FLAC & ALAC vs MP3
Are You Sacrificing Quality for Quantity?
There are plenty of platforms from which you can acquire music in many formats, and the list keeps growing. Sometimes it seems like the race to download all the latest tunes and create playlists has overshadowed our love for quality music. However, if you’re downloading and storing MP3’s simply because they are the most common and accessible format out there to store on your devices, are you truly getting the music you want in its entirety with all the sound and quality the musicians intended you hear?
Let’s discuss why choosing original and unaltered audio files over MP3s makes better sense if the integrity of music matters to you.
MP3s are considered a “lossy” file format. Lossy means that when an audio file is compressed from the original, it loses much of the source data, leaving you with a more “watered-down” version of a track. That lost data is music, sound quality, and whatever else the program decided to remove that it thinks you won’t miss hearing on that track. This compression may also cause distortion in the sound quality. However, FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) are named “lossless” file formats because they do not lose one kb of data during the compression process.
Both formats have a place in the music world, but the most significant deciding factor in keeping the file whole is: is it worth it for you to preserve every last kb of data from your music and the clarity of every precious sound?
Sure, if you’re throwing a house party and hooking up your iPad to blow out some loud and lively music while everyone is chatting it up or engaging in other activities, and you want some background tunes to keep the fun flowing, there’s nothing wrong with blasting your playlist of MP3s. No one will notice the incredible nuances, tones, and crisp, clean vocals in that kind of atmosphere. But if you’re a serious music lover who’s either building a state-of-the-art sound system or who appreciates the mastery of musicians and the talent and work they pour into their craft, capturing music in its purest and most authentic form matters.
Yes, it matters to preserve original audio in the state in which it is intended to be enjoyed.
When selecting an audio format that will give you the highest quality, your first thought may be the WAV format. However, WAV files are enormous and require a lot of storage space. The FLAC format or the Apple equivalent, ALAC, will provide you with the whole sound experience with the benefit of reduced file size without sacrificing quality. FLAC and ALAC deliver compressed audio while retaining the original and complete sound quality. These file types are considered “lossless” audio files for a reason. All the data is preserved, and no sound quality is sacrificed to save space on your hard drive.
So, how does this magic happen, you may ask? How is a compressed FLAC/ALAC file able to contain all the original sound data etc., and yet not take up a ton of space on your devices? Because the FLAC file decompresses in real-time as it plays. FLAC and ALAC files take up about half the space of WAV files without losing sound quality. You can even convert your FLAC and ALAC files to MP3s if you want, and the original FLAC file will never lose its integrity. But why would you want to, right? However, when converting an MP3 file to any other file format, it will continue to lose data with every conversion.
MP3s files may work well on a portable listening device that you can plug in on the go, but to experience every artifact in music, why would you settle for an altered version that is missing up to 90% of the original data and quality?
MP3 = 44kHz, 16bit 128kbs
FLAC = 96kHz, 24bit 1024kbps
MP3s have come a long way since their invention, as have many music formats. Way back at the beginning of the MP3, the difference between an audio CD with about 1400 kbs and a ripped MP3 was blatantly obvious. Even though the technology has improved immensely over the years and in many circumstances, you can hardly tell the difference between an MP3 and an audio CD, an FLAC file, or even a WAV. But too often, enough data is lost on the MP3 file that the sound quality is adversely affected. One way to think about the significance of the difference is that a FLAC is the original file, and an MP3 is an abridged copy. The bottom line is that the original music that went into whatever encoding software you use is not the same music that comes out as an MP3.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a listening device that does not play an MP3 because the format has been around for a long time. You can buy just about any music player, from smartphones to tablets, and simply connect and start playing your MP3s. However, now that FLAC is becoming more desirable and popular, there are many music and media players that you can download to your smartphone that will play lossless music files.
With the growing popularity of FLAC files, the ability to enjoy complete and intact music as the artists intended will become more accessible. No, MP3s won’t ever go away, but to be able to enjoy the most subtle snare drum, whispered lyrics, and crisp, clear music of an original track can never be replaced. The bottom line is this…you’ll never have to sacrifice quality for quantity again by choosing a lossless file format. If you’re serious about music and are taking the time and money to invest in your audio equipment, shouldn’t you also invest in the files you listen to?