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.

Having enjoyed some exposure due to the official release of the PonoPlayer and affiliated web store, FLAC is a musical file format that offers bit-perfect copies of CDs except at half the size. It is compatible with many phones (including the iPhone -- with an app), portable music players (PMP) including the PonoPlayer, and hi-fi components. FLAC files are available for roughly the same price as the equivalent MP3 in online stores and sound much better.

To see where FLAC has come from and where it is headed, 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 just 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 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 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, and so on -- in the way the other formats can. FLAC, on the other had, not only supports tags but is also compatible with many different types of equipment -- minus one as we'll see, though there are simple workarounds.

*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 reduce the file size to a more compact level. 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 has been embraced by the music industry as a cost-effective way to distribute CD-or-better-quality 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 Cowon Plenue 1 is a high-end FLAC player Sarah Tew/CNET

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. Previously the only way to get "lossless" files was with the uncompressed CD formats CDA or WAV, which use over twice as much space as FLAC. 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. While the effects of better-than-CD quality are highly debated, companies like Pono stake their reputations on its benefits.

But regardless of whether you are using 16- or 24-bit quality files, FLAC is here to stay. 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."

While physical discs are still popular, their usefulness will eventually be eclipsed by the convenience of purely digital files: whether that means streaming or software files stored on your network or in the cloud. 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, disc rot is real. While FLAC will probably never be as popular a format as CD and DVD were in their heydays, it's quickly become the format of choice for people who care about sound quality.

FLAC versus streaming

FLAC does have one major competitor: streaming. While Pandora and Rhapsody have existed for years, the low bit rate of their catalogs -- between 128kbps and 192kbps -- has meant that they're no match for FLAC in the audio department.

However there are two major streaming services that offer very high sound quality -- Spotify and Tidal -- and depending on the record, they can be indistinguishable from the CD. While Spotify is ripped in 320Kbps Ogg Vorbis, it's Tidal that offers the biggest alternative to personal collections as it's also based on FLAC. Both Spotify and Tidal let you download tracks for offline listening (with a paid subscription), and both catalogs are quite impressive.

But it's not just Tidal that offers lossless streaming: there are some up-and-comers as well. While CD-ripping service Murfie was 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. Meanwhile, Deezer Elite is another service that offers lossless streaming but currently only to users of Sonos.

Stars including Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Deadmau5 and Kanye West called for a fairer deal at the launch of Jay Z's Tidal streaming service. Kevin Mazur/Getty

While the world is swiftly moving toward streaming, FLAC does offers several advantages over the Spotifys and Tidals of this world. Firstly, you only need to pay once for a FLAC album. With a streaming service, you'd need to pony up for a subscription fee for the rest of your life or lose access to your carefully curated music collection.

Secondly, you don't need an Internet connection to listen to your music, and while the Offline mode of both Tidal and Spotify enables you to use it on the subway, it still needs to be connected to the 'net at some point to get the files. What if your PMP doesn't have apps or network capability? For inexpensive players like the Sony A17, a set of FLAC files make the most sense.

Where can 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. Ripping is easy to do but you will need the right software for your computer. However, there are some devices that enable you to rip and store FLAC files on a networked hard drive without having to ever touch a PC; the Bluesound Vault is one of these.

If you'd rather pay someone else to do that for you, 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 or album and "digital."

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 still 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 may never get it. While Apple announced its Mastered for iTunes program several years ago, which offered the promise of 24-bit/44.1kHz downloads at some point in the future, the company has moved on to more profitable and immediate concerns such as Apple Music. Maybe. Interestingly, Apple was one of the last proponents of DRM but started phasing it out in 2007 with iTunes Plus.

However, there are several apps available in the iTunes Store that do support the format and even let you stream them between devices on your network via AirPlay and DLNA. 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: Users of Google's smartphone don't need to worry as much about FLAC support; from Android 3.1 (Honeycomb) onward, the OS supports the file format 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 and also Tidal integration).

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. 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. Sarah Tew

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 PMPs by Sony, iRiver and FiiO can typically play back FLAC.

Getting quality that's measurably better than your smartphone will cost you though, with our current favorite, the Cowon Plenue 1, costing from $900 up. But players such as the Sony NWZ-A17 offer amazing battery life starting at about $300. See CNET's best players that support FLAC here.

Raumfeld

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 few years, a wealth of streaming audio players have appeared with lossless FLAC playback one of their many benefits. Samsung's Shape Multiroom system supports FLAC, as does the multiroom Sonos system and the inexpensive Gramofon dongle for existing hi-fi systems.

If you own a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, PC, or even a smartphone you can serve FLAC files to any number of connected devices in your AV system including TVs, Roku boxes, receivers and more. If the device connects to the Internet it's most likely to also support DLNA, and though FLAC isn't officially part of the DLNA specification, it usually comes along for the ride anyway.

Conclusion

Though streaming services may come and go, and even 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.

Editors' Note, June 26, 2015: This article was originally published in October 2012 and has been updated with new information.

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