Neil Young's Pono has been in the news a lot recently, but not many people know that the new player is designed as a way to playback FLAC files, primarily those bought from PonoMusic. While you could wait till the Pono Web store comes online sometime in the next year, there are ways you can get your hands on FLAC music right now.
If you want to listen to better-quality digital music, then FLAC files are a great way to do it. They typically use half the storage space of uncompressed music files and should sound identical to music played from a CD. And yes, you can use apps like FLAC Player to listen to them on iOS devices. Or the PonoPlayer of course.
Like MP3s, there are two main ways to get FLACs legally: rip them from CDs, or buy them directly. While we cover how to rip your own music to FLAC format here, there are several sites that offer FLAC album downloads for less than the price of a CD, and yet offer the same level of quality. You'll find that most of these sites are independent and that's because major labels have yet to embrace fully lossless downloads, presumably because of the ever-present "piracy concerns."
Below are the best stores that sell the FLAC format. If you're interested in higher-than-CD quality, some of the following sites also offer 24-bit "HD" downloads for an extra charge.
Know of another site that sells (legal) downloads? Leave your suggestion in the comments section!
Artists: Rolling Stones, Beach House, R.E.M.
Average price $11.99-$16.99
HDtracks isn't a label as such but a repository for dozens of different labels, including heavy hitters like Warner Music, jazz labels such as Blue Note, and classical offerings by Naxos. As a result, it's one of the most diverse catalogs of music available under one roof and a good place to start looking for new releases.
The trend of artists selling their own music via fan sites was arguably popularized by Radiohead with its album "In Rainbows." For artists who can't afford their own Web site, Bandcamp is a great way to get music out to the public, and for the listener the site comes with best-seller charts and music discovery features.
Artists: Arcade Fire, M. Ward, Spoon
Average price: $11.49
Merge began in 1989 as two bandmates (Laura Ballance and McCaughan of Superchunk) releasing 7-inch singles for their friends. Today it is one of the few truly independent labels still around, yet it has some of the hottest bands on its register.
Originally called Beggars Banquet (after the Rolling Stones album), the Beggars Group is now a collection of labels including 4AD, Rough Trade, Matador, and XL. If you're a fan of '80s-onward alternative you'll find a lot to like here.
Artists: Mark Knopfler, Meshell Ndegeocello
Average price: $13-$24
As the recording arm of one of the most respected hi-fi brands in the world, Linn Records has been releasing albums for the last 30 years. It's been there since the dawn of the digital revolution boasting it was "the first label to release CD-quality music downloads without DRM." The label also makes a handy series of FLAC test tones available that you can use to check whether your system can actually play these files.
Average price: $1-$10
The most useful way to think of Murfie is as a virtual second-hand music store. The idea is you send Murfie your CDs and they can rip them for you, or you can on-sell them. While the site also sells new CDs most of the trades are in ridiculously cheap used music, which for the conscientious means that the artist doesn't receive any money. As the last bastion before outright piracy Murfie is a good way to find music unavailable elsewhere.