I'm finally an empty-nester. My babies are all gone. Oh, my teenage daughters still live at home. I'm referring to the 2,000 CDs that have cluttered up the house for years. They were shipped Friday to New York, and they won't be coming back -- not physically, anyway. (That's the part that makes my wife happy.)

Soon, the CDs will live on a computer hard drive as MP3 files. I'll enjoy them using the ubiquitous iPod.

I've long resisted joining the iPod generation. The biggest reason is sound quality. As a fan of orchestral recordings, which make up two-thirds of my discs, I've had concerns about the fidelity of the compressed audio files that the iPod plays. The size of my collection also has been an obstacle. Converting -- or "ripping" -- that many discs for use on an iPod is a daunting task, and potentially expensive.

The issue over audio quality was resolved after I did some research online and contacted Sarah Hicks. She's the assistant conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and listens to her iPod up to 10 hours a week. She's also in the process of ripping her 1,238 CDs -- "Yup, I counted!" she says -- to listen to them on the device.

She says nothing beats "the real thing," a live orchestra with good acoustics. Next, she'd opt for an LP "on a really good system -- tube amplifier and great speakers," followed by CDs.

"However, unless I'm listening on that 'really good system,' it's pretty hard for me to hear the difference between CDs and MP3s," Hicks says.

The key is how the MP3 files are compressed when converted from CDs. The iPod's default import setting -- equal to about 160 kilobits per second for MP3s -- is good enough for most listeners. But for classical and jazz, 192 kbps is recommended, according to iPod expert Kirk McElhearn in an article for Macworld (www.macworld.com). Doubters should use the maximum conversion rate of 320 kbps if they're concerned, he says.

"I defy anyone (in a blind test) to be able to tell the difference between files compressed at this bit rate and original CDs," he says.

I did my own tests, ripping a musical passage at various bit rates, and found that it was difficult to distinguish between the 320 kbps file and the CD. (Try eClassical's blind listening test online to see if you can tell [www.startribune.com/a/?4595].)

After I discovered that Minnesota Public Radio's classical station is in the process of converting its vast CD library into computer-accessed audio files, I decided to join the digital din.

But where to start?

The simplest option is to rip the discs manually using your computer and iTunes, Windows Media Player or any number of freeware programs (see www.download.com). The only expense would probably be an external hard drive to store the data and backup DVDs. But converting a collection my size would probably take at least 200 hours.

Pay someone to do it

I could pay someone to do the work. Various companies nationwide will rip your CDs for a fee. One is Ripshark (www.ripshark.com; 1-866-870-1003), which Adam Sellke runs out of the basement of his Golden Valley home. The company has received positive reviews from users and websites such as iLounge.

Ripshark charges 99 cents per disc, no matter the size of the order, including shipping and $10 insurance per disc. It sends you a RipKit with everything you need to send in your discs. After the job is done, you get your original discs back along with DVDs containing the MP3 conversions.

Sellke says Ripshark has large-capacity ripping machines that can convert a collection my size in less than 48 hours. But that would cost me nearly $2,000 -- like buying my CDs all over again. Ripshark seems fine for smaller collections, but not for me.

Rent Bravo CD ripper

An in-between option is renting the automated Bravo CD ripper from Plymouth-based Primera Technology (www.primera.com/bravorental; 763-475-6676). It costs $299 (including round-trip shipping) for what Primera calls a one-week rental, but the company's Twin Cities location and the generous stipulation that the unit be returned within 20 days of receipt easily doubles the checkout period.

You simply connect the Bravo to an Internet-connected PC. (The software doesn't work with Macs.) Load 20 discs at a time into the unit, and let 'er rip. But using the Bravo would require 100 change-outs to convert my collection and the expense of a storage device, besides the rental fee. The Bravo also has a quirk: If the online database it uses doesn't recognize a CD title, it will skip the disc and not rip it. The Bravo might be right for smaller mainstream collections, but it's still not quite right for me.

Trade CDs for ripped files

I finally found the solution in iPodMeister (www. ipodmeister.com; 1-877-476-3237). The New York-based company is now ripping my entire collection at my stipulated 320 kbps conversion rate and putting it on a high-capacity external hard drive and backup DVDs. It's also giving me two 120-gigabyte iPod Classics and some cash (amount to be determined once the job is done). That includes shipping both ways.

The price? My CDs. Seriously.

IPodMeister owner Kris Shrey explains that his company has a thriving business in exporting used CDs to countries where iPods haven't gutted the disc-based market. And it turns out that they're hot for classical CDs in Italy, where the company ships 20,000 discs at a time.

My deal with iPodMeister was a custom arrangement (made before Shrey knew I was a journalist who might eventually write about the experience) based on the size of my collection. Its standard deals require much fewer discs. For example, you can get all of your discs ripped to backup DVDs and an 8GB iPod Nano for 200 CDs, or the ripping service and a 16GB iPhone costs 400 CDs.

If my deal sounds too good to be true, it's really not. I'm getting less than $3,000 in goods and services for 2,000 CDs. Do the math. (I'm skeptical about the yet-to-be-determined cash component.) But convenience is the driving force here, and I've traded any wariness over the arrangement for good column fodder.

How will everything turn out? I'll let you know in a few weeks once the transaction is complete. In the meantime, you have this guide to help you determine which CD-ripping option is best for you.

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542