Test Driving MP3 CDs

MP3 CD

While everyone else has been spending their time trying to figure out if they want to keep their Apple Music subscription at the end of the month, I decided to try something completely different for my audio needs — MP3 CDs. Up until about a month ago all of the audio I listened to in my car came from my iPhone. Seriously, the first palace I went after I drove out of the dealership was my local Best Buy to purchase an audio cable for my car’s auxiliary-in jack.

Near the end of July, though, I decided I was going to do a little experiment with my car’s audio setup. I burned an MP3 CD with about 125 of my favorite tracks and popped it into my car’s CD player — since then the CD has been my (nearly) exclusive source for music while driving. I still connect my iPhone on occasion in order to listen to podcasts and for a few albums that didn’t make it onto the initial disc, but for the most part its been all optical media.

There’s a few reasons why I wanted to try this out. For one, I’ve never actually done it before. The height of MP3 CDs seemed to be in the mid-2000s when I was in high school. At the time, a sizable portion of students had portable music players and most of them had either an iPod or a CD player that was capable of playing back MP3s. I was part of the iPod crowd, but one of my buddies in home room was on the other side of the fence.

I always felt like my friend’s CD player was a terrible device because of its bulk compared to my iPod Nano. And it seemed like he always needed to burn a new disc to include the latest set of albums he had acquired. He, like myself, was finding new music at a rapid pace back then. Now, I’m lucky if I find a new album once every 3-6 months. I suppose the MP3 CD simply passed me by — at the time when I might have been using them, I was already managing my music in iTunes and syncing tracks to an iPod Nano.

Another reason for trying this experiment is because it’s always a small hassle to connect my iPhone to my car’s stereo. Obviously connecting an audio cable to my phone’s headphone jack and hitting play isn’t that big of a deal, but the amount of time it takes feels enormous on those rare occasions when I have a passenger in the car. When I’m by myself it’s nothing, but I always feel like the passenger is wondering “what’s taking so long? Let’s get going!” as I fumble to pick a track before taking it out of park. Now, I can jump in the car and just start driving.

The biggest reason for using MP3 CDs is to mitigate the overwhelming number of options I have for what to listen to. For whatever reason I always feel the need to pick a specific album or artist when I listen to music on my iPhone. There’s no rhyme or reason for it — I know I can just tap “shuffle all” and let my device do the choosing — but I always find myself tapping through Apple Music in an effort to find something to listen to. With an MP3 CD in my car, I just hit the “Disc” button —  it’s essentially a hardware shuffle button that only plays tracks I love. And as a bonus, I finally get to use the next and previous track buttons built into my steering wheel.

The Process

The steps I took toward burning an MP3 CD were a little bit more involved than it may be for others. What complicates things is that I have all of my music saved on a headless Mac Mini and I have an irrational fear of screwing up my iTunes library. I controlled the Mac Mini over Screen Sharing, but the actual disc burning took place on my MacBook Air (more on that later).

I started out by building a smart playlist with all of the tracks I wanted on my disc. I’m an avid music rater, so I was able to build a great playlist with only a few simple rules:

  • Rating is greater than three stars
  • Limit to 125 items selected by most recently played
  • Match only checked items turned on

This gave me a great mix of my latest favorite tracks and made sure that I wouldn’t have to do too much trimming if the collection weighed in at over 700MB. I’ve played around with a few ways of creating playlists for the disc and I’m sure I’ll come up with more interesting ones in the future — whether they be curated by hand or built using smart playlists utilizing the large assortment of criteria available to them. But for the first disc, I thought I’d stick with something simple.

The next part is where things get a little wonky. You see, iTunes doesn’t automatically convert songs to the proper format when you’re burning an MP3 CD. You could select all of the files and convert them within iTunes, but I’m not the kind of guy that wants a bunch of duplicate files in my library. What I came up with isn’t the most elegant solution, but it works.

  • Select all of the tracks with cmd+a and drag the contents of the smart playlist into a new folder on my desktop — this gave me copies of all of the tracks to work with while making sure I don’t wreck my library with duplicates.
  • Import the files into the iTunes library on another computer on my network — my MacBook Air, which was chosen because of its empty iTunes library.
  • Set iTunes to display in list view and sort by Kind (or file type).
  • Choose all of the files which weren’t already in MP3 format and right-click to create MP3 versions.
  • Delete all of the non-MP3 files and create a new playlist with the remainder of the tracks.
  • Perform some quick trimming to widdle the playlist down to less than 700MB.
  • Pop in a blank CD, click Burn Playlist to Disc, and choose MP3 CD.

It’s really a shame that iTunes doesn’t do a better job simplifying the process. I would love it if iTunes treated MP3 CDs just as it does regular CDs — converting the tracks to the proper format, burning the audio, and cleaning up the files it created. My guess is that this solution isn’t the best option out there, but its the one I was able to cone up with by poking around in iTunes myself.

Will I Continue With Discs?

Probably. The current plan is to burn a new CD every month or so until I either get tired of making new ones or I amass a diverse enough collection of discs that I could just swap to an old one every now and then. I’ve been pretty happy with it so far, though. The weekend after I burned the first disc I had family visiting from out of town and it was so much easier to just get in the car and start driving. I could even switch my stereo’s input to Disc from my steering wheel with the Mode button and see the track name on the LCD display which gave myself and the passenger a seamless experience.

As an additional anecdote, my fiancée borrowed my car a few weeks ago while hers was in the shop. She was running a little late that morning and didn’t want to spend the time  fiddling with the audio cable and her iPhone before embarking on her 45 minute commute. Then she remembered the CD, switched the stereo’s input to Disc, and immediately had music to listen to that didn’t require her to tap around on her iPhone while driving — which is both dangerous and illegal in New York — or, heaven forbid, switch to terrestrial radio for the ride. I asked her what she thought of it when she got home and she couldn’t have been more happy with it.

At some point I plan on setting up a similar system in her car, but it’ll be a little more involved than burning discs for mine — her car’s stereo features a six-disc changer, but it isn’t capable of playing back MP3 CDs. That means I’ll have to burn a lot more discs and hope that her stereo is capable of shuffling across multiple CDs (which we haven’t tested yet). It seems MP3 CDs have been a raving success so far, so much so that I’m willing to cobble together several burned CDs in an attempt to replicate the experience for my fiancée.