The mp3 format has been around for a long time, but it has often been maligned as an easily pirated file type (thanks Napster) as well as a file that is dulling our senses and ruining our view of what really great music sounds like.
The deal is that CD quality music is much better than any mp3 file, but it is simply not as portable. Bit-perfect copies of CD files are huge and fill up most devices quickly. It is also more difficult to stream, as a faster connection is needed to stream the larger files. FLAC looks to solve this issue, and take us back to easily accessible, portable music.
What is FLAC?
FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codex. It is a file format that provides bit-perfect copies of CD music but that are half the size. This enables them to stream without buffering.
The format first emerged in 2001 as an alternative to other lossless formats like Apple Lossless (ALAC), Microsoft’s WAV, and WMA lossless. WAV files are popular, but they are very large and cannot retain tag data like artist, album, and song lists. FLAC can, on the other hand, and is compatible with most devices with the exception of Apple. There are workarounds for Apple users though with the simple download of an app.
Where can you stream FLAC?
With the advent of apps available on most devices and even desktops, you can literally stream FLAC anywhere you have an internet connection.
Services like Tidal and Spotify make this possible, and high bit-rates make CD quality sound possible to stream. There are even companies like Pono that claim better than CD quality. Deezer Elite also offers FLAC streaming, but only to Sonos customers.
One company, Murfie, offers lossless streaming, but only to its customers who pay extra every year, and only for the albums they already own.
The Problem of Adoption
Apple users holding on to ALAC and WAV formats is an obstacle for FLAC to overcome. Even though mp3 is a “lossy” format, one in which the files sizes are reduced by removing parts of the music, the market has become used to this sound, and although when exposed to Tidal and other services users do notice the difference, they are slow to leave apps they are used to for new ones.
Still, music aficionados and others who love great sound are rapidly looking for more options. Similar to the more universal mp3 format, FLAC is set to become an industry standard. It is already endorsed by many record companies and artists.
Listening Device Quality
In order to hear the difference between lossless and lossy formats, you need the right listening devices. Poor quality speakers and headphones won’t let the true range of the sound be heard, and defeat the point of seeking out FLAC files.
Here are a few areas you may want to consider an upgrade to your audio:
Headphones: A high quality pair of headphones are essential to experiencing the depth of sound in music. Headphones continue to evolve, but you’ll still need to make sure the headphones you purchase can support FLAC to enjoy them.
Home Speakers: There are some lower end home speakers, and often devices like the Echo do not focus on audio quality. However, newer options like the Apple Home Pod and long time competitors like Sonos and Bose do offer the right speakers to enjoy lossless streaming.
Car Audio: One place people are streaming more is their car. With unlimited data, Bluetooth connectivity, and even in-car Wi-Fi the process is easier than it ever has been. Car sound systems are better too, so that higher quality streaming will make a difference.
Of course, what you put the sound through matters almost as much as the quality of the audio you are streaming. True lossless audio like FLAC demands better consumer products.
What’s Next for FLAC?
What’s next for FLAC involves the still raging debate: should you own music or should you stream it? Streaming is the way many people get their music, simply because a monthly fee provides you access to millions of songs, many more than you can purchase on your own. The issue with streaming is two-fold. First, you don’t own the music, so you need the subscription to have access. Once you cancel your subscription, you can no longer access the music.
Secondly, you need an internet connection. Some services do offer downloads for offline listening, but you still have to download the files at some point.
FLAC files are like CD’s: once you have purchased them, you own them. However, you also need to be sure that you are storing them somewhere secure. There are many devices, many of them expensive, that support FLAC formats natively, but if something were to happen to your device, your music would be gone with it. Backups are as essential as with other files.
Still, these devices are the surest way to get truly lossless music to your ears at the highest quality without the need for an internet connection and streaming.
The future of FLAC will depend on adoption, devices, and user interest. The idea of lossless music files appeals to a lot of people, and it’s probably only a matter of time before FLAC passes the once unflappable mp3.