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Native FLAC support coming to iOS 11?

  • Consistency – it’s one significant reason for the mobile audiophile to choose an iOS device over an Android equivalent. Apple make the hardware and the software. The user experience (UX) remains (effectively) the same for every iPhone/iPad user. iOS users don’t have to negotiate the additional software layers piled onto Android devices by third party manufacturers and smartphone contract providers. Out of the box, your new iPhone 7 offers the same OS and UI as my new iPhone 7.

    USB audio support from a Lightning-to-USB adaptor is also a (predominantly) consistent experience with iOS devices. Attaching an AudioQuest DragonFly Black or Red to an iPhone or iPad is a cinch. On the other hand, adding that same USB device to an Android device is a crap shoot; USB audio support varies with hardware manufacturer. Your average Samsung Galaxy will dispatch ones and zeroes to the downstream DragonFly but many a Google Nexus/Pixel will not.

    Then there’s Bluetooth audio. iOS offers AAC support to all iPhones and iPads wanting to stream audio over Bluetooth. One need only seek out a pair of Bluetooth headphones that also support AAC to improve on SBC’s rather poor sound quality.

    In other words, AAC gets us off the ground floor when it comes to Bluetooth audio quality. So too does aptX but it remains unsupported by iOS devices and only a handful of Android smartphone manufacturers roll aptX support into their own hardware.

    Another Bluetooth codec is Sony’s super-sounding LDAC. Expect to see it included in more and more Android devices down the line but we’re still a couple of years away from it becoming a de facto standard (of sorts), if at all.

    Also consistently applied by Apple is its refusal thus far to have iOS natively embrace audio sample rates beyond 48kHz and, perhaps most irritating of all, a lack of native FLAC support. Apple might point to its own Apple Lossless (ALAC) format as being iTunes compatible (because FLAC isn’t) but outside of the Apple ecosystem, FLAC is the de facto standard for lossless audio.

    FLACPlayer – and a handful of iOS apps like it – provide another way to listen to FLACs on an iDevice but their alternative file loading procedures, either from deeper within iTunes, via FTP or the iDevice’s web browser, are not as user-friendly as those which native FLAC support, as provided by Apple, could offer.

    Android’s universal friendliness towards drag-and-drop file-loading sees it return fire within the consistency conversation. With greater access to an Android device’s file system, loading and playing a FLAC file is a snap.

    At time of writing, we cannot drag-and-drop a FLAC file into iTunes and have it sync with our iPhone or iPad. It must first be converted to Apple Lossless with a third party app. Many Windows users swear by dbPowerAmp. On MacOS, I use XLD. When time is short, the one-click offlining of Tidal albums keeps me in music but I’d sooner have easier access to my own library of files, all stored as (you guessed it) FLAC.

    However, according to recent reports from Reddit users already running the developer version of iOS 11, announced this week at Apple’s annual WWDC, native FLAC support for iPhones and iPads (and iTunes) could be just around the corner.

    The Verge picks up the story: “Per the Reddit thread, FLAC files can be synced to an iOS device through iCloud Drive, then accessed through the new Files application, which will allow for local playback of the high-quality audio files directly on the device. If true, it would mark the first time that Apple has offered support for the popular FLAC file format on an iOS device.”

    A DAR Facebook commenter has already substantiated this info: “It’s definitely there. I am running the iOS 11 beta, I uploaded FLAC files (in this case, 24/96 5.1) to iCloud, and I can play them by simply opening them in the Files app. You then just play them using built-in functionality (Quicktime Player?).”

    Specifics have yet to come into focus so allow me to pose some speculative questions for readers to tackle in the comments section below:

    1) Does this mean Apple is at last softening its hitherto hardline stance on native FLAC support?

    2) If so, does that mean we will we soon be able to drag and drop FLACs into iTunes and have it play those files as per MP3, AAC and ALAC?

    3) What are the implications of FLAC support for streaming, specifically Apple Music?

    4) Is a Tidal-competing lossless tier just around the corner?

    5) Did someone say “MQA”? Tidal presently store duplicate files for each of their 35million+ tracks: one in FLAC and the other in ALAC for iOS users. Apple picking up FLAC could see Tidal slash their data storage bill down the middle.

    iOS 11 is slated to ship in September. Fingers crossed that FLAC support is included.

    [Source: The Verge]

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile. John used to live in Sydney. Now he lives in Berlin.

    Follow John on YouTube or Twitter


    1. 6) Will AirPlay 2, another enhancement coming with iOS 11, enable AirPlay transport beyond the current limits of 44100Hz / 16bit?

        • I’ve been wondering the same thing. Also is Airplay 2 a firmware upgrade to receivers etc that currently support Airplay.

        • You could be right, but a quick Google search shows that a) Apple itself provides very little detail on this and b) that high-resolution files are downsampled to 16/44.1 for AirPlay streaming. That’s the max capability for iOS devices. Interestingly, Apple TV outputs audio in 48, most likely because this is the standard for movie and TV audio. Would be delighted to be corrected by this forum if my research is flawed.

    2. Here are my thoughts. Yes Apple is going fully support FLAC. Now is good time to do it because Sprint going to give away TIDAL Hi Fi for six months starting June 9th. Sprint can build up the TIDAL HIFi subscriber base and then Apple can take it away with FLAC streaming. 7 Digital raised money earlier this year to partner with HDTracks to stream MQA in the second half of this year. With the limited availability of MQA tracks Apple can overwhelm both TIDAL and HDTracks. I think Apple sees an opening with Spotify’s customer base growing without any lossless tier and doubts they would take on anything that would increase costs when they are trying so hard to go public.

      At the Los Angeles Audio Show last weekend I learned the following. Until April MQA converted all the files. Since April Warner has been converting its file’s to MQA. Sony and Universal haven’t converted any files to MQA. Recording in high resolution other than 24/44.1 is for elite studios only according a Recording Academy (the Grammy people) Chapter President. The same Chapter President told me my MQA is Vaporware post was distributed through the Academy. And finally Apple is not sitting on a treasure trove of 24/96 material according to a Warner Music Group representative. He said they have about 7,800 albums. 3,900 are 24/44.1 for the Mastered for iTunes program. All from my notes of the Streaming the Studio Seminar.

      • I do have to say, Mastered for iTunes albums sound fantastic; however they achieve that, it works.

        • Graham you like the encoder and tools in the Mastered for iTunes program. Makes perfect sense but what you like is not tied to the resolution of the files submitted to Apple.

    3. hmmm i wonder if there’s gapless when playing back via its native player… but it’s encouraging tho

    4. I have a some questions:

      1) When is the deadline to sign up with Sprint and get the six months of free Tidal? I might be interested in getting an iPhone 8 with six months of free Tidal, but that would be in December.

      2) Sprint offers music streaming at 1.5 mbps. What is the streaming mbps for Tidal HiFi?

      3) Is the offer of six months of free Tidal limited to phone plans or does it also apply to iPads? Apple just announced an impressive new iPad with HDR, better color, 120 hertz, and massive storage. I might be willing to trade up for one now.

      4) Does anyone have Sprint now? How satisfied are you with its voice and data coverage and data speed?

      Thank you.

    Get what you pay for: Technics SL-1200G vs. Pioneer PLX-500

    PS Audio Huron OS climbs higher: to better sound, MQA, Tidal