How the FLAC do I tell MP3s from lossless audio?

Can you hear the difference? Can anyone?


Can people hear the difference between lossy MP3 digital music files and lossless ones? Opinions differ strongly, with much obfuscation around audio cables, mastering and hi-fi componentry muddying the waters.

This article was prompted by Reg reader critiques of Sonos streaming Wi-Fi speaker/player reviews and audiophiles saying I knew less about hi-fi music than a hole in the head.

Okay, granted I knew less than someone devoted to hi-fi with a dedicated listening room, and carefully selected and matched components often costing upwards of a couple of thousand pounds, sometimes much more.

But I did have Sonos speakers and these, for my iTunes digital music collection, were infinitely superior to the commodity-level Sony and Sharp speakers, amplifiers and CD players I'd been used to. In particular, the Sonos/iTunes setup provided much better listening than a Sony CD player/amplifier and speakers.

At one level this is plain peculiar as CDs are encoded to a much greater fidelity to the original music than an MP3 file.

My thinking was that if MP3 encoding strips off data from the digital sound files then a lossless form of audio encoding should provide better listening, and that means something like a FLAC codec. Is it possible to get FLAC-encoded music played through my Sonos system and could I tell the difference between that and the same music encoded with MP3?

Basic starting points

Let's first run through what I understand sound, hearing, CD-quality, MP3, FLAC, ALAC and iTunes import to mean. This is being done from the point of view of a Mac user and system, but the principles should be the same, I hope, for Windows users.

  • The human ear can hear sounds, vibrations in the air, between 20 and 20,000 Hz with older people gradually losing the ability to hear higher frequencies in that range, such as 16kHz and above. Sounds are typically conceived of as waves in the air, propagating through it with the air vibrating as the wave travels though it.
  • Sound at different frequencies is heard as different pitches, with higher frequencies heard as higher notes and lower frequencies heard in the bass part of the audio spectrum.
  • Digitisation of music involves a bit depth and sampling rate. How many bits are used to encode the music when its sampled, and how many times a second it is sampled. Thus 16/44.1 is 16-bits sampled at 44.1kHz (cycles per second) or 44,100 times a second, and this is CD-level sound. Everything between sample points is lost.
  • The bit rate says how many kilobits of data there are per second of audio. The higher the bit rate the larger the output file. If the bit rate is too low we can hear sounds in the music that are not in the original music. These are called artefacts and may affect cymbals and guitar sounds.
  • The stream of audio data is sampled and compressed. Typical musical encoding starts at 128kbit/s with 320kbit/s being the highest rate. There are different MP3 encoders with different quality output and you can drop the bit rate down to 8kbit/s for rather muddy low bandwidth speech purposes.

  • A constant bit rate (CBR) can be used throughout a piece of music. Alternatively a variable bit rate (VBR) can be used, with fewer bits used during silences and simple music passages and more bits being used for complex, multi-instrument parts of the music.
  • A CD-level recording has a 1,411.2 kbit/s bit rate. A 128kbit/s encoding of this represents an approximate 11:1 compression ratio.
  • FLAC - Free Lossless Audio Codec - with codec being coder/decoder, is a lossless form of compression. No incoming audio signals are discarded. It is one of several lossless audio codecs, with WavPack and WMA being others. It provides bit-perfect copies of CD-quality music (16/44.1) or even higher (24/192k - known as studio quality). FLAC can reduce audio sources to 50-60 per cent of their original size. FLAC is quite widely used now with websites like Presto Classic offering FLAC files.
  • ALAC is the Apple Lossless Audio Codec. It differs from FLAC and FLAC files can be converted to ALAC files.
  • Apple claims that "the default encoding format in recent versions of iTunes is MPEG-4 AAC, a compressed format that rivals the sound quality of audio CDs." Like MP3, Advanced Acoustic Coding (AAC) relies on perceptual encoding techniques but is more efficient.

When it comes to telling the difference between MP3s and live music, I turned to Reg reader James Kilby.

He says: "My understanding of MP3 is that its mathematically modelled to remove sounds that a human can't hear. For example we can't hear a very high note after a very low note and vice versa. However different peoples ears/brains will react slightly differently so some people may be able to tell the difference between an MP3 and a FLAC."

(Who's James Kilby and why should you care what he says? In his own words: "My dad was a professional musician and I have worked in the live music arena before migrating over to IT so I would say I am somewhat of an authority to give an opinion on this.")

So the theory for higher-fidelity playback of stored music through the Sonos system is to get a FLAC copy of the music, convert it to ALAC, import that into iTunes, re-set the Sonos music index, and then play the music. The process, though, is fraught with difficulties and different people disagree on whether you can hear any difference between FLAC and MP3 music anyway.


Other stories you might like

  • Tencent admits to poisoned QR code attack on QQ chat platform
    Could it be Beijing was right about games being bad for China?

    Chinese web giant Tencent has admitted to a significant account hijack attack on its QQ.com messaging and social media platform.

    In a post to rival social media platform Sina Weibo – a rough analog of Twitter – Tencent apologized for the incident.

    The problem manifested on Sunday night and saw an unnamed number of QQ users complain their credentials no longer allowed them access to their accounts. Tencent has characterized that issue as representing "stolen" accounts.

    Continue reading
  • Carnival Cruises torpedoed by US states, agrees to pay $6m after waves of cyberattacks
    Now those are some phishing boats

    Carnival Cruise Lines will cough up more than $6 million to end two separate lawsuits filed by 46 states in the US after sensitive, personal information on customers and employees was accessed in a string of cyberattacks.

    A couple of years ago, as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold, the Miami-based biz revealed intruders had not only encrypted some of its data but also downloaded a collection of names and addresses; Social Security info, driver's license, and passport numbers; and health and payment information of thousands of people in almost every American state.

    It all started to go wrong more than a year prior, as the cruise line became aware of suspicious activity in May 2019. This apparently wasn't disclosed until 10 months later, in March 2020.

    Continue reading
  • India extends deadline for compliance with infosec logging rules by 90 days
    Helpfully announced extension on deadline day

    India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and the local Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) have extended the deadline for compliance with the Cyber Security Directions introduced on April 28, which were due to take effect yesterday.

    The Directions require verbose logging of users' activities on VPNs and clouds, reporting of infosec incidents within six hours of detection - even for trivial things like unusual port scanning - exclusive use of Indian network time protocol servers, and many other burdensome requirements. The Directions were purported to improve the security of local organisations, and to give CERT-In information it could use to assess threats to India. Yet the Directions allowed incident reports to be sent by fax – good ol' fax – to CERT-In, which offered no evidence it operates or would build infrastructure capable of ingesting or analyzing the millions of incident reports it would be sent by compliant organizations.

    The Directions were roundly criticized by tech lobby groups that pointed out requirements such as compelling clouds to store logs of customers' activities was futile, since clouds don't log what goes on inside resources rented by their customers. VPN providers quit India and moved their servers offshore, citing the impossibility of storing user logs when their entire business model rests on not logging user activities. VPN operators going offshore means India's government is therefore less able to influence such outfits.

    Continue reading
  • LGBTQ+ folks warned of dating app extortion scams
    Uncle Sam tells of crooks exploiting Pride Month

    The FTC is warning members of the LGBTQ+ community about online extortion via dating apps such as Grindr and Feeld.

    According to the American watchdog, a common scam involves a fraudster posing as a potential romantic partner on one of the apps. The cybercriminal sends explicit of a stranger photos while posing as them, and asks for similar ones in return from the mark. If the victim sends photos, the extortionist demands a payment – usually in the form of gift cards – or threatens to share the photos on the chat to the victim's family members, friends, or employer.

    Such sextortion scams have been going on for years in one form or another, even attempting to hit Reg hacks, and has led to suicides.

    Continue reading
  • 5G C-band rollout at US airports slowed over radio altimeter safety fears
    Well, they did say from July, now they really mean from July 2023

    America's aviation watchdog has said the rollout of 5G C-band coverage near US airports won't fully start until next year, delaying some travelers' access to better cellular broadband at crowded terminals.

    Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement this month that its discussions with wireless carriers "have identified a path that will continue to enable aviation and 5G C-band wireless to safely co-exist."

    5G C-band operates between 3.7-3.98GHz, near the 4.2-4.4GHz band used by radio altimeters that are jolly useful for landing planes in limited visibility. There is or was a fear that these cellular signals, such as from cell towers close to airports, could bleed into the frequencies used by aircraft and cause radio altimeters to display an incorrect reading. C-band technology, which promises faster mobile broadband, was supposed to roll out nationwide on Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile US's networks, but some deployments have been paused near airports due to these concerns. 

    Continue reading
  • IBM settles age discrimination case that sought top execs' emails
    Just days after being ordered to provide messages, Big Blue opts out of public trial

    Less than a week after IBM was ordered in an age discrimination lawsuit to produce internal emails in which its former CEO and former SVP of human resources discuss reducing the number of older workers, the IT giant chose to settle the case for an undisclosed sum rather than proceed to trial next month.

    The order, issued on June 9, in Schenfeld v. IBM, describes Exhibit 10, which "contains emails that discuss the effort taken by IBM to increase the number of 'millennial' employees."

    Plaintiff Eugene Schenfeld, who worked as an IBM research scientist when current CEO Arvind Krishna ran IBM's research group, sued IBM for age discrimination in November, 2018. His claim is one of many that followed a March 2018 report by ProPublica and Mother Jones about a concerted effort to de-age IBM and a 2020 finding by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that IBM executives had directed managers to get rid of older workers to make room for younger ones.

    Continue reading
  • FTC urged to probe Apple, Google for enabling ‘intense system of surveillance’
    Ad tracking poses a privacy and security risk in post-Roe America, lawmakers warn

    Democrat lawmakers want the FTC to investigate Apple and Google's online ad trackers, which they say amount to unfair and deceptive business practices and pose a privacy and security risk to people using the tech giants' mobile devices.

    US Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and House Representative Sara Jacobs (D-CA) requested on Friday that the watchdog launch a probe into Apple and Google, hours before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, clearing the way for individual states to ban access to abortions. 

    In the days leading up to the court's action, some of these same lawmakers had also introduced data privacy bills, including a proposal that would make it illegal for data brokers to sell sensitive location and health information of individuals' medical treatment.

    Continue reading
  • Behold this drone-dropping rifle with two-mile range
    Confuses rather than destroys unmanned aerials to better bring back intel, says Ukrainian designer

    What's said to be a Ukrainian-made long-range anti-drone rifle is one of the latest weapons to emerge from Russia's ongoing invasion of its neighbor.

    The Antidron KVS G-6 is manufactured by Kvertus Technology, in the western Ukraine region of Ivano-Frankivsk, whose capital of the same name has twice been subjected to Russian bombings during the war. Like other drone-dropping equipment, we're told it uses radio signals to interrupt control, remotely disabling them, and it reportedly has an impressive 3.5 km (2.17 miles) range.

    "We are not damaging the drone. With communication lost, it just loses coordination and doesn't know where to go. The drone lands where it is jammed, or can be carried away by the wind because it's uncontrollable,"  Kvertus' director of technology Yaroslav Filimonov said. Because the downed drones are unharmed, they give Ukrainian soldiers recovering them a wealth of potential intelligence, he added.  

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022