Learning how to fully enjoy and appreciate music is a lot like learning how to enjoy other forms of art.

Take painting, for example. If you’ve visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you undoubtedly encountered Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory. The melting clocks, the slumbering creature, the deserted dreamscape – you’d seen the painting before.

But seeing it in person was a far more powerful experience.

Not only were the colors more vibrant, but you could practically hear the clocks dripping into the desert sand. The cliffs were more lifelike, too, and the sky appeared more ominous than you remembered. Compared to viewing the work on your smartphone screen, pondering Persistence of Memory in the flesh was a more immersive, visceral experience.

And so it goes with music files.

Dali - Persistence of Memory

Lossless music file formats preserve the complete auditory experience

As its name implies, a “lossless” music file contains 100% of the data for a given track. It gives you music the way the artist wants you to hear it, with all its highs, lows, nuances, textures, and layers. Among audiophiles, lossless is the “purest” way to experience digital recordings.

Lossless music files are available in different formats:

  • WAV and AIFF: These are raw music files, and they take up a lot of disk space. For example, a typical AIFF file requires 10MB of storage for every minute of audio–that’s an entire gigabyte for a 25-track playlist where each track is four minutes long!
  • FLAC and ALAC: These files (ALAC is also known as Apple Lossless) are the compressed versions of WAV or AIFF files. They reduce file sizes by about 50-70% but provide 100% lossless audio when you play them. For storage purposes, FLAC and ALAC files are far more practical than AIFF or WAV.

To get a handle on lossless music file quality, it’s also helpful to understand bitrate. A music file’s bitrate refers to the number of bits (8 bits = 1 byte) of data that a music file conveys over a given period of time, typically expressed as kilobits per second (kbps).

The higher the bitrate, the higher the audio quality. Spec-wise, a lossless file delivers audio at a bitrate of around 1411 kbps. That’s high compared to a typical MP3 file, which clocks in at just 128 kbps.

Lossy music files sacrifice quality for speed and storage space

If listening to a lossless music file is akin to viewing an original Dali painting in a gallery, listening to a lossy file is like looking at the same painting in Google Images. Is it the same piece of art? Fundamentally, yes. But it’s missing the level of detail you experience when viewing the work in person.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, enjoying Dali on your smartphone is a lot more convenient than driving to the museum, waiting in line, purchasing a ticket, and navigating through various exhibitions.

The same is true of lossy music files. In exchange for a less compelling listening experience, lossy formats offer faster download times and occupy less storage space than their lossless counterparts.

Here’s a rundown of essential lossy music vocabulary:

  • MP3, AAC, and OGG: These are the most common lossy audio file formats. AAC is similar to MP3, but offers slightly higher quality. OGG, on the other hand, is an open source alternative to MP3 and AAC formats.
  • 320, 192, or 128 kbps: 320 kbps is the highest bitrate you’ll find for lossy audio files. However, most MP3 and AAC files only clock in at 192 or 128 kbps. Another way to think of this is that a typical MP3 file has lost 90% of its data compared to a lossless AIFF or WAV counterpart!

Since an inexperienced listener may not be able to discern the differences between lossless and lossy audio files, lossy files tend to be more popular. Brief download times and small file sizes–a typical four-minute MP3 file occupies less than 6MB of disk space–allow you to quickly build an enormous library of music.

When settling for lossy files doesn’t make sense

Casual listeners with basic equipment may do just fine with lossy music files. If you like the earbuds that came with your phone and you’re happy with the audio quality from iTunes, MP3, and AAC files, you don’t necessarily need to purchase new ones... You won’t miss the details that get stripped from a lossless file because your equipment wasn’t designed to reveal them.

But if you’re investing in high-quality speakers or headphones, you probably won’t be content with lossy formats. After all, your equipment was engineered to convey the broadest conceivable array of sounds. You can and will enjoy the more immersive experience of lossless audio!

That doesn’t mean you can’t blast an MP3 through your new MartinLogan electrostatic speakers. You’re certainly free to do so, but you’d just be amplifying the sonic deficiencies of the lossy file.

It would be like printing a Dali painting from Google Images and hanging it in a gallery.You just wouldn’t do it.

Nothing (aside from vinyl or CDs) beats listening to an AIFF music track through a pair of high performance speakers or headphones. Anything less and you’re not using your equipment to its fullest potential.

Where to experience lossless music

Downloading lossy music files is a snap. Simply head on over to iTunes or Amazon MP3 and start building a library! Building a lossless file library, however, requires a little more effort.

Here are some of the best places to download or stream lossless music files:

  • HDTracks: With a wide selection of albums from artists of nearly all genres, HDTracks is a reliable source for lossless audio recordings. Whole albums or individual tracks are available in FLAC format. Pricing for albums is similar to pricing for CDs.
  • Beatport: Originally designed for DJs, Beatport offers a wide variety of lossless audio downloads for hip-hop, dance, techno, and electronic music enthusiasts.
  • Tidal: This streaming service offers lossless music to anyone who purchases a premium tier subscription. Streamed files are available in FLAC format, so it sounds like you’re listening to a CD.
  • iTrax: Offering a solid selection of acoustic music, classical tracks, world music, and R&B tunes, iTrax is totally dedicated to HD downloads. FLAC is the dominant format for music, and they also have HD video files.
  • Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound: Get FLAC and ALAC tunes designed to be enjoyed through high-quality equipment – you know, equipment like Bowers & Wilkins speakers and headphones. This isn’t a download site, per se. For a yearly fee, B&W sends you two albums per month and offers access to a catalog of lesser-known artists and classical recordings.

And if you don’t want to hunt for your favorite music among various music download services, you can always purchase a CD and rip the tracks to a lossless format. For many audiophiles, that’s the easiest way to get high-quality digital recordings – and you’ll always have a hard copy in the event of data loss.

Lossless or lossy? Choose wisely

Learning how to enjoy music recordings is a lot like becoming a selective coffee drinker. At first, you can’t tell the difference between cheap grinds from a Mr. Coffee and the stuff they serve at Starbucks. But with more experience, even Starbucks coffee tastes “basic.” Pretty soon, you’re starting the morning with freshly ground beans brewed in a Bialetti.

Listening to lossless music through high performance equipment is similar. In the beginning, MP3s sound fine. However, you might feel differently after hearing your favorite album on a real CD through speakers that deliver a full range of frequencies!

Ultimately, lossless files provide the best possible listening experience. You get everything you need from a real CD – and if you’ve got the equipment to enjoy the enhanced audio, there’s simply no substitute.

For audio enthusiasts, it’s an easy choice. But if you’re still training your ears to enjoy the subtle (and not so subtle) details of an immersive listening session, the choice might not be so obvious. Do you stick with the MP3s you know or the WAVs you’re not sure you’ll appreciate yet?

There’s only one way to find out. Compare a 128 kbps MP3 to the same track in a lossless format. How does the MP3 sound? Probably a whole lot less interesting!

After all, without visiting the right art gallery, you wouldn’t know what it felt like to experience Dali. You wouldn’t know whether he painted Persistence of Memory on a large canvas or a small one. You wouldn’t know what made his surrealist works so… surreal.

Experiencing music isn’t so different.