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ALAC vs FLAC: What’s the Difference and Which Should You Use?

Have you heard or read arguments about ALAC vs FLAC? Then there's a chance you've been misinformed.

ALAC and FLAC are two different codecs for compressing digital music files. ALAC stands for Apple Lossless Audio Codec and FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec.

Based on the names alone, you probably get the picture of why these two often come up in head to head comparisons.

I've always been curious about the difference in sound myself, so I set out to learn everything I could about ALAC vs FLAC. This is what I found.

​Basics and Background

To start off, as the names suggest, both ALAC and FLAC are "lossless" codecs. They take a raw sound file and compress it so that it takes up less memory. There are many codecs that do this, and they can be divided into two types:

  • Lossy
  • Lossless

Lossy codecs get more compression, but lose some of the original sound data. Lossless codecs retain all of the original sound and therefore create better-quality sound files.

FLAC and ALAC came from two very different places. FLAC had its first release in 2001. From the beginning, it was a community project. FLAC has always been free and open-source, although over the years it has changed from being an independent codec to one associated with Xiph.org, an open-source organization that creates and maintains media formats.

ALAC, on the other hand, began life as an in-house development at Apple. Apple first began to use ALAC in 2004 and kept the codec closed and proprietary for the next seven years. In 2011, Apple made ALAC open source and available to anyone who wants to use it. Apple uses ALAC for iTunes media.

Sound Quality Difference of FLAC and ALAC

To put it bluntly, there is no difference in the sound quality between ALAC and FLAC. It is common to go to audiophile forums or blogs and see reviews where a writer will complain about FLAC and compare it to ALAC, and vice versa.

In reality, though, ALAC and FLAC have exactly the same digital information: they are bit for bit identical.

This is because they are both lossless formats. They remove empty space and other wasteful parts of an audio file, but keep the important elements. While they change the file size, the content is exactly the same, and therefore the sound is exactly the same.

Both of these codecs send the same data down the line to your digital-audio converter and therefore your headphones. This brings to mind a new question: if these codecs yield the same results, why do people still compare them and even hear differences between them?

Emotional Investment

The most obvious answer is the emotional intensity that surrounds the debate. I know that this is a little obscure for most headphone fans, but Apple gets a lot of criticism in much of the software world because it keeps so much of its software proprietary and isolated. Apple wants people to use only Apple software.

As a result, there has been a historic backlash against ALAC, because it represents that isolationist idea. This is because ALAC represents iTunes, an Apple product that is designed to keep people within the Apple ecosystem as much as possible. ITunes is synonymous with DRM, anti-piracy software, and other politically charged topics. That means for many people demonstrating dislike of ALAC is a way to take a stance against Apple, and promoting ALAC is a way to support Apple.

Of course, it is always possible to hear different sound from these different formats because of different conditions and the subjectivity of hearing. But the truth is that the two codecs have exactly the same data.

Which File Format to Use?

If you have some sound files that you need to compress, then you are probably wondering which one to use, if they both sound the same. I have been in the same position myself, and this is what I decided: I would go with whichever one was easier to use.

Right now, it isn't hard at all to play FLAC files. Windows and Android can both handle it without a problem out of the box, as long as you are using the latest versions of those OSs. Older versions might require you to download a music player that supports FLAC.

As for ALAC, while it is still mostly useful for Apple software, there are more music players that have added ALAC support now that the codec is open-source. The most convenient option for you will depend on why you need the file and how much you use iTunes.

For example, if you want to listen to the file on your smartphone, then you will likely want ALAC if it's an iPhone and FLAC if it's an Android.

How to use ALAC and FLAC

Even though ALAC and FLAC give you the same results when you play them in the same set of headphones, there are still a lot of files that only appear in one format or the other. You can convert between them, but it requires downloading specific software to do it. It's probably easier just to get a player that can play the codec you can't play natively.

In the case of an Apple device, it will clearly be able to play ALAC. To play FLAC, you need to download an alternative to iTunes, like JRiver, VLC, or Foobar. This can be irritating, especially because it is much harder to get FLAC to play on iPhones than on desktop Macs, but until Apple adds FLAC support to iTunes there is little choice.

On the other hand, if you have Windows 10 or a new Android device, you can already play FLAC. The easiest way to get access to ALAC is, of course, iTunes. If you aren't interested in that, there are quite a few apps and players that support ALAC now and work on Android or Windows.

The basic question that you need to settle between ALAC and FLAC is not which one is better because they have the same performance, but which one is easier for you. That really comes down to what you want to do with a given audio file and where you typically play your music. Write up a comment if you have any feedback, and if not, happy listening!

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