What is FLAC? [ILFS Explains]

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This article explains what is FLAC and what are the advantages of this media format. This article is a part of series called ILFS Explains.

In my previous review of Freemake Audio Converter, I mentioned how rapidly advancing technology has changed almost every form of media as we know it. Everything from photos, to songs, to movies has gone digital. And this digitization of media (and almost everything including our documents, reminders, notes etc.) has given rise to a ton of different File Formats. A myriad variety of file formats exist today, and they exist for all file types. Today, ILFS will be explaining one such popular, not so recent file format that has been gaining popularity, albeit slowly. Read on to find out more!

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So, What is FLAC?

FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. To be honest, the acronym’s expansion is its simplest definition too. Essentially, FLAC is a codec for lossless compression of digital audio. Before we go further, the clarification of some terms is in order. So, here we go:

  • Codec: It’s a portmanteau of Coder/Decoder. At the very basic level, a codec is just a digital standardized process of encoding any digital information (Audio, Video, Visual) and then decoding it for reproduction, according to some set specifications.
  • Lossless Compression: We know that digital data of any type can be compressed (Think zip files). And when we compress it, the resultant is lesser in size than the original. Lossless compression means a way of compressing data so that no original information is lost due to compression.

So FLAC is…

FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) is just a lossless way of encoding uncompressed original digital audio (songs, podcasts etc.). The compressing algorithm that’s used by FLAC is highly efficient for a lossless one, and approximately compresses the original audio to 50%-60% of its original size.

This makes FLAC different in contrast to the wildly popular MP3 (MPEG Layer 3) format, which is a lossy one. MP3 is based on the fact that there are certain frequencies of (digital) audio that are beyond the normal auditory perception of human ears. So, it basically skips these frequencies while compressing digital audio. This gives MP3 the ability to compress digital audio to a tenth of its original size.

This is the reason that a normal audio CD (say a new album that’s out at the store) just contains 10-15 tracks, while an MP3 CD consists of anywhere from 150-200 tracks. Because the audio CD consists of tracks (or music) in their original uncompressed format, retaining all the information.

Should you choose FLAC?

In one word, Definitely. But hold on. It’s not like FLAC is going to replace MP3 overnight. It’s still a relatively niche format, as compared to MP3. But it certainly sounds better than MP3. So let’s say next time you’re downloading a free and legit audio album off the Internet, and if it exists in both MP3 and FLAC variants, you should definitely go for FLAC.

But that’s not it. If MP3 is popular, there’s a couple of reasons it is. Explained below are some of the pointers that should help you make an informed choice about choosing FLAC or MP3.

FLAC vs. MP3, which one is better?

Choose MP3 if ..

  • You have an enormous digital music collection, but limited storage space. A song encoded using MP3 would be a fifth the size of the same song encoded using FLAC. So, that’s something you should consider.
  • You prefer homogeneity. If you’re the kind of person who’d rather have all his/her songs in one format instead of randomly scattered over different ones, just go for good ol’ MP3.
  • You want full scale compatibility. One big reason why MP3 is so popular is because of its near universal platform and device compatibility. Whether you have the decade old Pentium 3, or the swanky new MacBook Pro, and whether you carry your music in your $20 feature phone or a $300 iPod Touch, an MP3 file would play anywhere.
  • You “don’t” own those super expensive noise cancelling, bass boosting headphones (Beats by Dr. Dre, Ultimate Ears etc.) or the speaker set of an audiophile. That’s because unless you are listening to your music through these super sensitive audio accessories, you’ll hardly notice the difference between MP3 and FLAC.

Choose FLAC if ..

  • You have a small digital music collection, but enormous storage space.
  • You don’t really care about having half of your music in one format and half in another.
  • If you don’t mind a little cross format audio conversion using some great apps like this and this.
  • You are an audiophile who can, and loves to shell out big bucks on those super expensive headphones from BOSE, Sennheiser etc. Because you’ll immediately notice the difference.

If you do end up choosing FLAC, be assured that it is supported by most of the common media players, like, VLC and Foobar 2000. Even Windows Media Player can play Flac with proper codecs.

But no matter what.. never convert MP3 to FLAC

Why? Because it’s plain and simple pointless. If a digital audio piece has been already encoded to MP3 format, then the information loss is permanent. So, re-encoding a MP3 track to FLAC won’t make it sound any better. All it will do is make it thrice its original size.

Conclusion

FLAC is a great lossless compression codec. Audio files compressed using the same sound noticeably better than MP3s. But MP3 has near universal compatibility and huge popularity, to the point that it’s almost synonymous with music. Due to this, I believe that even though lossless formats like FLAC may be the future of digital audio, MP3 is not going anywhere, anytime soon.

What do you guys think about FLAC? Do you have some of your music encoded using this lossless format? If yes, how much better do you find it as compared to MP3 or other lossy formats? Do let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

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  • DannyBoyJr

    90% of my files are in lossy format (m4a/mp3) and the rest are in FLAC. In fact, if I want to get a song, I’d download it in FLAC format and use Freemake to convert it to m4a. I really don’t need a full fidelity audio file since I listen on my smartphone and use the freebie earphones that came with it. I don’t intend to buy a Beats earphone. And in the house I only play music from my laptop. Again, the speaker isn’t high end for me to notice any quality difference between FLAC and m4a.

    M4A is good enough for me. As long as I convert it from a reliable FLAC source the sound would be acceptable for my ears. YMMV.

    • sharmarajat

      Thanks for the comment. totally agree with you here. At times I too wish that I could replace all my digital music collection with FLAC encoded tracks. But that seems unnecessary for the most part. Like you said, MP3/M4A and stuff like that is good enough unless you’re a person who is a sound Nazi. Granted, loss less files do sound better, but you need expensive hardware to make out that stuff.

      In my opinion, one should rather invest in audio hardware like some decent quality headphones/speakers. That would be much better instead of scouring the Internet for loss less versions of your favorite tracks, which becomes even more cumbersome if you have a rather large music collection!!

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