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.

81 Comments

  • Bjarne Bülow says:

    Am I the only one using Pure Music (or Pure Vinyl) software on mac? (www.channld.com)
    One good thing there is that each track is uncompressed into memory before playing. Shouldn’t that take care of the concerns from unpacking on the fly?

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