Which Has Better Sound Quality - FLAC or Spotify?

Georgi Karaivanov
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Updated · Mar 28, 2023

Georgi Karaivanov
Music and software specialist | Joined March 2022

My fascination with technology began from quite an early age thanks to computers and video games. No... | See full bio

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The debate over which has better sound quality between FLAC and Spotify has been going on for some time. FLAC is the way to go for audiophiles with a powerful computer and ample storage space. For those concerned with convenience and portability, Spotify might be a better option.

If that’s not enough for you to choose between them, this article will cover both formats’ features to help you make an informed decision.

Which Has Better Sound Quality, FLAC or Spotify?

When it comes to digital audio, there are two major camps: Those who prefer compressed formats like MP3 and AAC and those who prefer “lossless” or uncompressed formats like FLAC.

Generally speaking, FLAC offers better sound quality than MP3, but it's also a more demanding format both in terms of disk space and CPU resources. On the other hand, Spotify takes FLAC files from artists and turns them into other formats of lower but diverse quality for streaming. As of 2022, Spotify had 82 million songs in its library.

Therefore, your choice between FLAC and Spotify will depend on your listening habits and how much tolerance you have for sound quality differences.

Can Humans Detect Format Quality Differences?

The short answer is, not usually. The average person cannot perceive a difference in sound quality between most formats. Though some people think they can identify better quality between file formats, the difference they’re hearing is probably due to the listening equipment, instead.

Obviously, the better the listening gear, the higher the quality, and the more likely you will hear the differences.

What Is FLAC?

FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) is an audio format that, like MP3, compresses audio without sacrificing any quality. FLAC functions similarly to ZIP files, but with FLAC, you will experience much better compression because it is audio-specific. You can also play compressed FLAC files using your favorite media player.

Aside from being lossless, FLAC is the superior audio codec because it has open-source reference implementation, and does not have patents. Furthermore, its format and API are well documented.

FLAC is not only compatible with most phones (including the iPhone, for which there is an app) but also portable music players (PMP) like the PonoPlayer.

Which Music Streaming Platforms Use the FLAC Format?

In the digital era, we're moving towards lossless streaming. Recent technological advancements make it easier than ever to listen to high-quality audio without a physical player. Among the music streaming platforms that use FLAC are Tidal HiFi, Amazon Music HD, Deezer Premium, and Qobuz.

Which Format Does Spotify Use on Its Platform?

Spotify uses AAC 128 kbit/s on its Spotify Free plan and AAC 256 kbit/s on the Spotify Premium.

Spotify’s sound quality options vary depending on the plan. Spotify Free offers Automatic, Low, Normal, and High audio settings.

While Automatic sound quality relies upon your internet connection, Low goes up to 24 kbit/s, Normal to around 96 kbit/s, and finally, High to approximately 160 kbit/s.

On the other hand, Spotify’s Premium sound quality can be Automatic (again, it depends on your Internet connection), Low, Normal, High, and Very high, around 24 kbit/s, 96 kbit/s, 160 kbit/s, and 320 kbit/s, respectively. Remember, the highest-quality audio format uses the most mobile data, so Spotify’s affordable subscription might still leave you with big phone bills.

You can check our calculations for streaming bandwidth below:

Spotify Data Use Per Song

In 2020, the average length of a song was three minutes and 17 seconds. Spotify songs take up little memory, with the lowest quality only using 600 kilobytes or slightly more than half a megabyte. However, the dynamic range is poor, and the beats are weak.

Spotify Data Use Per Hour

When your monthly phone plan includes several gigabytes of data, all these numbers sound small but add up quickly. A one-hour commute to and from work every day quickly racks up data charges: The average commute filled with high-quality listening requires more than 3 GB of mobile data monthly.

As a Spotify Premium subscriber, you can download songs to your device for offline listening. This is an excellent feature if you want to save data or listen to music without an internet connection. If you're streaming high-quality music all month, you can expect to use up an entire 6 GB data plan.

Do Spotify Premium Downloaded Songs Use Data

Did you know that one of the benefits of Spotify Premium is being able to download songs? The app allows you to store 10,000 songs on your mobile device to play later without using data.

Factors That Affect Detecting Better Quality

Quality of Equipment

First, we should see what does high fidelity mean? High fidelity, or hi-fi for short, represents clear and accurate sound reproduction.

Music enthusiasts invest in quality home sound systems to achieve the best hi-fi listening experience possible. High-fidelity equipment doesn't produce unwanted noise or distortion and has a flat frequency response within the sound range audible to the human ear.

You might want to check: 11 Best Headphones for Music for 2022.

Sound Quality Options

As mentioned, FLAC is a lossless compression audio standard; on the other hand, Spotify uses the Ogg Vorbis, a lossy format. FLAC will, therefore, always have better sound quality than Spotify - in theory.

In practice, however, this difference will only be noticeable to trained ears or if you use high-end equipment.

Additionally, audio file bitrates play a role in sound quality. Spotify Premium offers four different bitrates, as seen before, with the highest being 320 kbit/s.

FLAC files can have a bitrate of up to 1,411 kbit/s. It means that FLAC files can have up to four times the bitrate of Spotify's Very-high-quality files. Therefore, FLAC files will always have better sound quality than any Spotify listening options.

However, unless you have high-end listening equipment, you’re not likely to notice the difference.

Internet Connection

When it comes to streaming services, the quality of your audio can be significantly affected by your internet connection.

Since FLAC files are lossless, they retain all the data from the original recording, and you don’t need the internet to listen to them.

Spotify uses a compression algorithm that eliminates some data to reduce file size and make streaming possible. When your internet connection is weaker, that will affect streaming quality.

Placebo Effect

Did you know that the placebo effect can affect our perception of sound quality?

A study conducted by researchers at the University of London found that people who were told they were listening to FLAC audio files rated the sound quality better than those told they were listening to Spotify, even though they listened to the same files as the other group.

The placebo effect was even stronger when people were told that FLAC was a higher-quality format than Spotify.

However, it's important to remember that this effect is only temporary. In other words, if you're looking for the best possible sound quality, you're still better off investing in high-quality audio gear and files.

Bottom Line

In the end, in the battle over which has better sound quality, both FLAC and Spotify bring something to the table. If you want pristine sound quality with no compression artifacts, go for FLAC files - just remember that you’ll have to store them somewhere with ample space.

However, if you don't mind a bit of sound quality loss and prefer streaming, Spotify is a better option. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference.

FAQs.


Is FLAC the highest quality?

Yes! A lossless music file is considered the best format for sound quality and is referred to as hi-res because it's equivalent to or even better than CD quality.

Is Spotify as good as CD quality?

CDs have a bitrate of 1,411 kbit/s, while Spotify's goes up to 320 kbp/s. Most people cannot hear the difference due to listening medium quality (speakers, headphones).

What music platform has the best sound quality?

The music platforms with the best sound quality are Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal, which brings us again to the question: Which has better sound quality, FLAC or Spotify? The answer is that FLAC has better quality in terms of objective parameters. Still, you’ll need to pay really close attention to notice the difference from Spotify’s high-quality streaming, so it wouldn’t affect your everyday listening.

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Georgi Karaivanov

Georgi Karaivanov

My fascination with technology began from quite an early age thanks to computers and video games. Nowadays, I love anything related to music production and astronomy. Coincidentally (or is it?), both of those have a great deal to do with tech. Honestly, most of the stuff that can be accomplished with modern electronics kind of seems like magic to me. This is why I feel this strong need to constantly learn more about it and talk about it, almost to the detriment of others.

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