Lossless Audio Formats for Ripping and Storing Music CDs

Use a lossless audio format to preserve your CD music collection

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Although downloadable music files and streaming music have made music CDs less popular than they once were, they are still around and provide an excellent medium for backing up your music collection. If you don't back up your music, you could lose it all in a hard drive crash. Even if all your music is on CDs, you should make copies of them, because CDs can be scratched.

You want perfect copies of all your originals in case disaster strikes, so stay away from lossy formats like MP3 that can affect the quality of the recordings. Use lossless audio formats when burning your digital music library to CDs.

Lossless audio formats encode audio and compress it in a lossless way ensuring your music is perfectly preserved in digital form.

FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec)

The Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) is the most popular lossless encoding format. It is becoming more widely supported on hardware devices such as MP3 players, smartphones, tablets, and home entertainment systems. It is developed by the non-profit Xiph.Org Foundation and is also open source. Music stored in this format is typically reduced between 30 to 50 percent of its original size without a loss in quality.

Common routes to rip audio CDs to FLAC include software media players like Winamp for Windows or dedicated utilities like Max for Mac computers.

FLAC is supported on all major operating systems, including Windows 10, macOS High Sierra and above, Android 3.1 and newer, iOS 11 and newer, and most Linux distributions.

ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec)

Apple initially developed its ALAC format as a proprietary project but made it open source in 2011. Audio is encoded using a lossless algorithm that is stored in an MP4 container. Incidentally, ALAC files have the same .m4a file extension as AAC; this naming convention can lead to confusion.

ALAC isn't as popular as FLAC, but it could be the better choice for you if your preferred software media player is iTunes, and you use Apple hardware such as the iPhone, iPod, or iPad.

There is no loss of quality when you rip CDs with music in the ALAC format. It is a good choice when you want to preserve your original audio CDs.

If you need to change from ALAC to another format at some point, there is no loss of quality then either.

WMA Lossless (Windows Media Audio Lossless)

WMA Lossless format, which was developed by Microsoft is a propriety format, can be used to rip original music CDs without any loss of audio definition. Depending on various factors, a typical audio CD is compressed between 206MB to 411MB. The resulting file that is produced confusingly has the WMA extension, which is identical to files that are in the standard (lossy) WMA format.

WMA Lossless is probably the least well supported of the formats in this list, but could still be the one you choose, particularly if you use Windows Media Player and have a hardware device that supports it.

Monkey's Audio

The Monkey's Audio format isn't as well supported as other competing lossless systems such as FLAC and ALAC, but on average, it delivers better compression, which results in smaller file sizes. It isn't an open source project, but it is free to use. Files that are encoded in the Monkey's Audio format have the humorous APE extension.

Methods used to rip CDs to Ape files include: downloading the Windows program from the official Monkey's Audio website or using stand-alone CD-ripping software that outputs to this format.

Even though most software media players don't have out-of-the-box support for playing files in the Monkey's Audio format, a good selection of plug-ins is available for Windows Media Player, Foobar2000, Winamp, Media Player Classic, and others.

WAV (WAVeform Audio Format)

The WAV format isn't thought of as the ideal choice when choosing a digital audio system for preserving your audio CDs, but it is a lossless option. However, the files produced in the WAV format are larger than in the other lossless formats because no compression is involved.

If storage space isn't an issue, then the WAV format has some clear advantages. It has widespread support with both hardware and software. Much lower CPU processing time is necessary when converting to other formats because WAV files are already uncompressed, and they don't need to be uncompressed before conversion. You can also directly manipulate WAV files using audio-editing software without having to wait for decompression and recompression cycles to update your changes.