What is FLAC? The high-def MP3 explained

CNET explains what FLAC is, as well as where to buy music in the FLAC format, and how to play it on your iPhone, computer, or MP3 player.

FLAC is a music format that offers true CD quality, and is playable on everything from Sonos to iOS. Sarah Tew/CNET

In the late 1990s, one of the original portable music file formats -- the MP3 -- was causing quite a bit of bother. It had earned itself a reputation as a pirate format, and this was mainly due to the sharing site Napster, which was at the height of its notoriety. While MP3 inevitably prevailed, there is a much better choice for high-quality music, and it's gaining in popularity.

Currently enjoying exposure due to the official announcement of Pono, FLAC is a musical file format that offers bit-perfect copies of CDs at half the size, and is compatible with many phones (including the iPhone -- with an app), MP3 players including the forthcoming PonoPlayer, and hi-fi components. FLAC files are available for roughly the same price as the equivalent MP3 in online stores, and it sounds much better.

To see where FLAC has come from and where it could be going, you only need to look at the history of its "lossy" predecessor, the MP3. Though MP3.com was one of the first sites to sell MP3s in 1999, dedicated players like the Rio PMP300 were subject to legal action by record companies. Yet when the iPod was released in 2001 it helped to legitimize the format, and today MP3s are now sold by most online music stores. (Disclosure: MP3.com no longer sells MP3s and is now owned by CBS Interactive, parent company of CNET.)

FLAC, ahh-ahhh, it'll save every one of us*

Until recently, the music format FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec)enjoyed a similar "pirates-only" reputation to MP3 because of its lack of DRM, but it has the potential to reach a larger audience than simply audiophiles and tech enthusiasts. Currently, record labels like Merge and Warner are on board with the format, and consumers can buy music from acts such as M. Ward and the Grammy-winning Arcade Fire -- for the same price as the iTunes Store.

FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec and first emerged in 2001 as an open-source alternative to other lossless formats emerging at the time. These included Apple Lossless (ALAC), Microsoft's WAV (Waveform Audio Format), and WMA Lossless. But these competitive formats do have their disadvantages. While ALAC has a loyal following among iPod and iPhone users, it hasn't seen much uptake by brands outside of Apple. The WAV format is more popular, and it's also compatible with iOS devices, but its biggest problems are that file sizes are very large and it can't retain "tag" data -- artist, album name, lyrics, etc. -- in the way the other formats can.

*apologies to Queen

Media Monkey -- pictured with the MonkeyFlow plug-in -- is a FLAC player and ripper for PC. Screenshot by Ty Pendlebury/CNET

What's the difference between MP3 and FLAC?

MP3 is a lossy format, which means parts of the music are shaved off to get the file size down. It is supposed to use "psychoacoustics" to delete overlapping sounds, but it isn't always successful. Typically cymbals, reverb, and guitars are the sounds most affected by MP3 compression, and can sound really distorted or "crunchy" when poorly ripped or overly compressed.

Like MP3 before it, FLAC is quickly being embraced by the music industry as a cost-effective way to distribute CD-quality-or-higher music, and it doesn't have the auditory problems of MP3s. FLAC is lossless and more like a ZIP file -- theoretically it comes out sounding the same when it is unzipped. In hi-fi terms, MP3 is to Sony's MiniDisc format as FLAC is to CD.

The advantage of FLAC files versus the CD format CDA or WAV is that they use much less space, typically around half. While FLAC still uses up to six times the volume of MP3 the advantage is that more information is retained, leading to an audible boost in quality. Furthermore, FLAC is not just restricted to CD quality, and you can buy files up to 24-bit/192kHz for another potential boost in performance. Pono, for example, claims that its higher-resolution FLAC files sound demonstrably better than CD.

A post on Bowers & Wilkins' Society of Sound blog cites Malcolm Hawksford, professor of psychoacoustics at Essex University: "FLAC has a place in the future for high-quality audio. It is good for transporting files on the Internet as it typically halves download time. It is unlikely that for lossless compression there will be significant improvements."

Where do I get FLAC files?

If you want to support the artist, there are several sites that let you purchase FLAC files. HDTracks.com

There are two main ways to get your FLAC files legally: ripping from CD or purchasing from a digital store. We cover our favorite sites for buying FLAC files here, but another good option if you want to find music and don't know which label the musician is on is to do a Google search for the name of the artist/album and "digital."

Also forthcoming in the next year is the PonoMusic site, which will sell high-res FLAC files that will work on any FLAC player, not just the PonoPlayer.

.

How do I play FLAC files?

FLAC Player is one of the many apps for iOS that enables FLAC playback. FLAC Player

iOS
There is arguably one hurdle preventing FLAC's full-scale adoption: the Apple iPhone and other iOS devices don't support the format natively. With every major edition of iOS and iTunes, we secretly hope for FLAC support, but we could be waiting a very long while. In the meantime, there are now several apps available in the iTunes Store that do support the format and even let you stream them via AirPlay and DLNA between devices on your network. MediaConnect, available from the App Store, has the most functionality and file support, but it can be a little daunting for beginners. There are several other apps including FLAC Player and Capriccio.

Android
Android users don't need to worry as much about FLAC support; from Android 3.1 (Honeycomb) onward, the OS supports it natively. Even if you have an older version, manufacturers like HTC and Samsung have added FLAC support to their software media players. Nonetheless, good apps to try from Google Play are Player Pro, which also supports high-res and Bubble UPnP (which includes DLNA support).

Windows and Mac
If you're a Windows user, you can play FLAC files via a Windows Media Player plug-in, but the two native players most recommended by audiophiles are Media Monkey and JRiver. Meanwhile, Mac users can download Fluke, which includes basic support for FLAC in iTunes or Songbird (also on PC).

Neil Young's Pono dreams soon to come true, Ep. 151
The PonoPlayer is arguably the most high-profile FLAC device.

Hardware
Portable: While Android MP3 players have dwindled in popularity, they have been replaced by high-res portable players like Sony's Walkman NWZ-ZX1 and the PonoPlayer that are designed to support FLAC natively, up to 24-bit/192kHz. Meanwhile, traditional MP3 players by Creative, iRiver and FiiO can typically playback FLAC. See CNET's best players that support FLAC here.

Hi-fi: Of course, the biggest advantage to FLAC files is that they are ideally suited to listening on a hi-fi device. In the last twelve months, a wealth of streaming audio players has appeared and lossless FLAC playback is one of the many benefits. Samsung's Shape Multiroom system supports FLAC, as does the multiroom Sonos system and the Phorus PR-1. Sadly, though the Logitech Squeezebox has FLAC playback, it has been discontinued as has its replacement the "Smart Radio".

The future of FLAC

While physical discs are still popular, their usefulness will eventually be eclipsed by the convenience of purely digital files. The lack of DRM in FLAC means you can make as many copies of the file for your personal use that you want, and you don't have to worry about the physical discs degrading -- yes, disk rot is real. While FLAC will probably never be as popular a format as CD and DVD were in their heyday, it's likely to be the format of choice for people who care about sound quality.

However, FLAC does have one potential competitor: streaming. While Pandora and Rhapsody have existed for years, the low bit rate of their catalogs -- 192Kbps and 128Kbps/192Kbps (HQ), respectively -- has meant that they're no match for FLAC in the audio department. Yet there is one streaming service that offers very high sound quality -- Spotify -- and all of its music is ripped in 320Kbps Ogg Vorbis. Yes it's still lossy, but if you want the next best thing to true CD quality, this is it. Additionally, Spotify lets you download tracks for offline listening (for an extra $10 a month) and the catalog is quite impressive.

Meanwhile, Apple recently announced its Mastered for iTunes program, which offers the promise of 24-bit/44.1kHz downloads at some point in the future. Maybe. Interestingly, Apple was one of the last proponents of DRM but started phasing it out in 2007 with iTunes Plus.

While Murfie is one of the first sites to offer true-quality streaming, it's currently only for customers who pay an additional $99 fee and only for the CDs they currently own. It's not difficult to imagine that sometime very soon, Spotify or Neil Young or someone else will offer lossless files for streaming over the Net, and when this happens, the need for FLAC could diminish. But of course, you'd still need to pony up for a subscription fee for the rest of your life or lose access to those files.

Though streaming services may come and go, and the long-term prospects of Spotify are not assured, a FLAC file is like a CD: once you buy it or rip it, it's yours forever (barring storage catastrophes). FLAC may never actually supplant MP3, but if you care about sound quality, then FLAC is undoubtedly your best option -- both now and into the foreseeable future.

 

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