WAV versus FLAC


Until now I though that the sound coming from the files in these two formats are identical. However, recently, I have heard from a person whose opinion I respect highly that sound from WAV files is "warmer" and that from FLAC files is "brighter".

I wonder if anyoner else have similar observations?

Thank you
simontju
From what I have read and experienced, there are definite differences in file types on high resolution systems. you really ought to try for yourself. Make wav copies off of some select files and put them into a playlist.

I am sure some are going to argue about this, but in my system (mac) I could readily tell the difference from ALAC, AIFF and .wav. Do not fall for the bits is bits diatribe. They shouldn't sound different, but they do for (yet) unknown reasons in system. It is not placebo or expectation bias either. I wish it weren't so, and I have not changed over as it will be a hassle.
The real test, in my opinion, isn't WAV vs. FLAC but rather WAV vs. WAV converted from FLAC. Would WAV converted from FLAC retain brightness? Would it gain warmth?
There is no difference in the data between a FLAC and WAV file. The FLAC is a lossless compression format similar to Zip files, but designed for music.

If one is hearing a difference between the two formats, there are two possible issues.

The first is that any difference is due to the extra load placed on the processor in decoding the FLAC file.

The other possibility is the difference arises from subjective perception.

The more vocal adherents of each school of thought will try to pressure you into their camp - "anyone could hear the difference" or "your system isn't good enough" or "no one can measure a difference" and so on.

The key is to not worry what others think. Experiment for yourself - it is pretty simple in this case to stream FLAC and WAV files of the same song back-to-back. Once you've decided what works best for you, run with it and ignore the naysayers.

FLAC is a lossless compression format. It is possible to hear differences between FLAC and WAV files when played because your computer is decompressing on the fly. But if you take a WAV file and make an SFV of it. Then convert the WAV to FLAC and back, the SFV will match. The file will sound the same when played. It is the exact same file. Different programs can also sound different while playing the exact same file.

Now two WAV files may sound different depending on the way they were created. Just because the file is a WAV or FLAC does not mean that it is lossless. It is the same thing on an Apple. It all depends on the way the file was created in the first place as to whether it is truly lossless or not.
However, recently, I have heard from a person whose opinion I respect highly that sound from WAV files is "warmer" and that from FLAC files is "brighter".

I will have to agree with that person because to my ears and with my audio components I get the same result. And it does not matter what compression level is selected in the FLAC encoder.

IMO again, Monkey's Audio and Apple Lossless are superior and much closer to uncompressed WAV, but they still lack the top-end information (air) of uncompressed WAV which still sounds best to me.

Best,
Alex Peychev
The placebo effect is the greatest enemy to the audiophile...
Well,everyone hears what they hear.
I wish to thank everybody who shared his or her aural observations as well as to these who shared with me their knowledge of the basics of engineering and psychology.

I cannot experiment (yet) as I do not have yet the music server - blame go to Alex with his extraordinary optical storage based front end I am 99.9% close to decision to get Diamond from Sonic Science - in moment Neal will let me know if he can implement some engineering "toys" I asked him to implement. I just want to enjoy HiRez downlaods and they take a space. I know a little about bits (other then that these bits bite sometimes) and eager to learn relevant info. Thank you
It is possible that different software handles different file formats differently and the results are not exactly the same.

However if this were the case it would be the programming of the software used to produce or read the file formats that is different, and not the format, and the results could be different in each specific case regarding which is better or preferred.

Format does not assure sound quality. That is evident with records, tapes, CDs, you name it. Different versions of the same material in the same format sound different because of the way the recording is produced despite being all of the same format.

In the case of flac versus .wav, I would expect if everything is working well, and the resolution of the files are the same, there should be no inherent difference in sound quality resulting from format alone.
In the case of flac versus .wav, I would expect if everything is working well, and the resolution of the files are the same, there should be no inherent difference in sound quality resulting from format alone....

Ok, I've done this experiment with at least 20 audiophiles and PCs ranging from Pentium 4 to Core i5 (laptops, desktops, Wi-Fi, USB, PCI, Squeeze Server, DB Power amp, Foobar, J. River Media Center, etc.), and they did not know what's playing (blind A-B test). Somehow they all preferred WAV. All had a hard time choosing between Monkey's and Apple lossless, and all disliked FLAC because, in their opinion, it sounds thin and with unnatural/mechanical top-end.

Interestingly enough, I've recently talked to someone who has a famous audiophile recording studio. He also dislikes FLAC because of the same above mentioned reasons.

If someone around here has the same experience and has a remedy, I’d be more than happy to experiment and report back. For now if lossless is a must, I am sticking with Monkey’s Audio, but that is only for not so good recorded material.

Best,
Alex Peychev
You need to rip using the right ripper (dbpoweramp). There is absolutely no difference between WAV and FLAC. I purposely bought a large hard drive to rip everything in WAV as I am a very fussy audiophile. I spent the better part of a month ripping the albums in WAV then FLAC, then did extensive, exhaustive comparisons between the two. Result, ZERO difference, no difference, zilch, nada, any other way I can say it? Anyone claiming anything different may know something I dont. I had no intention on using FLAC, but when doing the comparo, why fuss with WAV, it wont hold tags and uses more space, for what?

By the same token I also compared heavily in AIFF, again, ZERO difference.
You need to rip using the right ripper (dbpoweramp).
Oh, sure! Please read my earlier post again, I did use dbpoweramp too.

By the same token I also compared heavily in AIFF, again, ZERO difference.

I am really happy for you!

Best,
Alex Peychev
As has been pointed out, WAV does not support metadata. This makes it a royal PITA to deal with if you need to restore from a backup, or move files, or want to share files. I refuse to use WAV for this reason alone. As far as one sounding warmer and the other brighter, I have never heard anything remotely like that myself, and find it very hard to believe that it actually occurs this way (I do not find it hard to believe that someone believes that's what they're hearing though). My own experience is that file types don't make that much difference (if we are talking about full-resolution, uncompressed formats - AIFF vs WAV vs FLAC etc.). The same files ripped with different software have certainly sounded different to me on comparison, but I don't think it would be a warm vs. bright kind of difference. That's one for the tabloids I think.
To Simontju - as you can see, there are a variety of opinions on this subject. Some don't like FLAC and some find it perfectly fine. It is clear that many in each group went to lengths to compare for themselves.

So we're back to the earlier comment. Experiment for yourself and find out which format you prefer. Then go for it!
Expectation bias isn't necessarily caused by a conscious bias, it could be a subconscious bias. It's not a character flaw, and I don't believe in supermen without any biases. So you have to have some way to rule it out. With computer playback it's easy to do blind testing, so maybe you did that.

I'd like to know a lot more about how the files are being played back and through what equipment. It could be a software issue, or possibly RFI (I'm thinking of direct playback from, for example, a laptop densely packed with electronics).

Assuming you're getting a correct and clean s/pdif stream to feed your DAC and still hear a difference, my guess would be that the different formats are producing different amounts of jitter, and your DAC has poor jitter rejection.

Me, I don't hear a difference, but then I don't expect to. ;)

I know that with the Squeezebox, you can choose to have files decoded to PCM on the server end rather than the player end (the default is to send FLAC across the line and decode on the player end). Some people report better sound
with decoding done on the server end. Supposedly, the extra work of decoding in the player causes jitter in the S/PDIF output. But that's just speculation.
Everyone hears what they hear, and it's stupid to tell people what they do and do not hear. With that being said...

I've tried a bunch of different formats - WAV, FLAC, AIFF, and Apple Lossless. Couldn't hear a conistant difference between any of them. I had no loyalty to any format at the time. When I did hear a difference, I went back and forth a few times to make sure it wasn't imaginary. After doing so, I came to the conclusion that there wasn't any difference. I did this again a week or two ago with a few tracks. Same result.

My take on it is use the most convenient (ie less buggy) ripping, formatting and playing option.

I have 34 year old ears, slightly above average hearing, and a pretty resolving system However, neither is the last word in any of that. I state this because I've been told my hearing is bad and/or my system isn't resolving enough.

Just reporting what I hear. Can't tell you what you'll hear.
http://www.computeraudiophile.com/faq and https://www.hdtracks.com/index.php?file=staticpage&pagename=faq#2 read what the experts say. do your research. to me flac is where you won't to be. Wav to flac to Wav to flac and back to Wav again, No change in data. It is the dac that makes the true differance here. Oh and the balance of your system. It aint vinyl but it is aproaching it.
I will not argue with anybodys observations based on what they hear.

I would ask though that when a clear difference is detected, it adds to the argument to also provide an explanation for why the observed results occurred.

"As has been pointed out, WAV does not support metadata"

That would be a stroke in the - column for .wav then.

I use .wav because I believe it to be the most robust current standard overall. Robust meaning that it was the fewest issues doing what it is designed to do in teh most actual user cases.

There is definite value in being able to retain the right metadata along with the audio content though as was pointed out. A factor worth considering, but not one that has anything to so with sound quality.
""As has been pointed out, WAV does not support metadata"

That would be a stroke in the - column for .wav then."

I'm not sure what you're trying to say here. That the metadata is audible somehow?

"I use .wav because I believe it to be the most robust current standard overall. Robust meaning that it was the fewest issues doing what it is designed to do in teh most actual user cases."

No one has demonstrated that FLAC has any "issues".
Hi...

Hope you guys don't mind if I chime in with my first post here.

The choice of file method is largely one of your software and hardware choices as well as the intended use of the files - Archival or Playback.

IMO, archival files should be stored in FLAC because of that format's ability to retain metadata embedded in the file as opposed to WAV or AIFF. Because it is open source, moreover, it is more likely to be supported far into the future than are the corporate formats (AIFF and WAV) that will be subject to larger handshake concerns of the two software concerns (Apple and MS). I would keep that arcival copy as a reference and to use to copy into the format of choice for listening.

For listening, I would choose the format that coincides with the OS that you are using. In other words, if your playback is through OS-X (Apple), I would choose AIFF (or Apple Lossless if you really prfer it over AIFF, but there are other issues with regard to Apple Lossless, IMO). If the OS of choice is Windows, I would choose WAV. If one is using Linux, I would choose FLAC. The reasons are related to handshake issues between the file and the OS, and you are more likely to get the true copy of the digital file played back through the operating system that the file format was developed for.

The sonic differences, as to the extent they exist, will be at the far margins, but apparent to those whose hobby it is to hear those differences. I will say, however, that the assertion that there is a difference remains controversial, but one hears what they hear and it is my experience that one does not hear a difference between a FLAC file converted into a WAV file played through Windows and a FLAC file converted into a AIFF file played through OS-X or a FLAC file played through Linux OS - that latter combination is what I believe the high end audio arena needs to move in order to detach themselves from dependence on Apple and MS.

On the other hand, I do believe there are sonic differences when one listens to a AIFF, FLAC and a WAV file played through one OS - meaning all three compared on an Apple or Windows machine. I think that is what many people are hearing. My hypothesis, again, is that this is related to the software handshake issues that may produce some timing and/or jitter issues.

That begs the question as to whether it is simply better to rip directly into AIFF or WAV (I would not recomend Apple Lossless as the codec of that file system has and continues to evolve) in terms of sound quality. As a bit is a bit, there is no informational difference in a file converted from FLAC to WAV or AIFF or ripped directly from a CD into WAV or AIFF. In other words, the files will be identical making sonic differences both theoretically and practically impossible - at least if one is using a script like dBpoweramp to convert files. And, again, I would use FLAC for the archival copy because of its ability to embed metadata and its theoretical support lifetime.

That is my take, anyway.
I think audiocin's assessment is pretty accurate.
A question for Alex please. Where in your system is FLAC decoded?

Thanks.
Great first post Audiocin. Glad to have you aboard. How do you have your files set-up and what components are working well for you? I ask because I am about three weeks away from starting down this path myself. I have about 250GB backed up as FLAC files from EAC.
As an aside, AIFF DOES store metadata, which is why I considered it....basically WAV without the hassle.
Not this again, the person that said "The first is that any difference is due to the extra load placed on the processor in decoding the FLAC file." is right.

People that argue about the formats do not under stand how it works, it is just a different way of writing the information. An example is below.

Example:

WAV= 1111222233334444

FLAC= 1.4,2.4,3.4,4.4

Both say the same thing but you can already see how the FLAC file has a shorter word length and will be a smaller file. If FLAC or Apple Lossless do not sound the same as WAV on your system do not blame the file.
Aplhifi,

You said "IMO again, Monkey's Audio and Apple Lossless are superior and much closer to uncompressed WAV, but they still lack the top-end information (air) of uncompressed WAV which still sounds best to me. " I do not want an argument but I would test your ears and equipment before speaking about the last bit of air... follow the link and SORRY if it makes you sad....

Test tones from 8khz-22khz
I do not want an argument but I would test your ears and equipment before speaking about the last bit of air... follow the link and SORRY if it makes you sad....

I'm pretty sure you'd be the only one questioning Alex's equipment here.

On the test site you linked, I could hear 18khz but barely 19khz. I don't believe that is accurate as I don't think my hearing is quite that good as my ears have been around for five decades now. On previous tests (not from the site you linked) last year I could otherwise get to 17khz, and no further. So you are suggesting that because we loose some of our ability to hear the highest frequencies as we age that we are also no longer qualified to make judgments about how well as system/component delivers high-end information? That would probably leave the majority of the folks posting here, the majority of the staff at most of the rags (FWIW), as well as many of the most respected manufacturers of high-end gear at a tremendous loss.
Jax,
Yes that is some what my point. If there is a difference in the formats it will be at the extreme highend of the frequency. Not sure many of us really (myself included) here it anyway.

I guess my point is the difference is very small, and our systems (and ears) have much bigger issues.

I know my system does not put out anything above 17khz. With Sennhizer 650 headphones I hear to 19 but on my speakers it is dead after 17khz.
Yes that is some what my point. If there is a difference in the formats it will be at the extreme highend of the frequency. Not sure many of us really (myself included) here it anyway.

I guess my point is the difference is very small, and our systems (and ears) have much bigger issues.

I know my system does not put out anything above 17khz. With Sennhizer 650 headphones I hear to 19 but on my speakers it is dead after 17khz.


Why is the only difference in formats evident in the high end extremes? I've never heard that before. What are you basing that statement on?

The difference between your speakers and headphones, beyond the obvious limitations of the specific transducers, is one of isolation. Your speakers abilities are profoundly affected by the room, the contents, your seating position, etc. Those factors have no effect on headphones, which have a much greater degree of isolation. That's probably why they don't use speakers to test your hearing.

BTW Sennheiser HD650's are not known for their upper-end extension. In that region between 10-20khz they drop down severely just after 10khz averaging around -15db! At 19khz they are -10db.
Uncompressed is lossless is uncompressed.
Well, I did some research and turns out there are more people discussing this issue with FLAC because they also hear disadvantages against WAV.

There was a claim of more RAM and more processor power involved with FLAC decoding compared to WAV. So I ripped the same CD track to FLAC (compression level 5) and WAV and played one after the other while monitoring Windows resource monitor. In both cases (FLAC and WAV) the processor remained at 3-4% and RAM at 10-12MB, so the above claim is not true.

Anyway, the difference between FLAC and WAV is subtle but clearly audible (to my ears, in my system).
WAV has better decay (more air), better top and bottom extension; it overall sounds more natural. This is best audible with a well recorded piano material. Violins and large orchestra reveal it too.

There were suggestions of first extracting FLAC to WAV and then play it. I haven't tried that so far. Does anyone around here know a reasonable way of first converting FLAC to WAV before playback?

Best,
Alex Peychev
Ballywho, what? Mp3 is uncompressed! AAC is uncompressed? Both are quite lossy! Not everything uncompressed is lossless; not everything lossless is uncompressed.

I agree 100% with Alex Peychev; to me WAV has that "live" sound that AIFF or FLAC just doesn't convey. Dunno why; I suspect the decoding is more than we think (at elast for FLAC) It's a curse, really, cuz WAV sucks as a metadata manager.

Alex, btw, sorry I couldn't come by that evening for a listen. I want to hear that DAC!!!
There were suggestions of first extracting FLAC to WAV and then play it. I haven't tried that so far. Does anyone around here know a reasonable way of first converting FLAC to WAV before playback?

I'm on a Mac and use Max software to do those kinds of conversions. It seems you are on a PC, in which case Media Monkey should do a fine job converting FLAC to WAV (or anything else). EAC would be a good solution.

That said, I just took your suggestion, Alex, and ripped three files of a well recorded piano piece. I took the first cut from, Bach on a Steinway, and tried three different rips (none are conversions these are all direct rips from the CD). The first was a rip via iTunes to Macs uncompressed format, AIFF. The next rip was via Max to FLAC. Finally I ripped the same cut to WAV using Max. With the iTunes rip "Error Correction" was on. With the Max rips, the much more vigorous "CD Paranoia" error correction was set to "Full Paranoia". Those rips took much longer than the iTunes rip did. I listened via headphones since that would seem to really pronounce any differences pretty unmistakably. I thought the WAV and FLAC ripped with Max sounded a bit better than the AIFF via iTunes but I could not say for sure that I could identify those two every time. I did not believe I was hearing any difference between the WAV and FLAC ripped with Max. YMMV, of course. I'll try it with some other files and if the results are different I'll chime in again.
Sorry folks, I suppose I'm just sick of the veritable splitting-of-hairs about something like a lossless file format. And no, Tedmbrady, MP3 and AAC are not uncompressed; they are, in fact, compression methods. And yes, both are quite lossy. When I said "uncompressed" I was alluding to WAV files. And when it all comes down to it, FLAC, WMA, and Apple Lossless get decompressed to result in the same bit rate as a WAV file...hence an identical sound. If you're hearing differences in sound between these various formats, I can't explain it.
Let me add that MP3, AAC, FLAC, WMA, and Apple Lossless are all compression methods, but when *de*compressed, FLAC, WMA and Apple Lossless end up being the same bit rate as an *un*compressed WAV file... Hence "uncompressed is lossless is uncompressed"... Hence they *should* result in an identical sound (and do to my ears, at least).
Alex, btw, sorry I couldn't come by that evening for a listen. I want to hear that DAC!!!

Sure, we can arrange something. We went for late night listening after dinner, sorry you couldn't make it! I am sure you'd have fallen in love. :-)

Best,
Alex Peychev
Ballwho, sorry, brain fart. Of course MP3 is compressed. i read it wrong that you were saying all lossless is uncompressed, which it isn't. FLAC and others exist as losslees and compressed. Nuff said.

I realize you can;t explain it; I haven't heard a good explanation other than some malady with decompression, which still seems to be an innocuously small amount of processing to produce sonic differences with the same ulitmate data.. But very many of us hear the differences. There have been mounds of forum responses about it. It's not a new debate.
It seems to be it should be easy to do blind testing in this case. Just load up some music in WAV and FLAC format and hit shuffle play. Make a note of your impressions, and only check the playlist when you're done.

I think people are just imagining these differences. That's only an insult if you take your subjective impressions of sound way too seriously.
Ted,

Pardon my smart-A, "...they are, in fact, compression methods..." response.

I need to get a slew of various formats lined up and just run through them and *really* listen, even if just for the pure heck of it; I'm curious to see if I can discern, or if my system, for that matter, can discern/resolve any difference, whatsoever... In the end, though, I doubting anything will surface. We shall see.

Cheers.
Daverz said it best.

Please no offence to all; please take the following FWIW!

The difference between FLAC and WAV is subtle, but it is there, IMO, so it will be not easy to hear. For example, a cable can mask it to a point that is non-audible.

I am sorry if I have hurt the feelings of those who are perfectly content with FLAC (and for a good reason), but we are talking about the last bit of "naturalness" possible, in which case WAV is superior.

Best,
Alex Peychev
Which cables mask the differences? Do I need silver wire?
Hello,

What about wma Pro Lossless with redbook? Rounder and warmer, not as edgy as flac. Some say it sounds as good or better than wav when upsampled to 96hz.

Jean
For what its worth, I used EAC and ripped Williams SeaSymphony - TELARC: firstly in WAV format and then in FLAC format in two separate folders

On one hand I use low fidelity computer audio...so my results may be dubious

On other hand - After I listen to these a few times, I asked my wife to go beteen file#1 and file#2 and "click" and I was listening BLINDLY

Results: from 9 trials I indentified WAV and FLAC correctly 9 times and it was rather easy as each has its own unique sonic characteristic.

I cannot say which one is "better": WAV was warmer but softer and FLAC was crisper but not bright and with better PRAT factor. If this is true "forever" then probaply WAV is better for solos such as female voice and small ansembles and FLAC is better for symphonic music...

its not definite experiment but its was fun, please do not take it seriously.
I just had an idea, so bear with me.

First, people hear differences between file types, and some, like Simo, above hear it regularly enough to ID file types...or at least tell the difference.

However, this is testing the computer as much as the file type since each file type must be 'decoded' or whatever it's called.

A test?

Record a couple songs in FLAC, ALAC, WAV, whatever else. The brain trust tells me that FLAC and ALAC can reconstruct the original bitstream so they SHOULD sound alike, right? But NO!

I'd say to take the songs recorded in all those formats and change them all back to ANY format. I'll bet the differences will disappear. I think this means the difference is how the computer turns the file back into music, not the file itself?
Magfan
Yes, those who measure files or compare file structures are measuring the wrong thing, IMO. I don't believe there is one single debate that wav and FLAC (or AIFF, etc) are identical files. However, aren't they processed differently (i.e the FLAC or AIFF decoder or codec is different than the wav one)? It's there that the debate should be focused on. Hell, we have debate over digital cables, and clearly the ones and zeroes are identical...but the path they take, the envelope they ride along, the dielectric they encounter...are different...and to some people (wayyyyy more than hear the diffs between wav and FLAC) there is a debate. I don't have any answers, but I am theorizing, I am simply stating that if two DNA-identical twins ride along different paths, they may look different at the end of the journey.....and yet still be measured as having identical DNA. Their DNA measurements are moot and not in question; their ride experiences are what's important.
Isn't that what I said?
My experiment would confirm it is the processing / conversion, not the file.

All the lossless files 'decode' to the same parent file, but HOW it happens is the difference.

That's what I've heard as the objection to USB as a feed to a DAC.
Alex, do you use your PC to decode FLAC into PCM stream and then feed into the DAC? I need to understand how you set up your system to understand your claim better.
Vett93,

I use the PC to play/decode FLAC using JRMC. I feed my DAC-S via USB.

I think Magfan has a valid point because the quality with FLAC (and other lossless formats) greatly varies on different computer configurations. So it looks like it is indeed a computer issue.

I will do some more experiments this weekend and report back.

Best,
Alex Peychev
49 posts later we're back to the same point. Some are fine with FLAC and some aren't.

If people are concerned as to which is best for their particular situation, they should experiment and determine their own preference. Unlike many things in audio, this is a relatively simple experiment for anyone - play a song in FLAC and then play it in WAV - you'll hear what you hear. That may or may not match what someone else heard.

The other good thing is that if you choose FLAC and change your mind down the road, a batch conversion back to WAV is an option. (You can do the same going the other direction, but you'll have to tag the files.)

It is amazing at times how much people need the approval of others to like what they like. However, if one reviews this thread, the positive person will find thoughtful people in his camp no matter which he chooses. And, no matter which he chooses, a negative or nervous type will still fail to get a unanimous consensus.