Lossless Audio – How To Get Started
For a few years now, we have enjoyed the convenience of lossy music files as opposed to carting around a portable CD or cassette player. The drawback of course is that we can only use equipment which does not reveal the flaws within these music files. Try listening to a 128kbps music file with the headphones you received with the player and it’ll sound acceptable. Try again with some Shure 535s, and the appalling drivel you’ve been listening to is revealed in all its wishy washy glory.
These headphones are very kind to low quality audio. Any flaws are likely not noticed by the listener.
So what if you want to get rid of those compression artefacts? If you want to keep those nice headphones, you need to think about raising your game.
Perhaps the simplest solution is to raise the data rate of the music you’re buying or encoding to 320kbps – this will not require any new equipment, other than a larger memory card on your device perhaps. Your media player should not need to be changed.
Lossless formats do not include MP3. However high the settings are, a certain amount of the original information is still lost.
The first lossless format I came across was monkey’s audio (.ape) about 10 years ago. At the time it seemed to be an equivalent of .zip or .rar files; it would squash the music down to half the original size for storage, but my computer could not play it back in real time – it needed to decompress the files again before playing. Even so, after decompression the music files were identical to the original files, with no loss of information. Nowadays, my computer is up to the job and can play back Monkey’s Audio files in real time. I have some ‘Gorillaz’ playing just now.
Other lossless formats include Windows Media Audio Lossless (.wma, but not all .wma versions) and the open-source Apple format (.m4a) along with perhaps the most well-known, FLAC (.flac).
Not all portable music players can handle these filetypes, so do check before committing to a particular filetype, or player. Some are more versatile than others; for instance the Astell & Kern AK100 plays WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC and APE as well as some lossy formats, which is a large range of formats. However my humble Sony Walkman will not bother with anything but .mp3/.mp4/.wma – if I want lossless I have to carry around the full uncompressed .wav file, and with 8Gb memory this is not a great option.
The Astell&Kern AK120 is certainly no slouch when it comes to lossless quality.
Another great player is the Fiio X3, and with the forthcoming X5, Fiio is worth keeping your eye on as regards players. It supports .dsd, .ape, .flac, .alac, .wma and .wav. and can also be used as a DAC.
Please check out our youtube video DACs, Sample Rates and how to use Audio Files