One of the most significant advantages of modern music technology is the arrival of digital formats. Whether you download your tracks or stream them, music has never been as accessible as it is now.
Lossless audio has made listening to digital music an even better experience. Diehard audiophiles might tell you that there's a noticeable difference between a standard digital audio file and a lossless file. However, the difference is clear–lossless music is superior in almost every way.
But why is lossless music so great? And what is lossless music, anyway?
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What Is Lossless Music?
When digital music blew up in the late 90s and early 2000s, one of the biggest issues was the amount of time it took to upload, download, or transfer a file. In order to make the whole process easier, distributors shrunk the files down into what’s now known as “lossy” files.
Today, most standard audio files are considered lossy, which means they lose quality when compressed. At its most basic, lossless music is music that hasn't lost any data during the compression process.
When music gets converted from its raw format to a format such as MP3 or MP4, it needs to be compressed. Music files are enormous, so making them smaller is necessary to have a seamless digital music experience.
How Does Audio Compression Affect a File?
To better understand lossless music, you'll need to know how audio compression works. There are two points in which your music gets compressed.
The first time is during the recording stage. Studio compression is what perfects the intricacies of a song. This process lets you hear the lowest basslines and the clearest cymbal crashes. It's an essential step in music production that provides the highest-quality piece possible.
The second time your music gets compressed is during file saving and conversion. This process takes a WAV or AIFF file, which are notoriously huge, and slims it down to a smaller, more manageable format. This second compression process is why you can stream an entire album on your phone without burning straight through your data plan.
The Downside to Compression
In theory, audio file compression is great. It gives listeners access to countless pieces of music without bogging down their devices with massive files that take hours to download.
Unfortunately, that compression squeezes the file in a way that forces small pieces of data out. When this lossy compression happens, you'll end up with lower-quality audio. The solution to this dip in quality is lossless music, which preserves the audio details in a music file without sacrificing space or data.
What Are Lossless Music Formats?
There are a few different types of lossless file formats. However, the two biggest contenders are FLAC, or Free Lossless Audio Codec, and Apple's ALAC format.
Free Lossless Audio Codec, or FLAC, is an open-source lossless audio format that came about in 2000 as a high-quality alternative to the MP3. Its quality is comparable to a CD's, although whether or not it's identical or better is debatable.
The music industry has taken in FLAC as a cost-effective MP3 alternative. It allowed artists to digitally distribute lossless versions of their music at roughly half the size. Since CD sales have seen a drastic decline in the last 20 years, a sound-comparable alternative was necessary.
The benefit of FLAC is that it's supported by most audio devices. It also supports tags, which are what make it so easy to catalog and organize your music. However, a key downside to FLAC is that it doesn't support Digital Rights Management.
Apple Lossless Audio Codec, or ALAC, came into use in 2004 as a proprietary format for Apple Music. However, as of 2011, Apple made the format open-source, making it a key competitor for FLAC.
Like FLAC, ALAC files take up about half the space an uncompressed file would use on your device. However, ALAC uses roughly four times as much CPU power, which can be hard on wireless devices.
If you own Apple devices or listen to Apple Music, you'll want your audio files to be in ALAC format. It's native to all Apple products and doesn't require a third-party program to provide support as FLAC would. So, if given a choice and you own an Apple device, skip FLAC and choose ALAC.
Can You Hear the Difference?
Some might tell you it's impossible to distinguish between lossy and lossless music. But while that may be true for some, it's certainly not the case for everyone. Whether you can hear the difference between these two formats will likely come down to how you're listening.
For example, if you're listening in the car where the environment is polluted with road noise and a roaring engine, it's doubtful you'll pick up on the subtleties of a song. On the other hand, a pair of high-quality noise-canceling headphones or a state-of-the-art sound system will paint the differences in startling clarity.
If you want a good comparison to how lossless works, consider a digital photograph. When you open an image in a program such as Photoshop, you can examine and alter that photo down to every last pixel. However, Photoshop files are huge. So, to make the files usable to the layperson, you'll save them in a compressed format, such as .jpg or PDF. The image looks just as good… until you zoom in.
Music is very similar. Lossy audio might sound perfect at a low-to-medium volume. However, once you crank the volume up, you'll begin to notice the difference between a standard MP3 and a lossless FLAC file. The taps on a guitar solo won't sound quite as defined, the low notes on a piano may sound a bit muddy, and the rapid eighth-note drum beats won't be as distinct.
Where Can You Find Lossless Music?
You can find lossless music in both physical and digital formats. Physical formats will always provide higher quality sound, but lossless digital formats come in at a very close second.
If you want to go straight to the source, you can rip music from CDs to listen to digitally. To do this, you’ll need to be able to convert your tracks to a lossless audio format like ALAC or FLAC. Then, you can play them on your computer or another device.
One of the most accessible ways to listen to lossless music is through streaming services. However, not all streaming services provide lossless audio. Most of the big names in streaming, including Apple Music, Amazon, and Spotify, all offer lossless music.
Can You Listen to Lossless Music Wirelessly?
The ability to listen to music wirelessly has become a necessity for many listeners. Whether through headphones or a speaker, wireless access to music makes listening to your favorite tracks possible in more scenarios.
But when it comes to lossless music, all wireless devices don’t offer the same features. This includes the ability to listen to lossless music wirelessly.
Airpods, wireless earbuds, and headphones that are controlled through Bluetooth make listening to music on a Bluetooth-enabled device simple. Unfortunately, Bluetooth isn’t capable of streaming lossless music.
However, you have options if you still want to stream high-quality music over Bluetooth. For example, certain devices allow you to play the LDAC format, which goes up to 990 kbps. Although it isn’t quite the same as FLAC’s 1,411 kbps, you’ll still get great sound.
If you want to listen to lossless music wirelessly, you’ll have to do so over your wireless internet connection. This is because a wireless signal has the proper bandwidth for streaming lossless music, so long as your connection isn’t clogged up with other users.
The main downside to wifi-only listening is that you may not always have access to wifi. If you’re in a place where your only access to music is via Bluetooth, you might have to deal with lossy music for the time being.
What’s the Best Way to Listen to Lossless Music?
How you should listen to your lossless music depends on your device. Listening recommendations will vary quite slightly depending on whether you’re listening on an iPhone, Android device, or through your computer.
Regardless of which device you choose, your best bet is to find a pair of noise-canceling headphones. These will allow you to hear the subtleties in each note.
The first thing to note about listening to lossless music on your Apple device is that you won’t be able to use your AirPods. Since AirPods require Bluetooth, they aren’t capable of supporting lossless audio.
The simple solution is to use a pair of wired headphones if you want the best experience. But if you own a newer iPhone, you know the answer isn’t really that simple, since the most recent iterations of the iPhone no longer support a 3.5 mm headphone jack.
Of course, you can connect your AirPods with the Lighting jack, but that doesn’t solve the problem because the Lightning connection doesn’t support lossless, either. So instead, you’ll have to pick up a Lighting-to-3.5 mm DAC to convert your digital audio to analog.
Many Android users will run into similar issues as Apple users. However, others will have an easier time listening to lossless music. Although Apple and many other phone manufacturers have been ditching antiquated 3.5 mm jacks, there are still some Android phones that offer them.
If you have an Android device that supports 3.5mm headphones, all you’ll need to do is set up your music and start listening. However, if your phone doesn’t have a jack, you’ll need to purchase a converter. A USB-C-3.5 mm DAC will take care of the problem for you.
Through Your Computer
Listening to lossless music through your computer can often give you benefits you won’t get from a wireless device. Audio controls might be more complex, you’ll be streaming over wifi, and computer speakers are often superior to standard headphones.
If you still want to use headphones, you can connect them directly through your computer using a cord or your wireless signal. Or, if you don’t want headphones, simply play the music through your speakers.
Are Lossless and High-Resolution Music the Same?
Now that you understand what lossless music is, you might be wondering if it’s the same thing as high-resolution music. There are a few key differences, but the most important thing to remember is one isn’t inherently better than the other.
Lossless audio gives you the benefit of untouched music files. You’ll hear your music exactly as the artist intended. However, if the original audio file was only mediocre in quality, you’ll get a mediocre lossless file, too.
In other words, converting to a lossless format doesn’t improve the resolution. Instead, it maintains it.
On the other hand, high-resolution audio provides higher sampling and bit depth than lower resolutions. This type of music can be lossless or lossy, but it’s always high quality.
Is Lossless Music Worth the Cost?
Several streaming services offer lossless music. However, it can be tough to determine whether it’s worth the cost of a subscription to get the music. So, how do you decide?
Essentially, you’ll need to do your research. And by research, that means take some time to listen to lossless music, compare it to its lower-quality counterparts, and see if you notice the difference. The best way to do this is through noise-canceling headphones that seal out any environmental noise pollution.
If your ears pick up on a clear difference, then the cost of a lossless music subscription might be worth it. However, if you don’t notice a difference or that difference is negligible, you could probably stick with cheaper streaming services.
What Is Lossless Music? Final Thoughts
Lossless music is the music industry’s answer to the decline of CDs. FLAC and ALAC files allow you to compress music without losing any data that could affect its quality. Not only will it take up less space on your phone or computer, but the music will sound great, too!