Beating a Dead Horse but, is flac worth it?
June 5, 2014 1:58 PM   Subscribe

Well is it just a placebo or does it actually sound even the tiniest bit better than an mp3 encoded with the highest quality settings possible? Only about 1/3 of my music is currently on cds though and not sure if it's worth hunting down the rest at garage sales etc just to upgrade from mp3s averaging 256kbps. Most of the time I listen to music is when walking around town, sitting at the computer, doing household chores,or playing videogames
posted by mamamia88 to Technology (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Listening to it? Likely not unless you are reeeeealy paying attention. IMO the quality of your headphones and music play will matter more then 256mp3 vs flac
For longer term storage, or any amount of copying the files as hard drives get old/back-up I definitely go with flac
posted by edgeways at 2:06 PM on June 5, 2014

I do have 2 spare harddrives with my current cds on them I'm just not sure if it's worth going out and buying more cds just for flac.
posted by mamamia88 at 2:07 PM on June 5, 2014

I use a program called 'flac mp3 converter', purely to turn the mp3s into a more stable long term format. But that really just depends on your level of obsessiveness.
posted by edgeways at 2:14 PM on June 5, 2014

Listening on my computer or iPhone with stock headphones, I don't notice the difference. I am not an audiophile.
posted by Sara C. at 2:15 PM on June 5, 2014

With modern MP3 encoding you are unlikely to notice a difference, unless you have trained yourself to notice specific artifacts that can sometimes be common to the format (don't do this).

However, part of the value of FLAC (and really, any other lossless format, like Apple Lossless) is archival. You can rest easy that should your format of choice ever become obsolete or unsupported on your favorite devices (unlikely as that is with MP3) you can convert to another format without additional quality loss.

Many devices (Apple's being the ones I am directly familiar with) allow you to store and listen to music on your computer in lossless format, and convert on-the-fly to MP3 or AAC when syncing to your phone/portal player. This is what I do.
posted by AndrewInDC at 2:25 PM on June 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't notice a difference,aurally. I only keep flacs of CDs I am ripping and then disposing of, because then I retain the option of later, lossy compression, or not, down the road.

I would not seek out the physical CD if I already have reasonably high bitrate encoded MP3s of same. Am also not an audiophile.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 2:28 PM on June 5, 2014

any amount of copying the files as hard drives get old/back-up I definitely go with flac ...
more stable long term format

Could you explain this more, edgeways? Does copying an mp3 file have any effect on its quality? What do you mean by 'stable'?
posted by soelo at 2:33 PM on June 5, 2014

I believe what edgeways is talking about is the fact (or at least near-fact) that, someday, we will not be listening to our music as MP3s anymore. There will be some other format that we'll convert all of our music to. And if we convert from one lossy format to another lossy format, we're multiplying those losses.
posted by mskyle at 2:39 PM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

when you're listening to it at home, how nice is your system?

I used to have a serious DAC with big thick cables going into a class A tube amp, run through more big thick cables into some really nice vintage speakers.

The difference was IMMEDIATELY obvious on that system. And almost entirely centered in extreme high and low frequency ranges. You could pepsi challenge it and you'd immediately be able to tell.

Inversely, just going from my laptops internal headphone preamp to some decent headphones(sennheiser 212 or 280pro) or even kinda expensive headphones(shure e4c, ultimate ears superfi.5, AKG K240, etc) i couldn't really tell. If you slap a nice DAC+preamp between the computer and your headphones it's mildly noticeable, but not zomg game changer.

the ability of the former setup to "pressurize a room" rivaled vinyl. It was as impressive as a very, very nice old ADS cd player i have plugged into a high end integrated amp and very large speakers. you had to fiddle to get even a bit of that experience with headphones though. with speakers, you could literally feel the difference at moderate volumes simply because of the higher amount of low frequency information making it out.

FLAC is like premium gas. If you have a porsche 911 turbo or something, then it's worth it and in fact indicated to use. But in just a honda civic or something? you'll never notice.

If you want to go FLAC, for reasons other than long term storage, you're going to have to upgrade the rest of your listening system to really enjoy the difference it can make. This could consist of a $100 DAC+headphone preamp and another $100 on some audio technica m50s or something, or hundreds of dollars at your local vintage stereo refurbishing shop, or nice DAC to plug in to your existing good system for playing vinyl, or whatever... My and others advice in the recent "how to play vinyl good" ask thread would be helpful there.

Could you explain this more, edgeways? Does copying an mp3 file have any effect on its quality? What do you mean by 'stable'?

In 2084 no one will be using mp3s, someone will have developed something that compresses losslessly or at an extremely higher rate of fidelity in the same, a bit more, or possibly even less space than an MP3. Or we'll all have 16 petabyte quantum SSDs in our ipad nanos or whatever and just fill them with FLACs, and 2 channel files will be "vintage".

The point is, flac is source material. It's the same as having a CD, if you did a secure rip. You can convert it to whatever you need later. An MP3 is going to be a total dead end format, and odd/rare content that can't be found in any other format will be like stuff that was only released on VHS or cassette now. See where i'm going?
posted by emptythought at 2:39 PM on June 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

But to clarify the point about long-term storage, there is really no point to converting your MP3s to FLAC. The FLACs will be the same quality as the original lossy MP3s, and the chances of wanting to convert to some new format and being unable to convert directly from MP3 are so small that it's not even worth worrying about. Lossless if a good long-term storage answer if you re-rip from the original CDs.
posted by AndrewInDC at 2:43 PM on June 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Placebo is rife in audio. I have never been able to tell the difference, though this ABX test shows a discernible difference in some kinds of music - however he does note that listening to it for differences that hard meant he didn't enjoy the music :)
posted by Sebmojo at 3:03 PM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

You could do an A/B test to see if you really can tell the difference. It's very easy to fool yourself otherwise.

There are a few mp3-specific coding issues that you can pick up on if you train yourself to listen out for them supposedly. Newer codecs are better, but you'll only really notice the difference at lower bitrates.
posted by pharm at 3:23 PM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh and to say something i forgot to say, which Sebmojo sort of got into, the perceiveable difference even on that really nice system i once had varied a lot between different music types. older or accousticy stuff with very crisp clear female vocals(and to a lesser extent male vocals, especially raspy stuff), stuff with strings, and stuff with really prominent bass guitar were the most obvious. I also had the Berlin philharmonic box set of Beethoven works in flac and that sounded HUGELY different.

A lot of stuff though, the difference was meh to not so much noticeable. Remasters of stuff that had been like, a half speed direct to disc vinyl master from the 70s or 80s would be impressive. As would just really well produced/recorded older stuff. I remember particularly being impressed with daft punks "discovery" on that crisp, defined edges of sound front... but that was an outlier from a lot of newer non-classical non-acoustic stuff.

Depending on what genres of music you typically listen to it might not make that big of a difference. I came to this realization, and switched to storing everything in vbr -V0 MP3's and playing them back as such. A lot of the mid to hi fi gear went into storage too, besides my turntable and a preamp for it.(mostly because of lack of room, but also because i realized that only once in a while did i want to play that one vinyl or CD at the absolute best quality and just chill and drink tea or whatever)
posted by emptythought at 3:23 PM on June 5, 2014

Even if you have a lame music system now, in the future, when you have more time to be interested/serious about music, and/or if you decide to get a fancy music system for an event or something, and/or if you have limited mobility and music becomes more important to you, then you may be in a position to appreciate the extra fineness available to you by having your music encoded and stored carefully. That is, even if you can't tell FLAC from MP3 now, you might care someday. Or your kids might.
posted by amtho at 4:00 PM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's an idea: take your favorite album, of which you have the CD, and rip to both MP3 and FLAC. A/B it over the course of a week, maybe, and decide for yourself. Only you can really answer the "is it worth it?" question. Antho's advice about planning for the future is great, though.
posted by destructive cactus at 5:24 PM on June 5, 2014

You know, I can hear the difference between FLACs and MP3s encoded at 320. I once recorded a bunch of my vinyl in 16/44 WAVs and FLACced them, ages and ages ago. Then I made high-bit-rate MP3s out of them. These are my most beloved records - I know every pop, every crackle.

The place where the MP3 quality reduction was most obvious was in the pop and crackle. But once I could hear that, then I found lots more to hear, over the coming years. "Oh, that filter sweep sounds like ass now." "Oh, he knocked the mic stand with the neck of his guitar, I can totally hear how that was poorly encoded." "Oh, the high end was destroyed, here. Totally ruined."

On preview: Encode in FLAC! Do it for the children!
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 5:28 PM on June 5, 2014

FLAC comes closer to capturing the original source of the recording than MP3 does. It's a lossless format. There are others, such as Ape and Wavpack that function in a similar manner. These formats make for larger file sizes than MP3, because they are presenting you with more of the original recording, sonically speaking. Yes, FLAC is well worth it, except for the most casual listening. It's all I listen to anymore (and I have neither particular good hearing or an awesome sound system.) Also, you can always make a good MP3 out of a FLAC file while trying to do the opposite will just give you an overly large MP3 file. Go for lossless.
posted by metagnathous at 7:13 PM on June 5, 2014

> Well is it just a placebo or does it actually sound even the tiniest bit better than an mp3 encoded with the highest quality settings possible?

It's almost certainly placebo, but you should not trust me nor anyone else: just set up a blind test and reach your own conclusions. Anything less and you'll just be fooling yourself.

If you're on Windows, foobar2000 let's you easily do ABX tests between the flac original and lossy version. Just make sure the lossy version is actually sourced from the lossless, otherwise you might be comparing two different mixes/masters of the same track.
posted by Bangaioh at 4:55 AM on June 6, 2014

A blind test might yield no difference through Windows speakers, but you might buy better speakers someday, is all I'm saying.
posted by amtho at 5:24 AM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

But to clarify the point about long-term storage, there is really no point to converting your MP3s to FLAC. The FLACs will be the same quality as the original lossy MP3s,

Yes, for that iteration. Direct to FLAC is ideal, bypassing mp3 entirely, but if that is not possible and for some reason I end up with a mp3 I then convert it to flac, not for better sound quality, but to keep it at that baseline down the road for making backups, or transferring the files to new hard drives etc. With each copy that new mp3 copy will degrade further, while flac will remain the same. So if you have a high bitrate MP3 and covert it to FLAC it's likely to be pretty close in initial quality of sound, but over the years of backups/drive changes the flac will maintain whereas the mp3 would degrade
posted by edgeways at 6:27 AM on June 6, 2014

I'm not an audiophile. I can tell the difference between a 128k mp3 and a better one, but not much at bitrates higher than that. However, many years ago I ripped a lot of old CDs to 128k mp3 to conserve disk space, then ended up throwing the CDs out a couple years later without thinking of the quality of rip I had.

These days I really, really wish I'd had the foresight to rip them to FLAC, even if I transcoded them all to MP3 for daily use. Storage space is ridiculously cheap, and I can really hear the low bit rate when I listen to them. Nothing other than a lossless codec is worth it for "archival" storage to me any more.
posted by jammer at 10:25 AM on June 6, 2014

One issue with lossy CODECs, FM stereo and vinyl is that they are "joint" encoded as mono (L+R) and side (L-R).

I've heard complaints about stereo imaging in MP3 and AAC. You might not need a great audio chain to hear this. It's worth listening for if you ABX. CDs, SACD, DVD-Audio and Blu-ray audio discs (and their rips to PCM or lossless) won't have this problem (though there are lossy CODECs as an authoring option on some of these, so caveat emptor).
posted by morganw at 12:31 PM on June 6, 2014

Regarding joint stereo:
Some early MP3 encoders didn't make ideal decisions about what mode to use from frame to frame in joint stereo files, or how much bandwidth to allocate to encoding the side channel. This led to a widespread but mistaken belief that an abundance of M/S frames, or the use of joint stereo in general, always negatively impacts channel separation and other measures of audio quality. This is not an issue with modern encoders. Modern, optimized encoders will switch between mid-side coding or simple stereo coding as necessary, depending on the correlation between the left and right channels, and will allocate channel bandwidth appropriately to ensure the best mode is used for each frame.

> transferring the files to new hard drives etc. With each copy that new mp3 copy will degrade further, while flac will remain the same

This is incorrect, unless there's something *very* wrong with your system simply copying lossy audio files (or any other files, they're all nothing more than big strings of 1s and 0s) won't degrade them any further.
I'm all for lossless archival whenever possible but the only way mp3s will lose quality is by (intentionally or not) re-encoding them or through bitrot (which, again, can happen to any file, so flac won't save you there).
posted by Bangaioh at 1:14 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't really notice a difference, but for what it's worth I'm in the midst of using Rubyripper (I'm on Linux but I bet there are similar programs for other platforms) to rip CDs simultaneously to both FLAC and MP3. FLAC to keep forever, mp3 to play on any crappy device.
posted by Mngo at 9:31 AM on June 9, 2014

I believe I read some study somewhere indicating that most people can't hear any quality difference in mp3s at greater than or equal to 192 kbps vbr. So that's what I use for everything.
posted by singingfish at 3:49 PM on June 9, 2014

Sorry to revive an oldish thread but

With each copy that new mp3 copy will degrade further, while flac will remain the same.

is completely untrue. That's not how lossy files work! They are only 'lossy' during the encoding process.
posted by destructive cactus at 3:49 PM on June 24, 2014

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