It’s one of those questions that people keep on asking me: what is the best digital audio format for storing Binaural Beats? Use a lossless codec like ALAC or FLAC. To simplify it even further, if you use Apple products like computers, mobile devices or Apple’s iTunes program, use ALAC. If you use Windows and Android products, use FLAC. If you don’t know for sure, then use a high resolution MP3. Of course things are never quite this easy, so if you would like some details, read on.
In recent years, a few lossless audio compression codecs have appeared that reduce file size by about half while maintaining pristine audio quality. These codecs are Apple Lossless (also known as ALAC) and FLAC. In terms of balancing the quality and integrity of the audio along with a manageable file size, these are the best formats to use. Digital audio compressed by these algorithms can typically be reduced to 50–60% of its original size, and it can then be decompressed into an identical copy of the original uncompressed audio data. Unfortunately, each comes with some limitations that you should consider.
Apple provides an excellent audio codec called Apple Lossless Audio Codec, or ALAC. Historically, this format was proprietary and only worked on Apple products like iTunes, iPhone, iPod and the iPad. Currently, this covers the majority of the market, but audio encoded with ALAC cannot be played on non-Apple products. This may change, though: in late 2011 Apple open sourced and made ALAC royalty-free, allowing companies and developers to use this codec without many restrictions (and no fees!).1
FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec)
It is said to be the most widely supported lossless audio codec, but I’m not so sure: Apple does not support this format and considering the dominance of the iPod, iPad and iPhone as portable music players in the audio player market, I wonder how “most widely supported” is defined. FLAC playback support in portable audio devices and dedicated audio systems is limited compared to formats like MP3. It is notable that the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has adopted the FLAC format for the distribution of high quality audio. It may also be significant that I archive my commercially released work using the 24bit FLAC format.
I like both ALAC and FLAC formats: they are offer the highest quality at the (relatively) smallest file size, but neither has achieved the ubiquity of MP3.
It’s hard for me to consider codecs without thinking of the classic Betamax vs. VHS video debacle. Betamax was the superior format, but VHS was the winner in the marketplace because of it’s openness and lower cost. Sony’s desire to control the market and keep Betamax proprietary ended up killing the viability of the format. When I was a kid I had a neighbor who spent thousands of dollars on Betamax videos that were almost immediately useless.
I really don’t like closed technologies.
Data portability is extremely important to me: I like choice. Right now, I use an iPhone and I think it is a great product: I use almost every feature. It is my camera, my phone, my instrument, my video recorder, and it is my music player. But one day I will use another device from another company and I prefer not to lock myself into Apple proprietary media technologies.
Moving ALAC into the public domain was a smart move on Apple’s part, but I fear it came to late: I’ve already invested my trust in FLAC.
MP3 Is Universal
The MP3 codec is venerable, to be sure. It is also flawed, although less-so than when it was first introduced. It also the most supported audio format. Period.
Most Supported = Most Freedom
The flaws in the MP3 codec are largely overcome by using higher bit rates. The question is whether or not you are willing to pay for your freedom with a little bit more memory to accommodate a higher bit rate.
The AAC Option
The Advanced Audio Codec, or AAC, is growing on me. It is superior to MP3 in that it produces better quality audio with smaller file sizes. Initially, it was poorly supported, which is why I didn’t embrace it early on, but other manufactures are now including this format. If you are using one of these devices, AAC may be a choice worth considering:
- Android platform mobile devices
- Apple’s iTunes, iPhone, iPod and iPad
- Nintendo DSi and Wii
- Sony’s products including the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable and the Walkman
- Phones from Sony Ericsson and Nokia
What About Entrainment Frequencies?
The frequencies used to create binaural beats, including those found in Hemi-Sync®, exist in a very narrow bandwidth of the audio spectrum. This bandwidth exists largely in the same region as human speech: as a result, compression codecs are designed to operate outside of this range due to the human ear’s high degree of sensitivity in this range.
Binaural beats can be encoded at very low bit rates and maintain their integrity: even bit rates as low as 128 kbps. Higher bit rate MP3s or Lossless formats like FLAC or Apple Lossless are suggested for music programs (including Hemi-Sync Meta-Music®) due to the high frequency content and potential aliasing of the music, not because of concerns about the binaural beats. In fact for a couple of years, the Monroe Institute was giving away “Open Exercise” on their website, and they encoded the Hemi-Sync® at 128 kbps. Why? Because it is safe and it works at that bitrate.
MP3 Is Still My Recommendation
Although the AAC format adheres to a higher quality standard than MP3 and the AAC format is now supported well enough to be considered a safe bet, I still end up recommending high resolution MP3s as my format of choice. MP3s are the most universally supported format, the data compression happens outside of the range of human hearing and does not effect the binaural beats and the files are sufficiently small.
- Foresman, Chris (2011-10-28). “After seven years, Apple open sources its Apple Lossless Audio Codec“. Ars Technica. Retrieved 29-10-2011. ▲