High Quality Audio, and Apple

Lossless download audio is finally here. HDtracks specializes in such formats. The HDtracks site offers downloads in CD-quality AIFF and FLAC formats. Audio is also available in the not-so-high-end-but-better-than-the usual 320 kbps MP3 format. The universal compatibility of the latter enables the audio to be played on all devices: portable music players, computers, home music servers. Files in the lossless FLAC format are now increasingly available as well at The Classical Shop, Linn Records, and DG online stores. The FLAC format is high-resolution and captures all the audio information from a CD.

iPod users are stuck for now with the fact that the device, for all its design innovation, wasn't invented for audiophiles. Scott Foglesong of the San Francisco Examiner offers advice for the Apple-dependent (the links are his):

There is really very little reason not to buy a lossless or uncompressed file in preference to an mp3, unless download speeds or storage space remain a concern for you.

One word here about the popular FLAC format and Macintosh users: iTunes doesn't play FLAC natively so you can't just import the files into iTunes and hit the Play button. Drat.

However, you have a number of options for dealing with the issue.

  • You can use a player which understands FLAC natively; consider the popular open-source VLC.
  • You can add a FLAC codec to QuickTime and play the FLAC files as QuickTime movies. There's a little program called Fluke that can help you with that.
  • You can covert the FLAC files to Apple Lossless or uncompressed files in AIFF or WAV format.

Of these options, personally I prefer the last. A number of tools exist for that purpose; I use the open-source XLD, which renders the process extremely simple; you right-click on any set of FLAC files you wish to convert, use the "Open With..." command to pick XLD, and let it do its thing. (Set the file output format, and the destination, in the Preferences.) Import the resultant files into iTunes, and you're set.

And, if you're a command-line jockey, XLD comes in a console version, and true to its open-source nature, the source code is included in the download package should you care to make your own refinements.

The standard format for most items in the iTunes Store now is the recently introduced iTunes Plus format. The Plus format makes the 256 bit rate standard, which is not as good as the 320 MP3s and far short of FLAC but still twice the sampling rate of Apple's earlier 'highest quality' format. The new Plus format also drops DRM (Digital Rights Management) encoding, which was a bad move from the start. Backpedaling on DRM gives iTunes Plus files universal compatibility: the file can be played on devices other than iPod and with software other than iTunes.

What about those of us who have been filling our portable players with files in the (sonically inferior, restricted use) older format? Foglesong, an Apple enthusiast, puts a happy face on the situation by telling us that these files can now be upgraded at the iTunes Store "for a very reasonable 30 cents per track." Well, my iPod Classic has 10,426 tracks in the old format. Replacing those files at 30 cents each comes to a somewhat less reasonable US$3,127.80. Apple customers serious enough about music to have already filled their iPods will likely be living with the limitations of the old format a while longer.

But have you ever wondered why Apple can't call a track a track? I'm constantly disconcerted by iTunes, as it otherwise goes through its paces so crisply, telling me my Bruckner symphonies CD has four 'songs' on it. Sure it does, iTunes... and Bach's B-minor Mass is a nice little ditty. Critics of Apple design complain that the products too often cross the line between user-friendly and user-patronizing. In this case they have a point. The least Apple could do is give users a choice about this. They could put a checkbox under 'Preferences' in the iTunes menu. Check one: 'Call a track a track' and 'Treat me like a mouth breather.' Check one or the other, and the program takes it from there.


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