While there’s little argument that iPhones, iPods, and iPads are attractive, well-designed gadgets, they do come with strict limitations when it comes to the type of audio files they will accept. (Apple isn’t known for playing nice with files that it doesn’t sell you.) Those who’ve been paying attention to the quietly percolating HD Audio revolution out there — see Neil Young’s PonoPlayer for a taste — may wonder about a decidedly un-Apple high-resolution audio file that’s been getting a lot of attention these days: FLAC.
What are these high-resolution audio files? What is their advantage? And most importantly, how do you play them on your iOS device? If you’ve been asking yourself these questions and more, follow us below to find the answers.
What is FLAC, and why is it great?
FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio File. It’s a high-resolution music file that has been compressed (usually from a large WAV file) so that it is more manageable to store. The ‘Lossless’ compression of the files means that they’re around half the size of a hi-res WAV file, but none of the file’s information has been discarded. MP3 only takes up a few megabytes of space, but it is a lossy file, and dumps up to 90 percent of the original file when it’s made (compressed). Yep. Up to 90 percent of your favorite music is lost in an MP3. People will tell you that you can’t hear the difference, but these people are wrong.
People will tell you that you can’t hear the difference, but these people are wrong.
Since FLAC files support higher sample and bit rates than CDs (starting at 48kHz/24 bits), they more accurately sound like organic audio when they’re played on speakers or in headphones — the higher the numbers, the better the sound. It’s also true that if you have better audio components in your playback device, your audio files will sound better, which is why Neil Young’s PonoPlayer makes sense. But there’s still an advantage to using HD files on your iOS devices.
Apple has its own version of FLAC, called Apple Lossless Audio Files (ALAC), which have identical sonic properties. As such, iPhone owners may ask: why use FLAC files at all? The reasons come down to content (what you already own), and sources (what you can get). There are several purveyors of HD audio files. The biggest, like HD Tracks, offer albums in full size WAVs (and Apple’s version, AIFFs) as well as FLACs, and ALACs. However, there are several other stores that only carry the popular FLAC files. On top of that, you (or someone you know) may already own a few FLACs. FLAC is like the MP3 for high-resolution audio; it’s the standard.
How to convert FLAC files to ALAC (so your iPhone can read them)
You can’t really use an iPhone, iPad, or iPod without going through iTunes, and it won’t accept FLAC files. The solution is to convert them to Apple’s ALAC format. But whether you have a PC or a Mac, you’ll need to get the right application to bring your FLAC files into the iTunes fold.
Before you start converting, make sure your preferences in iTunes are set correctly to preserve your files at their full sampling and bit rate. Otherwise, you could end up stepping down in resolution – and once a file steps down, it can’t step back up. That’s why converting to MP3s, or back from them, is a pointless proposition when it comes to HD audio.
For your PC audio file conversion needs, DBPowerAmp is a good choice. The software works with Windows XP and up, and can do all sorts of file conversions, as well as batch conversions (for multiple files at a time). The program even allows for the addition of DSP effects like volume level and normalization. Once your FLACs take a spin through this power wash, they’ll be ready to rock as ALACs on iTunes, and as such, on your iOS device. The only issue is that the program is pretty damned expensive, priced at $40 for a single PC, and $58 for multiples.
Any Audio Converter (PC)
If you don’t mind a few pop-up ads, Any Audio Converter is a great alternative for switching your files, costing exactly 100 percent less than dBpoweramp (meaning free, for those reading this late at night). The app covers just about any file format you’ll come across, and also shows a nice layout of instructions right on the site.
A free download, with a great reputation, X Lossless Decoder (XLD) is a fantastic choice to go from FLAC to ALAC on your Mac – see what we did there, with the rhyming? The software is known for its stability, simplicity, and ease of use, all of which are key components of a good app. XLD works with Mac 10.4 or later. It’s also a great choice for ripping your CDs – you know, if you still have CDs.
Max is an open source program that touts its talents for using “the resources of Mac OS X to provide extremely high-quality output,” meaning it sources specific open-source products for each file it transfers, be it MP3, WAV, or anything else. On the other side of the coin, while it has a lot of options, it also appears to be a bit more complicated than its XLD counterpart above.
After using one of these applications to convert your audio to ALAC, you must tether your phone or iPad to iTunes (on your Mac or PC) and sync your music files to load them the old fashion way. Below are some more modern solutions.
The best FLAC apps for your iPhone
If you don’t want to take the time to convert your FLAC files to play them on your iPhone or iPad, there’s an app to solve this problem for you. Several in fact. Most of these apps work by going around the main sync feature in iTunes, allowing you to share files directly to the app installed on your device. Once the App is installed, it should show up in the drop down of your iPhone or iPad when connected to your computer. From there, you should be able to drag files from a folder directly to the app, and you’ll be set.
Life is often much easier if you just integrate the files with your iTunes library via the ALAC format. But in case you have other plans, below are some of the best apps available, all of which can be found through the app store on iTunes.
The best option around as far as features and stability, this $10 app will do the trick, and even includes some pretty stellar features like a multi-band EQ, detailed file information, and more.
For $6, this app has tons of features, including similar options as FLAC Player, laid out in a gorgeous user interface. In addition, it allows uploading of files through the cloud, for a seamless transition of your music from any files you’ve stored online.
It’s hard to beat free, and that’s why this app is an attractive choice. A much more rudimentary player, it skips all the bells and whistles of its similarly titled compatriot above, but it will get your FLAC files rocking. The main issue offered by reviewers is that you can’t browse your library of songs during playback, which could make its zero dollars asking price less appealing.
An all-in-one player which hosts compatibility for a veritable army of available video and audio files, MoliPlayer is free and fully-loaded, though it might nickel and dime you a bit with in-app purchases if you really dig deep into its features. Either way, this baby will do what you need when it comes to FLAC, and a whole lot more.
Prepare for the High-resolution audio comeback
Industry insiders see a sea change afoot in the world of digital music, and as such, they are planning for the next step in high resolution audio. From Sony’s new double down on high-res components and audio, to Neil Young’s PonoPlayer and PonoMusic, there’s a lot of money being channeled into sound that steps beyond the tinny MP3 shadow. We’ll have to wait and see if it catches on, but if you’re one of the new believers, you now have the weapons needed to utilize the FLAC format, and so much more on your iPhone or iPad. So start listening!