Any child of the 70s or 80s will remember the joy of recording the Radio 1 Top 40 rundown to audio cassette. That the results were invariably fuzzy didn't matter that much - having all those glorious singles to listen to at your leisure was enough.
These days we demand rather better musical fidelity. The CD introduced us to crisper, cleaner audio - but even this wasn't enough for some people. The music industry began work on SuperAudio CD (SA-CD), but few were produced by the time a spunky new contender changed everything.
The MP3 seemed to come from nowhere. Its proponents had no truck with finesse and artistic craftsmanship; it was all about getting the music out there, sharing the tunes and not paying a penny for them. But the trade-off was a reduction in audio quality.
Now that we're paying for our copy-protected digital downloads, however, we expect their quality to match - or nearly match - the CD albums that music-download sites have largely replaced.
With iPod docks and MP3-based stereos replacing hi-fis, we're far more likely to hear our digital tunes through decent speakers - which makes it harder to ignore the shortcomings of compressed files. And most of us have lots more storage these days, which means compressing them is less of a priority.
MP3 is a lossy format; it discards the top and bottom notes to keep music files small. Lossy codecs such as MP3 and AAC have bitrates that max out at 256kbps (kilobits per second), so you can cram hundreds of songs on a portable player, regardless of audio fidelity.
But there are also lossless audio formats. If you start with a CD-quality source, you can enjoy a complete album at top quality by recording to one of these rather than MP3.
The best-known lossless formats are Ogg Vorbis and Flac. Both deliver bit-by-bit accurate copies of your music. They're also free to use. So there's no excuse for defaulting to MP3, when you could easily have faithful digital copies of your CDs.
Follow our step-by-step guide to creating lossless digital audio files.
Rip CD-quality audio with dBpoweramp
Step 1: You'll need to install a suitable ripping tool. We're using dBpoweramp. It supports a wide range of audio file types, including Flac. It's free to use for 21 days, after which you must register and pay $39 (about £26). Click the Codec Central tab for a full list of supported codecs.
Step 2: Next you need to configure dBpoweramp. Opt to install any or all the additional apps on offer, then click the Codecs tab to access a choice of codecs that will read and write audio tracks. Press the Install button next to Flac to download the software. Double-click the resulting .exe file to launch the installation.
Step 3: If you're an audio purist, you'll want accurate copies of your CDs. Each time you rip a CD, AccurateRip compares your results with the results other people obtained for the same disc. It can also verify your recording and flag up any problems, many of which can be resolved by cleaning the CD.
Step 4: The final tab on the dBpoweramp configurator offers Music Converter options. Choose Advanced for options such as adjusting the track-listing details that display. You're now ready to start ripping your CDs. Go to Start, dBpoweramp, dBpoweramp CD Ripper. You'll be prompted to insert a CD.
Step 5: Insert a disc and you'll be asked whether you wish to add your CD-ripping results to the AccurateRip database. Click to accept, then allow AccurateRip to calibrate your disc writer. This takes a few moments. You'll then get a message telling you it's been successful, and asking you to rip a CD as a test.
Step 6: Next, you'll want to check that the meta-tagging features are enabled so you don't have to manually enter track information. Click the Meta button in the top menu, then right-click ‘Retrieve From' in the drop-down list. Select an online database. We've chosen All Media Guide.
Step 7: You'll see that the album image, artist details and track listing have now appeared. Select the source format for your audio. At the bottom left you can choose Flac as the output format from the drop-down menu. Once the Flac option is applied, you'll see that the Flac logo appears in the lower pane.
Step 8: We're finally ready to rip our CD and save it as uncompressed audio. Hit Rip to initiate the process. Close down all other programs; we've found that incoming emails and other interruptions can cause audio distortions. As you'll see from the screenshot, it results in some rather large files.
Step 9: Your portable music players may not support Flac. However, other types of lossless audio codec exist. The best known are AIFF, Ogg Vorbis and AAC Lossless. iTunes users can instead get lossless audio by going to Edit, Preferences, Import Preferences and choosing a lossless option.
Step 10: To convert Flac tracks to a format compatible with Windows Media Player, go to Start, dBpoweramp, dBpoweramp Music Converter. Highlight the tracks you want to convert, then press Open. Select a format from the list - the software should prompt you to download the codecs for any greyed-out options.