While 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 the company sells you. It can be frustrating to drop thousands on high-end hardware, only to be limited by the Apple ecosystem.
If you’re a fan of hi-res audio, you may be wondering how to get your iOS device to play nicely with a decidedly un-Apple high-resolution audio file that is among the most popular file formats: FLAC. Our handy guide will give you all the tools you need, letting you know exactly what FLAC files are, what their advantage is, and most importantly, how to play them on your iOS device.
What are FLAC files, and what are their advantages?
(Note: If you’re already generally familiar with FLAC files, feel free to skip to the next section.)
FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. It’s a high-resolution audio file that has been compressed (usually from a larger WAV file) so it’s more manageable to store. The “lossless” compression of FLAC files means that, while they’re around half the size of a hi-res WAV file, none of the information has been discarded. Conversely, while an MP3 only takes up a few megabytes of space, it is a “lossy” file, and dumps up to 90 percent of the original file via compression when it’s created.
Since FLAC files support higher sample and bit rates than CDs (starting at 24 bits/48kHz), they can more accurately reproduce the original studio recording when sourced through playback devices and speakers with high-quality components. The better the internal components, the better your FLAC files will sound, which is why stand-alone audio players like Astell & Kern’s SP1000M are worth splurging on for serious listeners. But there’s still an advantage to using hi-res files on your iOS devices.
Apple has its own version of lossless compression files, called Apple Lossless Audio Files (ALAC), which have identical sonic properties to FLAC. 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. There are lots of high-res audio websites, however, that use FLAC files as their preferred file type. On top of that, you (or someone you know) may already own a few FLAC files, making it worthwhile to incorporate them into your iOS library. FLAC is the open-source format, and therefore, the standard.
How to convert FLAC files to ALAC (so your iPhone can read them)
The standard path to adding files to your iPhone, iPad, or iPod runs 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 rates. 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 among the best choices available. The software, compatible with Windows XP and up (as well as Mac OS X Mavericks or newer), can perform 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, even allowing for the addition of 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 expensive, priced at $39 for a single Mac or PC, $68 for the family pack, and $88 for a PC and Mac family pack. If you’re not convinced, you can try the software free for three weeks.
Any Audio Converter (PC)
If you’re a PC owner who doesn’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 an excellent way to go. Simply download and install the application, open it, and select “ALAC” from the drop-down 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 once 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, you may find things 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 downloaded through the app store on iTunes.
Most users of open-source software will immediately recognize VLC’s little orange cone, which all but translates into “any file.” VideoLan’s popular software is a staple for those who need file versatility and, as mentioned in the comments, it’s also a popular app for the iPhone when it comes to playing back a host of files, including FLAC files. The app is free and has garnered relatively strong reviews, though some have reported some latency and stuttering issues in the past.
For its generally high review rating (and relatively cheap price point), Golden Ear is among the best ways to play lossless, non-ALAC audio on your iOS device. 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.
One of the better options as far as features and stability, this $10 app will do the trick, and even includes some pretty stellar features like multi-band EQ, detailed file information, and more. It has been known to stall out on occasion, ranking just under a three-star rating on iTunes (out of just 11 reviews, mind you).
An all-in-one player that 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 also limited to iPad use, 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.