FLAC audio

FLAC is a lossless audio compression format that, unlike mp3, can capture the full fidelity of a digital audio recording. Some websites are now offering master-quality music in FLAC format, which you can listen to as-is or convert it to other formats such as .ogg or .mp3.

Notes about FLAC:

  • FLAC is a lossless format: if you create an archive of a music CD with FLAC, it will retain true fidelity with the source (44.1 kHz/16 bit). It is a good archival format.
  • FLAC is the audio format supported by the Pono player, but there are other portable players available, from manufacturers such as Cowon, Fiio, and iBasso.
  • FLAC audio is not limited to CD-quality audio. Some websites let you download audio files in “mastering” quality audio, typically 192 kHz/24 bit.

Sites that offer FLAC downloads

  • Bandcamp - I am a Bandcamp member, and really like its model. It reminds me a bit of eMusic back in the good ol’ days, but is even better—it’s comprised primarily of independent artists, and offers high quality FLAC recordings (as well as other formats) directly from the artists. Brilliant!!

    Note

    My friends, Letters From Traffic, are available on Bandcamp. ;)

  • HDTracks - I haven’t ordered anything from this site yet, but they seem to have a stunning collection of music encoded in better-than-CD quality (96 kHz/24 bit).

  • Linn Records - Seems to have an enormous collection of Classical and Jazz music, some in studio-master quality (192 khz/24 bit) audio.

There are, of course, many more sites that offer high-quality audio. There’s a pretty exhaustive list at AudioStream.

Thoughts about high-definition audio

Whether or not it makes sense to encode music at such high definition is a matter of much debate lately. An article at xiph.org claims that 192 khz/24 bit audio makes no sense.

I’m not quite convinced… while it’s certainly relevant to discuss the limitations of the human ear as the article does, we mustn’t be so myopic to not see that we listen to music with more than merely our ears. Music is a fully physical experience. We feel the vibrations of it in the air, in the floor, and throughout our bodies with more than the apparatus stuck to the sides of our head. Sound waves emanating from a source (which, while sounding, is vibrating at frequencies that are both in and out of range of the sensitivity of the human ear) will resonate with other objects in the environment which, in turn, cast off their own vibrations. The human bathing in the center of all of this is experiencing the music on many different levels, not all of them strictly auditory.

It makes more sense to me to discuss the equipment between the audio file and the air: your digital audio player (DAP) and any equipment, such as sound processors and speakers, that transmit the digital bits into physical waves of sound. If these components cannot accurately reproduce the sounds that are encoded within a high definition audio file, then the question of whether or not you can hear the full range of sounds preserved in the recording is a moot one.

However—if we assume that the equipment can handle high bitrate/high sample-rate audio and reproduce it accurately, then to focus strictly on the capabilities of the human ear might make sense if all one does is listen to music on headphones—but music that’s played in the open air (as live music is) affects the entire environment in which it’s played.

When I play my cello, for example—I hear a certain amount of sound through my ears, but at the same time, I also feel the vibration of the strings through the floorboards of my practice space. I experience the feathery pulse of the music on my skin, and the air in the room shimmers with the sound. In fact, the entire science of auditory acoustics is concerned with the shaping of sound waves and of their interaction with different materials in the environment. I feel that music is done a disservice if we focus merely on the ear as its delivery mechanism. The cochlea within our ears are not the only means by which we perceive, or even enjoy, music.

The less information that you store—if you do not allow for the presence of those subsonic or supersonic vibrations and their interaction with the environment, you are not experiencing the music the way you would if these frequencies are present. Let as many of them ring out as possible, I say!