Lately, I have read more and more individuals preaching the sonic virtues of FLAC with literally no idea what they are talking about. They spout annoying, misleading drivel that has no basis in reality whatsoever. Let’s learn about FLAC, why it’s good, and why it isn’t, shall we?
What in the fuck is “FLAC”?
FLAC is an audio encoding format. It’s also a very good one for a number of reasons. FLAC is a “lossless” format, meaning none of the data from the source recording is compressed or removed (assuming you use the same bit depth [not the same thing as bit rate] and frequency range). This is inarguably a good thing. Lossless is the word of the year (or last 3) among audiophiles, but the implications of lossless have been twisted and manipulated in ways that are just not factually supported.
Why is FLAC awesome (and is it awesome)?
Yes, FLAC is awesome. Really, it is – as much as I am annoyed by FLAC purists, FLAC has a real place in the digital audio world that should not be overlooked.
You probably know of one other lossless audio format (even if you don’t know it’s lossless) called .WAV. Yep, that same, good ‘ol format that your Windows system sounds are encoded in (though that’s 8-bit and usually mono). WAV preserves 100% of audio information in 16-bit 44.1KHz stereo format when ripping audio from a CD.
FLAC is better than WAV for two reasons. First, it does everything WAV does (lossless audio), but in a much smaller package (WAV is extremely inefficient in its use of space). Second, it allows the use of more tags (including “illegal” tags in Windows) for marking files. That’s it. Otherwise, same juice, different label. WAV does have the advantage of being much more editing / DJ-friendly (all computers do native WAV decode, meaning less work for the CPU), but that’s not really relevant to what we’re talking about here.
This gets us to why FLAC is awesome. It’s all about preservation and archiving! FLAC uses less space than WAV, and allows more precise tagging, making it ideal as a long-term digital storage medium for audio. Many audiophiles – rightly – love FLAC for this reason.
This is why MP3’s are bad for archiving. MP3’s, unlike FLAC, have something of a poor generational half-life. You start with an MP3 rip of a CD – even at 256Kbps, you’ve already lost audio information – you can never get those bits back. That MP3 then gets sent to a friend of yours, who burns it on a CD. More data lost (probably a fair bit, too). Your friend loses the digital original, and re-rips the MP3 from the CD to give it to a friend – by now, there is a very noticeable loss in audio quality in the file. Errors and irregularities have started popping up, and in the strictly archival sense, the song is now basically worthless as a record of the original.
Why FLAC isn’t awesome (read: it’s not because it “sounds better”).
The reason most audiophiles like FLAC has very little to do with the actual quality of the audio. Saying you use FLAC because it “sounds better” is like saying you only drink your wine at 53.7 degrees Fahrenheit because that is the “best temperature.” To both people making such statements, I would have this to say: get over yourself. Not only is it objectively unsupported, it makes you look like kind of an asshole.
You store your audio in the most optimal format available because that means that whenever you do finally decide to make copies, burn CDs, or transcode it, you’re using the best source possible. You don’t buy a $100,000 wine cellar so your wine is at a 53.7 degree drinking temperature, you buy it so your wine lasts for many years – again, it’s all about preservation.
Yes, FLAC has the complete audio source, and from a strictly technical perspective, is qualitatively superior to even a 320Kbps MP3. However, anyone claiming to be able to consistently tell the difference between the two correctly in a true blind test is just lying. A properly encoded* 256Kbps MP3 or AAC is virtually indistinguishable from its FLAC counterpart in a “better vs. worse” sense even with very good audio equipment. People talk about hearing cymbals and “dense” music more authentically through FLAC because just they’re looking for a justification for their beliefs.
*Yes, there are bad MP3 encoders out there. Eg, old versions of LAME – and they do sound worse and are more error / artifact-prone.
Unless you’re using an audio setup that reaches into the thousands upon thousands of dollars, sorry, I just refuse to believe you can hear the difference unless you’ve got pitch-perfect ears or have spent years and years doing professional audio work and know exactly what to listen for. Even many of those people will tell you that, if the difference is there, it doesn’t matter – your ears aren’t an audio-measuring supercomputer, much like your tastebuds aren’t a mass spectrometer.
How many musicians and audio engineers do you see boasting about the sonic superiority of FLAC audio?
Basically none. Because they know that the difference between FLAC and high-bitrate MP3 or AAC is utterly irrelevant to 99.98% of what you hear in a recording. All of the stuff that matters – the studio, the ungodly-expensive recording equipment, microphones, amplifiers, the engineer on the soundboard, the technique of the recording artist, the headphones the engineer wears when he does the mix – these are immeasurably more important to sound quality than a file format. And then, the remaining 10% or so of what you hear comes down to what you play it through – the decoding equipment or CD player, the amplifier, the speaker or headphones.
The file format only matters in one situation: when it audibly distorts or degrades the recording. General consensus seems to be that this happens at or around 128Kbps when using MP3, but this greatly depends on your ears. Anything above that generally will not provide noticeable improvement for most people using most sound equipment. There are a sizable percentage of persons who may benefit from 192Kbps given their listening equipment or hearing, and an infinitesimal group that might hear a difference at 256Kbps or 320Kbps (though I tend to seriously doubt those people, that or they have extraordinary hearing).
Even if there are people out there who could hear the difference – legitimately – between FLAC and 320Kbps, common sense should tell you that you are almost definitely not one of those people. It should also tell you that the file format of your music is generally not very important unless you’re digitally archiving it, which is an entirely legitimate reason to use FLAC. But when it comes to what you hear?
The bottleneck is always your equipment.
Audio equipment is one of those things you can spend small fortunes on to get the “very best” products out there. And that’s because the very best products require expensive components and materials, extremely precise and specialized construction techniques, and levels of perfectionism in engineering that border on the absurd. And at that point, even if the end product is better, you reach a level of diminishing returns that make such investments unwise for most people (unless you have the money to burn).
Still, equipment is bar-none the best way to improve the quality of your sound. Equipment is like the engine and ignition components of your car – audio format is like the brand of gasoline you use. Sure, it can make a difference, but only if you go out of your way to actually use something that is bad. Otherwise, it’s insignificant in the larger scheme of things. Would you pay $0.20 more a gallon if Shell guaranteed its gas improved the power output of your car by 0.08%, and you had to go to a special gas station to get it? No – not unless you’re the lead engineer of an F1 team. That’s what lossless audio quality is – it’s the last little bit you can squeeze out of a near-perfect setup.
If you want your music to sound better, there are a few investments worth making. Buy an external USB audio decoder (aka a DAC) – it will reduce electrical interference (which your computer is full of) and sound noticeably better than a laptop or desktop motherboard’s built-in audio system. Next, buy a good headphone amplifier or, if you use speakers, a solid stereo amp. Here are my suggestions:
- DAC: Schiit Modi 2 DAC – great value for money and no-frills performance. This will make a huge difference over your laptop or PC’s built-in DAC when paired with a decent amp, I promise. This is the new Modi 2, it offers increased compatibility (many Linux distros, Intel Chromebooks, OS X, Windows are all natively supported).
- Amp: Schiit Magni 2 headphone amplifier – this is Schiit’s new version of the lauded Magni headphone amp, with plenty of power and an advanced gain stage. It’s reviewing excellently.
- DAC/Amp combo: AUDIOQUEST Dragonfly DAC/amp combo – this will drive most headphones without a separate amplifier, and the Dragonfly has long been beloved by the audio community for its exceptional portability and sound. It’s an insanely good value.
- Value DAC/amp option: FX-Audio DAC X6 – I use this at my desk. It’s a really great little headphone amplifier/DAC combo unit at a great price.
The most important equipment, of course, is that which emits the sound. If you’re looking at headphones and plan them for only home use, I can’t recommend Grado enough. Their SR-80 headphone (link) is relatively inexpensive (under $100), and while some people don’t like open back phones (they do not dampen environmental noise at all, and people will hear your music, too), you aren’t going to find better fidelity for the dollar, period. If you’re looking at earbuds, I personally like RHA’s MA750 (link). They’ve got great fidelity, lots of character (without being overbearing or too bassy), and I really love the way they fit. Here are a few headphone recommendations I can offer.
- On-ear: Grado SR-80e – Grado’s most balanced entry-level phones are for serious home listening. They offer little isolation, but fidelity is extremely good (unmatched at this price, honestly) and balance is superb. These are hands-down my favorite headphones.
- On-ear (budget): Koss PortaPro – everything that can be said about the PortaPros already has, they’re exceptional – easily the best headphone under $50 in existence.
- Over-ear: Blue Lola – this is Blue Microphone’s second headphone. They sound outstanding, and are my favorite headphone to use with smartphones (whose built-in amps are quite weak).
- Over-ear (budget): Sony MDR7506 – I wouldn’t call them a secret, but it seems to surprise many people that Sony never stopped making truly great headphones. The MDR7506 is a cult classic for a reason, and they’re a way better value than anything Sennheiser puts out near this price.
- In-ear: RHA MA750 – the new RHA T10i is, in my opinion, overpriced and overtuned (way too bassy). The old MA750s offer a more balanced signature with a great accessory kit, awesome warranty, and extremely good fidelity for the price bracket.
- In-ear (budget): RHA MA350 – the nice thing about the MA350s is while they do provide sound that belies their price point, they’re also tough, rugged, super comfortable, and very stylish. I still use mine as backup travel headphones.
If you’re looking for speakers and stereo amplifiers, I’m a little less familiar with this realm, but a good set of powered monitors (M-Audio’s entry-level set is well-loved) and a DAC (see – Schiit Modi or Dragonfly) is actually probably the best place for most folks to start.
And for god’s sake, don’t go listening to FLAC music if you do buy any of this stuff. It’s a waste of your time.