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CD ripping, digital music, music streaming, iPod / iTunes / Sonos - various thoughts, suggestions, ideas, odd ramblings ….

Mac - Flac? Flac - Mac? Max? Muck? F.....

I follow other people in and around the digital music arena and most of them are pretty good. Know what they're talking about, good peeps.

So when I read something patently daft it really stuck out, and it came from someone I (previously) respected. It relates to Mac computers and the FLAC music format.

What is it with FLAC? Over the last few years it seems to have gained some kind of cult status. I've had clients contact me asking for their music to be ripped to FLAC "because the guy in the desk next to me says it's the best". OK, we're a service business and the customer is always right .. We can rip to FLAC just as easily as we can rip to Apple Lossless or AAC or MP3. If you want it - FLAC - you can have it. But you have to be warned, and this is where I part ways with the blog post I read.

The gist of the argument was this. Lossless music is the best quality and given how cheap hard drives are, how powerful home networks are, there's no reason why every music lover shouldn't opt for the best. In his view the best being FLAC. So play your FLAC files on your computer in all their glory and if someday you want to move to another music file format simply use music management software to make the conversion.

I have two problems with this. First, FLAC isn't unquestionably the best file format. Recently a BBC radio program talked about "CD quality music" and made it clear that Apple Lossless (ALAC) and MP3 320kbps along with FLAC can be regarded as top sound files. If you look at the various online listening tests you'll find very few people can hear the difference between ALAC, MP3 / 320 and FLAC.

Second, enjoying digital music isn't simply a matter of accessing and playing a file. To get the best from your music you'll want to do many other things - create playlists, edit the metadata, change the album art, load tracks onto a portable player. This is where the blog's position collapses if you're a Mac owner.

The suggested strategy was to use a program called Max, and the implication is that you can play FLAC files, edit FLAC and if need be convert them to another format using Max. here's the problem.

Max doesn't work.

We've been using Macs for over 25 years, and the Mac platform has been at the heart of CD ripping for 14 years. We need to be able to do a raft of music handling tasks, including editing and converting FLAC. We've been running Max since the earliest days. I bet we've tried to handle more music with Max that anyone else in digital music. So when we say this we mean it - Max doesn't work. It crashes, it fails, it just drops away. Why? Well take a look at this, which is taken from the Max download site.

Max Download Page

The last version was released on 29th August, 2009 - seven years ago. In Mac terms that's light years ago, practically everything that underlies the Mac OS has changed in that time. Notice too "not all output formats are tagged with metadata". Just fills you with confidence.

If you're a Mac user and you want high quality lossless music the answer is simple - Apple Lossless. You can play your music, create playlists, edit metadata / album art, sync with iPhones, iPods, iPads to your hearts content. All with iTunes which is free, robust, reliable and supported by Apple. Of course it's current software not something created in computing dark ages.

Should Mac users avoid FLAC at all costs? No, I'm not saying that. There are a few high end audio systems that come with their own music management software that will handle FLAC on Macs and other Apple devices. Your hi-fi supplier can advise you on that and you'll have a great solution. If you own a Sonos system that will happily stream FLAC files from Macs and NAS drives just as happily as with Windows boxes. But you can't use the Sonos Controller to manage more detailed, lower level aspects of your music files.

OK, done. Rant over.

Sonos, NTFS USB Drives, Mac = Sad Face

For many years, in fact as long as we've been supplying digital music back on USB hard drives and memory sticks, the standard format for the drives has been NTFS. For the vast majority of our users this hasn't been in any way problematic so for 99%+ this is a non-issue.

However ....

You are in the 1% if ...

  • you own an Apple Mac
  • you want to access your music via Sonos
  • you want your music on an external hard drive only.

If you tick all three boxes we need to take a different approach. We have had two experiences where although iTunes happily accesses and plays music on an NTFS format, when you try to point Sonos Controller at your music folder on the external USB drive, you get an error message. You won't be able to progress beyond this point.

Consequently, if you are in this situation, we need to supply a drive re-formatted to Apple's HFS format. We know that this combination works fine for Sonos and you'll be OK.

There may be people who find themselves in the Mac / Sonos / NTFS situation and are looking for a resolution. We had some success some while ago with Tuxera and Paragon (two programs that allow Macs to both read and write to NTFS drives). Most recently clients who have tried the trial versions of those programs no longer find they work. It may be that there's some feature in the pid-for versions that solve the problem but at the moment we can't recommend this as a way forward.

Mac - USB drive - Sonos HFS Error

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​Should it be USB or NAS?

Only a different set of three letters but it could make a massive difference to the way you enjoy your music, and impact on computer technology in your home (in a nice way).

Let’s start at the end - the financial bit. If we supply your music back on a small USB drive you’ll get a 1TB drive the cost will be £45. However if we upgrade that to a NAS drive the cost will only be £100 - yes double the price, but only an extra £50.

What do you get for the extra money, and is it worth it?

First, you get more storage space. The £100 drive is a 2Tb WD NAS drive so you’ll have twice as much space. VFM, not bad.

Second, with a NAS drive you have the ability to store your music on a free standing unit. This means you can listen to your music without having to switch on your PC or laptop. For many people running a computer injects a level of noise into your living space when you just want to relax and enjoy some music. The WD NAS is silent.

Third, it means you can take your computer away from home and still stream music round your house. It has surprised me the number of clients who use a single computer for all they do, including music / iTunes. This means they have to take a MacBook off to work. Yes, nice to have all your tunes with you, but is anyone else stranded at home with only the sounds of silence?

Sonos? You can enjoy your music via Sonos just as easily from a NAS as you can from a Mac or PC. They play nicely together.

Fourth, backup. I know I keep banging on about this but you do need to make and keep copies of vital files. You can use a NAS drive as a backup device for Windows machines and as a Time Machine drive for Macs. One NAS, backing up multiple machines, automatically. In days when kids do homework on their computers they really need to be protected against the massive panic that would happen if they lost vital coursework files. You can create a lot of data safe havens in the extra 1Tb.

Fifth, sixth etc. Well you can use a NAS drive to keep files in sync across multiple machines, you can access data remotely, you can use it to share large files with people where email attachment limits fail you. If you have another NAS in your holiday home you can keep that in sync automatically. While your main computer can configure iTunes to use the NAS just as it would a local drive, iTunes allows you to stream that music library to all other computers in your house. With a few clicks.

So, if you’re planning to ask us to return your music on a drive, how about thinking NAS rather than USB?

​Should it be USB or NAS?

Only a different set of three letters but it could make a massive difference to the way you enjoy your music, and impact on computer technology in your home (in a nice way).

Let’s start at the end - the financial bit. If we supply your music back on a small USB drive you’ll get a 1TB drive the cost will be £45. However if we upgrade that to a NAS drive the cost will only be £100 - yes double the price, but only an extra £50.

What do you get for the extra money, and is it worth it?

First, you get more storage space. The £100 drive is a 2Tb WD NAS drive so you’ll have twice as much space. VFM, not bad.

Second, with a NAS drive you have the ability to store your music on a free standing unit. This means you can listen to your music without having to switch on your PC or laptop. For many people running a computer injects a level of noise into your living space when you just want to relax and enjoy some music. The WD NAS is silent.

Third, it means you can take your computer away from home and still stream music round your house. It has surprised me the number of clients who use a single computer for all they do, including music / iTunes. This means they have to take a MacBook off to work. Yes, nice to have all your tunes with you, but is anyone else stranded at home with only the sounds of silence?

Sonos? You can enjoy your music via Sonos just as easily from a NAS as you can from a Mac or PC. They play nicely together.

Fourth, backup. I know I keep banging on about this but you do need to make and keep copies of vital files. You can use a NAS drive as a backup device for Windows machines and as a Time Machine drive for Macs. One NAS, backing up multiple machines, automatically. In days when kids do homework on their computers they really need to be protected against the massive panic that would happen if they lost vital coursework files. You can create a lot of data safe havens in the extra 1Tb.

Fifth, sixth etc. Well you can use a NAS drive to keep files in sync across multiple machines, you can access data remotely, you can use it to share large files with people where email attachment limits fail you. If you have another NAS in your holiday home you can keep that in sync automatically. While your main computer can configure iTunes to use the NAS just as it would a local drive, iTunes allows you to stream that music library to all other computers in your house. With a few clicks.

So, if you’re planning to ask us to return your music on a drive, how about thinking NAS rather than USB?

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