FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec, a leading compression technique that preserves original audio quality while reducing file size. It is an open-source, royalty-free format that has been adopted widely for its many advantages in digital audio reproduction.
Compression techniques take large files, such as WAVE (.wav), and reduce the data bits while preserving as much of the audio landscape as possible. A well-known audio compression format is MP3 (.mp3), which slim down bulky WAVE and compact disk (.cda) files to a fraction of their original size, making it an ideal format for portable audio players. The MP3 format allows a vast library of songs to fill a very small storage footprint, but there is a trade-off in audio quality.
FLAC surpasses MP3 quality by preserving the original soundscape in exact detail. The format reduces the original file size by roughly 30 to 60% with no loss of quality, making it a lossless format. This differs from the MP3 format, which is a lossy format, or a format that loses quality in the conversion process.
One of the great strengths of FLAC is its very fast decoding time, or ability to stream even on modest hardware. Technical specifics in the framed architecture also allow it to be error resistant, in that each frame has the information it needs to decode itself. If a frame is corrupted, the data lost in the stream is a mere blip. This differs from other types of lossless formats where the entire stream would essentially become corrupted.
Another feature of this format is that it can handle up to eight channels of audio for preserving surround sound recordings. FLAC is also a good choice for archiving audio CDs, as a person can always convert the file to a different format in the future. A further advantage is that it supports replaygain, a technique for ensuring that recorded sound files play at the same volume level.
The only real disadvantage of FLAC files is that the compression ratio is not as steep as other codecs, which means that the files will be somewhat larger. With all of the advantages that this format has, however, this is a happy trade off for many audiophiles.
Considering the falling prices of flash cards, portable players, and storage devices, the format will likely only gain support. The files can play on many media players, although not all.