One new iTunes feature that slipped by me was the new ‘Apple Lossless Encoder’. Unlike music formats like MP3, AAC and Ogg Vorbis, lossless encoding results in no loss of quality – the music file sounds exactly like the original. The downside to this is that files compressed using lossless compression are typically quite a bit larger than their lossy counterparts.
With the largest iPod topping 40GB it’s hardly surprising that Apple have adopted this – I’m sure the majority of people will never fill that much (even I have only 6-7GB) so the extra space can be set aside for higher quality files. What is surprising is that Apple chose to adopt their own format, and not one of the (many) other lossless encoding formats.
If you thought there was a format war amongst lossy encoders then you’ll be knocked back by how many lossless ones are out there. There’s at least 14, although not all of them are as good as each other. Thankfully, lossless formats are easier to compare since output quality isn’t a factor, but a good format will have quick encoding, a small output file size, many features, and would preferably be open source too.
The most popular is FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), which is now being steered by the Xiphophorus Foundation who are also steering the Ogg Vorbis format. It’s arguably not the best format out there but it’s good enough and it’s entirely open source. It’s well represented on almost all platforms and is even in some hardware players. Monkey’s Audio is a little faster but isn’t so well supported, being restricted to Windows and a command line encoder in Linux. Although it is open source, development has been a little slow of late, and it lacks some features compared to FLAC. Shorten is another popular format.
Apple Lossless Encoder (or ALE for short – nice acronym), is, sadly, based on none of these. It’s a new format which is closed source and currently only works in iTunes (Mac and Windows) and through QuickTime, although a dBpowerAMP codec is apparently in the works. It is quite well featured, offering streaming and seeking support (which a surprising number of other formats lack), and is obviously supported on the iPod with the addition of the latest firmware update, so on paper it has a similar number of features to FLAC. It is, however, slower at encoding and decoding, and files are typically a megabyte or so larger, according to this comparison provided by the FLAC project, however this HydrogenAudio topic suggests it is faster. I’m guessing Apple may have optimised it for the PowerPC processor, in which case compile times on Mac OS X would be better than in Windows.
It’s just a pity that Apple took the decision to re-invent the wheel when good alternatives already exist, although this Macworld column reckons this is because Apple may want to add DRM to it in future so that punters can buy higher quality files from the iTunes Music Store. AAC was an open(-ish) format and look how quickly that was cracked. On the other hand, I doubt the record labels would be interested in giving away their songs on the internet at full quality, based on their previous boneheaded decisions.
There may also be reasons, such as patents or problems with embedding FLAC in the iPod firmware, but seeing as other hardware manufacturers have managed it this seems strange.
In any case, it’s an interesting development. Any support for lossless audio in iTunes is a good thing, I just wish that Apple had gone with the herd rather than go on a tangent and then confuse people. What I would like to know is whether the WMA import function of iTunes allows you to convert them to ALE, since then you wouldn’t lose any quality – I couldn’t find anything that suggested this in my research for this article.