An Overview of Audio File Formats Supported By iTunes

Every once in a while, I see some very odd comments about audio file formats. I just read a comment to an article about high-resolution files suggesting that that FLAC compresses the dynamic range of files.

I thought it would be useful to discuss the audio formats that iTunes supports (and talk about FLAC as well).

iTunes supports five different audio file formats. You can see them by choosing iTunes > Preferences, clicking the General tab, then clicking Import Settings.

ITunes audio formats

  • AAC Encoder: This default choice compresses files in AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) format. AAC is not, as many people think, a proprietary format created by Apple. It is part of the MP4 standard and can be used by any hardware or software. In the early days of the use of AAC, not all devices supported this format, but now, pretty much every device – both for portable use and for use with a home stereo – can handle AAC.
  • AIFF Encoder: Both AIFF and WAV files encapsulate raw sound data (in PCM, or pulse code modulation, format) from a music CD in file headers so the data can be used on computers. This format is uncompressed, and it takes up a lot of space, around 600–700 MB per disc, or about 10 MB per minute of audio.
  • Apple Lossless Encoder: Apple Lossless is a lossless format that Apple created. It retains all the original musical data while taking up much less space than AIFF. Audio from a CD ripped in Apple Lossless format takes up about 250–400 MB, or around 7 MB per minute, depending on the type of music. (See this article for some real-world examples of the actual amount of compression achieved with Apple Lossless.)
  • MP3 Encoder: Most people are familiar with MP3 files, which were the catalyst for the digital music revolution. MP3 files can play on just about any device or program that handles digital music.
  • WAV Encoder: Like AIFF, WAV is uncompressed, and takes up the same amount of space.

There are a few important things to be aware of with audio formats. First, you can transcode one lossless format to another with no loss of data. This means that you can rip a CD to WAV, convert it to AIFF, then to Apple Lossless, then back to WAV, and you’ll have the exact same data – and the same music, at the same quality – as the original. However, if you rip a CD to AAC or MP3, then convert those files to a lossless format, such as Apple Lossless or WAV, you wan’t have the exact same quality; you’ll simply have a larger file at the quality of the AAC or MP3 file.

I said above that I would discuss FLAC. This is an open-source format, and stands for the Free Lossless Audio Codec. It is equivalent to Apple Lossless, and converting between the two causes no loss in quality. And, to address the comment I mentioned earlier, neither FLAC nor Apple Lossless have any effect on the dynamic range (the difference between the softest and loudest volume) of music. (You may want to know why iTunes doesn’t support FLAC.)

It’s worth noting that in late 2011, Apple released the Apple Lossless format specifications as open source. While this format was not widely used in the past, notably on Web sites selling digital music, this has changed a lot since then, as not only will more sites sell files in this format, but more software and hardware offer support as well.

Some people claim that WAV files “sound better” than lossless compressed files (Apple Lossless or FLAC). This may have been the case years ago, when the actual processing of decompressing the lossless files may have caused problems, but they are bit perfect replicas of each other, so it’s simply impossible for them to sound different.

For this reason, if you want to maximal quality, Apple Lossless is exactly the same as WAV or AIFF, and the characteristics of Apple Lossless offer more flexibility in tagging files (editing their metadata) and adding album art. WAV and AIFF files notable have limitations regarding tags. (In this article, I speculate on when Apple may start selling files in Apple Lossless format on the iTunes Store.)

It’s also useful to know that if you are interested in high-resolution audio, Apple Lossless can handle such formats, as can FLAC. So if you buy high-resolution music in FLAC format, you can convert it to Apple Lossless to better manage the files in iTunes (if you want to use iTunes). I recommend using the free XLD for converting audio files.

Note: iTunes can also play a number of other audio formats that QuickTime supports. This Wikipedia article gives more details. Not all of these formats are supported very well for tagging. iTunes can also play Audible files, in several different bit rates.


Learn how to get the most out of iTunes with my ebook, Take Control of iTunes 12:



DVD Review: Twelfth Night by Shakespeare’s Globe

51Aaud8H+OL.jpg Buy from Amazon UK

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, which dates from the fecund year of 1601, just after Hamlet, is one of the bard’s plays about confusion. A pair of twins is separated in a shipwreck. One, a woman, dresses as a man, and the two are reunited at the end of the play. But between the separation and reunion, much happens, all having to do with wooing and love.

The idea of separated twins is something Shakespeare used in the early Comedy of Errors. In that play, the twins were separated at birth. And the woman dressing as a man was essential in As You Like It, which Shakespeare wrote just a year or two earlier, where Rosalind had to hide her femininity during her travels in the Forest of Arden.

The Elizabethan stage did not allow women on stage, so any time there was cross-dressing, it created double ambiguity: a man playing a woman dressed as a man; the audience certainly understood that two-pronged change. In this production – described as an Original Practices performance – the Globe Theatre company performs Twelfth Night with all men, bringing back the way gender was treated in the early 17th century. Johnny Flynn plays Viola (also known as Cesario, creating yet another layer of dissimulation), Mark Rylance is Olivia, and Paul Chahidi plays Maria, Olivia’s maid.

The play begins with Viola’s explanation for why she dresses as a man. She hear’s of Orsino’s love for Olivia, and realizes that, if she were disguised as a man, she might serve as matchmaker, and “might not be delivered to the world.”

The rest of the play revolves around the confusion that arises when Viola falls in love with Orsino, and when, as courier to Olivia sending messages of Orsino’s love for the latter, Olivia becomes smitten with Viola. A side plot involves Malvolio, who has the beguine for Olivia. Maria, Olivia’s maid, together with two comic characters, Sir Toby Belch (a Falstaff-like character) and Sir Andrew, are involved in a ploy to trick Malvolio and make him think he is loved.

In the end, Viola’s brother Sebastian returns, and there is confusion with Olivia who marries Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, then sees Viola who knows nothing of the marriage. But all ends well, as the two loving couples unite.

This is a lively production, with wonderful comic timing, with entrances and exits making scenes segue with no interruption. The Globe’s approach to have almost no sets – other than the occasional table or bench – makes the stage very fluid, and the actors all bubble with humor throughout.

The performance revolves around Mark Rylance’s Olivia, who has a strong stage presence throughout. Rylance plays a role that is subtle and powerful, yet I had a bit of difficulty suspending belief. Olivia should be fairly young, yet Rylance is in his 50s. The voice he uses – a slight falsetto – makes him sound like an elderly woman. While his acting is nearly perfect from a textbook point of view, I just didn’t find his characterization believable enough.

Nevertheless, there are certain points in the play when Rylance’s Olivia achieves perfection. Certain gestures, glances, and stuttering words give the character a life that no soliloquy could equal. The look on Olivia’s face when he suggests that Malvolio – clearly a trifle mad – go to bed, and the latter replies, “To bed! ay, sweet-heart, and I’ll come to thee,” is memorable.

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Steven Fry (Malvolio) and Mark Rylance (Olivia).

As for Malvolio, Steven Fry gives a powerful performance of this somewhat gauche man who is full of himself, then thinks himself loved by Olivia. The scene in the garden where Malvolio reads the forged letter from Olivia – really written by Maria – is a masterpiece, as Fry falls into the character with ease and grace.

The rest of the cast is very good, if not excellent. While I found Johnny Flynn unconvincing as Viola, I thought Colin Hurley, as Sir Toby Belch, and Roger Lloyd Pack, as Sir Andrew Aguecheck were a wonderful comic duo.

This is a boisterous performance, and, aside from my reservations about Rylance, is delightful and effective. This production is currently on Broadway; the DVD here is a film of a production at the Globe Theatre in London from September, 2012. If you can’t see it live, then this DVD – with a slightly different cast from the Broadway production – is the next best thing. The DVD is not yet available in the US, but if you order it from Amazon UK, it is in NTSC format, and has no region code, and is therefore compatible with US DVD players.

Read a review of the current Broadway production in the New York Review of Books.

Here’s an excerpt from the DVD:


My New Desktop Speakers

If you follow this blog, you know that music is important to me. I listen to a lot of music, and have varied tastes, ranging from the Grateful Dead to the Durutti Column; from punk to jazz; from classical to rock. I listen a lot at my desk, in my home office, and it’s important that I have a good sound system there.

After recently moving house, I felt it was time to upgrade my speakers. I have a Cambridge Audio system, with a small Scirocco amp, a DacMagic, and small speakers from the same company. Bookshelf speakers are always a compromise; you want good sound, but you don’t want them to be too large, and size trumps sound quality.

Down in the living room, however, I have much better equipment. My speakers are Focal Chorus 806 Vs (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which I bought in France. Focal is a French company known for high-quality speakers that is just starting to get international distribution. When I bought my speakers, I went to a good hi-fi store and listened to several different speakers. I found the Focal Chorus line to be the most neutral of those I heard; I notably hated Bower & Wilkins’ overly bassy speakers. I initially planned to get floorstanding speakers, but decided it wasn’t worth spending that much money on them, and got standmount speakers.

416906l-qUL._SX425_.jpgSo for my office, I considered a number of options, such as active speakers, but decided that, since I like the Focal Chorus sound, I probably couldn’t go wrong with another set of speakers from the same company. I opted for the slightly smaller 705 V (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which only cost £230 ($400 in the US).

I was not disappointed. When I hooked them up, still using my diminutive Cambridge Audio amp, I started playing András Schiff’s recent Diabelli Variations (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), and they sound just wonderful. The soundstage on these speakers – right out of the box – is amazing for the price. Also, the detail of the piano’s various sounds comes through excellently. They have detailed treble and a generous low end. I had been thinking of adding a sub-woofer to my office system, but now I don’t think I need it. I am tempted to upgrade my amp slightly, but I know it won’t make a big difference. (Though I may want to use this small amp in a different room of my new home; there, I have an excuse now!)

These aren’t small speakers; they are 31 cm high (just over 12 in), and I have them on “stands;” two 34 cm high wooden boxes which each contains two drawers. So the speakers are a bit higher than I’d like, but I’ll find something soon to lower them a bit. (I want the tweeters to be at ear height, and they’re about 6 inches above that point.) Here’s how they look on my desk:

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(I shot that photo with my iPhone, and it looks a bit distorted, like it’s a wide-angle lens…)

I’ve written in the past about how I think the best way to listen to music on a computer is not to use desktop speakers, but a full stereo. I stand by this: the quality you get from a real amp and speakers is much better than any desktop speakers you may find (with the exception of active speakers, or studio monitors). It’s often not that much more expensive to get a stereo system for your desktop compared to the price of some computer speakers.

So, I’m quite happy with my new sound. Once I get the right stands, things will be even better. I’m looking forward to some good listening in the future. If you’re looking for speakers, I’d suggest you check out the Focal Chorus line. They’re very neutral, eschewing the high-level bass that many modern speakers produce.

App Review: Backgammon NJ HD

Backgammon is of my favorite board games. I’ve been playing it since I was a teenager, and its unique combination of luck and skill means that games are always interesting. Unlike a game such as go or chess, the chance dice rolls mean that even when behind, you can win (or lose) suddenly.

I’ve tried lots of backgammon apps for iOS, and I’ve ended up using just one: the $8 Backgammon NJ HD. I wrote about this app, and another, at Macworld, about a year and a half ago, and changes to Backgammon NJ HD have made it much better, making it my only choice.

There is now only one universal app, instead of a separate app for iPhone and iPad. Not only do you no longer need to buy two versions, if you have an iPhone and iPad, but you also can play more people. Game Center considers a different app to be, well, different. So having two apps split the player pool. In my Macworld review, I wrote:

With two different versions, Backgammon NJ suffers because if you have the iPhone version, you can’t play owners of the iPad app; each one is considered to be a different game. So if you have two iOS devices, you may want to buy both versions, depending on when and where you play.

This is no longer the case. In addition, your ELO ranking is the same whether you play on a phone or tablet. The developer told me that there are 700-800 people playing this app daily, and I don’t often wait more than a minute or two to get a game using Game Center.

The latest version of the app also includes turn-based playing. You can start a game with someone, and play a turn at a time, at your own speed, instead of playing in real time. I don’t particularly like this, but if you want to play that way – if you don’t have time to play full games during the day – it’s good to have.

Backgammon NJ HD has a very attractive interface; one of the nicest.

Backgammon nj

You have a choice of boards – wood, marble or felt – and there are numerous settings to allow you to customize gameplay. If you play against the app, you can choose a skill level: easy, medium, hard or expert. I’m currently playing at the hard level, whereas I was at medium when I reviewed the app for Macworld.

Part of the reason I’ve gotten better is that Backgammon NJ HD has features that help you improve your game. You can get hints whenever you’re not sure what the best move is, and the Hint button lights up with a blue border when you’ve made a move that the app considers incorrect. The same is true for doubling; the doubling cube displays a blue border when it thinks you should double, and when the app doubles, will recommend whether or not you should accept.

So, to play backgammon, and to improve your game, Backgammon NJ HD is the perfect app. You get the opportunity to play people online, and you get to play one of the strongest apps, with excellent tutoring features. What more would you want?

Note: many of the reviews of this app suggest that it cheats. There were so many that the developer, Jimmy Hu, posted this article explaining how dice rolls are made.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the Great Existentialist Science Fiction Film

It’d been years since I had seen Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s excellent science fiction film, and I watched it last night. For a science fiction movie, Stalker is certainly an oddity. Released in 1979, loosely based on the short novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and directed by Tarkovsky, the masterful Russian director who lived too short a life, it tells the tale of a part of Russia that has been visited by an odd event. It may have been a meteorite that fell, or it may have been an alien visitation. But the event created the Zone, a dangerous area which was cordoned off by the police, and where few could go.

A Stalker – a sort of guide who takes people through the traps in the Zone – meets up with two men who want to visit the Room, a place where wishes come true. One is a Professor, a man of reason, and the other a writer, a man of inspiration. The Stalker is a man of belief. Very little happens in the movie, which lasts more than 2 1/2 hours, except for their trip to the Room, and their discovery of what they want from it.

Stalker is science fiction only in its premise; there are no aliens, no magic, nothing that would be noticed as science fiction. It is a slow movie; very little happens, and some of the shots are several minutes long. It’s a science fiction movie as it would have been written by Samuel Beckett. Yet it’s a brilliant existential examination of the desires of men and women.



At first, the film begins in sepia-toned black-and-white, but once the three characters reach the Zone, the film changes to color. Just as Oz was in color, so was the Zone. The Zone is located outside an industrialized city, and is full of the detritus of modernity. Yet Tarkovsky films these banal, cast-off items with the plastic beauty that he showed in all his films. Some of the shots are breathtakingly haunting, yet there is nothing special in them.

In a prescient shot, near the end of the movie, the Stalker can be seen returning to his home with his wife and daughter, and, across the river, a nuclear power plant is seen. The Zone could be the area surrounding Chernobyl. There is no devastation, simply signs of nature taking over some human artefacts.

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