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.

14 Comments

  • Sarah D. says:

    There was a comment on the Roon site about a problem with AIFF not supporting file sizes greater than 2GB. (Link: https://community.roonlabs.com/t/roon-does-not-see-my-aiff-file/13770)
    Would you know if this is correct? Thanks.

  • Daniel says:

    Please continue distributing music using FLAC!
    Most of your users have probably already started archiving their music collections using a lossless, compressed, format, and will convert to FLAC or ALAC after download anyway. The biggest consequence of this choice is probably that you put this effort on the users.

    I don’t understand the argument of comporession issues with FLAC. The format is open and many great softwares exist. Many devices come with built-in support.

    You talk about storing music on a NAS, but if you stream wirelessly from this, you will get much more sensitive to wifi reception and data peaks, compared to streaming a compressed format.

    Finally, you forget about those of us that only have internet access via mobile broadband only, and have a monthly data limit.

    Hopefully SoS will be the only one distributing lossless audio as uncompressed files and eventually reconsider.

  • Bowers & Wilkins says:

    Hi Sarah

    Thanks for your comment, that is correct that AIFF does not support a single track larger than 2GB, this however equates to around 1 hour of music at 24-bit 96kHz not 20 minutes as stated in this forum. Given that none of the music we offer will include a single track of 1 hour in length this will not be an issue.

    Kind Regards

    Bowers & Wilkins

  • Dennis says:

    I would prefer that you continue to offer FLAC. Using WAV or AIFF unnecessarily takes up too much space on my NAS. I have never noticed an audio quality problem with FLAC on playback. If you only offer AIFF you will create more work for me to convert it to FLAC after downloading. My guess is that a majority of members will be likewise inconvenienced by the need to convert to FLAC or ALAC to save space. Are you being pressured by Apple?

  • Ulf says:

    ALAC did not block as much space as other formats, especially from interest if you used to have your favourite music in good quality always on your mobile device at any time. Will try the AIFF and enjoy the sound soon. Some mobile devices are not easily upgraded to more capacity than others. Need to refresh my choice more often. Also a good chance to discover new music.

  • Jay says:

    How do I know whether to use AIFF16 or AIFF24? I listen on the MM1 and the Z2.

  • Dave says:

    I too would prefer a return to the FLAC download, or the option to choose; otherwise I will just have the additional trouble of converting AIFF to FLAC for optimum storage. FLAC is a lossless format, and the software we use to decompress it for playing is for us to choose. Anyone who feels they’re not getting the best results from their FLAC files will presumably already be set up to convert FLAC to AIFF or WAV for playback.

  • Ed says:

    Many streaming media systems have issues with AIF files. I’ve had to convert the handful of AIF files for the two systems I’ve got that don’t like AIF. AIF also has issues with metadata. JRiver handles it gracefully, as does iTunes, but outside of that, AIF ends up being seen as meta-data free.

    I can listen to a trumpet player and tell you what kind of brass the bell’s made of, and whether it’s lacquered or not. I can’t hear a difference between FLAC at medium compression, and AIF or WAV. Really. Supply FLAC.

  • ed says:

    To my point. File 10 on Verdi has no track number. Shows up in two different media programs separate from the rest of the album. With no image. Now I get to spend the next hour trying to figure out what’s screwed up.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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

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