How the FLAC do I tell MP3s from lossless audio?
Can you hear the difference? Can anyone?
Seven possible pillars of FLAC failure
There are several reasons why lossless music would sound no better than MP3-encoded audio:
- Inadequate master recording of the source music
- Inadequate FLAC encoding source
- Lousy import process for getting FLAC files into iTunes and then the Sonos index
- Inadequate speaker systems
- Inadequate human auditory equipment
- Listening ignorance about what to look for
- Wrong choice of music
That's seven possible reasons.
How do you tell if the original recording, the master, was done to a high-enough standard? It's rare that a digital musical product description will discuss this and, if it does, there is no standard definition of terms like "studio quality."
A FLAC encoding could be made from a lousy source, like a poor quality master or even, I'm told, an upsampled MP3 file. What kind of (steady on, now – El Sub Ed) would do that?
Campbell says: "Some music recorded and produced in the '80s seems to suffer from a weedy presentation with little bass. Hi-res in my experience can reveal these weaknesses to a greater degree although I would take lossless (FLAC) of the original (e.g. CD) over lossy ... Conversely, some well recorded and produced music from the '70s (when masters were analogue) really benefits to my ears from a good hi-res remaster."
How do we tell if the mastering is good or bad? "Guess we need user community reviews on downloads a lá Amazon etc. to help sort the good from the bad."
Campbell adds this point: "[It] comes down to the the provenance of a given track/album - I'm not sure if any distribution platform has proven quality control with clear source labelling thus far although I understand Neil Young with Pono is aiming to address this. Time will tell, although you feel that the major labels could solve this if they got behind lossless/hi-res music and saw the same marketing opportunity as they did for HDTV."
The FLAC-->download-->unzip-->ALAC conversion-->iTunes import process could contribute its own screw-up, and finding out whether this is the case requires bit-for-bit comparisons of audio files, which is beyond me.
The speaker issue
Maybe my Sonos Play:1s are not up to the task and I need Play:3s? If the speakers are inadequate how do you know for sure? Indeed, unless you hear the same music encoded to the same standard on different, better speakers, how would you ever know? There is no FLAC listening spec sheet that says, for example, you need class III speakers or above, because there is no standard specification for speaker performance, and no SPC-type benchmark for speakers.
Campbell's thoughts on the speaker issue: "Maybe you can hear the difference of lossy to lossless on 'all' setups to some degree and I certainly don't imagine it is the sole preserve of so-called 'audiophile' setups for a moment but I think there is an important point of context here, which is worth considering."
That is whether you're listening on the move or not: "I wouldn't personally worry about lossy versus lossless where I'm listening to music on the move. For example, I use Spotify on my smart phone in what they call Extreme download mode, which uses Vorbis lossy compression at 320kbps bitrate ... this is perfectly acceptable for trains, tubes, walking along, etc., or moving around the house in a multi-room environment.”
He says the MP3/FLAC difference matters when he is listening attentively. "To me the difference between lossy and lossless (FLAC) is relevant when I am sitting in front of my home system solely listening to music as a dedicated activity."