Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I want to FLAC you like an animal!

After the astounding response from my article on Ogg Vorbis What the hell is Ogg Vorbis, and why should I use it?, I thought it would be nice to do a follow up article on another open source audio format called FLAC.

So, what is FLAC? FLAC is an acronym that stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. Flac is completely non-proprietary and free of licensing fees, unlike mp3. Flac is also much higher quality than mp3 or Ogg. This format compresses the data without having to dispense of any data.
Essentially, when you rip your cd's to FLAC format, you have an exact digital copy.

I took a CD and used Sound Juicer (opens automatically in Ubuntu when you insert an audio cd) to rip the music to my hard drive in two formats: CD quality Ogg (default) and FLAC. The difference in size is AMAZING.

Duration: 43:15
Album ripped to Ogg - 48.2MB
Album ripped to FLAC - 292.9MB

And, for a song for song comparison...

Duration: 4:04
Song ripped to Ogg - 4.6MB
Song ripped to FLAC - 28.5MB

Wow, I never expected to see that huge of a difference in file size. If I was to have my trivial music collection in FLAC format, it would require at least 60GB, compared to the 10GB required for Ogg. Hard drives are getting larger and cheaper, but that's still a lot of storage space for a relatively small amount of music. There must be a huge difference in the audible quality then, right?

I very un-scientifically listened to multiple songs, first in Ogg, then in FLAC, to see if I could distinguish a difference. Surprisingly, I heard almost no difference at all. In some songs, the FLAC format sounded a little more full than Ogg, but I really had to strain to hear the difference. Although, I am using pretty regular speakers, and soundcard, and I'm by far not a sound expert. I'm just the average user, as far as music goes.

For the average user, it seems much better to stick with the Ogg format for audio. The small difference in audio quality, and huge difference in file size just wouldn't justify switching to FLAC, for most people.

So, when would you want to use FLAC? If you want to make an exact digital backup of your whole music collection, FLAC would be a good way to go (space permitting). If you have an incredibly loud, crisp, clear sound system that can piss off your neighbors two houses away, you'll probably be able to hear a difference as well. Or, if you're an audio aficionado, you'll probably be picky enough about how your music sounds to shell out the extra money for hard drive space so you can listen to everything in great detail. FLAC is also very well supported across OS's Linux, MAC, and Windows. There are also quite a few home theater devices that support FLAC.http://flac.sourceforge.net/links.html#hardware
I'm not aware of any portable devices that support FLAC, and with size constraints I can see why. (please comment if you know of any) As a commentor pointed out, FLAC would aslo be useful if you're encoding to many different formats because it's more or less as if you're ripping directly from cd since it's lossless.

Impressive as FLAC is, I can't recommend it for the average user. There's just not enough difference in audio quality to justify the huge difference in storage space.


Anonymous said...

The Rio Karma supports FLAC playback.

Watch TV Online said...

great writeup, Sourceforge page for it.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Twoodge said...

Just a couple of random points - Rockbox has full FLAC support for DAPs, and remember that re-encoding lossy formats starts to create very noticable and nasty compression artifacts. Live music is also almost exclusively traded in FLAC, too.

Anonymous said...

I just bought a 500GB drive for $90 and the author of this article is moaning about FLAC taking up 60 GB instead of 10 GB for OGG. This person is bitching because it requires $4 more drive space to have a perfect copy of all his music instead of a compressed copy. Sheesh. Get a life.

Greg2b said...

I LOVE OGG, but once I started to use FLAC I haven't gone back.
Using some in-ear headphones you can definitely hear the richness that FLAC provides that OGG really doesn't.
Mainly I listen to Alternative and Techno and my FLAC encoded songs sound fuller and richer and just plain better.
But honestly it definitely takes up a lot of space...

d said...

The Korean company Cowon makes a few players which support both FLAC and OGG. These are the iAudio series; the miniature model, the U3, as well as the larger and more capacious iAudio 6 (HD) and 7 (flash). Mine, however, froze upon attempting to play FLAC files that I had encoded myself, and I ultimately ended up returning it for this reason. YMMV.

Anonymous said...

You sir, simply don't have good enough speakers. Your generic chain store speakers won't be able to reproduce the difference between the two audio formats. But, if you have some very good audiophile speakers, the sound difference is amazing. I have some Kinetic Audio speakers and I could clearly hear the difference.

You also need to be sure that your original source is high quality to. They have been normalizing audio on CDs lately and you lose quality there.

Of course whether the space difference is worth it is entirely up to debate. Its convenience vs. quality, and its one of the reasons why the Ipod killed audiophile.

viridari said...

Disk storage is cheap. FLAC is future-proof. You'll never have to buy Dark Side of the Moon again.

I've been converting all of my music over to FLAC. Ogg and mp3 are largely irrelevant now that storage is cheap enough to permit the use of lossless compression algorithms.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the article. I offer a response as to why users may want to use FLAC or another lossless codec instead of ogg, mp3, or compressed wma or ac3.

A music file using a compressed codec is lossy. Which with a good codec and reasonable settings is fine. However that file is only ever usable in the format it is in. changing to another lossy format such as mp3 to ogg or reencoding such as mp3 256 cbr to mp3128 will result in generational loss. And if you do so with the resulting file it gets expnentailly worse.

With a lossless codec such as FLAC or Apple Lossless you get an exact copy of the original thus allowing you to reencode as many times as you like.

Here is an example of why that is important. You keep all your music on your computer in loessless format where hard drive space is relatively cheap. You re encode to a lossless format to synch to your portible music player.

Also if the lossless format of choice changes from say mp3 to m4a or wma or ogg, You simply re-encode all your lossless files to the lossless format you need rather than having to re-rip from the original source or alternatively having to settle for the generational loss that would occur.
Hope this helps!

Devon said...

I know most if not all the iAudio players support FLAC, as well as anything you can load Rockbox onto.

Auzy said...

I dont use flac but I use Apple lossless now as its supported by my ipod (worst comes to worst I can convert it back to wav and MP3 later on).

Some things that I have noticed though is that in general you wont notice the diff, except:

a) I could hear the difference with my Z-5500 speakers. I also haven't checked this, but theoretically, dolby 2.1 -> 5.1 conversion should sound a lot better with lossless, because otherwise normally it may shift the parts u normally dont hear onto other channels

b) If you want to switch to formats later, converting it into lossy is a bad move, as you'll lose quality.

c) I noticed that vocal cancellation on my stereo does not work at all when using lossy audio. It just messes up the sound.

And the main reason I dont use either OGG or flac anymore (I used to all the time), is that in reality, its only generally supported by crappy players (and not even all crappy players).

And HDD storage isn't that scarse anymore anyway. These days you can even get 1TB 3.5" drives, so really the argument is bung. Lossy only makes sense for ppl with old computers and those who pirate all their music

Anonymous said...

Meizu from China makes portable players support flac. But I don't know the quality of the flac decoding chip. Creative also makes some in the early years, seems no more now.

Martin said...

My iAudio U3 supports FLAC (And Ogg!) nativley, ie, out of the box. I Love my U3.

Devon said...

Most if not all iAudio player support FLAC, as well as anything you can load Rockbox onto.

Anonymous said...

My Cowon mp3 player supports both Oggs and FLACs.

Anonymous said...

FLAC is mostly used by DJ's who perform using a laptop and programs like Serato instead of records and turntables. The main reason records are still used is because they are the only analog (uncompressed undigitized) audio recording medium available. FLAK and other lossless formats, along with the increase in computing power and hard drive space have recently started to become a viable option to records, even though digital technology is still outmatched by analog tech when it comes to sample rates and frequency range.

Anonymous said...

TrekStor music players will play FLAC files.

I have the 12 Gig Vibez model, and love it.


davidfg4 said...

Rockbox supports FLAC, and just about everything else as well.

Rick said...

I think FLAC is more for things like archiving and trading music, I don't think the value comes from playing it directly. For example, if you rip a CD to FLAC, then burn a new CD from the FLAC files, they will be perfect duplicates of the original CD. If you do the same with Ogg, the new CDs will sounds crappy because there is so much data loss when ripping to Ogg.

I can definitely hear a difference between CDs created from MP3s or Ogg versus a CD created from FLAC (or SHN) on my stereo. Can't hear any difference played on my iPod or my computer though.

Mini said...

Most Cowon's can handle FLAC. I know the D2 can.

BHSPitMonkey said...

The music listened to by the "normal" user doesn't have any dynamics to speak of. FLAC is a must when dealing with recordings of more delicate, instrumental performances and/or classical music.

Anonymous said...

FLAC isn't intended for use as a general music storage format, the same way raw video isn't used for storing movies. It's most useful when used in audio editing, when even small corruptions can accumulate over hundreds or thousands of compress/decompress cycles.

derek said...

The Core Pocket Media Player for both Windows Mobile and Palm OS devices plays FLAC amongst many other formats both video and audio.

I also think I read somewhere that there is an open source firmware upgrade for ipods that plays FLAC. I forget what it was called.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of reasons to use FLAC even if you can't tell the difference in audio quality. For one, by ripping to FLAC you have completely and forever (setting aside potential data loss) future-proofed your music, regardless of any new audio formats or technology. You will always have the exact audio output of the CD you bought (even if you, *ahem*, sold the CD afterwards).

More reasons include avoiding gradual loss of sound quality as you burn your music to CD-Rs or easier editing of the audio (for such things as removing lyrics), among others.

I personally archive my music in FLAC and then convert to mp3 or ogg for music devices.

Paul said...

any mp3 player that can run rockbox is able to play flac

Howard T. Snidbiscuits said...

Certain albums that I really like, and want to archive for the long term, I use FLAC.
Even a 320 kbps Mp3 or high quality Ogg does lose a bit of quality. Maybe those 128 kbps mp3s sound good now - in 15 years, will I think so? Or under every lsitening condition? With FLAC I don't risk any sort of regret down the road. FLAC preserves all the information in the WAV file, and is much smaller than those. There's a huge use for it. Not on portable mp3 players, though, I agree - that would be silly.

I also use FLAC when recording my own music.

Minion4Hire said...

Very few computer speakers are of decent quality, so most people won't care about FLAC, or for than matter any mp3 over 128kbps.

But if you have a half-decent home theatre setup that you frequently use for music, you really can notice the difference streaming FLAC vs "insert-common-audio-format-here". It's also nice for making CD-mixes since there's no loss of quality.

Anyways, I'll stop with the fledging audiophile elitist masturbation and be on my way.

Hugo said...

Most of Cowon players do. Sometimes my friends give me a copy of their band's new song and I rather listen to that in full quality. Just to tease them later.

Anonymous said...

there are many DAP that support FLAC...some will work if you can change the firmware to Rockbox.

d3crypt3r said...

Any portable device that is capable of running RockBox and perhaps iPodLinux (although I am not positive about iPodLinux), is capable of playing FLAC files. Also, my MP3 player (Meizu MiniPlayer 8GB) is capable of playing FLAC out of the box.

I do disagree on your perception of audio quality between OGG and FLAC, but I'm probably one of the people you would consider an audiophile. Don't use FLAC unless you're in love with music. Even I only use it for certain CDs that I find deep and thoroughly enjoy.

I'm sure there are many other players out there that play FLAC if you do the research, but remember, as the article mentions, FLAC is much much larger compared to very good quality OGG/ACC/InsertFormatOfChoice.

Dave said...

Rockbox can play FLAC. But it's doesn't come on any out-of-the-box player I know of.. It can go on almost any decently known player, and I have it on my iPod 4g.

http://www.rockbox.org i believe.

Anonymous said...

There are a few players that can play Flac, but not a great deal of them. The Apple iPod can't play it as it ships, but you can install RockBox (open source software for players like the iPod), and it runs just fine. I happen to know, because I'm currently involved in research studying the effects of high and low frequency audio on sleep patterns. We use Flac because it doesn't filter out the frequencies that we need, which Ogg and MP3 specifically do. As lossless formats go, Flac is the best for many reasons, but if you don't know what a lossless format is already, you're probably safe with Ogg.

Anonymous said...

Many of the portable players by Cowon, such as the iAudio X5 support both FLAC and OGG formats. Any MP3 player running Rockbox can as well.

Nelson Nieto said...

Hi!, i have the iAudio X5 and it's plays FLAC & OGG, also i have the rockbox port for the ipod

Anonymous said...

Actually Cowon's iAudio 7 supports FLAC playback and I believe a number of their other PMP do as well.

Anonymous said...

If you have a portable media player that can run Rockbox can play FLAC files.

ageekinkorea said...

Cowon's line of mp3 players support FLAC, as well as ogg.

Anonymous said...

I use an iRiver H10 with the custom firmware Rockbox. The iRiver version of Rockbox, and probably all the other versions (there's iPod versions, Creative versions, etc) all support .flac and .ogg.

Jeremy said...

Everything at Cowon supports FLAC, AFAIK.


Kyle M said...

Keep in mind that a poorly-encoded .ogg /will/ be audibly worse than any FLAC, just like any lossy encoding. True: If you hadn't any reason to encode ultra-high-quality lossless (i.e. ogg or mp3) files, you probably don't have a reason to use FLAC.

Also, i didn't see you mention anything about burning to CD. You might try re-burning that "CD quality" lossy .ogg to CD, and comparing it to a CD burned from the FLACs.

I think a synonym for FLAC in the back of my mind is "archival". If you'd got a demanding hi-fi system or plans to produce copies, i think FLAC is up your alley. If the fidelity difference is inaudible to you, you're absolutely right that it makes /no/ sense to pay for FLAC storage!

Compliments on this pair articles!

Anonymous said...

FLAC is the preferred format for most bootleggers these days. The only player I know of that will play these is the SanDisk Sansa.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you (or most people, for that matter) realize just how much data is thrown away to encode an average mp3 or ogg file. It's A LOT. Most of the file is discarded. And a big reason most people can't tell the difference is not because of the file itself, but because of the speakers or headphones they're using. (Not the only reason, mind you, as formats like ogg are getting really good at choosing what information is least necessary to the file, but it is a very big reason nonetheless.)

Paul said...

maybe but with cheap 500 gig drives commonplace and 160 Gb Ipods (which do not undestand flac, but they do understand apple lossless), file size is really not that great a reason for not using a lossless format.

Especially if you are going to rip your entire cd collection, you might as well go lossless, then transcode to ogg or mp3. Cos in a few years time, file size contraints wont be an issue and you will be stuck with inferior losssy copies of your music, unless you rip your entire collection again!

blblack said...

I beg to disagree on your recommendation to stick with Ogg for ripping. Here's the deal: CDs eventually get scratched, stolen, broken, lost, etc.

If you rip your entire collection once digitally (and add new CDs as you buy them), you no longer have to worry about this. Just keep backups. I keep my collection on a mirrored drive array, and then I copy it to a cheap big-capacity external USB drive once in a while.

If you do it in a lossy format though, you've already lost information from the original CD. If you decide to play it on a nicer system later, or decide that a higher-bitrate compressed codec is a better choice for your new iPod2015 device a few years down the road, you need to either find those CDs again (if they can still be ripped), or you re-encode already lossy files, and you get worse results every time you re-encode.

If you do it right the first time and archive your music as FLAC, you're gauranteed to be able to re-encode it in any other format down the road, or play it on any high-end device, and not lose any fidelity over the original CD. You can just throw the CDs away at that point. What's the cost of a few cheap hard drives every 5 years or so for music you'll likely be listening to for decades?

I keep my whole audio library in FLAC. My Squeezebox will play that natively in the livingroom and give me nice quality audio out of my nice set of speakers. I also have things set up so that I have a second copy of my library in ~200kbps LAME-encoded MP3 format to load on my girlfriend's iPod (she's nontechnical and doesn't want to switch players). When her iPod finally dies and I get her switched to something else, I can easily make a library copy in Ogg or any other compressed format from my master FLACs without getting out the CDs again.

Anonymous said...

My old Rio Karma does FLAC just fine (and Vorbis, BTW).

austin said...

While for the general listener, there's no audible difference between lossy formats like ogg and lossless ones like FLAC, it's fairly easy to distinguish them-- buy a nice pair of headphones or earbuds. I didn't even realise how poor my 192 kbps mp3 encoded music was until I got a pair of UltimateEars In-ear monitors, and I was blown away when I used them to listen to the same song in FLAC. And as a general comment-- don't ever encode in anything less than 192 kbps! You may think you're saving space with little quality degradation, but at the rate audio equipment is progressing, you'll regret it in a couple of years.

Anonymous said...

rockbox (http://www.rockbox.org/) a free firmware replacement for many MP3 players including iPods support FLAC.

Anonymous said...

My iRiver and my Rio play FLACs

Anonymous said...

Portable player options:

1) TrekStor Vibez

Plays Vorbis/FLAC and others.

2) Rockbox

Alternative firmware for many players including *a lot* of iPod products. I personally use this on a 4G grayscale iPod and it works great.

Mateusz M. said...

Planty of portable devices support flac and I can see why. Good player and good headphones give much better sound quality than stereo computer speakers and flac is the only way to listen to the music without losing any quality and without carrying a bunch of cds and a discman on you.

With about 400MB/album, you can still carry planty of music on a portable devices (who uses a 1GB player these days anyway?).

Anonymous said...

Listen to classical music and you will notice a striking difference in acoustic depth.

Anonymous said...

The Trekstor Vibez media player can play FLAC, as well as OGG-Vorbis and the other common lossy formats.

Adam Bard said...

A good reason to use FLAC is if you like to remix or apply processing or otherwise manipulate your songs. The frequencies and other data removed from lossy codecs can really show up as soon as you start messing with stuff.

Anonymous said...

pretty much any cowon player has flac and ogg support. i have a d2 but i don't bother with flac though.


Anonymous said...

iAudio x5 supports FLAC and Ogg.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Nice work.

R Kaushik said...

Thank you for this article. I've been getting sick of so called "audiophiles" who can't distinguish a flat from a sharp that scoff at me for not using FLAC.

cadoo said...

RockBox supports both Flac and Ogg Vorbis. You can install the firmware on a wide range of devices including ipods.

Anonymous said...

The MEIZU m6 supports FLAC

Anonymous said...

The MEElectronics RockMee plays it.

(for $80 I'm pretty damn happy with it)

Anonymous said...

Try wavpack also. What I like the most about wavpack is it's unique hybrid (lossy/lossless) mode. Lossless compression is generally better than FLAC.

Anonymous said...

I use FLAC because I only wanted to rip my CD collection once. In a lossless format. Music formats are bound to change. Each time you convert from a lossy format to another lossy format you will loose sound quality.

Space is so cheap today what's 60 GB? It's less than 20 bucks. For portable music devices you can always port the flac to a lossey format like OGG or MP3 to save space.

Josh said...

Portable players that support FLAC one way or another:

* iPods using Rockbox firmware
- 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Gen
- Video
- Nano
- Photo
- Colour
- Mini (2nd generation)

* iriver using Rockbox firmware
- H10 5GB/20GB
- H100/115
- H120/140
- H320/340

* Gigabeat (Toshiba) using Rockbox firmware
- F Series
-- F10
-- F11
-- F20
-- F21
-- F30
-- F31
-- F40
-- F41
-- F60
- X Series

* Sandisk Sansa using Rockbox firmware
- e200/e200r
- c200

* iAudio (Cowon) native support with newer firmwares
- A2
- 6
- 7
- F2
- M3
- M5
- X5
- U3
- D2

* Rio Karma

* Meizu
- M6 Mini Player
- M3 Music Card

* Teclast
- T29
- T39
- C260
- C280
- C290

* Trekstor Vibez

* Gemei
- X-750
- X-760

* Hyundai NH-260

* Maxian D900

- Blast
- Super Five

* Portable Media Player

* Shearer V2000

* Zarva MV209


There might be more, and I know that a lot of these have been mentioned in above comments, but I was just shocked when I read "I'm not aware of any portable devices that support FLAC". I felt I had to show that there is support out there for FLAC on a DAP, and not just from one or two vendors. Sure, I probably won't be buying a Zarva MV209 any time soon, but the Trekstor Vibez has been on dapreview.net's Top Picks list for I don't know how long. It is one of the devices I am seriously considering purchasing.

Aside from that, thanks for the honest review of my favorite audio file format. If you are a perfectionist about how your music sounds and you can spare the space, go for it! If you don't really care about the difference between pretty darn good and perfect and/or are too poor to buy yourself a new 250GB HDD, stick with OGG Vorbis.

eeballik said...

great job on the article, it will make the choice clearer for average user. I agree with most FLAC for archive then encode to ogg mp3 for portable music players. I personally like listening to music in my car. I can tell the difference with my speakers. playing CD-Rs burned from FLAC not only make the vocals more crisp but also bass. My speaker and stereo configuration play mp3 fine only when you turn the music up i get lots of distortion. With FLAC i don't bass thumps and instruments and vocals are clear.