Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

ALAC and Alas! Which Digital Audio Format Should I Pick?

Classical music fans have always had an intense interest in the quality of the audio they listen to, whether live or recorded.  At concerts, I have seen looks that could kill at the sound of a cough or candy wrapper.  And when I have bought records secondhand, the classical ones are almost always in pristine condition—a testament to the care of their owners.

Back in ancient times, you picked out a vinyl disk, and placed it on a stationary player.  The sound you got was mainly determined by your budget—whether you had an audiophile receiver, player, and/or speaker, and how well you took care of the disks.

Now, we can play our music everywhere, using a portable device or computer to play seemingly pristine digital copies of our music or to stream music from a service.  But quality can still vary.  Aside from what you put in/on/around or near your ears in terms of headphones, earbuds, or speakers, how the audio files are stored or transmitted, that is, the file format, can have a major impact on quality.

It is that invisible component that is new, and sometimes out of our control.  For example, if you download music, in most cases, the format is fixed.  You download an mp3, and don’t think much about it.

But for those of you who may be thinking about digitizing their physical collections of CDs or LPs, the choice of a file format is an important decision.

And those of you whose primary means of listening to music is streaming should know that not all services use the same formats, and that could mean a difference in quality.

So let’s take a look at audio formats.

There are three families of formats: uncompressed, lossless compressed, and lossy compressed.

Uncompressed formats.  The good: they give you everything that was on the original recording.  The bad: the files are huge.  Your main choices are WAV and AIFF (AIFF is an Apple format).

Lossless compressed. The good: you still get everything that was on the original recording.  The bad: the files, while smaller, are still pretty big.  Your main choices are FLAC or the lesser-known APE (also called Monkey’s Audio) for non-Apple devices, and ALAC for Apple devices.  Typically, these files are about half the size of uncompressed audio files.

Lossy compressed.  The good: the files are considerably smaller.  The bad: you lose some aspects of the original recording.  In some cases, by manipulating certain factors (for example, the bit rate), you can find the right balance point for you between file size and music quality.   The most popular and well-known format is MP3.  A lesser-known format is OGG, which refers to Ogg Vorbis, an open source audio format similar to MP3.  AAC and M4a are Apple formats.

There are several other formats, and  you can find a table of them here.  Some devices can handle all of these formats; some only a subset.

The good news about lossy compressed audio is that if you pick your parameters carefully, your sound will be pretty close to the original, and you’ll still save space.  I say pretty close because there are heated debates among audiophiles about whether one can hear the difference between lossless and high-quality lossy formats, and I’m not getting in the middle of it (the same is true of the analog versus digital debate among vinyl enthusiasts).  If you haven’t already, you may want to read the blog post on Analog versus Digital.  You might also want to read this article on testing aural acuity.

Your own ears will have to be the judge.

For those of you who are digitizing your collections, how do you pick which format to use?

  1. See what format(s) your chosen device handles. If you have an Apple device, you can’t use FLAC—it’s not supported.  Mp3 is pretty much universal.
  2. Decide which format family you’d like to use. Are you willing to tolerate compromising on quality (even a little) to get smaller files? If no, then lossless compressed is for you (uncompressed formats are not commonly used for these purposes, the files really are monstrously large).  If yes, then lossy compressed is for you, and you need to ask yourself more questions.
  3. How many files do you want to cram onto your portable player (or hard disk)? At what point does a degradation in sound quality become noticeable for you?  The answers to these questions will help you determine which recording bitrate to select.

Some digital music vendors allow you to select which format you download—look for it next time you buy music.  See this page at Linn Records, for example.

For those of you who are not interested in digitization, and instead would like to know what your streaming service is up to, the next post, Drinking from the Firehose (coming soon) will be for you.