVDs came in a handsome three-ring binder with a printed catalog of the collection. Album art was included for most files, a nice touch. Get Digital did a better job than the others of tagging and grooming artist and CD information for classical CDs, but common goofs included listing the composer Franz Schubert, say, as the artist--I believe he died before CDs were invented.

● Ready to Play: Based in Silicon Valley, RTP is the only service to offer convenient in-store drop-off service, through Cambridge Soundworks retail shops, and has close ties to the leading media server companies like Escient. Ripping costs $1.10 per disc up to 200 CDs and 99 cents per disc for larger orders. Standard rips are 192-bit MP3s, and there are no annoying surcharges for different formats or bit rates. Standard insured shipping is UPS Ground, and the company provides a handy list of nearby UPS drop-off locations, including a map. Classical grooming was typically disappointing, and there was no attempt to add album art. But overall, this is the service we'd pick for its balance of price and performance, especially if we were stocking a media server and needed handholding.

● Slim Devices: The San Francisco--based makers of the impressive Squeezebox music servers take their tunes very seriously: The default is 224-bit MP3; prices start at $129 for a 100-CD order and $229 for 200 CDs, with discounts for bigger orders. If you're a fan of the Ogg Vorbis format, this is the service for you. We let them talk us into ripping at the highest quality level, FLAC lossless, for a 20% surcharge. The files were so big it took seven DVD discs to store the 100 converted CDs. As a result, poor Ted had to reconvert all the FLAC files back into MP3 in order to fit on his iPod. For a 30% surcharge, Slim Devices provides two sets of your ripped CDs on DVD backups, one in highest-quality lossless FLAC or WMA format, the other in a "lossy" format more suitable for portable players.

As for the remaining 100 CDs, I'm still grooming them. Shall it be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, W.A. Mozart, or Mozart, W.? Perhaps by spring I'll have time to actually listen to music again.

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