Best Ways to Improve Sound Quality in iTunes 11

Get the best out of your digital music library by tweaking iTunes settings

Are You 'Seeing' All The Detail in Your iTunes Library?

The iTunes software is a very popular and capable software media player that makes purchasing and managing digital music a simple affair. However, unless you tweak its settings you may not be unlocking all the audio detail.

From a sound quality point of view there can be many factors that influence how you hear your iTunes library. You might for instance have several songs in your iTunes library that are so quiet that detail is lost. On the flip side you may have songs that play way too loud and have distortion that drowns out the finer sonic detail.

It could also be that you've imported audio CDs into iTunes using the default audio encoder or a bitrate that is very low -- this obviously isn't the best you could use.

To see some of the things you can do to optimize audio quality, we've compiled a list of options in iTunes 11 that will help enhance the songs in your library and your listening experience too.

EQ Your Listening Environment

It may sound strange, but the room and speakers you use when listening to your digital music library can have a big impact on sound quality. The overall sound you hear is affected by the acoustic properties of a room and the capabilities of your speakers -- frequency response etc.

To get the best out of your listening environment you can use the built-in equalizer tool in iTunes. This enables you to shape the sound that you hear by boosting certain frequency bands while reducing others.

Normalize The Songs in Your iTunes Library

A typical digital music library is made up of files that have originally come from different sound sources. You may for instance have compiled your iTunes library by:

  • Ripped audio CDs (perhaps using various ripping programs other than iTunes)
  • Digitized vinyl records and tapes
  • Recorded audio streams from the Internet
  • Downloaded songs from multiple music services.

This mix of different sources often introduces loudness problems in your library. This makes it frustrating having to increase the volume level for some songs while decreasing it for very loud ones.

One of the ways you can eliminate this and therefore improve the sound quality of your collection is to use the Sound Check option in iTunes. Once enabled it works in the background by analyzing the loudness of all the songs in your library and calculating a loudness offset to play them back.

Fortunately this is a non-destructive way of normalizing (like ReplayGain) and is completely reversible -- unlike if you used an audio editor for example to make permanent changes.

Upgrade Low Quality Songs With iTunes Match

If you've got low quality songs or even ones that are still shackled by DRM copy protection, then you may want to consider iTunes Match. This is a subscription service which not only enables you to store your iTunes library in iCloud, but also upgrades your songs in certain instances.

If iTunes Match detects that songs in your library have Apple's FairPlay copy protection then it will automatically upgrade these to DRM-free versions. Another advantage of using iTunes Match is that low quality songs in your collection can also be upgraded to a higher resolution (256 Kbps) -- further improving the sound quality of your music library.

Import Audio CDs Using ALAC

Hard drive capacities are increasing all the time and are much larger than they were a few years ago. It therefore makes sense to rip CDs at the highest quality you can without giving away too much of your hard drive's storage space.

ALAC (short for Apple Lossless Audio Codec) is similar to other lossless formats (like FLAC, APE, WMA Lossless, etc.) in that it compresses audio data without any degradation in audio quality.

By default iTunes is set to rip audio CDs using the lossy AAC encoder, but you can change this in the preferences menu (general tab > Import settings) to the Apple Lossless Encoder option.

If you've previously ripped your collection of audio CDs using a lossy encoder, then it might be worth the effort to re-rip into the ALAC format for sound quality that's as good as the original.