Why iTunes Doesn’t Support FLAC Files

flac.pngI often get emails asking how to play FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files in iTunes. Users are surprised that Apple doesn’t support FLAC files, and generally rant against Apple not supporting open source formats. There’s no conspiracy or lock-in here; there’s a very logical reason why Apple, and iTunes, don’t support FLAC.

First, a quick overview of lossless audio files. These are files that use data compression to shrink the size of audio files, the same way zip compression makes an image much smaller than its original size. On average, lossless files – in FLAC or Apple Lossless format – are about half the size of the original, uncompressed music on CDs. (See this article for some examples of Apple Lossless compression results.)

Apple Lossless is Apple’s home-brewed lossless codec. Introduced in 2004, Apple Lossless – sometimes called ALAC – provides the same bit-for-bit quality as FLAC, and is supported by iTunes and iOS devices. In October, 2011, Apple let the Apple Lossless format go open source, so anyone can use it in hardware or software. (Note that Apple Lossless files look, in the Finder or Windows Explorer, exactly like AAC files, because they use an .mp4 container, and have the same file extension.)

Supporting FLAC in iTunes and on iOS devices could be a legal nightmare for Apple. Many open source software algorithms can be targets of patent trolls. While no one cares much about FLAC use in small apps and hardware devices, were a big company such as Apple – or Microsoft, who doesn’t support FLAC either – to start supporting that format, it’s very likely that someone would dredge up a patent and seek copious damages.

So, if you want to play FLAC files in iTunes, you need to convert them to Apple Lossless. Don’t convert to uncompressed AIFF or WAV, as they’ll take up about twice as much space. The free app XLD can convert to and from any lossless format with no loss of quality; use this tool to turn your FLACs into Apple Lossless files.

Note that Apple Lossless also supports high-resolution audio, up to 24-bit, 192 kHz sample rate. (See How To: Listen to High-Resolution Audio Files on a Mac.) The highest I have are 24/96 files:

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I can’t see Apple ever supporting FLAC files in iTunes; it’s too risky. Apple created their own lossless format for this reason. It provides the same quality, supports high-resolution audio, and is compatible with iTunes and iOS devices.

Note: A commenter on the Guardian website, which linked to this article, suggested that this theory makes no sense, because Android – developed by Google – supports FLAC, and they’re a big target. I’m not sure that’s an issue. Android is technically – for the most part – open source, and is certainly using open source FLAC libraries. I don’t know what the legal status of that usage would be, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be as clear as a closed-source app like iTunes, or Windows Media Player, supporting FLAC.

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26 replies
  1. Thomas says:

    Power-consumption could be a big reason this. The wiki page for Apple Lossless mentions: “Compared to many other formats, it is not as difficult to decode, making it practical for a limited-power device, such as iOS devices.”

    Reply
    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      That’s interesting. I would think, though, if Apple were supporting another format, they’d figure out a way to decode it more efficiently, maybe with a codec-specific chip. But I strongly doubt that the power consumption was the reason for this. And the link in the Wikipedia article just leads to a statement with nothing to support it. Also, this article says that FLAC is the fastest to decode among lossless codecs.

      Reply
      • Greg ZX says:

        I think you’re reading those charts wrong. FLAC tends to fare very poorly on decoding tests across the board. You’re probably looking at the black triangles instead of FLAC’s data points which are in very dark purple triangles. The black triangles are Wavpack codec, no FLAC.

        Reply
  2. Tim says:

    If I’m converting a set of flac files that comprise a CD, I use Titanium Toast to create a digital CD/disk image, mount the image on the desktop so iTunes sees it as a CD, matches titles and names of tracks, than imports it properly into iTunes. Will XLD allow iTunes to correctly name the tracks as well?

    Reply
    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      Good question. I don’t think so. If you mix tracks together to make a CD, then that CD won’t be recognized when XLD checks for metadata. iTunes only recognizes CDs, to check for metadata, that you rip using iTunes, not files you’ve ripped from other sources.

      Reply
  3. BillJ says:

    Thanks for your insights about Apple & FLAC. I use both and purchase a lot of 24 bit tracks – mostly classical. I have to say, however, that I the best application I’ve found (and I’ve extensively tried all the major Mac ripping software) is sadly not a Mac application at all. It’s dbpoweramp on, yes, Windows using Parallels. It ain’t pretty but it’s mighty powerful. I’ve never regretted the extra effort it takes to make my rips right.

    Reply
    • Gustav says:

      I don’t know what you mean by “make my rips right” – If you are ripping a disc, do it in iTunes with ALAC. What more “power” do you need?

      Reply
  4. jameskatt says:

    Only the FEW GEEKS are complaining about lack of FLAC support in iTunes or Apple Products. Everyone else uses the open source Apple Lossless Format or MP3 or MP4.

    If you have FLAC files, simply convert them to Apple Lossless Format. You lose nothing in the process.

    Reply
          • Gustav says:

            Stays accurate? If it doesn’t “stay accurate” then you’ll get disk i/o errors and it’s time to get a new disk and restore from backups. Bits just don’t randomly flip on a hard disk. The disk will just fail.

            Reply
          • Sammyrobinson says:

            With XLD, you can verify a folder of an album with the accuraterip database. I’ve pulled iTunes Apple lossless rips, along with EAC, and CueTools rips and verified them.

            I’d argue that besides EAC, CutTools, and maybe DBpoweramp, most PC rippers suck. They truncate the files by several samples, and the Flac or Apple Lossless can’t be verified by accuraterip.

            Even an iTunes rip of a non scratched cd can be verified by CueTools or XLD with the accuraterip database.

            Reply
  5. Trois Croix says:

    But HD apple lossless files don’t seem to be readable from iOS, are they?
    I have to convert them in 16/44,1 to synchronize and read them on my iPhone. Am i missing something?

    Reply
    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      The iPhone can’t play above 44.1 kHz, so there’s no point syncing them. And, they’re so big, you’d only get a handful of albums on an iPhone if you put 24/96 files on it. And, frankly, the DAC in the iPhone wouldn’t make it worthwhile.

      Reply
      • Tim Swartz says:

        Actually, iPhone handles 24/48. I sync my vinyl rips with it with iTunes. What iTunes sync doesn’t allow is anything over 48kHz. But you can get around that with an app like FLAC Player. The iPhone’s DAC handles at least to 96kHz, but you can’t sync those files with iTunes.

        Reply
  6. Artie says:

    Please be aware that many audiophiles prefer WAV or AIFF over ALAC or FLAC, even though the files are much larger. The argument is that the computing power required to expand “lossless” files into playable bitstreams results in diminished audio quality. I realize that many people don’t believe it, but the difference is audible on a truly high-resolution (very expensive) stereo system.

    Reply
    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      No, it’s quite hard to believe that a bit-for-bit equivalent sounds different. The computing power to decode a lossless file is minimal. I just started playing a high-res Apple Lossless file in iTunes, while watching Activity Monitor to see how much CPU it’s using. There was an initial burst of 12% – which may simply be iTunes waking up – then, during playback, it ranged from 3.4 to 3.7%. So the “computing power” argument is, as H. L. Mencken used to say, buncombe.

      Reply
    • Greg ZX says:

      These are the same people that buy “oxygen free copper” cables for ridiculous amounts of money because they claim they hear a huge difference between them.

      Reply
  7. Sum Jung Gai says:

    Style Police says: “Wherever you use space-hyphen-space, you should use an em dash. On a Mac, type option-shift-dash—it looks like this—and your readers will love you.”

    Reply
  8. bladerunner6978 says:

    I got one sentence for you:
    (The Google Theives) did it with the “Android”, and they support flac.

    Android is NOT really opensourced anymore, not like it used to be.
    it’s “apps”,…, are getting more closed everyday, (if you’re not invited you can’t play, get it?)
    but they sure didn’t mind stealing the “Linux/BSD” code/kernel stuff first though, eh ?

    … as already mentioned,…
    Apple opensourced their “alac”, sort-of, -but it was too little too late.
    FLAC is lossless, just like “alac”, and even more portable, and, finally, FLAC is much more popular these days.
    There is absolutely NO reasaon for Apple Not to include FLAC, for example, as an optional way to “encode losslessly, imported Audio CD’s”, with all the metadata,…, into our iPOD’s,…, anymore.
    err uhm, except for maybe one, – Apple invested heavily into their “mp*” junk, and their in bed with the RIAA, hollywood, …, and that, my friend, is the only real reasons.

    “iTunes” is another “closed/commercial” nightmare, aka Thanks a lot for NOTHING Apple.
    iTunes should have already been available natively to Linux. Why not ? They don’t mind doin’ it for Windows.
    Anyway, hey Thanks a lot Apple, once again, for nuthin’.
    We already pay exhorbetant prices for their hardware, and Apple provides squat for features, portability, “other” OS support,… ?

    ya, go dunk for more Apples.
    amyway, ‘fer now, dbPowerAMP, and/or “ffmpeg” does all this nicely for me, although unfortunately I stll need ITunes, to “sync” it all, :(, with a bit of manual extra work involved..

    Apple, for all these years, hasn’t changed for any of their devices. They have great quality “hardware”, but terrible/horrible application-system-level features and/or support.

    Reply

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