Digital music – a quick guide to the best lossless files

Digital music – in particular transferring audio from a physical format into a purely digital form stored on a computer – was once regarded with suspicion by those who prize sound quality. However, there is now a raft of file formats that claim to be ‘lossless’ and to deliver sound that exactly matches the original.

Surely changing music, even music already stored in digital form on compact disc, from one format to another would result in a loss of sound quality that would outweigh the gain in convenience. This has been the primary view of people who cared about sound quality since the concept of digital music files first saw the light of day. A view given credence by the common use of lossy, highly compressed formats such as MP3.

However, it’s an opinion that just doesn’t hold water anymore. Yes, popular formats such as MP3 and AAC sacrifice some quality to keep file sizes small, but the emergence of lossless digital audio formats that are able to preserve every piece of information from a CD recording, means that a ripped file can be sonically indistinguishable from the original.

You might still ask why you should spend precious time ripping your CD collection. It’s all a question of convenience: a lossless digital music collection saves shelf space and is easy to move and back up; for larger collections, it also makes it far easier and faster to locate individual songs and albums. You can also access a digital music library from multiple sources simultaneously, for example from several network music players located in different rooms in your house.

Plus, thanks to the take up of higher-quality files with popular streaming and download sites – such as our own Society of Sound – it is now possible to access higher-quality music files as part of a subscription-based model without the need to take up valuable shelf – or even attic – space with physical media.

On the hardware side, storage devices like NAS and external hard drives offer huge amounts of space at increasingly low prices. And with high-quality DACs widely available and becoming better and less expensive all the time, computer hardware now offers excellent playback and can be easily connected to your existing Hi-Fi setup, either physically or wirelessly.

But whether you are streaming or ripping, the choice of file format is an apparently tricky one – with lots of choices, and many, many opinions. Here’s our thoughts on the main contenders….

FLAC
The Free Lossless Audio Codec is a popular choice for many audiophiles. Like MP3 and AAC, FLAC is compressed to keep file sizes relatively small, but unlike those formats it’s lossless and therefore in theory indistinguishable from CD quality. In theory. CD audio converted to FLAC will typically be reduced to around 50 percent of its original size; a typical three-minute song on a CD will take up 30-40MB of space, while a ripped FLAC version of that song is 15-20MB.

FLAC supports metadata (artist and song information can be embedded into the file and artwork can be referenced by the file) and will play back on a wide variety of software and hardware. Crucially for many, it’s not currently supported by Apple products like iTunes or the iPod.

However, there are drawbacks to FLAC from an audiophile perspective, and a lot of that comes during both the coding and the un-compressing of the file for playback. Because FLAC is unzipped on the fly, the sound quality is highly dependent on the software you are using to do that. Therefore, even though it is theoretically lossless, there are still barriers to overcome when listening to the music contained within.

Apple Lossless
As you might guess from the name, the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (or ALAC) was developed by Apple and works with the company’s products like iTunes, the iPod and the iPhone (as well as being supported by a number of other hardware and software players); if you’re an avid user of Apple gear, it will be very appealing for you. However, like FLAC it’s compressed, and files ripped from CD typically take up around 40-60 percent of their original size. Also, like FLAC, it suffers from the same de-coding drawbacks.

AIFF
AIFF is lossless, but also uncompressed. While this means it takes up as much space as the source file if ripping from a CD, it also avoids any compression issues, making it the ideal file for people who care about sound quality. Also, with the increasing affordability of bandwidth and hard drive space, file size is much less of an issue than it was even three or four years ago. AIFF also supports metadata, which helps in the management of your music – a great advantage if you have a large collection

WAV
Like AIFF, WAV is lossless but uncompressed, so ripped files take up the same amount of space as they would on a CD (around 10MB per minute of stereo sound). WAV also handles metadata but in a clumsier way than AIFF, so if you transfer a WAV library to another device there is a chance some of the information may not appear as it should.

In conclusion, we always feel that sound quality should come before convenience, and therefore it is lossless, uncompressed all the way for us – whether we are using a computer or a high-resolution portable audio player. Both WAV and AIFF have their plus points, but we lean towards AIFF for Society of Sound, because it backs up its excellent sound quality with hassle-free convenience. But, whatever you use, there really is no need to fear digital music.

80 Comments

  • EugenF says:

    It is a downgrade. FLAC-24bit has 96khz sampling rate. AIFF 24-bit has only 48khz.
    Sorry but in the future I will terminate my subscription on Society of Sound.

  • Christian says:

    Please continue providing FLAC files. I cannot share the drawbacks you pointed out regarding FLAC. What I can see are disadvantages for me handling those AIFF files. Actually my media manager software is not supporting AIFF as well as my media player and I do not want to use iTunes. You can additionally provide AIFF for those that share you point of view but for all other please provide FLAC as an alternative format. If AIFF is the future at SoS I do not think I will be part of that club anymore – it simply makes no sense for me.

  • Kevin says:

    Please continue to offer downloads in FLAC. I have my entire collection of digital music in FLAC and I am very happy with the sound quality on the players that I use (Foobar 2000 & Cowon M2). All of the music retailers that I buy from (Qobuz, eClassical, Hyperion, Presto, Linn) offer downloads in FLAC. If SoS offer only downloads in AIFF, this will just amount to an inconvenience to me, as I will still want to convert them to FLAC.

  • Ben says:

    @Ed – oddly enough I’ve just sent a technical support request for the track 10 issue – as far as I can see the header is corrupt (Foobar 2000 gives quite a lot of info if you try to convert between formats. Mp3tag will (now) edit AIF tags, but as the header is corrupt it refuses to update it).
    Adding my voice to the debate, I too would prefer FLAC24 as it’s compressed in transit and storage. The argument for changing to AIFF doesn’t really stack up IMO – Storage may be cheap, but uncompressed files are simply wasteful of bandwidth, time and disk space.

  • Wilfried says:

    Hi there,
    my equipment needs *.flac-supply! Now I have to convert my downloads every time. With which program I can convert aiff to flac most suitable? Like Ben and Ed I have problems with track 10 (foobar 2000 and others) too..
    So my new subscribe (from May 2017) is nearly valueless. Very irritating.

  • Detlef says:

    I am member of the SoSM under the condition to get inspiring music I can play on my system. This was till now always FLAC. Because I am a streaming beginner, I only have a NAIM DAC playing the HiRes via the USB port. Unfortunately NAIM DAC does not support AIFF via USB, so I can not enjoy my membership anymore. I guess that to convert the provided AIFF format to WAV on my PC will reduce the quality of the music.
    I would relay very much appreciate, if B+W could offer AIFF and FLAC in the download area for members, having whatever reasons to prefer FLAC.

  • Federico says:

    I choose SoS because of FLAC. I leave SoS because of AIFF

  • Seán says:

    Not Funny, Not Funny at all.

    Dear Bowers,

    please listen to your subscribers when we say we would like FLAC back. While my Linn kit is able to perform with all formats not once have I heard one person complain about how your SoS productions have performed in FLAC while is a supposed argument of yours. Ridiculous.

    Apple must have put pressure on you as I can’t see any justification in moving from FREE production (FLAC https://xiph.org/flac/license.html) to Apple (nothing from them is ever free) so come September when subscription prices rise guess what…I will have to consider my options.

    Why not also go for MQA? Apparently it’s better than sliced bread, why even go to the devils AIFF format…

    And FYI – I’m on a 200Mb Fibre line it’s gonna take a long time to download these zipped files.

    Could you not put together a decent download manager and allow us to download individual files rather than one 2.3GB file! Rediculous.

    I hope track 10 is fixed otherwise will I have to download the full thing again? Probably…

    regards
    Seán

  • DSG says:

    Slightly miffed by this. I subscribed to a service that offered FLAC files for download now and in the middle of my subscription, you have changed the format to one my equipment does not natively support.

    I appear to have two options:

    Cancel my subscription, I assume I’ll get a refund?
    Take on the task of converting it myself?

    One final observation. If as you state ” with the increasing affordability of bandwidth and hard drive space, file size is much less of an issue”. What not offer both and let your subscribers choose?

  • Manfred says:

    Thank you so much for a new attempt to invent the wheel. FLAC ist a Standard, well known, widespread and it is implemented on all systems.

    AIFF ist just an exotic format, used by a minority. Actually I don’t know somebody who is using it.
    I’m absolutely not happy with that format, spent the past hours to see if it is working on my systems and ….. it doesn’t! It shows just an Unknown Arist, a Unkown Album and it can not be played. And I am not using the last bargain offer to the cheapest price.

    I like listening music, but not on or via laptop or desktop computer. When you guys talk about sound quality (or hard drive space) then it should be DSD and definitely NOT AIFF.

    Download portals let customers decide what they want, they can choose between different formats.

    I haven’t registered my new B&W loudspeakers yet, but it seems I’ll have a lifelong useless abo.

    Regards
    Manfred

  • andrew says:

    I also joined SoS to download Flac. Please reinstate Flac downloads

  • Simon Roberts says:

    Please bring back FLAC.

    I have not seen conclusive evidence that FLAC is inferior to AIFF with a good player, and the mass storage space and bandwidth advantages of FLAC over AIFF are clear. However, I keep an open mind on this. Personally, I use Audirvana Plus on a Mac with various external DACs, and the quality is outstanding. My ears are sensitive to jitter created problems, which in my experience results in a subtle lack of transparency without a change in tonal balance. I don’t hear this any more or less with FLAC.

    By all means, provide AIFF as an option, but please listen to your subscribers and restore 24 bit FLAC support.

    Thank you for listening.

  • Peter Chapman says:

    I cannot play AIFF on my Cambridge CXN from my NAS server. FLAC works perfectly. I unzip them before storing them on the server so the unzip on the fly issue is not relevant. I will be cancelling my membership if this cannot be resolved.

  • Erwin says:

    Please bring back FLAC.

    There is no conversion loss. Audiophiles undoubtedly have the necessary (free) software.

    Thank you for listening.

  • Jerry LeCRoy says:

    I add my vote to the other subscribers who are asking that SOS continue to provide FLAC files for download. None of the three playback systems I presently use (Astell & Kern AK100 personal player, Denon AVR 2!00 receiver, and my BMW car) appear to be capable of playing back AIFF files. The effort and extra disk space required to convert from AIFF to FLAC format will make my SOS Subscription substantially less attractive.
    Best Regards,
    jEL

  • steveS says:

    I’ve downloaded the Ofeliadrome in AIFF as it is the only download you offer. It sounds magnificent on my Fiio with P5’s on its own and via an Audiolab Q dac. However my phone is a Samsung and doesn’t recognise it. Do you recommend an easy to use file converter? I wish you would go back to FLAC as I hate trying to use Apple products. You said originally that you would supply downloads in WAV as well. What happened to that?

  • Rafael Urrutia says:

    Will I be able to download the AIFF format to my Apple desktop and iTunes?

  • Suresh says:

    As a proud owner of B&W products for 30 years, I am disappointed by this needless move. FLAC is the standard and is open source. Claims of SQ issues with FLAC are unfounded. It could be the case on an ancient CPU, but then if that’s your argument, then your reference to modern storage capabilities would be inconsistent. It would seem you’ve been influenced by Apple, because it sounds like *fakenews*.

    I’ve been enjoying SoS for many years, but will now not renew my subscription.

    Compression is good when lossless. Wasting space unnecessarily means more HDs in my NAS eventually, and also means more time downloading. Regardless, my player does not support AIFF natively, so I will either thave to transcode on the fly (not good for low-powered NAS) or have to convert all files after downloading. This is all just silly.

    You should offer both formats. Bring back FLAC 24, or lose another SoS customer.

    Thanks kindly.

  • Tony Ward says:

    I for one will not be renewing my subscription now that B&W has seen fit to drop FLAC. There is no good reason NOT to continue to support the most popular format amongst audiophiles as an option.
    By all means add AIFF support but keep FLAC – its only storage space on a server

    Apple win again…….and I thought B&W were better than this which is why Ive supported Society f Sound from Day One.

    Please do not drop FLAC

  • Thanos says:

    As far as I know most users are using FLAC files. We all have a specific setup for our Windows computers. It is a waste of time to change all our files to AIIF. . Also the Metadata issue is very important, FLAC is recognised as the most reliable method.
    I will have to cancel my subscription if we don’t have FLAC as an option.
    Regards

  • Marek Petercak says:

    Hello,

    sorry to say, but first thing I’m doing after this next download, I’m converting to FLAC and deleting AIFF. FLAC is a standard for audio enthusiasts.

    I have no problem with AIFF format and if someone prefers to keep his library in this format. I respect that. But please offer downloads in FLAC as well. We should have more options, not less. It won’t take much more space on your servers. Some users may feel uneasy about how to convert properly to their preferred format and may choose a different source instead.

    With all due respect, but shouldn’t you offer more format options and leave the choice of format to listeners?

    Kind regards,

    Marek

  • Gopal Venkat says:

    I am joining with many of your customers in requesting that you bring back FLAC.

    At least offer both FLAC24 and AIFF24 as downloads.

    I play my music with an older receiver (USB drive etc.) and the receiver does not recognize AIFF.
    Same Issues with my Portable Audio Player.

    Therefore, please provide FLAC24 and AIFF24 as download Options.

    Thank you

    Gopal

  • Bill says:

    Aah my comment reappeared, well the second one did but my first is still missing.
    I have now downloaded this months albums and it is a pain having to convert them to FLAC, I gather you now realise that I do not agree with your reasoning.
    If sound quality is so important why only a 96/44.1 version of the Ofeliadorme album – just a thought.
    Come on guys see sense!

  • Tom Semmler says:

    Hi again,

    as already posted a note in April (that vanished due to whatever curious reason) asking FLAC back, and I still don’t see the point in taking away FLAC.

    FLAC is a lossless and free codec, which might, as any other codec, gets affected by decoding, if the decoder is not well programmed. In my case I use Audirvana Plus 3 with no troubles whatsoever. The software of course also works with AIFF, but this format takes far too much space with no audible advantage, both via speakers or headphones.

    I run a blog on high resolution audio and Mac hardware, btw (highresmac.de – it’s in German, sorry for that)

    Please offer at least 24-bit FLAC alongside AIFF, thanks.

    Tom

  • Tom Semmelr says:

    And back again.

    It’s a little weird – when I open this page, I don’t see my older comments and also some of the other older ones. They only appear, after I send a new one (which isn’t the reason to send this one, though).

    There are two issues I’d like to point at:

    On http://www.bowers-wilkins.de/Society_of_Sound/Society_of_Sound/Music/download-lossless-sound.html you say, that 24 bit 44,1 kHz is Studio Master quality. That’s not correct, as far as I can see. Studio Master files from the mixing consoles start with 96 kHz and run up to 364 kHz.

    If the best quality to get with AIFF is 44,1 kHz 24 bit, this is a drawback, as it is not as good as most of your previous FLAC and ALAC files, which offered up to 96 kHz at least with the classical recordings, that is: real Studio Master quality.

    Also AIFF is too big even for delivery. Writing these lines, I try to download Verdis Requiem for about 30 minutes now – with a 50.000 mbit line. It’s 2,3 GB are far too much data to deliver, especially if many SoS customers download at the same time. I still have 21 minutes to go, with 800 MB remaining. My idea of performance is different, the AIFF time frame is a drawback.

    Please put back FLAC as an option!

    Thank you for considering.

    Best
    Tom

  • Alistair Warwick says:

    Please bring back FLAC.

  • Wegas says:

    I am joining with many users in wishing that you offer the choice of several lossless formats:
    Wav
    Flac (the one I personally use)
    Aiff

    Thank you in advance

  • Ben T says:

    I am also joining the request to bring back flac. In the end I just have to convert it back. Further on I’m a very happy user of SOS. The music deliverd is great and mostly very interesting.
    Hope you will help (me and your other customers and revert to flac, or make flac a choice ;-)

    Best regards and thanks,

    Ben T

  • pete s. says:

    Please, Please, PLEASE… can we have FLAC back? I have no idea how to convert your AIFF files, and I don’t have any Apple kit, nor do I use iTunes.

  • James Osborne says:

    As a returning customer, I did not realise until reactivated that you had changed your formats. I use ALAC 16 for convenience in iTunes, and FLAC 24 through my high-end streamer. Maybe a bit crazy to go for two formats in parallel – but it worked really good for me without having to do any software transcoding for use at my end. Now I find out that you kill off both formats, only offering AIFF. You claim AIFF has some benefits – and maybe so. But you’ve now landed me with software transcoding into my libraries. What you should have done was give your subscribers the CHOICE between the formats at different qualities. Listen to your subscribers. If in doubt – run a pilot for three months and see which format gets the most downloads.

  • Ben says:

    Does the latest news that iOS11 will natively support FLAC help the argument? I can understand that less technical people are drawn to the Apple eco-system, and therefore need things to ‘just work’ – hence the move to AIFF. But hopefully this update will allow you to return to the better choice.
    I’ve just renewed my subsription for another year in anticipation that common sense will prevail, until then I’ll just reconvert to FLAC locally; Maybe you ought to add topic as a FAQ?

  • George says:

    Please bring back FLAC

  • Bill says:

    What is happening?
    (i) Dropping FLAC – not joined up thinking
    (ii) Posts that come and go – rubbish software.

    B&W get your act together – I will NOT renew my membership if tou refuse to bring FLAC back!

  • Oskar says:

    As a long time subscriber, I am disappointed with your decision to drop FLAC altogether. I use ALAC for iTunes and FLAC24 for my high end system. I do not share your concerns about quality drops because of decompression. Bit-perfect is and remains bit-perfect. The sound is always buffered before being reproduced, so the fact that AIFF is uncompressed does not seem reasonable to me.
    If you will not listen to our voices, I will have to cancel my subscriptions, as many other commenters will do.

  • David H. says:

    Please return to FLAC.

    I’ve just resubscribed to SoS after a break to discover the move to AIFF. All I can say is that you clearly don’t understand your user base. I understand AIF is a preference for many apple users for compatibility issues, but most audiophiles will prefer industry standard FLAC format. Please consider offering both.

  • Matthias says:

    I do not share the assessment “However, there are drawbacks to FLAC from an audiophile perspective, and a lot of that comes during both the coding and the un-compressing of the file for playback. Because FLAC is unzipped on the fly, the sound quality is highly dependent on the software you are using to do that. Therefore, even though it is theoretically lossless, there are still barriers to overcome when listening to the music contained within.” and similar to ALAC.

    Any software or firmware on embedded devices that cause a sound degradation on a LOSSLESS file format such as FLAC is defective and needs to be claimed for warranty if paid, and fixed, and in the case of free software, needs to be fixed, or replaced by something that works. Using the fact that some software may have had or still have defects as the stepping stone to mount an argument against FLAC and move to less-compatible formats is simply misguided.

    There may be valid reasons why AIFF might be more convenient to provide, but to us subscribers I can only join the choir of those asking for FLAC to be kept in 24-bit AND ALSO 16-bit formats. All my devices support 16-bit FLAC, none support 16-bit AIFF or ALAC.

  • Matthias says:

    Just to provide data points of file sizes, how wasteful AIFF is:
    723453934 OfeliadormeAIFF-24.zip
    Zip gained c. 1-2% only, I’ve tried 7z and it shaved off some 20 MB only.

    If I unpack the zip above, use flac –best to compress AIFF to FLAC, and then zip “store” (no compression in zip):
    492440995 Ofeliadorme-44124_FLAC.zip

  • Todd says:

    The reasons for your decision to change to the AIFF format are weak. For an organization that prides itself on high quality music, the highest possible sampling rate of AIFF seems inconsistent with your philosophy.

    Given the capabilities of modern general computers and specialized devices for music playback, I doubt any of it would have trouble during the decoding phase of FLAC playback. If it really matters to us, *we* will transcode the FLAC downloads to AIFF.

    A factor of two in file size still means waiting twice as long for the download and paying twice as much for storage (which is still not trivial for a large collection, plus the storage for backups). Hey, how about you reduce the membership subscription fee by a factor of two to compensate?

    *Please* continue to offer the choice of FLAC!

    Luckily my membership expires next month. Continue to offer FLAC and I’ll continue to renew. (And, next time I’m speaker shopping I will keep B&W on my short list.)

  • Bill says:

    They are bringing back FLAC and this makes sense. More people use FLAC and because it is lossless that minority of people who want another format can convert FLAC to their chosen format. I use minimserver which can convert to WAV on the fly on your server box, so you store FLAC but play WAV. SIMPLES!

  • Todd says:

    Thank you for listening and bringing back FLAC24!!

    Next on the improvement list: Bill’s comment about posts that “come and go.” My post from Sunday 11 June also disappeared.

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