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How big is the sound of music?

Lucas Mearian | March 22, 2013
Music fans and major recording artists are adopting lossless audio file formats to keep copies of their music thats as close to a master recording as possible, leading to multi-terabyte-sized home music storage systems.

There are other lossless formats beyond WAV (which is short for Waveform Audio File Format), including FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) and Apple's ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). These lossless file formats have been gaining popularity because they require less storage space than WAV files, since they first compress the data and then, like a zip files, allow it to be opened and heard in the original, uncompressed format. The highest resolution lossless file, for example, has a whopping-high bit rate of 9,216Kbps, which is 36 times more data than an MP3 file from iTunes offers.

That means these new formats, while still lossless, can save disk space while at the same time offering high-fidelity music playback. For example, an album that takes up 640MB of space in the WAV format would take up about 300MB in the FLAC format.

By ripping music from a CD or vinyl album to a lossless file format, an audiophile can also take control of the format of the digital audio file. For example, the lossless audio format can contain not only the encoded digital music, but also metadata about the music and cover art. And, if the industry develops a better codec, the listener can simply convert the original uncompressed recording to the new codec while maintaining audio quality.

"I think the advantage is the flexibility," said Dan Gravell, who writes the Music Library Management Blog. "By getting the lossless files, you're investing in maintaining your music collection in the future."

"It's definitely been a trend gathering steam in the past few years," he continued. "In terms of the advantages of lossless, the main thing cited is the quality of the sound, and that may or may not be correct."

In contrast, the advantage of lossy file formats is that they take up about half the data storage space on a hard drive.

Major recording artists, such as Neil Young and Dave Grohl, lead singer of the band Foo Fighters, have been publicly critical of compressed file formats and the "significant loss" data, and therefore music quality, consumers are suffering, according to Gartner analyst Michael McGuire. "This is coming as much from artists as from labels who want to sell more copies of the same thing. It does perform differently when you compress it. It's a facsimile of what was originally created," McGuire said.

Hi-def vs. low-def

By Young's estimation, CDs can only offer about 15% of the data that was in a master sound track; when you compress that CD into a lossy MP3 or AAC file format, you lose even more of the depth and quality of a recording. Therefor, McGuire said, "many of the younger bands over the last 10 years or so have been issuing albums in multiple formats."


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