Cut Me Some FLAC!
Do FLAC files sound inferior to WAV files? Or more generally, do lossless compressed file formats (FLAC, ALAC, APE...) sound worse than their uncompressed twins? I've seen the argument that due to the extra processing imposed on your computer by FLAC, for example, during playback, this method is more prone to computer-introduced timing errors. Stepping back from this scenario for a moment, everyone seems to agree that the less your computer does during music playback the better it sounds so it would make sense to apply this same logic to the actual playback process. No?
If you Google this topic "FLAC v WAV" you'll find all kinds of arguments from and for both sides; the rational - there can be no difference between FLAC and WAV or if there is it's not audible, to the other side that says there's clearly an audible difference. Bruce A. Brown of Puget Sound Studios, who does work for HD Tracks, had this to say on the What's Best Forum:
If I put a wav file on one track and a FLAC file on the other track in Pyramix, I can't tell them apart, sighted or blind. Pyramix also has their own proprietary format as well called .pmf and .pmi which is similar to FLAC, because it can contain metadata, but it's not compressed.Let's compare this to what Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records had to say on the Computer Audiophile forum:
Doing transfers for HDtracks, we spent months testing formats and sample rates.
About FLAC... We did a lot of early testing for FLAC because it is also less expensive for us to send when a file is smaller, but, when listening back to uncompressed FLAC against the full WAV file when both are sent through email... there is a difference and the WAV has consistently sounded better. We realize that much has been published that FLAC is bit to bit accurate, but with a listening test, this is not the case. I have suggested to many of our customers to do the experiment themselves and all have reported the same results as we have found.And more recently, we have Todd Garfinkle of MA Recordings:
Downloads are for the most part FLAC and therefore not at the same sonic level as untouched WAV files, no matter what some people say.Let's be clear—no one is talking about whether or not FLAC compression messes with the bits. The question is does playing back a FLAC file negatively affect the sound quality. On one hand given the ever decreasing cost (and size) of storage combined with increasing bandwidth, the entire compression issue is nearly moot (if that sounds sensible to you, feel free to stop reading). Yet this remains an important topic since the decision needs to be made by anyone ripping, downloading and storing their music—what format should I choose? One very commonsense solution I've seen offered goes like this - if the issue with FLAC is introduced because of the 'unpacking' process during playback, just convert your FLAC files to AIFF or WAV for playback.
I'd go one step further and suggest why not just do a batch conversion of all your FLAC files and keep your FLAC copies as backup which is something that Chris Conniker of the Computer Audiophile recommends in his excellent and thorough CD Ripping Strategy and Methodology and call it a day? Mac users can convert to AIFF and PC users can go WAV but realize there may be issues dealing with metadata or a lack thereof down the road. More on that metadata subject some other day. For the conversion process, there are a number of applications out there including Max (free) for Mac users and dBpoweramp for the PC ($38).
My feeling on the subject is there's no need to deal with compressed files due to the price of storage so I convert all of my downloaded FLAC files as well as rip all of my music to AIFF and WAV files to accommodate my Mac and PC systems. But for the cause and to see if I can hear a difference, I went through the tedious process, at least it feels tedious to me, of creating multiple copies of a few of the same tracks in ALAC (Apple Lossless), AIFF (Apple Uncompressed), and/or WAV formats. The tracks up for dissection:
1. Track 1 & 2 from J.S. Bach Das Wohltemperierte Clavier as performed by Davitt Moroney (harpsichord) [HMC 901285.88]I figured it would be good to have a wide range of sounds more and less difficult and I loaded the above tracks into a playlist titled "Am I Really Doing This?" and listened to a few seconds of each and moved to the next and back 'n forth (I did this via my iPad using the Remote app and the tracks all had the same title so I did not know which was which). And there's no way I could accurately tell the difference between which version of the track was playing unless I got up, walked over and peeked at my MacBook Pro which I had set to show file "Kind". When looking and when I knew what was playing, I'd think I could hear a difference, maybe a bit more air (audiophile hint—when you think you hear a change and that change is limited to "air" the change you're hearing more than likely is not there and if it is, its more than likely not worth fretting over. Take a deep breath instead).
2. "Worm Tamer" from Grinderman 2 [Anti 87110-1]
3. "Bemsha Swing" from Don Cherry's Art Deco [A&M CD 5258]
4. "String Quartet No. 13 in B Flat Op. 130" from Beethoven: The Late String Quartets as performed by the Quartetto Italiano [PHILIPS 426 050-2]
5. "Cuando Silva el Viento" from Sera Una Noche's La Segunda [M062A-HR]
But wait, what about FLAC? So I loaded up 1 track, Bonnie "Prince" Billy's "Then The Letting Go" which is from the album The Letting Go into Decibel (Decibel plays FLAC natively on a Mac) in two versions, FLAC and WAV. I let these play over and over all the way through throughout the day* and night. Thankfully I really like this song and the rest of the album is wonderful too (as are Dawn McCarthy's vocals). After a while, over time I began to hear differences. I'm not saying the FLAC version sounded bad or even hugely different but what I did notice was the FLAC version sounded less controlled. Less harmonically right like the microphone(s) were ever so slightly overloaded at times and lost, momentarily mind you, the music's snap, grip and flow.
There was also something going on with the way the different parts relate to each other; Bonnie "Prince" Billy is very much upfront in the mix with Dawn McCarthy off somewhere in the distance. Like a ghost or a conscience. With the FLAC version this sense of separation was somewhat stunted so you could almost picture them taking turns at the same mic whereas with the WAV version Dawn is clearly far away from and behind Bonnie (or Billy). And this distance conveys a sense of loss and some other weird stuff making the WAV version more emotionally moving. It tells a deeper story**.
How large was this difference? It was large enough that I had to really listen completely and intently most of the day and into the night to feel comfortable talking about it. So the large difference appears rather small in the grand scheme of things. But so does the proposition of converting FLAC files to your uncompressed format of choice. Besides storage is cheap so why not just hedge your bets and listen uncompressed? I can't think of a single reason against this seemingly sensible proposition unless you just don't care to.
I'd take away a few things from this little experiment; I would absolutely recommend playing back your music files in an uncompressed format and I'd also suggest that when trying to hear subtle differences in the presentation of music, you have to listen to songs not pieces of sounds and you have to listen over time. Listening to a few snippets of a track and switching to another and then to another and back again is an exercise in proving that this method of listening proves nothing more than this method has no bearing whatsoever on how we listen to and more importantly how we enjoy music.
* Thanks to John DeVore for recommending the 1 track over and over test because I was ready to give up after the whac-a-mole approach which gave very different results. That reminds me of another thing I'd take away from this—people who make music or who make things that make music (or both) and listen for a living are worth listening to.
** For those so inclined, I'd liken this sense of space to the space represented in some paintings (like this one by Andrea Del Sarto) where the depiction of physical separation is pregnant with meaning. But you really need to go see the original in the Met to get it—this .jpg is compressed so you lose a lot in that translation.