While there’s little argument that iPhones 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, except those that it sells you. It can be frustrating to drop thousands on high-end hardware for playback, only to be limited by the Apple ecosystem.
Those who’ve been paying attention to the quietly percolating hi-res audio revolution may wonder about a decidedly un-Apple high-resolution audio file that’s become one of the most popular file formats: FLAC.
If you’re unfamiliar with FLAC, you might be asking: What are these high-resolution audio files? What is their advantage? And most importantly, how do you play them on your iOS device? Great questions! As always, we’re here to provide the answers.
What is FLAC, and why is it great?
FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio File. It’s a high-resolution audio 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 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 via compression when it’s created. Yep — up to 90 percent of your favorite music is lost in translation when compressed to MP3. Some people will tell you that you can’t hear the difference, but these people are wrong (or they don’t have good enough listening equipment).
Since FLAC files support higher sample and bit rates than CDs (starting at 24 bits/48kHz), they more accurately reproduce organic audio when they’re played on speakers or in headphones — the higher the numbers, the better the reproduction. It’s also true that if you have better audio components in your playback device, your audio files will sound better, which is why players like Astell & Kern’s AK Jr are worth splurging on, for some. But there’s still an advantage to using hi-res files on your iOS devices.
Apple has its own version of FLAC files, 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 high resolution 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 lots of websites that offer only 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 upload music to an iPhone, iPad, or iPod without going through iTunes, and it won’t accept FLAC files. The solution? Convert them to Apple’s ALAC format. Regardless of whether you have a PC or a Mac, though, 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 from them) is a pointless proposition when it comes to hi-res audio.
dBPowerAmp (PC, Mac)
For your audio file conversion needs, DBPowerAmp is the best choice. The software, compatible with Windows XP and up (as well as MacOS Mountain Lion or newer), can do all sorts of file conversions, as well as batch conversions (for multiple files at a time). The program is blissfully free of frustrating malware toolbars, and 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 $39 for a single PC, and $68 for the family pack. If you’re not convinced, you can try the software free for three weeks.
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, and it’s totally free! The app covers just about any file format you’ll come across, and there’s a comprehensive set of instructions displayed on the website for ease of use. Keep in mind that, after conversion, ALAC audio files can appear as M4A files, since M4A is a container format for all Apple audio files.
Mediahuman (PC, Mac)
If you’re on a Mac, and you don’t want to pay to convert your music files, Mediahuman is (by far) the best way to go. Simply download and install the application, open it, and select ALAC from the dropdown menu at the top. From there, you can drag and drop FLAC files into the app, or use the “+” button to select files from your computer. Mediahuman is capable of converting multiple files simultaneously, it’s relatively fast, and there are no annoying pop-up ads. What’s not to like?
After using one of these applications to convert your audio to ALAC, you must import the files to iTunes, connect your iOS device, and sync your music files to load them the old fashioned 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; in fact, there are several. Most of these apps work by circumventing the standard “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 below 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.
Frankly, 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, we’ve found 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.
If you want to save two dollars on an iOS app to play lossless, non-ALAC audio, Golden Ear will work. The app actually provides a lot of different functions — it can automatically decompress ZIP and RAR audio folders, apply tags and album art, and it even supports AirPlay. The app does add small gaps between tracks, so if you’re looking for a traditional way to listen to albums, you might be disappointed. But, hey, there are other options.
An all-in-one player which offers compatibility for a litany of different video and audio file types, 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. MoliPlayer is limited to iPad use, as well, so you’ll need to explore different options if you want to listen to FLACs on your phone. If you’ve got an iPad, though, this baby will do what you need — and a whole lot more.
Updated on April 25, 2017 by Nick Hastings: Updated for accuracy with current software, and to include Golden Ear and Mediahuman.