FLAC vs. Apple Lossless: Which to Choose for Lossless Data Compression

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In a recent post about saving disk space with lossless compressed audio, we discussed how Apple Lossless (ALAC) and Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) reduce file sizes by up to 60%, compared to AIFF and WAV. These formats offer major advantages for of data storage and file sharing without sacrificing audio quality.

It should go without saying that FLAC and Apple Lossless are both lossless, and therefore possess identical audio quality for files encoded from the same source. That said, FLAC edges out Apple Lossless by offering slightly better data compression for audio encoded from the same source file. Let’s take a look at some of the technical specifications of each:

Apple Lossless

  • Open source, royalty-free
  • 16, 20, 24, and 32 bit depth
  • Maximum sample rate of 384kHz 
  • Up to 8 channels of audio

FLAC

  • Open source, royalty-free
  • Any bit depth from 4 to 32 bits
  • Any sample rate from 10 to 655kHz (10Hz increments)
  • Up to 8 channels of audio

FLAC offers more encoding options than Apple Lossless, although the latter offers enough options to accommodate the most common file configurations. The major differences in usage come down to compatibility, and which formats work better for a given workflow. 

Audio/Video Editing Workflows

Using FLAC and Apple Lossless for audio production helps reduce project file sizes, and makes a massive difference when working with large amounts of high-quality audio files. 

For audio and video production, compatibility with either codec is limited, however Apple Lossless is currently supported in the Apple ecosystem. Apple Logic Pro X, Final Cut Pro X, Garageband, iMovie, and Quicktime all support Apple Lossless files upon import, though not on export. The MacOS finder offers a simple option to convert from WAVE or AIFF to Apple Lossless in a few clicks, as we described in a previous post. Audacity can import Apple Lossless files on a Mac using Quicktime only. 

Several DAWs offer support for FLAC upon import and export, including Cockos Reaper, Steinberg Nuendo, Steinberg Cubase, and Audacity. FLAC is not currently supported on popular video editing applications, like Adobe Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve, Final Cut Pro X, nor Avid Media Composer. 

In the Apple ecosystem, Apple Lossless offers clear advantages in terms of ease of use, and can be used natively in most of its audio/video production applications. This works well for those already invested in Apple products, but we feel that the benefits of saving a few gigabytes of data alone aren’t worth making the switch to the Apple ecosystem. 

Audiophile Audio Playback

Avid audiophiles prefer the absolute purity of lossless audio. Apple Lossless files can be played natively in Apple Music at full resolution, and on all modern iPhones and iPads up to 24-bit/96kHz. Combined with audiophile-grade DACs built into Apple devices (or their headphone adapters), the Apple ecosystem makes for a great option to play lossless, high-quality audio with ease up to 24-bit/96kHz. VLC media player also offers support for Apple Lossless decoding, and is available for MacOS, Windows, Linux, iOS, iPadOS, and Android. If ripping files from a CD, iTunes and Apple Music automatically store the metadata and album artwork in the file. 

Windows 10 and Android have native FLAC support. Android 3.1+ and 4.1+ offer decoding and encoding to mono/stereo audio files with sample rates up to 48kHz, as described on their list of supported media formats. Most major web browsers offer native support for FLAC, including Apple Safari, Google Chrome, and Mozilla Firefox. 

Apple has limited support for FLAC, but does allow for native playback in the Finder preview, Quicktime, and in Safari, but not in the Music app. iPhones and iPads offer native FLAC playback in Safari and in the Files app, only. Otherwise, use a third-party application like VLC to decode and encode FLAC audio files. 

Longterm Archival Storage

Both FLAC and Apple Lossless are royalty-free, open source codecs, widely used and well-established. It’s difficult to tell whether or not these files will remain playable for decades into the future, but it seems likely, given that FLAC has been around since 2001 and Apple Lossless since 2004. Windows, Android, and web browsers from Google and Mozilla adding native support for FLAC signals an increase in its popularity, with support from other popular applications likely on the way. 

FLAC was incorporated into the non-profit Xiph.Org Foundation in 2003, and according to Xiph, “FLAC is an open format, and there is no generation loss if you need to convert your data to another format… and FLAC has a verify option that decodes the encoded stream in parallel with the encoding process and compares the result to the original, aborting with an error if there is a mismatch.” By comparison, we couldn’t find any literature from Apple regarding future compatibility for the Apple Lossless codec. 

For files above 16 bits, FLAC offers another clear advantage, as Apple does not allow for converting from Apple Lossless to a file greater than 16 bits. A 24-bit Apple Lossless file cannot be converted a 24-bit WAVE or AIFF file without special software. If archiving files with depths higher than 16-bits, avoid using Apple Lossless altogether. 

Overview

Support for FLAC and Apple Lossless is slowly increasing, but limited for audio and video production. Some DAWs like Audacity, Cockos Reaper, and Steinberg Cubase offer native support for FLAC, whereas Apple software offers excellent support for Apple Lossless in its DAWs and NLEs. For audio playback, FLAC has more widespread support, especially with Windows and Android, whereas Apple products natively support Apple Lossless (up to 24-bit/96kHz for iPhones and iPads). Lastly, FLAC is superior for longterm archival storage, with open-source software to encode/decode FLAC to WAVE, and data verification that minimizes errors when encoding to FLAC. 

The only advantages Apple Lossless has over FLAC is support across the Apple ecosystem, and its potential for use in production workflows. Otherwise, FLAC is the superior lossless compressed audio codec, and we expect to see increased support for FLAC in the coming years. 

How do you feel about incorporating FLAC or Apple Lossless into your production workflow? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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