For years, we have all been pretty impressed with mp3s. They gave us access to music in a conveniently small file size that we could download. Software appeared, that could rip CDs into mp3s, so that we could carry our favorite albums on our iPods, or other mp3 players. Gradually, smartphones took over from these separate players, and we stopped buying CDs, because we could buy downloadable mp3s from major suppliers, like iTunes and Amazon. Then, we played this portable music in our home, as we got speakers that plugged into our phones, or, better still, used bluetooth. But maybe some people still did buy CDs, because the mp3 format is a lossy format – that is to say that in the compression codec, a certain amount of the sound is lost. While this makes little difference for your average bubblegum pop or modern music, it makes a huge difference to any sort of art music – especially classical and jazz.
Then came FLAC. FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. This is a means of partial compressing of audio files, to make them smaller for downloading, but it uses lossless technology. None of the audio is lost. The original FLAC files to gain popularity were 16 bit (FLAC-16), and these have exactly the same quality as CDs. Now, we could give up CDs for good! We could purchase and download CD quality music. The software support lagged behind, but I have found that, on my Android phone, Poweramp gives very good support for FLAC, and when I play the music via bluetooth through my TV's soundbar, or by auxiliary through my auto stereo, I get better quality than CDs, because there is no scratching. But now we can go even better. There's now FLAC-24 – a 24 bit solution, that produces sound which is actually better than CDs. It claims to be studio quality.
Specialist retailers, like eclassical.com, give you all three formats, when you purchase an album – mp3, FLAC-16, and FLAC-24. But if you can only get one, then go for FLAC-24, because there are free softwares out there that can make copies at lower levels, but, obviously, you cannot upgrade to what you had previously lost in producing mp3s. In other words, you can make good quality mp3s from FLAC-24, but you will not make proper FLAC-24s from mp3.
Today, I tested this out by purchasing a new recording of Haydn's Creation, with the Houston Symphony Orchestra – purchased for under $18 from eclassical.com. And the sound quality in the car just blew my mind – it was like there was an orchestra in the passenger seat!
Don't waste your money on this format if you are only listening to manufactured contemporary music – including so-called “worship music”. But if you listening to goo quality art music – jazz or classical – look for the FLAC-24.