25 February, 2011

Why You Should Buy (and Sell) Music in FLAC

 Digital music formats examined

  Years ago some companies realized they can sell music online. They started selling music in lower quality formats
and never made enough effort to offer full CD quality audio, which is pretty much a standard we agreed on about 30 years ago. When some stores do offer CD quality, they often want more money for it, treating it as premium. I personally believe that CD quality should remain the standard for music even for online distribution and that a lower quality copy should only be there for convenience, for people who'd rather download smaller files. In my opinion the best format for delivering CD (or better) quality audio is FLAC.

But let's start with some technical basics. You should know that digital audio can be compressed in a lossy or lossless way. What's the difference?
With lossy compression (like MP3) you take the original audio (like a CD) and you use the bits of audio data that are most essential to still retain a good sound, while you throw away those bits that don't seem necessary. When you do this, you can determine how much audio data is kept and how much gets thrown away. The more that you keep, the higher the bitrate and the bigger file size of the MP3s. If you use a high enough bitrate you'll end up with a MP3 that sounds more or less like the original CD. If you use a low bitrate during compression, you'll end up with a worse sound quality, but also with smaller files.
With lossless compression (like FLAC) you take the original audio and you use _all_ of the musical data, without throwing anything away. WAV files are also lossless, with the difference being that FLAC uses non-destructive compression (like ZIP) and has better tagging options (showing artist, title and other information for songs). So the end result is that the FLAC files will sound exactly and precisely as good as the source, while being smaller in size compared to WAV files and better suited for music distribution.

Now that we know the basic theory behind those formats, let's discuss some practical aspects in use. Here are 4 examples that show how using MP3 instead of lossless can be less than optimal (the first two come into play even with direct listening, while the second two are related to further processing):
1. Lossy compression is designed in an intelligent manner, making compression artifacts mostly inaudible. But there are certain sounds, which don't "translate" well. You can find some threads with examples on hydrogenaudio forums (search for abx killer samples).
2. MP3s can in some rare cases have clearly audible artifacts on the transition from one song to the next, even with the highest bitrates. (some examples here). This is not a problem with albums which have pauses of silence between songs, but there are many albums with no pauses, such as for example "The Dark Side of The Moon" by Pink Floyd. 
3. Let's say you bought high quality MP3s (larger files) and now you want to fit them onto a portable media player with limited space. Converting them to a lower bitrate format seems like the best approach. But the problem is that since you're converting them from an already lossy source, you'll lose more quality than if you converted them from lossless and that is more likely to result in audible degradation. Converting to different formats is something that we'll always have to deal with in the future, when new formats emerge.
4. The same applies to the usage of your music for your own creative purposes. Let's say you're making a video that you'll upload online and want to add music to it. At the end of the process, you're most likely going to compress the audio track with lossy compression to achieve a smaller file size. If the source of your music is already lossy you'll run the risk of making it sound worse after additional audio processing and lossy compression. Another good example would be music making and sampling, where you also want to have the cleanest sound source to work with.

Let me make one thing clear, though:  the artifacts I mentioned are mostly very subtle (the exception being the transition pops). In fact, most of the time you probably won't hear any difference between a good MP3 and a lossless version of the same song. Still, the other points are valid in all cases and I believe that at least when you're buying music you should be offered something that's 100% flawless and future proof at no additional price. Then you can decide whether you want to use it or not - if not, you can just download the MP3 version and be done with it.

Besides the technical advantages a good thing about FLAC is that it’s not encumbered with any patents. It’s therefore free to use it for everybody, always. You're free to implement FLAC support in your device or distribute and sell music in FLAC without paying anything. MP3 (like some other formats) is actually patented and in principle you have to negotiate for a fee when you want to use it. Often the fees are not enforced, but still, it's better to avoid any possible complications.

Where to buy (or sell) music in FLAC?

It's a good idea to look for the artists' websites to see if you can buy music directly from them. But since not many artists have the means or technical knowledge to put up a good website, there are quite a few online stores that sell music in FLAC, in exchange for a certain percentage of the profits.
For now, I'll recommend two websites I actually used myself: Indietorrent.org and Bandcamp.com. When you buy music there you can choose between FLAC or MP3 (and some other formats) and you don't need to use any additional software to make the purchase. The album comes in the form of a simple download, which works in any browser. 
Musicians will also make more money using those stores instead of something like iTunes or Amazon. When you pay for music on Indietorrent or Bandcamp, the store takes 10-15% of the money for themselves. By comparison, iTunes and Amazon take 30% of the money, in addition to requiring a label/distributor to sell there, which has its cost as well. So if you want to support a musician (or get support as a musician) it's not a bad idea to keep this in mind.

Just for your convenience, I'll add links to some other stores that sell music in FLAC, although I haven't tried them yet: Zunior, Bleep, eClassical, Addictech, Boomkat, Mindawn, Linnrecords, Mergerecords, HDtracks, Pristine ClassicalQobuz. Some of these charge more for lossless copies, which in general is against my principles. But if it's a small price difference, I guess it's tolerable.

Two potential problems of using FLAC

1. Size - While being about twice smaller than uncompressed CDs or WAV files, FLAC files are still significantly bigger than, for example, MP3s. This is not much of an issue on PCs, since the prices of hard drive storage are so low nowadays, but it's still a relevant issue for portable players, if one wants to fit a lot of music. In that case the solution is to simply convert it to a lossy format for portable use. Since you have a lossless source you won't lose much quality.

2. Compatibility - Most music players on computers support FLAC natively, but some big exceptions (iTunes, WMP) still don't. They can be upgraded with plugins so that they do play FLAC and you can also look at many of the alternative music players. The situation is similar for portable devices and media players, where Apple and Microsoft (as of now) don't offer native FLAC support, although there are applications which can add such functionality to their devices.
Why do these two companies refuse to support it? Well, I think the simplest answer lies in the fact that they sell music in their own stores (iTunes, Zune) and want to keep users in their own "ecosystems". FLAC is a widespread format for CD backups, for p2p sharing and on some competing online stores, but if you're getting your music that way you're not making any money for Apple or Microsoft. They'd rather see you using their own stores and buy music there in their own formats, which work on the devices they sell.
Still, many other media players, phones and other devices support it. The latest Android phones support it by default and for other smartphones there are free applications which allow you to play FLAC, if you wish to do so.

Lastly, why do I support FLAC and not some other good and free format, like WavPack? The main advantage of FLAC is that it's already much more widespread than WavPack and other free lossless codecs and I believe it would be better to standardize on something, rather than have a fragmented lossless market, which could fall pray to some proprietary format that's not as accessible to everyone or is encumbered with DRM.

I also mention CD quality a lot, while there are some people who are trying to promote higher resolution audio (24 bit and whatnot). I generally don't think higher resolution audio is necessary, but I'll write more on that another time.

To wrap it up: 
Supporting FLAC and lossless distribution in general is not just about being a silly audiophile. It's after all about demanding the same CD quality audio we've been using for so long already, without ever compromising in terms of quality and with the same archiving and converting capabilities. Of course the industry will try to sell you the worst quality they can get away with, while possibly locking you into their own closed systems. Remember 128kbps songs with DRM? Know better and vote with your wallet. Demand lossless audio in a free format as the standard and lossy only as a convenience download format. 


  1. As a consumer of music, I agree completely. Even 320k CBR mp3's aren't as good as the original CD source when played in my car (which has a much better stereo that what came from the factory).

    As a pragmatist however, this argument seems a little naive. Big Content deliberately wants to screw consumers for everything they can, which is why, for instance, Apple originally started selling 'plus' tracks on iTunes, and charging more for it. From their point of view, they're giving the consumer something they weren't getting before, and using that as the argument for charging more for it. Major labels, movie studios, and tv networks don't want consumers to have lossless, archival quality copies of their content, because then they lose control over where and when you can consume the content you've paid for. If they retain control, then they can sell you the same content multiple times in different formats. And they certainly don't want you being able to use their content in other ways, like as a soundtrack to a movie you upload to youtube.

    But I agree, we should be demanding high quality content in free formats, because there are those for whom itunes-quality music just isn't good enough, and that demand the ability to play the content they've paid for where and when and on the devices they want to.

    As the music industry has started to learn (but movie studios and tv networks have yet to work this out), giving consumers what they want at a price they're prepared to pay is the best way to keep your business alive and kicking.

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  2. Almost all of my classical and jazz music collection is in FLAC, with most of the rest in OGG VORBIS and an occasional MP3. I have quite a lot of music, but the total directory size is less than 200GB, fitting on 2 USB thumb-drives.
    By the way, I avoid the fashionable, complicated music playing programmes and find moc perfect for my needs, as the music is already sorted in a convenient directory/subdirectory structure. I can't remember when I last played one of those silly, old-fashioned CDs.

  3. 98% of people don't hear a difference, 98% of the people decide the standard not 2%.

    if you want high-end 2% of the world you pay for it, and not let the 98% suffer trough outrageously expensive storage devices.
    high-end fans have high-end pockets, when 98% of the world does not.

    1. Flac files are not the high end my friend. They are no different than CD quality and Most people could hear the difference if they listened.

      If you were arguing the difference between 16 bit (CD) and 24 BIt hi def some promote I might agree with you.
      What this boils down to is simply file size and therefore bandwidth and its cost/speed.
      In the future when that is a better situation things will change

    2. If 98% of people can't hear the difference, it's because they try to hear it on $3 iPod earbuds that came with the player. You need to listen to music with headphones that cost more than a Happy Meal to hear it.

      Secondly, I am dirt-poor atm and have all my music in FLAC. All you have to do is get a less expensive MP3 player, like a SanDisc, that lets you just put in a bigger MicroSD card when you run out of room.

  4. I really don't get the point of this. Three things:

    1. I've read in several places that people actually prefer the sound of lower quality mp3's to that of full quality CD's.

    2. Bigger files means more bandwidth cost for content providers, meaning more cost for us. So at that point, you might as well just buy the CD and rip it yourself.

    3. This really doesn't take into account people with larger music libraries. You say we have ample disk space, well not everyone has such a small music library.

    1. 1. The opinions of people preferring anything lower-quality music-related, like lower quality mp3's or Justin Bieber, should generally be ignored.

      2. Possibly a legitimate point for smaller content providers, but for large ones like iTunes it would be a drop in the bucket.

      3. A 1 TB hard drive costs about $85 now, so I really don't know what you're on about there.

  5. anyway, there isn't a human voice i actually wanna hear in 96khz @ 24bit...

  6. and don't tell me u think the Beatles sound better in stereo...

  7. Sorry if this is broken up, I'd originally tried to use a list format but blogspot seems to be a bit strict for even old school HTML. . .

    @Tones, if you're using CBR you're already doing it wrong. Try 320VBR with proper settings. It's old but run by http://jthz.com/mp3/ and give it a read.

    Why pay for wasted space? In 1999 this may have made sense to use FLAC. Today with the advancements in encoders you're not actually missing much of anything *you* could hear anyway.

    Considering how poorly mixed and over processed most popular music is, (See: Loudness War) you really are getting a negligible difference in quality by using MP3, OGG, M4A, or any other compressor you can get your fingers on.

    You're making a case for something that probably won't exist as a popular format in 5 years or so. Apple and others are working hard to move the entire process over to a digital model. What are you going to FLAC when there aren't lossless originals to pull from?

  8. No, the Beatles sound better in Pro Logic II, pffft, "Stereo"

  9. and pink floyd sounds better in quad stereo, pffffft.

  10. LOL...I title this post "Good luck with that/Great new idea/Give us money for something you should have had originally"

    I agree with articles idea on only buying/selling cd quality music. Since before napster showed up on the scene, I have been saying "until I can download the cd at a discounted price(since there is no media or distribution of physical media), I WILL NOT buy music online. Period." I have stuck to my guns and only buy cds, later converting the music to my desired format(s). But I wish I could just download the music as CD, without the music being molested. The Industry want to build in obsolescence into what ever format they currently use. The 24bit idea that has been talked about is the "new" idea, though it should have been/was considered for the standard in the original CDs back in the day... Well now you will see this being pushed into source material and consumer products. Have fun "dumping" money into a update music collection. Remember this is a business to make money, not an art/culture distribution system for the spreading ideas and thoughts. I am always surprised that so few people understand this and keep the buying a "crappy" music format.

  11. Satire is always best when it has some basis in truth. Flac is a pain, the human ear is only capable of so much...and this is a completely potty. ED actually has this one right: http://encyclopediadramatica.com/FLAC

  12. "Jake said...

    I really don't get the point of this. Three things:

    1. I've read in several places that people actually prefer the sound of lower quality mp3's to that of full quality CD's"

    wtf? sources please?

  13. Onion = Satire. THAT is just some mean ass shit!

  14. I can tell you that this human ear is capable of hearing overly compressed, tinny-sounding, limited dynamic range trash! Especially with many older releases, lossy compression makes them sound even worse.

  15. "98% of the people decide the standard not 2%"

    98% don't really decide anything. They simply don't care either way, as long as they perceive it as "good enough".
    If the major stores offered FLAC it wouldn't hurt anybody. 98% of the people would still download the lossy version. And the 2% would actually start buying from there.

    And since there already are functioning music stores, mentioned in the article, which offer FLAC among other formats and yet give _more_ money to the musicians, it's obviously a viable business option for them as well.

  16. 1. I've read in several places that people actually prefer the sound of lower quality mp3's to that of full quality CD's"

    wtf? sources please?

    I heard on a CBC radio show that someone studied this matter. It appears that since most music has been distributed via MP3, that current pop music has had an evolutionary change to those particular forms that work well after they've been converted to MP3 -- those that in effect use the almost subliminal distortion that MP3 imposes to good effect.

    Classical music is, by and large, immune to this effect, since it's the same as is was a hundred years ago, more or less by definition.

    -- hendrik

    1. Well I never....really? WHOEVER said that on CBC or wherever had no right to...it's Bullshit. Not everything on TV/radio or the internet is true.

      Some modern pop music (radio mix) may have less dynamic range than other music but I've never heard an Mp3 sound better than a CD or Flac file.
      Maak Bow
      Dip Aud Eng,

  17. For many years now most pop music has been overly compressed and dynamically limited so that it "sounds better" on radio, "better" in this case meaning louder than anything else on the dial.

    While I'm sure many younger fans of pop music couldn't tell the diff between an MP3 and an uncompressed WAV of their favorite song, that certainly isn't true for all of us. I, for one, can certainly tell the difference. The problem with FLAC is tagging support, which is limited at best.

    Since Apple is the tail-that-wags-the-dog in digital music retailing, I'm guessing they will eventually convert their ITMS catalog to Apple Lossless Audio format. In fact, I'd be surprised if they haven't already started doing that.

  18. Thanks for the post. It was good food for thought. I know this is a bit of topic, but to me the biggest assault on good sound is coming from the recording / mastering process. I'll take a 320 kbps MP3 of music recorded before the mid 1990s(and not remastered) over a 2011 CD any day of the week. This is of course a generalization. There are indie / boutique labels making excellent recordings, but the big boys...

  19. Im sure the big music site will do it in stages.

    First they will resell everyone lossless versions of the songs they already own.

    Second they will sell us better than CD quality versions of the songs. (maybe 16-48 or 24-48)

    Then finally sell newly remastered even higher quality versions.(maybe 24-96).

    But for now, the problem is most people's speakers, sound cards or chipsets, ear phones,etc...are not even high enough in quality to fully recreate an 360k mp3.

  20. Dude, your stating the OBVIOUS. MP3s are compressed, and since iTunes and other services sell music that is COMPRESSED....I forsee a future where people are not going to know what bit depth and quality are. In the future, if someone was to hear the quality of a vinyl record, they'd probably keel over and die, because they'd never heard anything like it before.

  21. "98% of people don't hear a difference, 98% of the people decide the standard not 2%."

    Tell that to the Libyans.

  22. CD isn't the "original audio". The original audio came from 10 or more microphones recording at higher quality that CD. A sound engineer then balanced them appropriately. Later on, the audio was LOSSILY turned into CD by collapsing the many channels into just two and removing anything outside the CD range.

    Let's say you have 10Mb to spend storing a song. You could spend them on FLAC to preserve with 100% accuracy that version that's already had 20% of information removed. Or you could spend them on a lossy format to preserve with 99% accuracy the whole original audio. FLAC never makes sense.

    1. Oh you don't get it and you don't get the recording process fully. Pretending that you know what you're talking about is amazing It's like a 5 years olds second-hand recount of the facts. Yes the CD isn't the "original audio" but neither is mp3s or any lossy. In normal conditions recording engineers will record at 24bit that is industry standard anyone doing higher is wasting their time because you know you are converting to 16bit for CD (or sending for vinyl pressing and yes most of the time the masters are digital sorry vinyl guys) the Fq of CD is 44.1KHz recording is usually at that or 48KHz or 2x multiply. that's not because of some thought it's going to be released at that size it's because it does the mixdowns better than if it was just recorded at the final rates.
      "Let's say you have 10Mb to spend storing a song. You could spend them on FLAC to preserve with 100% accuracy that version that's already had 20% of information removed. Or you could spend them on a lossy format to preserve with 99% accuracy the whole original audio. FLAC never makes sense."
      The lossy files have had :20% cut from them too or are you saying they are higher quality? do u think that the songs on iTunes are created from studio masters? No they are from the CDs Record companies are not handing out original recordings to no-one. What's with the 99% accuracy thing? You talking about difference between the master and lossy and the master and CD? cause last time I checked lossy files 70%of information removed a lot more that the supposed "20%" of the CD. Don't know if you are some Apple rep or something but I stopped by from iTunes long ago after buying a small amount of music at the 128kbps DRMs then iTunes plus 256kbps came out DRM free for higher prices to and I quickly upgraded (cause I want to use my music how I want) and payed that price. The price per track was stupid in Australia the prices were set at $1.69 (0.99US) even though the economy became closer to US and even better sometimes now it seemed not worth it to pay over $2 for the iTunes plus songs and price would change based on "popularity" of the song. That's when I went looking for alternative which didn't think was something that existed wish I had know I wouldn't have started on iTunes. I now buy FLAC at a price that's lower than iTunes and has the music that I want to buy even hard to get tracks/back catalogue that I have been trying to get which is why I came looking to buy online. If music is going to truly move more away from the physical stores at more to the online / digital downloads than customers need to have choice. Coming from an engineer stand point I know what goes into making a album the quality involved far out exceeds what any lossy format to hope to have or claim and it would be fracking shame if all that was left for the consumer to buy was this shitty 256kbps 4MB file. Sure you can still buy your mp3/mp4 heck I have lossy qualities of my CD and an archive FLAC version and FLAC purchases' and some iTunes mp4s and some mp3s from various sources, but don't pretend it's better than a CD or A FLAC. I like to make a point to the disk space / many thing that's be said and I have to say that's a copout hard drives a not that expensive and can easily store 10000 songs on a 250GB hard drive. The new "normal" now is your 500 750GB drives for under $100 let-alone your 2TB/3TB drives if your serious for what up to $200. If you are paying more or can't afford it your: 1 Not buying at the right place 2 What are you spending the money on? You spend more an petrol in a month buts seems less insane. I say FLAC a lot it could be wave or other lossless formats but in my opinion FLAC is the best option its free open source unlike mp3's & mp4s which has patents fees, evolved however small they may be is still something that if can be avoided the better and we need a standardised lossless format and FLAC is a good choice.

  23. "to me the biggest assault on good sound is coming from the recording / mastering process"

    Absolutely. I left that out, because I'll make a dedicated post about the loudness effects. I know it's been said many times already, but if it helps even a little bit, I'll do it once more.

    "CD isn't the "original audio". The original audio came from 10 or more microphones recording at higher quality that CD. A sound engineer then balanced them appropriately. Later on, the audio was LOSSILY turned into CD by collapsing the many channels into just two and removing anything outside the CD range."

    Yes, CD isn't original audio during production. I didn't claim it was, either. But I kinda focused on CD quality:
    1. to make things easier to understand and
    2. because CD quality is some sort of a standard for music delivery and most music production is already focused on delivering stereo CD quality like final products.
    I'm skeptical of audible benefits of higher res audio. AFAIK there still has to be a proper study/listening test showing the benefits (for final delivery, of course, not production). But I remain open to the possibility.
    Multichannel is a different story and can indeed produce very different/better results.

    About storage space and what makes sense.. to each his own. Just 1TB of space fits _a lot_ of music in FLAC. Probably more than 99% of people would buy in their lifetime. To me that's not really a relevant problem anymore. Especially when you compare it to HD video, which takes a whole lot more space.

  24. "...A sound engineer..."

    Duh . . OF COURSE! . . We purchase music in its produced form. You don't watch a movie by visiting the set, you want it after the director and editors have completed their work too.

  25. "Tagging support in FLAC [is] limited", I'd say the support in the format is fine, as you can include both ID3 and FLAC tagging. What's lacking is the support of many playback devices and software for the tags that are available in these files. But that argument will kill anything that's not MP3 or proprietary-format-we-just-happen-to-support-because-it-is-in-our-online-store.

    The most recent album of Radiohead is available on their website, either as a bundle with vinyl or just as a digital download (WAV and MP3). Sadly, their choice for WAV lacks decent tagging, although I understand their choice from a viewpoint of compatibility. It would have been nice if they would have offered a choice of lossless formats, including some that were properly tagged.

    Another thing to do for modern day artists would be to make sure popular tagging databases contain the proper metadata for their own music, to ensure that digitally purchased media receive the right metadata from these services.

  26. Qobuz.com is the largest website for FLAC downloads on earth !

  27. Anonymous said: "Let's say you have 10Mb to spend storing a song. You could spend them on FLAC to preserve with 100% accuracy that version that's already had 20% of information removed. Or you could spend them on a lossy format to preserve with 99% accuracy the whole original audio."

    This makes no sense, and suggests that the MP3s are mastered from the original source tapes, when they are actually just compressed versions of the already mixed down finished product. You are never getting a better version with MP3, just varying degrees of LOSS.

    I think the bigger problem is that most of the people who buy music, and buy MP3, don't know or care about quality, both of music or the finished product.

    Call me a snob, but does it really matter if your American Idol is delivered in FLAC or MP3?

    I am a live music lover, and collect live recordings, and all of the popular live bands that release their shows, release them in FLAC and MP3.

    Personally, I wish they would not offer the MP3, but I have nothing but FLAC in my collection.

  28. The depressing thing about lossy music versus lossless music is that it is one of the few times we actually take a drastic step backwards in terms of quality.

    In the past quality has always taken us forward in quality of content, now we are going back.

    If people are so very concerned about space why do they get HD movies? Very few people can actually tell the difference between SD and HD (I mean really tell the difference, not just seeing it as sharper because you want to). If you run the numbers I think that comes out to about the same.

    1. I think most people can tell the difference between SD and HD because SD looks like complete ass on a large screen, compared to, say, BluRays. Kind of like how 256K lossy rips sound good enough at a noisy drunken party but terrible on $200 Seinheisers!

  29. Another, very good store that offers FLAC is HDtracks.com.

  30. RE "98% of the people decide the standard not 2%"

    I'd like to know the source for the "98%" figure , at a party a while ago someone put something through my hi fi from an MP3, I heard the first 30 seconds and the compression was obvious , I said wait I have that on CD , found it , put it on EVERYONE in the room could hear that it was better

  31. "10 or more microphones ... collapsing ... into just two ..."

    " ... preserve with 99% accuracy the whole original audio."

    Basically, you're saying that in MP3

    (2 / 10) * 100% == 99%

    I find your lack of math ... disturbing.

    "Let's say you have 10Mb to spend storing a song ..."

    I say: DO NOT!

    Use the money to buy more space instead.
    Or maybe to hire private tutor to teach you math.

  32. We sell files in both FLAC and mp3 (at 320Kbps) formats and are disappointed that mp3 dramatically outsells the better sounding option by a margin of 10 to 1. Good quality sound is not an option when it comes to being able to fully appreciate music, and my hope is that when better sound quality becomes more commonplace (as one day it surely must) then people will start to connect emotionally with music again.

  33. http://www.gubemusic.com/ is a good place to buy jazz, elecronic jazz and the likes in flac.

  34. People who use and buy mp3 , don`t appreciate the work that has gone into making the music.

    They are throw away consumers who only want to listen to a type of music now and who after the initial release will probably never listen to it again.

    People who appreciate music like the quality in a high lossless format because they usually have equipment that clearly allows you to appreciate the extra quality, and often like to store the music for future listening, with technology constantly changing i personally think it would be better for the high quality lossless music to be the norm,because tomorrow a new device may come onto the market that changes the way music is listened to ie far better quality but if all the past music is in a lossy format no one will be able to appreciate it at all.

  35. "I'm With You" is no different, just not as good. The first single has their usual melody and sound and it sets the stage for what most of the rest of the album sounds like, but not quite. I'm not going to get into each song specifically as the album sort of blends together and they don't differentiate too much. That is not a bad thing, but there is little that stands out on the album.

  36. The problem for me is that FLAC vs MP3 cost is disproportionately high at most retailers. It really doesn't cost an extra £2 in bandwidth/storage to deliver an album that's often barely twice the size of a 320 MP3. I find this 'quality tax' grossly insulting. Although I'm a huge advocate of MP3's high sound quality when appropriately encoded, I'm sure that most complainers couldn't ABX (Google it) a properly encoded VBR MP3 from the FLAC to save their lives, we're reaching the point where storage is becoming so cheap that lossless seems to the way to go. Then I can make my OWN copies as new lossy (or improved lossless) formats emerge for listening on lower storage devices. As for the people complaining that FLAC takes up too much space, I used to say exactly the same thing about 320 MP3s back in 1998 when I only had a 1.2 GB hard drive. Give it another 10 years and we'll have terabytes coming out of our arses. Just as I regret accepting lower quality when space was limited, I'm sure I'll regret not plumping for FLAC in 10 years when I've got a half exabyte drive and loads of music in an obsolete format that will further degrade when I transcode it to the format du jour. Now is the time the industry should be going lossless. Just stop bloody charging us for it!

  37. Some of you idiots are confusing audio DATA compression with DYNAMIC RANGE compression. They are two very different things.

    1. Yes, the general public's understanding of audio seems on par with their knowledge of AGW. They are easily fooled by faux experts and offhand comments.

      A whole generation is being raised on compressed audio and doesn't know better, or doesn't care. I also think those who claim LPs sound better than CDs are deluded in a retro sense.

  38. Pragmatically, I listen to most of my music in compressed formats (MP3 VBR & WMA VBR; Q75 sounds surprisingly good if you want tiny sizes) but I always like to start with a pristine original, be it CD, FLAC, WMA lossless, Apple lossless, etc.

    In the comments tag of the resultant file, I always note the original source, so as to never lose track of the conversion chain. Some flaky people burn CDs from MP3s and fail to note the source, and it deteriorates further if those CDs are converted to lossless and/or FLAC. One can only guess how much sub-par music is in circulation because of amateur sloppiness.

    That's the "price" you pay for freely traded music. I picture of a bunch of drunk college kids with a boombox at the beach not caring, but some of us take quality very seriously. Even if we compress the music, we want it done right!

    Apps like "Audiochecker" attempt to detect patterns that reveal whether the original was uncompressed, but they don't always get it right, depending on sonic anomalies in certain tracks. If you get a FLAC file for free you run that risk, so being able to buy FLACs is ideal.

  39. Audiochecker actually works better then you think. I have used it alot. Both on my own rips, and stuff I downloaded. I'd say it gets things right probably 90% of the time. You can always find out yourself by checking the waveforms.

  40. Whew! Interesting commentary. I enjoyed the discussions greatly, because my audio engineering career began pre-cd and ended in early mp3. Even so, I'm here learning about FLAC because the best mp3's are OK for my droid listening, but I can hear the difference on my 30 year old speakers that are still smooth as silk with University tweeters that reproduce the tones, even though none of us can hear 40KHz; they make the 12K to 22K so sweet. But I always wanted a big pair of electrostatics with a 15" sub-woofer or folded horn. Big Is Better and bigger audio files are too! Happy 4th of July, 2012. Thanks to all for the informative dialog.

  41. This is a great blog, usually I don't post comments on blogs but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so!
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  42. Do you really appreciate the difference between a q9 OGG with Aotuv and a FLAC? I don't, honestly, and I don't listen pop music too often, I'm a musicologist who listens art music (mostly contemporary, Berio, Scelsi, Saariaho, Boulez, Maderna, Carter and other composers who make an intense use of timbres) 90% of my time and popular traditional 9%. I can't even appreciate the difference when playing on my 2.600 € sound system (not a top quality one, true, but not a 300 € Made in China crap either).

    FLAC is ok (why people never talks about APE, it's a free format as well, no?), but the same track weighs 3 or 4 times less in OGG (again, with Aotuv) than in FLAC, ergo since I like to play my music in several different devices (my living room sound system, my HTPC, my phone, my portable player, my car's sound system, my cloud space...), and I'm not going to make two compressions for the same pieces, OGG is my bet. Perhaps when portable devices will come with 2 TB of storage space I'll «move» to FLAC (more because of prejudices and theory than beacause of a real difference in what I perceive), but till then, I prefer to be able of carrying 2.000 tracks on a 16 GB USB memory to 500.

  43. Wow... this is hilarious - the responses to the article, that is. The original article is spot on and I agree with it 100%. I WANT LOSSLESS AUDIO DOWNLOADS!!!! I just have a few comments that I couldn't resist sharing with ya'll..

    First, even though it has been beat to death and should be obvious to anybody with any sort of analytical processing in their brains, mp3's simply don't sound as good as CD's. Sure, CD's aren't "original quality", but they are MUCH better quality than a compressed MP3 of the same music file. And people can certainly hear the difference between the two, even on mediocre quality speakers or earphones. If you paid $50 for an HTiB or $20 for a boombox, well then, maybe you don't really care about music and wouldn't hear the difference on a cheap-o systems. But even on near-bargaine price aftermarket car stereos from reputable brands and stock car speakers, you can hear the difference. You don't have to spend a fortune for decent sound.

    I design and build audiophile-grade loudspeakers, mostly for home theaters. The other day, I installed the front mains and subwoofer as part of a 5.1 surround sound system for a customer. He watched (or listened, rather) to a movie he'd seen 100 times and when I came back to install the rest of the system, he was about in tears because he'd never heard the movie like that. There were minute sounds and details that he'd never heard before and he couldn't believe he'd been missing out on for all of his life by watching through the crummy TV speakers (which are getting worse and worse and Tv's get thinner and thinner). And that was just with a 2.1 setup that cost (including the 7.1 receiver) about the same as his 32" flatscreen.

    Personally, I can't stand 128Kbps mp3s and even some 256kbps files. When played over my car stereo or home theater or even my small computer speakers (not the built-in laptop speakers, mind you), they give me tension head aches. Probably has a lot to do with all of the lost data and sibilance inherent in lossy compression.

    Second, why would we PURPOSELY choose crummier sound over clearer, cleaner, less lossy audio?? By that logic, we should all still be rockin' our VHS cassettes with our new 1080p flat screen TV's. Don't worry about upscaling or hi resolution video sources, just zoom in - all that pixelation and blocking is awesome! In fact, I prefer it that way! Who would want a hi-def TV anyways? I just it bought it because I can't find a CRT anymore... BluRay is for suckers. Same with DVD's. (I'm being sarcastic, if you couldn't tell).

    To me, it looks like that's kind of the point the author is trying to make here. Whatever lossless codec you want to use is up to you, but I can only wish that large music distributors like Amazon and iTunes would give the option for lossless audio downloads. You don't have to be an audiophile snob (yes, I know, I'm getting there) to appreciate good sounding music. But please don't shoot yourself in the foot (or ear) right out of the gate by accepting crummy quality compressed audio as the new standard.

  44. Some 15 years ago people discovered MP3 as a great mean of promoting music online. Since the advent of LAME, MP3 has reached a significant maturity in terms of transparency and a big quality in encoded audio for portables. Even gapless playback is possible today. But back to quality, not even AAC is worth the replacement. MP3 will continue seeing the light of day for years to come and I don't think it's a problem. And VBR MP3 gives the best balance between audio transparency and file size.

    I'm a great supporter of FLAC as well. Basically my CDs are ripped to FLAC. I keep the FLAC files on my desktop and I convert to MP3 VBR0 for use on my iPhone.

    And seriously, in case iTunes decides to go Apple Lossless (which might happen soon), this is not a problem in any way. First because Apple Lossless is now open-sourced, which makes it possible to be supported by many devices, much in the same manner as some support AIFF and WAV. And transcoding Apple Lossless to FLAC and vice versa, doesn't hurt at all. Really, nothing to lose. And both formats satisfy all of our needs.

  45. Although I agree that buyers deserve better quality, (Look at televisions for instance. People go nuts over HD.) the thing is that most people won't notice the difference between FLAC and MP3 files. Even if you had the high-end gears (which will cost you around at least $300 just for the headphones), most music-lovers don't have the ears to discern every single little detail. I've noticed that even those who are able to do so, like me, don't really pay much attention to it. Besides, do people really pay attention to the minute details of the music they are listening to most of the time? Not really. People listen to music while doing a number of things like exercising or studying and they won't be as focused as they need to be to tell the difference.

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