Should I rip my CD library to FLAC, WAV, or some other format?

FLAC is about 50% smaller than WAV, am I losing anything by choosing it over WAV or some other format? What format is best supported in portable music players like an iPod?

7 Answers

  • It seems that we are getting the same questions asked different ways.

    Here is a link to a simple explanation of FLAC and Wav benefits and liabilities.

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  • As inexpensive as hard drive space is these days, and not knowing what audio codecs the future might hold, to me it just makes sense to rip everything to wav or aif. That way if you ever need to convert them to another format, you can do so while maintaining the "true" master files.

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  • Don't want to make a holy war out of this but I wonder if those who can hear a difference between FLAC and WAV have heard this difference in double blind ABX tests.  When I say measure them side by side I'm talking about measuring the sonic output, not the bits.  Again, if something is wrong in the conversion process, of course my point is invalid - if your WAV-to-FLAC converter is making mistakes, or if your player is doing something wrong, or if your D-A converter is screwing up, you probably will hear the difference (in fact, the file might be unplayable) - but if everything else is working right the resulting FLAC file should be something you can convert back to WAV with no loss of bits - it would be the identical file you started with.  If you compare the sound of the two files by playing them and measuring the audio signal only there should be no difference in the measurements.  I'm not talking about comparing graphs of the files themselves but of the sound that the files produce when played -- the stuff that actually hits your ears.  I suppose it's possible that there is something we can't measure that makes a subtle difference as ataffel suggests, but I would think strong evidence for such things would have to be presented.  Double blind test results would convince me there might be something worth exploring further there but I don't know if anyone has tried that.  The recent TAS series on the issue isn't even close to convincing.

    However, that audiophile review link points to a different reason to use WAV over FLAC: Macs have a hard time dealing with WAV files.  Being able to actually play the files is important, of course ... more time listening to music and less time messing with your computer is always a good thing :)

    • Actually, Macs have no problems playing WAV. Adding artwork and metadata is the problem. not playback. — StevenStone October 01, 2012 2:06 p.m.

    • whoops, I meant Macs have a problem playing FLAC files! They do play WAV fine; with FLAC you need to download some additional software to get them to play in itunes. — proben October 22, 2012 5:01 p.m.

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  • Here we have the standard contention between measurements and hearing. The problem with relying on measurements is that there is an implicit assumption that all relevant factors are being measured. When comparing graphs of WAV and FLAC files, they appear identical for the factor being graphed. All digital streams were once deemed identical when we were only measuring bit value. It was only when we learned that timing was a factor that we could "see" the factor that we could already hear.

    In the case of WAV versus FLAC, I am in complete agreement with those who hear a difference. Sadly, that difference is rather significant in musical terms. I hope that we can one day identify with certainty (there are theories out there) why this is the case. In the meantime, I trust my ears and remain cognizant that measurements can be incomplete and therefore inconclusive.

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  • I am sure proben is correct theoretically, but I like to offer some further observations for more thoughts on the subject. If you were to use a $5 stock versus a $5000 USB Cable (I think Nordost makes them) and transmit the digital music signals from a PC to an electronic measuring device, you will find no detectable difference whatsoever between them. But using a stock versus the ultra expensive USB cable for music playback with a DAC processing the digital signals, the sonic difference is very significant (read Alan Taffel's review of USB cables in this October issue of TAS). The same goes with AC cables. Could you really measure differences in the AC currents transmitted by a cheapie power cord versus the super bucks audiophile grade AC cords from Shunyata, Nordost, Synergetic Research, etc. costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars??? Let me sure you the Radio Shack AC cord is not sonically a match with the Shunyata's, Nordost's, Synergetic's.. I know, as I have tried........they might measure the same, but they sure do not sound the same...  

    Similarly, I have compared different digital input modes through BNC, XLR , RCA and optical input ports of the DAC, and found all of them different sonically. The difference is quite easy to detect. Theoretically, they all process the same binary signals, not similar but identical, but then, why do they sound so different ???? Could theories explain this. I have my doubts. Lastly, it all comes down to personal choices and perceptions. If you think, as proben does, that FLAC and WAVE file should yield the same sonic performance from a DAC, it would make perfect sense to use FLAC instead of WAVE files to conserve memory storage space. But, to me, the most important thing is sonic performance. To my ears, I go with WAVE format 100%...... no FLAC for me. One last note, the esteemed recording pioneer, Dr. Johnson of Reference Recording, makes all his HRX high resolution music files in WAVE, not FLAC......... Could it be self evident that Dr. Johnson thinks WAVE is a better format than FLAC. In computation conversion, there are always truncation errors. I learned that in engineering school. When you convert a FLAC file to WAVE using computation methods prior to the D to A conversion for audio playback, how could truncation errors be eliminated. It is just inconceivable.

    Not try to discredit what proben is saying. I am sure he is technically more knowledgeable than yours truly, but I hope you get my points.  Regards. EC  

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  • The answer (by ewkc2009) makes no sense unless there is something wrong with the ripping software or the music player (probably the latter).  WAV and FLAC should produce exactly the same audible result in the file - you can compare the waveform side by side and have your computer show you the difference between the two files; with a WAV and a properly encoded FLAC file, the result will be 0. The same is true of ALAC (Apple Lossless), which will work better on your iPod, so I'd suggest going with ALAC if you're trying to build a lossless library that works on your iPod.  For casual listening (and so you can fit more songs on it), you can use 320 kbps MP3 (or you'll get slightly better sound quality using the AAC format that the iPod supports), but realize that both MP3 and AAC are lossy formats, so there's a tradeoff between how many songs you can fit on your ipod and how the sound quality is.  But the lossy formats won't kill you; true blind listening tests suggest that the differences are minor (though they are greater at lower bitrates, so if you must go lossy, try to use the highest bitrate possible).

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  • Using a Bryston BDP-1 in conjunction with the ARC DAC8 for my digital playbacks, I tried ripping my CD's to FLAC files (using WINAMP) and then also tried ripping to WAVE files (using DB PowerAmp), then compared the two formats. In my set-up, I do not know if it is the ripping softwares being different (WINAMP versus DB PowerAmp) or the hardware's, but the WAVE format is far superior to FLAC, by a mile. There is simply no contest. The WAVE format yielded far superior dynamics, nuances, micro and macro details, and three dimensionality. The difference is like comparing an ARC Ref40 to the Ref3 pre-amp, they are not even in the same league. Despite more computer hard-drive storage requirements, once you tried WAVE versus FLAC, you would opt for the WAVE format and there is no going back.

    I am not sure, for IPOD, I think you have to use either ALAC (Apple Lossless) or MP3 (God forbids !!!!). For PC based system, you could do either with either FLAC or WAVE formats. But I am not sure, and could be wrong on this.

    Hope my feedbacks help. If at all possible, stay with WAVE for optimal sound. Regards.


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