Monkey's Audio vs. WavPack vs. FLAC

by Jacob Laursen, 2007

Background

For a long time I've been thinking about getting a HTPC running Windows Media Center Edition. I'm not quite there yet for various reasons. However, one of the problems I'm trying to solve is what to do with my music collection. I recently bought some very decent loudspeakers, and now my CD collection is growing again.

For the HTPC one could argue that space is not really an issue. With a 750 GB harddrive I can probably store somewhere between 1.000 and 1.500 uncompressed CD's. The first problem is, I also need space for more demanding content: Video recordings. Secondly, I need a format that can be transfered to my portable music player. Finally, WAV lacks tag support, i.e. no metadata for the music files.

Sorry about the messy state this article is in. I never got around to finishing it, so I'll just publish as it is.

I'm faced with the following dilemmas when choosing an audio format:

Quality requirements

I'm not sure which MP3 or AAC bitrate is "transparent" to me, and of course, it depends on the music being encoded. With MP3 I probably need at least 192 kbps for casual listening - and more to feel sure that I won't one day suddenly start noticing artifacts in some of the songs. With AAC some say that 150 kbps is "transparent" to most listeners. It's hard to decide exactly which bitrate to choose. Beyond 200 kbps takes up too much space on portable devices and is probably overkill. So it's either a compromise in quality, or separate encodings for the HTPC and portable devices.

Fair license

You already paid for the music and the cellphone, HTPC or whatever. How much are you willing to pay extra for proprietary codec support? Restrictive licenses limits the support/availability.

Tag support

The minimal amount of expected metadata fits into the old and primitive ID3v1 tags. While this usually may be enough for most people, more advanced content such as album art, lyrics, etc. might also be nice for certain applications.

Ease of use

The manual process when ripping a music album should involve a minimum amount of steps. Does the ripper integrate with the encoder, is CDDB-like databases supported for fetching of metadata, etc. Manually entering tag metadata tends to become boring.

Software/hardware support

For the broadest support MP3 with ID3v1 tags is obviously the road to follow. However, many modern codecs are now supported in various applications: Cell phones, MP3 players, DVD players, traditional software players for various platforms and even LCD TV's with built-in card readers.

Initial impressions

First I went to Monkey Audio's website without knowing that my journey would not end there. I already knew it to have the best compression ratio, so I went ahead and installed the package, including the Winamp plugin. I compressed an album: Shania Twain - Come On Over. So far so good - everything worked, and the files were playable in Winamp. Tags were missing, but the package included an excellent plugin for Winamp.

In the application used to compress the files I noticed an option to spawn an external coder, and I found the WavPack command line encoder. Out of curiousity I went and fetched the latest version of this.

After a while just before buying a new Denon surround receiver, I found out that it supported FLAC files. I experimented with FLAC earlier, but never found a reason to favour this format over WavPack. This changed immediately.

The battle

Encoding results

All files are encoded with "high" quality in both Monkey's Audio and WavPack, and compression level 6 for FLAC.

Album Original FLAC WavPack Monkey's Audio
ABBA, The Complete Studio Recordings 5,15 GB 3,59 GB (70%) 3,52 GB (68%) 3,46 GB (67%)
Beth Hart, Leave The Light On 586 MB 403 MB (69%) 398 MB (68%) 391 MB (67%)
Coldplay, X&Y 631 MB 417 MB (66%) 411 MB (65%) 404 MB (64%)
Nelly Furtado, Loose 557 MB 381 MB (68%) 375 MB (67%) 367 MB (66%)
Mika, Live In Cartoon Motion 448 MB 279 MB (62%) 273 MB (61%) 264 MB (59%)
My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade 524 MB 366 MB (70%) 363 MB (69%) 359 MB (69%)
Shania Twain, Come On Over 609 MB 447 MB (73%) 442 MB (73%) 434 MB (71%)
Johnny Cash, The Essential 1067 MB 584 MB (55%) 586 MB (55%) 562 MB (53%)
Kim Larsen, Forkl├Ždt som voksen 415 MB 262 MB (63%) 257 MB (62%)

Flexibility

Software support

Winamp: Works equally well with WavPack and Monkey's Audio through the supplied plugins. Monkey's Audio comes with a tag editor (including a picture of a monkey), so one could argue that this will bring it one star ahead of WavPack. FLAC is natively supported by Winamp and includes a nice tag editor.

Windows Media Center Edition and Media Player: WavPack comes with a DirectSound Filter. After installing this, both MCE and MP will play the files like they were its own babies (WMA). A DirectSound Filter is also available for FLAC.

Nero Burning ROM: Nero plugins exist for WavPack and FLAC, enabling full support when burning Audio CD's. These plugins works so great that you won't notice that it's there. They also support tags, which is useful when including CD TEXT information for car CD players.

Exact Audio Copy: FLAC and WavPack both have command line options for tagging, so they can be spawned automatically from EAC in a neat way.

Directory Opus: Native support for FLAC files, which means they are fully supported by the Folder Options attribute system.

Hardware support

Denon's A/V receivers AVR-3808 and AVR-4308 have FLAC support. They can play FLAC files from a UPnP server This is very neat if you don't use a HTPC for playing the files, but have them stored on a NAS or regular PC far away from the Hi-Fi equipment.

Tag support

Monkey's Audio and WavPack both use APEv2 tags. FLAC uses its own type of tags. There's a plug-in for Media Player that adds support for both APEv2 and FLAC tags. FLAC tags are natively supported by Directory Opus.

Conclusion

Monkey's Audio compresses slightly better than WavPack, and WavPack compresses slighty better than FLAC. But this alone doesn't win the competition - let's have a look at the scoreboard:

Category FLAC WavPack Monkey's Audio
Compression * ** ***
Software support *** ** *
Hardware support ** - -

The difference in compression efficiency is so small that it's hardly relevant for making the best decision. The software and hardware support is far more important, and here FLAC ultimately wins. I made my choice and converted all my WavPacks to FLAC. I now enjoy my music collection directly from my Denon receiver and never looked back. It would be nice with PlayStation 3 support, but this goes for all three formats. I've made a small GUI frontend to easily convert my FLAC files to AAC files I can use on my cellphone. I'll probably release this later on.

Tips & tricks

Exact Audio Copy compression settings: WavPack

FLAC


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