You wouldn’t buy a Tesla only to equip it with the cheapest available tires. No, that’d be silly. Yet, when it comes to FLAC audio, we let our excitement get the best of us. Rather than making sure we have the necessary equipment to get the most out of our beloved lossless files, we buy FLAC albums in droves and think our current setups are good enough. Time to gather those Michelin-quality audio products for the best listening experience possible.
What is FLAC and why should you care?
FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec, and it’s a digital audio format similar to that of the MP3 file. There are plenty of intricacies surrounding various file formats, but all you need to know now is that FLAC files do not discard data, while MP3s do. Audio purists are drawn to FLAC because it leaves the recording untouched. Chicago-based musician Rymo. shared his thoughts with me about the importance of FLAC audio,
It’s the closest [listeners] can get to hearing studio quality resolutions in the age of streaming. Its availability and increasing popularity makes it easier to get more from a sound source—something that was an obsession during the days of vinyl, but has been replaced by an obsession with having access to a massive catalog of music.
All right, time to get down to it and learn how to get the most out of those FLAC files.
Step 1: Make sure your device supports FLAC playback
All Android smartphones and tablets support FLAC audio playback so long as they run on Android 3.1 or later. Unless you’re using a technological dinosaur, chances are your smartphone will support FLAC files. As of iOS 11, iPhones also support FLAC playback; previously it only supported ALAC, Apple’s proprietary lossless codec. For anyone using an iPhone 5S or later-released iPhone, you’ll be able to use FLAC files without converting them to ALAC or playing through a third-party app.
Step 2: Invest in quality audio hardware
That’s right, getting the most out of premium audio isn’t the most budget-friendly endeavor. Those gas station earbuds you picked up last week? Yeah, they won’t be doing you any favors here; each piece in the hi-res audio machine matters. This doesn’t mean you have to get the most expensive headset your credit limit allows, nor should you, but it does mean you should feel comfortable throwing down more than $50 on headphones.
Do you need a DAC for FLAC?
A digital-to-analog conversion unit (DAC) is rarely ever a necessity when working with modern hardware. Digital music has since advanced from the days of DIY DACs, and integrated hardware found in your smartphone is well equipped for high-bitrate playback.
In general, you're going to want to use the money you'd spend on a DAC on storage instead.
The only reason you should get a DAC in 2020, is if your source device (e.g. computer) is introducing noise, or if it’s unable to output files at their native specs. According to Albert Yong of Bowers & Wilkins, FLAC comes in a variety of flavors ranging from 4 to 32 bits and a multitude of sample rates. The fact of the matter is that you’re unlikely to need a DAC for consumer FLAC files like those from Bandcamp, Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer.
In general, you’re going to want to use the money you’d spend on a DAC on storage instead.
Why good headphones matter with FLAC
If you want to appreciate all of the untouched harmonic resonances living in your FLAC files, then you need headphones that can reproduce them accurately. There’s no need to go overboard on spending, as there’s a point of diminishing returns, but you bet your bottom dollar the Sennheiser HD 598 SE sound better than the Jabra Move Style Wireless. Those who want to observe a realistic sense of 3D space should consider open-back headphones. You don’t have to go crazy; even the $99 Grado SR80e will do wonders for a high-resolution file.
Have realistic expectations. If a file was mixed poorly, those flaws will sound more apparent in a FLAC file than MP3
This is a double-edged sword, however; once you get a good pair of headphones, you may notice imperfections in low-resolution audio files, and not the charming imperfections found in guitar distortion from your favorite garage-grown band. A headset that accurately reproduces detail and clarity makes high-quality files sound great and low-quality files sound less so. Plus, just because it’s a lossless audio file doesn’t guarantee that the recording and mixing methods were top-notch. Any production and post-production errors that were easy to ignore in an MP3 will be that much worse with a FLAC file.
Related: Best headphone amps
Now, another question often fielded to us is, “Do I need an amp?” There’s no reason to overcomplicate this: if you can get your music up to a pleasurable volume with loudness to spare with your existing setup, you don’t need an amp. On the off chance that you’re unable to reach a comfortable volume, a headphone amplifier may be in the cards for you. If that’s the case, please direct your attention to Mr. Thomas’ headphone amp guide.
For readers not yet ready to embrace the audiophile bug and incur some financial costs, FLAC audio may not be the investment to make today.
How to enjoy lossless audio on a budget
Those doing mental math may be a bit overwhelmed by the costs you’re about to incur. As someone who prides herself on her frugality, I’m happy to share basic workarounds to costly headphones.
Sure, $100-plus is pretty reasonable in the grand scheme of audio gear, but it’s more than a drop in the bucket for many of us. An easy way to save money is to buy used or refurbished products, especially on name brands like Sennheiser or Audio-Technica. Not only does this lessen the cost to you, but it also reduces waste and resource scouring which is neat, too.
Let’s say you’re not particularly picky about your music. Well, there are great options out there with low-cost or even free FLAC albums. Bandcamp is a great resource as many lesser-known artists will make their albums available as hi-res downloads for free. If you’re able, you should support the artist, but this remains a legal avenue for audiophiles to get their free kicks.
Alternatively, those who frequently purchase lossless albums may find a subscription to Tidal HiFi or Qobuz Studio Premier worth it. For $19.99/mo or $14.99/mo, respectively, you’re afforded access to thousands of high-resolution files at any time. That means by streaming just one or two albums a month means you’ll break even. The drawback to these services is that you don’t own the content once you end your subscription, but some may easily reconcile with this.
Step 3: Find a proper fit with your headphones
I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: your headset—or in this case, your audio format—is only as good as the seal you achieve. Similar to high-quality Bluetooth codecs, lossless audio doesn’t really matter once auditory masking makes itself present.
In short, auditory masking is when a loud sound makes it more difficult to perceive a relatively quieter one. This is because our brains have limited bandwidth when it comes to auditory processing, which was useful when caves were common shelter and finger painting was high-brow entertainment. Today, it’s less likely that we’ll need to be keenly aware of a large, looming predator, so this is yet another example of how our physiology has yet to catch up with the modern lifestyle.
If your headphones don't fit properly, you won't hear all that high-res audio files afford.
How does this translate to degrading sound quality? Well, when a loud external noise (e.g. passing car) permeates the physical barrier of your earphones, our brains raise the alarms and focus on the loud, threatening sound over the quieter music. It’s not that your music decreases in loudness anytime a train car breezes by, it’s that our brains have shifted focus as a means of survival. Again, brilliant job, evolution, but not the best for enjoying music.
Combating this phenomenon is simple though; take a few minutes to find a proper fit. For over-ear headphones, this means adjusting the headband and yoke until a seal is formed around the ear. Anyone using earbuds should experiment with the provided ear tips for a cogent seal. If none of the supplied options work, you may need to look into third-party options. Regardless of what variety of headset you prefer, optimal audio quality will only be achieved with an appropriate fit.
While I certainly appreciate lossless audio formats and take the time to enjoy them from my home, it’s ok to forgo FLAC files. They’re more cumbersome and costly than MP3s. Plus, not everyone cares for high-fidelity audio, and that’s ok—enjoy your music how you want not how someone tells you it should be enjoyed. This article is just a simple reminder of things to keep in mind for FLAC fans, whether you’re just starting your hi-res audio endeavors or consider yourself a lossless audio veteran.