FLAC, Vinyl and MP3: The fidelity renaissance

The discussion has been going for years about the merits and failings of mp3, which mirrors a discussion going further back about Vinyl versus CD.

With each advance in music technology we seem to have take a step back from audio quality, from vinyl to tapes to CDs, to MP3’s and now streaming music. But those advances haven’t been for nothing, each advance gave us something else we wanted – increased convenience.

However, since 2006 the vinyl revival has been going on. Last year over 1 million records were sold in the UK. I myself acquired a vinyls for an artist I really like (the Glitch Mob), and the sound difference compared to MP3 blew my mind. Still, I can’t carry it around in my pocket!

Increasingly artists like Muse, and the Glitch Mob, as well as numerous mainstream artists are releasing in higher fidelity, vinyl and lossless formats like FLAC.

And FLAC is having a slow increasing in popularity too. You might not have noticed, and it’s not always super noticeable, but there are areas where MP3’s sound compression affects sound quality noticeably. Sounds with fast attack, such as intricate drumming can be muffled. Very high and low ranges can be lost, and the sound can lose range, dynamics. And those sounds while seemingly subtle sometimes, change the ‘feel’ of the music, when they are lost the sound seems to lose some ‘life’.

For some music this is hardly noticeable Рmainstream dance pop, or distorted and blended rock and roll. But for some music, such as highly acoustic, ambient, nuanced or drum oriented music (classical like Ludovico Einaudi, the latest Florence and the Machine Album, or the Glitch Mobs Drink the Sea are examples) the difference is quite audible between FLAC and MP3. And a little extra between that and Vinyl.

Now not every album can be found in FLAC, and buying and ripping CDs is hardly convenient. Fortunately apple has it’s own lossless format, which are stored as .m4a files, and you can get a lot of things from iTunes in this format. Although personally I do listen to FLAC and 320 kbps MP3 on my phone, some people may wish to store more files rather than have higher fidelity.

People might argue that 320 kbps MP3 is good enough, and it’s very popular right now, and sounds a lot better than older bitrates commonly used. You can find a lot more music in this format than in FLAC. However it’s only a fraction smaller in file size versus FLAC, and is still compressed. At that level of storage saving it’s really not worth compressing at all, if you are losing sound.

At minimum for devices with very high storage capabilities, like the average desktop, there really is not much point in MP3 nowadays. We have plenty of space to store files lossless on such devices. ¬†And if your willing to go quality over quantity, it’s perfectly viable on your mobile device (tablet or phone), if you can be choose-y about what you take with you.

And if you have some all time favourite album, I highly recommend the odd Vinyl, even if its only for special occasions.