Sound quality isn’t dead. Casual fans may be okay with a badly encoded MP3 streamed over a slideshow on YouTube, but if you’re really into your music, you want something better.
There is FLAC, but that requires a whole new set of players and a new library. That’s where ALAC comes in: Apple’s lossless codec. It is compatible with iTunes and iOS, so you can change formats without changing your routine.
Lossless vs. Compressed Codecs
Whether it’s AAC or MP3, most of the music you’re buying/streaming is encoded using a lossy codec. That derives from how they compress data. The codecs work by removing parts of the file overlapping with other frequencies.
Other targets for removal may be outside the average range of hearing. When you’re talking about classical, jazz, and other music with dynamic ranges you can end up with a muted sound.
Like most things when it comes to quality, this is subjective. However, if you notice that your music sounds cheap and tinny, you may want to switch to a lossless format.
While WAV files are completely uncompressed, they are huge. Lossless codecs like FLAC and ALAC compress by removing parts of the data that are identical. It isn’t going to get you as much space savings as MP3, but they are considerably smaller than raw WAV files.
For an extensive explainer, check out our article on understanding compression and codecs.
Why ALAC Instead of FLAC
The short answer is iTunes. The longer answer is iTunes and iOS. ALAC is excellent because you can still use iTunes to manage everything in your library. If you subscribe to Apple Music or iCloud Music library, dropping iTunes isn’t a choice. You can then slowly increase your library of lossless music. Most importantly, you don’t have to change how you manage your Mac’s music library.
Your iCloud Music Library will unfortunately still be made up of AAC files. So you’re not going to get the high-quality music everywhere. Though if you’re willing to put in a bit of work to set up a Plex server, you can get your ALAC on your iPhone remotely. If you’re just copying over files, you can sync the ALAC files to your iPhone — just make sure you disable the option to shrink high bitrate files!
FLAC does edge out ALAC regarding sound quality. ALAC is 16-bit and FLAC is 24-bit encoding, and FLAC has a higher sampling rate. ALAC compares to CD quality, which is much better than most of your digital files. FLAC is closer to studio masters, according to the Society of Sound.
How to Get ALAC Files
Despite being an Apple standard, iTunes does not sell ALAC files. Though their “Mastered for iTunes” is higher quality, it doesn’t come close to the quality of lossless. So you’re going to need to look elsewhere.
Your Physical Media
If you still buy CD’s to rip them into your library, then you can make an easy switch over to ALAC. You can change the import settings for iTunes.
In the menubar, click on iTunes then select Preferences. Near the bottom of the dialog, click on Import Settings. Click the dropdown and select Apple Lossless. Finally, click OK for both dialogs and you’re all set. The next time you insert a CD, it will import as ALAC rather than AAC.
If you’re ripping vinyl, you need to set your file format to ALAC rather than AAC or MP3. ALAC support is in Audacity and other recording apps like Audio Hijack. You’ll want to check your specific app for where to change the export file format.
Buying ALAC Files
If you prefer to buy files rather than physical data you have a couple of options.
- HD Tracks: If you’re looking for the iTunes of high-quality audio, this is it. Like iTunes, there’s an extensive catalog from a variety of genres. It is heavy on the classic reissues, especially jazz. The pop new releases are here too, but not everything you might want. You’ll have to search around. It is also a bit more expensive. Instead of getting an album for about ten dollars; here most of them are closer to twenty dollars.
- Society of Sound: Run by the speaker/headphone company Bowers & Wilkins, Society of Sound is not a store. Instead, it is a subscription service that gets you two albums to download a month. It looks to be a variety of genres, so if you have an eclectic taste, this might be worth checking out. It is $60 per year, but you get three months free for registering a Bowers & Wilkins product. There are also some stand-alone albums you can buy from the site as well.
- Bandcamp: This is the store where you can send your cash right to the band, or to their label in some cases. These days, it often isn’t clear who gets paid when you buy music. Bandcamp sets you up to pay the artist directly for their music, or at the very least their label. You aren’t going to find a lot of mainstream music here, but if you like underground and independent artists, they’re likely on Bandcamp. Everything varies in price based on the artist’s wishes, so you’ll have to shop around. However, all downloads are available in ALAC.
Staying in the Mac and iOS Ecosystem
The best benefit to ALAC is that it lets you move to lossless without having to change your entire workflow. If you’ve got a sizable iTunes library, it might be intimidating to start from scratch.
Long-time Apple users might also have just learned to live with iTunes’s faults and don’t want to learn all the quirks of a new player. VLC is great, but it doesn’t have a great way to auto-manage your library the same way iTunes does.
Do you see the value in switching to lossless? Let us know in the comments.