Some time ago, I wrote an essay on music storage options (mostly on how bad they are).
We’re at a point today where even a big music library–say, 1,000 CDs–can be easily archived on a single hard drive using high-quality MP3s–say, 192 Kbps encoding. Some people claim this encoding rate is indistinguishable from CDs; others claim it’s barely adequate for listening. Whatever. It sounds good to me. In any case, at this rate, one hour of music is encoded as about 83 MB, meaning that 1,000 CDs (which are usually somewhat under an hour) will fit onto the 160 GB hard drives that are now available (as bare mechanisms) for under $100, with plenty of room to spare.
Purists will argue that lossy encoding is a bad compromise. We don’t need to use lossy encoding–a lossless format called Shorten has been around for years, and Apple’s iTunes now comes with something called “Apple Lossless Encoding.” These can shrink a CD’s data down to a little less than half its original size, meaning about 250 MB for one hour of music. The fact that ALE is built into iTunes means you have a nice interface for dealing with these tracks (as opposed to the more arcane software required to deal with Shorten files), making lossless encoding a practical option. I have no idea if there are converters that recode ALE as Shorten to avoid lock-in.
Anyhow, at that rate, it would take three 160-GB hard drives (and some kind of enclosure) to store a 1,000-CD music collection, but assuming Moore’s Law holds, in a few years, we’ll be back at the $100 mark.
Smaller MP3s still have their uses, though: If you have an in-car MP3 player that reads MP3 CDs, you’ll still need to recode your lossless files to MP3 in order to take advantage of it. If you have a portable MP3 player for jogging, likewise (though if you splash out on an iPod, you won’t need to bother).