ALAC Audio Format: Is It Better to Use Than AAC?

If you use Apple's iTunes software to organize your digital music library, then you probably already know that the default format that it uses is AAC. If you also buy songs and albums from the iTunes Store, then the files you download will also be AAC (the iTunes Plus format to be exact).

The ALAC format option in iTunes is short for Apple Lossless Audio Codec (or simply Apple Lossless) and is a format that stores your music without losing any detail. The audio is still compressed like AAC, but the big difference is that it will be identical to the original source. This lossless audio format is similar to others you may have heard of such as FLAC for example.

A pair of high end headphones next to a laptop

The file extension used for ALAC is .m4a which is the same as for the default AAC format. This can be confusing if you see a list of songs on your computer's hard drive, all with the same file extension. You won't, therefore, know visually which ones have been encoded with ALAC or AAC unless you enable the 'Kind' column option in iTunes. (View Options > Show Columns > Kind).

Why Use the ALAC Format?

One of the primary reasons for wanting to use the ALAC format is if audio quality is at the top of your list.

  • No Loss of Quality When Ripping CDs - If you want to preserve your original audio CDs for instance, then ripping them with the ALAC option will give you perfect copies of your discs.
  • Safely Convert to Other Formats - You may know that converting from one lossy format to another degrades audio quality. However, if you use a lossless format like ALAC, then you can convert to anything without losing any audio information.
  • Recover Damaged Original CDs - Storing your physical music collection (CDs) as ALAC files give you the option to re-create them if the originals become damaged or lost. You can simply burn the ALAC files to a recordable CD which will give you an identical copy of the disc you originally backed up.

Disadvantages of Using ALAC

It could be that you don't need ALAC even though it is superior to AAC in terms of audio quality. The downsides to using it include:

  • Larger Files - Just like other lossless codecs, ALAC encoded audio produces files that are larger in size than lossy formats. You will, therefore, need more storage space than if using AAC. Unless audio quality is important, then this trade-off might not be worth it. If all you want to do is listen on standard equipment like a smartphone for instance, then it's better to stick with AAC.
  • Less Compatible With Hardware - Compared to popular lossy formats like AAC, there is less support for ALAC. If you only use Apple devices then this isn't a problem since they all support it. However, if in the future you think you may use a mix of portables from different manufacturers then ALAC may not be your best solution.
  • Will You Hear The Difference? If you intend on using standard hardware such as your smartphone and basic earphones, then you might not hear any difference between AAC and ALAC. Even though lossy formats like AAC discard audio data, a decent bitrate (256 Kbps and higher) is usually good enough for most people.
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