FLAC vs. MP3

FLAC vs. MP3: Which format should you use and when should you use it?

If you spend enough time reading up on digital audio — and it probably doesn’t take that long — chances are near 100 percent that you’ll encounter someone extolling the virtues of the FLAC format while claiming that MP3 files are a crime against music. Whether this level of hyperbole over FLAC vs. MP3 has you clamoring to learn more or run screaming, there are some important differences between the two formats, and it goes beyond which one is objectively “better.”

We’re here to break down the strengths and weaknesses of the two for you and explain when you want to use one instead of the other. Before we move on, it’s best to start by explaining the main difference between the two: It all comes down to compression.

Different types of compression

FLAC and MP3 take radically different approaches to compression. FLAC uses what is known as lossless compression, where MP3 uses lossy compression. Both of these have their uses, and the implications go beyond audio.

Lossy

If you’ve seen an image on the internet — and clearly you have because there are some in this very article — you’ve seen lossy compression in use. Lossy compression gives you smaller file sizes because it is essentially throwing away parts of the image that you don’t need to see. You can take a larger photo and shrink it to a smaller size, but you can’t ever scale it back up to the original size because those parts that were tossed away are gone forever.

Compressed vs Uncompressed Audio
Bowers & Wilkins

If you take an MP3 and convert it into a standard WAV file, all the parts that went missing during the compression process are still missing. If you convert that file back to MP3 and then to WAV again, you’ll generally find even more parts missing.

Lossless

Unlike lossy compression, lossless compression can give you the original, uncompressed file. Like a ZIP file that gives you a folder full of files on your computer, lossless compression is shrinking the overall size of the package without getting rid of anything in the process. Unlike an MP3, a compressed FLAC file can be restored to its original WAV format fully intact.

When you should use FLAC

Just because FLAC keeps all the audio information of the original file it was converted from, that doesn’t mean it’s the best to use at all times. Where FLAC really shines is for archiving music. Are you looking to rip your CDs to a hard drive then box them up in your attic or garage? FLAC is where you want to go because if you ever want to burn a CD with a few songs, for example, you’ll have all the audio fidelity of the original CD.

Astell & Kern AK320
Astell & Kern AK320 Ryan Waniata/Digital Trends

Just beware: FLAC files use more space than an MP3, so you’ll need plenty of storage. It’s for this reason that you might not want to opt for FLAC if you’re using a laptop with 128GB of storage and want to save room for apps, photos, and other files. You can always convert your FLAC files to MP3 to use with devices with limited storage or those that don’t support FLAC. More and more devices and operating systems are adding support for FLAC, but you might need a standalone app to play files depending on the device.

When you should use MP3s

Because MP3s don’t retain the full quality of the original, they’re not an ideal choice for archiving your music. They can work in a pinch, but if you burn a CD of songs in the MP3 format, the overall fidelity will be less than the CDs you ripped them from. You might not hear the difference, but it will be there.

If you’ve invested in a high-resolution audio player or have a high-quality DAC and amp, you probably want to use FLAC.

Speaking of hearing a difference, you’ll be glad to know that the bad old days of MP3s with clearly audible artifacts and swishy sounding cymbals are largely behind us. Tech has advanced, and as long as you’re encoding at a fairly high bitrate like 320 kbps, the sound will be very similar to the original, to the point that some people (some might even say most people) won’t be able to distinguish between the two.

If all you’re doing is listening on your laptop or your phone, MP3 should be fine. If you’ve invested in a high-resolution audio player like those sold by Astell & Kern and other companies, or if you have a high-quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and headphone amp, you probably want to encode in FLAC or another lossless format. Otherwise, you’ve just spent a bunch of money on a Ferrari only to drive it around a parking lot.

Conclusion

If you’re looking to preserve your CD collection with the knowledge that you may want to convert it later, there is a clear answer to which format is best for you. The same is true if you want to cram as much music as possible onto your phone with 32GB of storage. Your choice should serve your needs. The issue gets a little more complicated when you’re looking at buying new music, especially depending on the bitrate, but you can always compress a file more. That can’t be done the other way around.

Once your music collection is ripped to flawless FLAC and you’re ready to listen back, be sure to take a look at our list of the best headphones you can buy to make the most out of your music library.

Home Theater

Bowers & Wilkins’ upgraded 600 Series speakers hit stores

Bowers & Wilkins has revamped its entry-level speaker lineup, borrowing some goodness from the company's flagship 800 Series speakers, which brings a more refined sound signature while keeping impressively low price points. What's not to…
Mobile

Images of the Samsung Galaxy S9's new Android 9.0 Pie interface have emerged

The Samsung Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus are here. The flagship devices boast some awesome new features and a powerful new processor. Here's everything you need to know about these Samsung phones.
Home Theater

Want to save your favorite film? Here's how to fix a scratched DVD or CD

A scratched edition of your favorite DVD is no good, but our guide will show you how to fix a scratched DVD, whether you prefer to repair it using a smattering of peanut butter or Mr. Clean's Magic Eraser.
Home Theater

What is MHL, exactly, and how does it work with your TV?

There are more ways to mirror your smartphone or tablet to your TV than you might think. Check out our rundown of MHL for everything you need to know about the wired protocol and its myriad uses.
Music

Apple Music vs. Spotify: Which service is the streaming king?

Apple Music is giving Spotify a run for its money, but which service is best for you? In our Apple Music vs. Spotify showdown, we compare and contrast all we know about the two streaming music services.
Movies & TV

2018 Emmy Awards winners: The night of ‘Mrs. Maisel’ and diversity

The 2018 Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Colin Jost and Michael Che, was full of laughs and drama, as well as some surprises. Here is the full list of nominees, winners, and highlights from the show.
Home Theater

The B-Sharp turntable proves high-end audio can become a family heirloom

European Audio Team's B-Sharp turntable offers high-end buyers gorgeous sound and an astonishing build quality, making it a fantastic choice for those who are looking for a lifelong addition to their audio arsenal.
Home Theater

Thanks to Dish Network, you can now watch live TV on American Airlines flights

Are you headed on a cross-country flight but don’t want to miss any of the fall TV premieres? Dish Network and American Airlines have partnered to bring 12 live TV channels to 100 aircraft, with plans for that number to jump to 700 in…
Home Theater

TV calibration 101: Here's how to tune up the picture of your new TV

You’ve got your new TV out of the box, but now what? Our TV picture adjustment guide takes you through the simple steps to get the best picture from your brand new TV so you can set it and forget it.
Movies & TV

More photos from 'It: Chapter Two' bring more Pennywise (and nightmare fuel)

A second film based on Stephen King's novel It hits theaters in September 2019. Here's everything we know about It: Chapter 2, which is set 27 years after the events of 2017's box-office blockbuster, It.
Deals

Cyber Monday 2018: When it takes place and where to find the best deals

Cyber Monday is still a ways off, but it's never too early to start planning ahead. With so many different deals to choose from during one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year, going in with a little know-how makes all the…
Movies & TV

‘Black Panther’ director Ryan Coogler gets assist on LeBron James’ ‘Space Jam 2’

LeBron James has brought on Black Panther director Ryan Coogler to produce his upcoming Space Jam sequel, with Terence Nance attached to direct the film. Space Jam 2 is expected to begin production in 2019.
Home Theater

DirecTV Now: Everything you need to know

If you’re looking to ditch your cable or satellite subscription, DirecTV Now could be the perfect service for you. Our comprehensive guide breaks the service down feature by feature so you can see if it's right for you.
Product Review

The Sony UBP-X700 brings your 4K TV to life, without draining your savings

If you're after the best possible picture for your 4K TV, you're going to need a disc player. With a compact form factor, extremely easy setup, and great picture and sound quality, the Sony UBP-X700 may be just the ticket.