What is FLAC and Why Will It Change the Way We Listen to Music?

The late 90s saw one of the original portable music file formats (The MP3) cause a whole heap of comotion. It had earned the reputation of a pirate format (remember Napster?)…While MP3 inevitably prevailed and reigned even, we now are noticing this new format take the stage. Welcome FLAC.

The late 90s saw one of the original portable music file formats (The MP3) cause a whole heap of comotion. It had earned the reputation of a pirate format (remember Napster?)…While MP3 inevitably prevailed and reigned even, we now are noticing this new format take the stage. Welcome FLAC.

What the heck is FLAC?

FLAC or Free Lossless Audio Codec is a musical file format that offers sonically perfect copies of raw audio at half the size. It’s already compatible with a number of phones including the iPhone via an app, MP3 players, and some hi-fi stereo components. It’s available for the same price as the equivalent MP3 in online stores, and it sounds noticeably much better.

FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec and first emerged in 2001 as an open-source alternative to other lossless formats emerging at the time. These included Apple Lossless (ALAC), Microsoft’s WAV (Waveform Audio Format), and WMA Lossless. But these competitive formats do have their disadvantages. While ALAC has a loyal following among iPod and iPhone users, it hasn’t seen much uptake by brands outside of Apple. The WAV format is more popular, and it’s also compatible with iOS devices, but its biggest problems are that file sizes are very large and it can’t retain “tag” data — artist, album name, lyrics, etc. — in the way the other formats can.

– Ty Pendlebury (CNET)

The most glaring advantage of FLAC versus the CD, CDA or WAV is that the size is substantially smaller (typically 50% or so). MP3 is another story though. FLAC still takes up about six times the disk space that an MP3 file does, but the major takeaway is subsequently more information is able to be stored, leading to a very audible boost in quality. Another plus is that FLAC is not just restricted to CD quality listening – meaning, the sky is the limit.

 “FLAC has a place in the future for high-quality audio. It is good for transporting files on the Internet as it typically halves download time. It is unlikely that for lossless compression there will be significant improvements.”

Malcolm Hawksford, professor of psychoacoustics at Essex University

While physical disks are currently still somewhat popular, their convenience will eventually be totally eclisped by that of pure digital formats. The lack of DRM (digital rights management) in FLAC formats also allows you the ability to copy until you physically can’t copy anymore. You also don’t have to cope with disk wear and tear – disk rot is real. While FLAC may never be as influential as CDs and DVDs were in their introduction it will likely be the chosen format for folks who care about great sound quality.

Wanna know where to get great FLAC tracks?

HDtracks

Artists: Rolling Stones, Beach House, R.E.M.
Average price $11.99 – $16.99
HD: Yes

Bandcamp

Artists: Sufjan Stevens, Sebadoh, Fun
Average price: $8.99
HD: Limited

Merge Records

Artists: Arcade Fire, M. Ward, Spoon
Average price: $11.49
HD: No

Beggars Group

Artists: Pixies, Belle and Sebastian, The National
Average price: $10
HD: No

Linn Records

Artists: Mark Knopfler, Meshell Ndegeocello
Average price: $13 – $24
HD: Yes

Parting Opinion

FLAC seems to show some promise and has great value to folks like myself who are keen to subtle nuances in music (music production hobbyist) but for the common listener, it’s hard for to fathom a general adoption of a new format at this point especially one as non-restrictive as FLAC. Seems the powers that be are happy with DRM and regulation of music as it pertains to rights and let’s face it, who makes the money. Now, if sound quality starts to positively or negatively influence revenue for the big dogs then you may see FLAC’s adoption become a trend across the board. Until then, stay tuned.

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