Taking FLAC

Like a good number of computer owners over the last decade or so, I have been building, gradually, a personal music library from CDs and (legitimate) Internet downloads. It now stands at nearly four thousand tracks, although probably a couple of hundred are just audio files which aren’t music, and/or are of limited interest even to myself, but I’ve never got around to deleting them.

Unlike many computer owners with a digital music library, however, most of my tracks are not in MP3 (or, for the iTunes contingent, AAC) format. The majority of them are Ogg Vorbis files—Ogg Vorbis being an open-source MP3 alternative, which often provides subjectively higher audio quality whilst outputting slightly smaller files. The rest of my library is made up of MP3s, plus a small but growing number of FLAC files (of which more in a moment).

One might argue that by choosing Ogg Vorbis over MP3, I was not exactly making life easy for myself, and to some extent that is true. Whilst OV certainly has its benefits (the aforementioned sound quality; excellent native support on Linux systems; much-reduced risk from patent-related issues which might befall MP3), most hardware digital music players like Apple’s iPods won’t play Ogg audio, and the number of the few machines which will, seems to be decreasing even further.

This is becoming an issue for me at the moment, as I have started looking for a DLNA-based (or similar) network music player, to “stream” my music collection from our home server to our hifi (and thus hopefully one day consign our CDs to the attic). You can guess what I’ve found: almost none of the network music player devices out there support Ogg audio files, and some will only play MP3s and Windows Media. (Our home server can convert less common file types to WAV format “on the fly”, which can then be played on many of these machines, but I’d rather not have to fall back on that.)

By far the widest audio file support in network audio players, seems to be provided by Logitech’s Squeezebox range, which will play Oggs amongst other file types. Whilst a Squeezebox device would allow me to play my entire collection without needing to do any file-converting, their current range of players seems to be either too expensive, or won’t connect to a hifi amplifier, and the one player which would really fit the bill (the “Squeezebox Classic”) has been discontinued. Whilst I’m not ruling out an eBay hunt entirely, I’d rather avoid it 🙂

So, what does this have to do with my music library? Well, in a nutshell: I have just decided that, with heavy heart, I’m ditching Ogg Vorbis as my preferred audio file format for my collection. I still think OV is technically superior to MP3, and I prefer open-source software where possible; however (and I know this could be debated hotly), I feel Vorbis has become a dead-end in terms of hardware support—to put it crudely, a bit of a Betamax. Ultimately, for me, it boils down to this: what’s the use of having a library of Ogg audio tracks, when hardly any hardware players will play them?

So, if I’m not going to replace Ogg with MP3, what format will I choose? The answer was revealed in passing earlier: I’m switching to FLAC.

It’s actually a “no-brainer” for me for quite a few reasons:

  • Unlike both Ogg Vorbis and MP3, FLAC is a “lossless” compressed audio format. In layman’s terms, this means that although the files are larger than most MP3s (one minute of CD-quality audio compressed by FLAC equals about 5Mb file size), no information is thrown away during the process. Result: FLAC files have precisely the same sound quality as the originating recording, which should make a difference on a reasonable hifi like mine.
  • Despite being larger than most MP3s and Oggs, FLAC files aren’t much bigger, and besides, hard drives have grown immensely in storage capacity since I started building my library!
  • I’ve been using FLAC for some time already—for instance, I upload my recordings to my Bandcamp page in FLAC format (same quality, but 50% smaller than WAVs), and if legitimate download sites provide the option to download music as FLACs (two that do: Bandcamp and Robert Fripp’s DGMLive), I always take it.
  • A surprising number of hardware network audio players support FLAC but not Ogg Vorbis (I think that was the clincher for me).
  • FLAC is an open-source format like Ogg, so I’m not compromising my principles 😉

So, this evening I’ve made my first CD rip for my own collection, in FLAC format, and whichever hardware music player I end up choosing, I believe it will not be the last.

(I know, I know: I’ll try and write something not-geeky tomorrow 😉 )

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