Rip it good

Though stand-alone audio players do an excellent job of compiling playlists, they don't allow you to copy tracks from an audio CD and then compress them as MP3 files. For that series of operations, you need a CD ripper. In the past, audio enthusiasts had to store their ripped material in the form of a .wav or other similarly bloated digital file. But these days, rippers have the ability to encode an audio file as they extract it. Audio Catalyst, Audiograbber, CD Copy and HyCD Play&Record 2.1 are four highly regarded stand-alone shareware rippers.

In the freeware arena, Music Match Jukebox and RealJukebox are the most widely used combination players/rippers. These applications do it all: besides extracting, compressing and encoding, they let you create libraries of your music, sorted by album, artist, or genre. Both also contain direct links from the player to content. A few factors -- the speed of your PC and the read speed and stability of your CD-ROM drive -- help determine how long it takes to rip tracks. We ripped a 60-minute album at 44.1 KHz in 16-bit stereo (which yields CD-quality sound) in just 27 minutes on a Pentium II-333 system.

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