To make the most of your networked music you need to ensure that your music is stored in the highest quality format that you can. If you are transferring music from CD's you have a choice of formats to encode into, some are better than others. When downloading music you often also have a choice of formats.
What is Lossless?
A breakthrough in digital music storage occurred with the introduction of formats such as MP3. This is the most common format for digital music, but it has one downside. In order to make your music files as small as is possible these formats throw away information that is less likely to be picked up by human ears, this include very high and low frequencies as well as other details of the music. This results in much smaller file formats, but does reduce the quality of the music. Playing back MP3 files on your music system is fine, but you are not getting the best out of your investment. That is why it is best to encode your music in a lossless format.
Making the choice
The format you choose will be with you for a long time. If you're about to embark on the task of ripping your collection of many years of CD's it is important to choose well, this is not something that you want to do again in a hurry!
FLAC is the preferred format for most people. It is an open standard that has good software support. One downside of FLAC is that iTunes and iPod's do not play FLAC files.
This format provides the same quality as FLAC and also works in iTunes, so overall you may consider it to be the best format. But, and there is a big but here, it is not an open standard, it is not even documented by Apple. This does not normally pose a problem, but it could cause issues in the future.
Recently we have become aware of one such problem. There is no documentation on how Apple Lossless supports higher bitrate formats such as 24/96 encoded files. The format may or may not support this, we're not sure as there is no documentation. So while Apple Lossless may be fine for encoding CD's you won't find it as an option for high bitrate downloads.
This is a very simple format, because it is uncompressed. The file sizes are large because of this, but with hard drive prices today this is not really an issue.
Another thing to keep in mind is network impact. Because WAV files are large they will use more of your network bandwidth. This may not be an issue for you at all, but if your network is busy it could have some impact.
Here's where things get a bit more complex; many advocates of WAV say that it sounds better. On the surface this makes no sense as, by the time FLAC is decoded it is bit-for-bit identical to the WAV file, so therefore the sound is identical. People new to Hi-Fi may think that is the end of it, but this is an industry where all sorts of things have been proposed over the years to explain why sound can be different. Strangely enough, the WAV advocated may have a real point here, but we'll leave that up to you to decide. The argument here is that the processor work involved in decoding compressed formats, such as FLAC, causes more electrical interference inside the decoder, and this affects the sound. This debate will probably go on for years and may never be decided.
Another limitation of WAV
This format is very similar to WAV, but has the advantage that it is supported in iTunes.
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