When I started using MP3 music files in 1998, the standard was to use 112 kbps encoding, which produced a notable loss of quality when played on speakers of any quality. One of the great things about the iPod, and the increasing size of hard disks generally, is that these days there’s no point being so stingy about the quality of your MP3s.
So now I use high-quality VBR encoding, which tends to give a bit rate around 200 kbps. The files are therefore almost twice the size compared with 112 kbps encoding, but the result is music that sounds great even on a decent hifi. Such MP3 encoding has become known as ‘archive quality’ since it produces the kind of files you’d want to keep in case you lost the original source.
To produce such MP3’s I use 2 pieces of free software. For ripping I use Exact Audio Copy, which isn’t quick, but guarantees a ‘perfect rip’. This hooks in with the separately downloadable LAME, available here. These 2 combined give me an average 4x ripping speed on a 1 year-old PC.
One hint if you try these yourself – LAME has a special setting that sets all the various options to a mix that a bunch of people with better hearing than me reckon is the best audable MP3 quality you can get, for the smallest file size. To use this, go to the EAC menu, select ‘compression options’, ‘External Compression’ tab, and set the ‘Additional Command Line options’ to ‘–r3mix %s %d’ (having already selected to use the external lame.exe as your MP3 encoder.)