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The ultimate guide to audio formats

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Written by Becky T

Published May 19, 2023

As technology continues to advance, so too do the different ways in which we consume and enjoy music. But with countless audio formats available, navigating and understanding the differences between them can be overwhelming.

In this guide, we'll explore everything you need to know about audio formats, including what the highest quality audio format is, as well as a breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages of popular audio formats.

Contents:

  1. What are audio formats?
  2. Uncompressed audio formats
    • WAV
    • AIFF
  3. Lossless audio formats
    • FLAC
    • ALAC
  4. Lossy audio formats
    • MP3
    • AAC
    • WMA
  5. Understanding audio bitrate
  6. Converting between audio formats
  7. Wrapping up

What are audio formats?

Audio formats refer to the ways in which audio data is stored and encoded in a digital file.

However you consume your music, whether it's on a record player, a cassette tape in your car, streaming on Spotify from your phone, or watching music videos on Youtube on your laptop, these files need to be encoded in a specific audio format for you to be able to listen to them.

image of a woman working on a computer using music editing software
Image by Kelly Sikkema

There are three main categories of audio formats: uncompressed, lossly and lossless, with the latter two referring to different levels of compression.

Uncompressed audio formats

Uncompressed audio formats store audio data in its raw, uncompressed form. This means that every bit of data captured during the recording process is stored in the file, resulting in the highest quality audio format you can get, with an accurate representation of the original sound.

If you're an audiophile or a professional sound engineer, you're probably always on the lookout for ways to achieve the highest quality audio format possible, so uncompressed formats may be the way to go.

When it comes to uncompressed audio, there are two formats that stand out: WAV and AIFF.

WAV

WAV, or Waveform Audio File Format, is a popular uncompressed audio format developed by Microsoft and IBM. It is widely used in professional audio applications, such as sound recording and editing, due to its high-quality sound and flexibility.

It's a standard format for storing audio on a computer, and it's widely supported by both Windows and Mac operating systems. WAV files are typically larger than compressed audio files, but they offer excellent sound quality and are perfect for recording and editing audio in a professional setting.

image of a man working with the highest quality audio format on a computer using music editing software
Image by Troy Tobey

However, due to their large file size, WAV files are less practical for most users. WAV is also a less common format than other compressed audio formats, meaning that it may not be compatible with all devices and software.

AIFF

AIFF, or Audio Interchange File Format, is an uncompressed audio format developed by Apple. It is commonly used in professional audio applications and is known for its high-quality sound and compatibility with Apple devices.

Like WAV, it's an uncompressed audio format that offers high-quality sound. AIFF files are typically used in professional recording settings, such as recording studios, where the audio needs to be preserved in its original, uncompressed form.

While AIFF is primarily associated with Apple platforms, it is also supported by various non-Apple devices, media players, and software applications. It has broad compatibility with both Windows and macOS operating systems. AIFF files can be played back using popular media players like iTunes, Windows Media Player, VLC, and many others.

Benefits and drawbacks of uncompressed formats

While uncompressed audio formats like WAV and AIFF offer superior sound quality, they do come with some drawbacks. For one, they take up a lot of space on your hard drive. A typical WAV file can be several times larger than a compressed audio file, which means you'll need more storage space to store your audio files. Additionally, uncompressed audio files can be more difficult to work with, especially if you're editing them. They require more processing power and can be slower to load and save.

image of a man working on a computer using music editing software
Image by Techivation

Despite these drawbacks, many professionals still prefer to work with uncompressed audio formats. They know that the extra space and processing power required is worth it to achieve the highest quality audio format. And with the advancements in technology, it's becoming easier and easier to work with uncompressed audio files.

In conclusion, if you're looking for the best possible sound quality, uncompressed audio formats like WAV and AIFF are definitely worth considering. Just be prepared to deal with larger file sizes and more processing power requirements.

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Lossless audio formats

Uncompressed and lossless audio formats both aim to preserve the original audio quality without any significant degradation. However, there are some differences between the two:

While uncompressed audio formats preserve every bit of data in its original form (without any reduction in file size), lossless audio formats use compression algorithms to reduce file size while maintaining all the original audio data. These algorithms remove redundant or irrelevant information from the audio stream.

When it comes to uncompressed audio, there are two main formats: FLAC and ALAC.

FLAC

FLAC, or Free Lossless Audio Codec, is a format that offers impeccable sound quality. FLAC is a lossless format, meaning that no audio data is lost during compression. Depending on the complexity and length of the audio content, FLAC files can achieve compression ratios ranging from 30% to 50% of the original file size. However, the exact compression ratio may vary depending on the specific audio content.

This lossless compression results in a high-quality sound with the same audio quality as the source material, offering more detail and clarity than lossy audio formats. As a result, many audio enthusiasts and professionals use FLAC for creating archives of their high-quality audio collections.

image of a woman typing on a laptop with orange headphones on
Image by Christina

However, this higher quality comes at a cost - FLAC files are much larger than MP3 files and other lossy audio formats, making them less practical for some users. They also require more processing power to play, which can be a problem for older or less powerful devices.

ALAC

ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) is a lossless audio format developed by Apple Inc. It is designed to provide high-quality audio compression while preserving the original audio data without any loss. ALAC is primarily used within the Apple ecosystem and is the default lossless format for iTunes and other Apple devices.

ALAC is natively supported by iTunes and various Apple devices, such as iPhones, iPads, and Mac computers. It allows for seamless integration with Apple's ecosystem, making it convenient for users who primarily use Apple devices and software.

Like FLAC and some other formats, ALAC supports embedded metadata, which allows for the storage of additional information like track titles, artist names, album art, and other relevant details within the audio file itself. This metadata ensures proper organization and display of audio files in media players and library management software.

Benefits and drawbacks of lossless formats

Uncompressed audio formats tend to result in larger file sizes compared to lossless formats due to the fact that they don't use any compression algorithms on the original data. Therefore, the main benefit of lossless audio formats is that they offer compression without sacrificing any audio data, resulting in smaller file sizes compared to uncompressed formats.

Lossless audio formats achieve compression ratios typically ranging from 30% to 70%, depending on the complexity of the audio content. This means that lossless formats can reduce the file size to around 30-70% of the original size. Uncompressed formats have a compression ratio of 1:1 since they don't compress the audio at all.

image of a sound editing software, working with the highest quality audio format
Image by Pixabay

However when compared to lossy audio formats, lossless formats still require large file sizes that may be impractical for certain applications. For example, lossless formats may not be suitable for streaming music, as they require a fast and stable internet connection to avoid buffering. Additionally, lossless formats may take up more space on portable devices, such as smartphones and mp3 players, which have limited storage capacity.

Lossy audio formats

Lossy audio formats, such as MP3 and AAC, use a process called lossy compression to reduce the size of the audio file. This compression process discards some of the audio data that is deemed less important or less audible to the human ear, resulting in a smaller file size.

Some of the most common lossy audio formats include MP3, AAC and WMA:

MP3

MP3 is perhaps the most well-known compressed audio format. It is widely used for music downloads and streaming services due to its small file size and compatibility with most devices.

MP3 is one of the most popular audio formats and for good reason. It offers a small file size, making it easy to store and share music files. However, this small file size comes at a cost - the audio quality is lower than other formats. MP3 is a lossy format, meaning that some audio data is lost during compression. This can result in a loss of detail and clarity in the sound.

image of an mp3 player on a table with earphones plugged in
Image by Oleg Sergeichik

Despite its lower audio quality, MP3 is still a great option for many users. It is compatible with a wide range of devices and software, making it easy to play your music on almost any device.

AAC

AAC, or Advanced Audio Coding, is another popular choice for compressed audio. It is compatible with popular platforms such as Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android and is the default format for Apple's iTunes and YouTube.

AAC is a format that offers high-quality sound at a smaller file size than MP3. This makes it a great option for users who want high-quality sound without sacrificing too much storage space.

AAC supports multichannel audio, making it suitable for surround sound applications, such as movies, gaming, and immersive audio experiences. However, it's not as widely supported as MP3, meaning that it may not be compatible with all devices and software.

image of a man gaming on a computer
Image by Florian Olivo

WMA

WMA, or Windows Media Audio, is a compressed audio format developed by Microsoft. It is commonly used for streaming audio on the internet and is compatible with Windows-based devices.

WMA files are primarily associated with the Windows platform and are widely supported by Windows-based devices, media players, and software. However, compatibility with other platforms, such as macOS and Linux, can vary. Some non-Windows devices and media players may require additional software or plugins to support WMA playback.

Over the years, WMA has faced competition from other audio formats like MP3 and AAC, which have gained broader compatibility and popularity across various platforms and devices. Nevertheless, WMA remains a notable audio format within the Windows ecosystem.

Benefits and drawbacks of lossy formats

Lossy audio formats are designed to save space and reduce file sizes. This makes them ideal for storage and streaming audio online.

image of a phone with a music streaming app open and a pair of headphones laid next to it
Image by Viktor Forgacs

However, lossy compression can lead to a loss of audio quality and accuracy in audio files compared to the original recording, particularly at lower bitrates. Meaning in technical terms, you won't get the highest quality audio format with this type of compression. However, the smaller file size makes compressed audio formats more practical for everyday use, such as music streaming and file sharing.

Understanding audio bitrate

When it comes to audio quality, bitrate is an important factor to consider. Bitrate refers to the number of bits of information processed per second in the audio file. The higher the bitrate, the better the quality of the audio. However, it is important to note that a higher bitrate also means a larger file size. This can be a concern for those with limited storage space or for those who need to transmit the file over the internet. 

Both uncompressed and lossless audio formats aim to maintain bit-for-bit accuracy with the original audio. This means that when you decompress a lossless audio file, you'll obtain an exact replica of the original audio, preserving all the details and nuances.

For example, if you are recording a podcast, you may want to choose a lower bitrate to keep the file size manageable for your listeners to download. On the other hand, if you are creating a music album, you may want to use a higher bitrate to ensure the best possible sound quality for your listeners. 

image of a woman talking into a microphone
Image by Soundtrap

It is also important to consider the playback device when choosing a bitrate. For example, a high-end audio system may be able to reproduce the nuances of a high bitrate audio file, while a smartphone or laptop may not have the same capabilities. 

When choosing a bitrate, it is important to strike a balance between quality and practicality. Fortunately, most audio formats offer a range of bitrates to choose from, allowing for flexibility based on the intended use and available storage space. 

So, whether you are creating a podcast, recording a song, or just listening to music on your headphones, understanding bitrate can help you make informed decisions about the audio format that best suits your needs. 

Converting between audio formats

Professional applications such as audio mastering and recording require the use of uncompressed or lossless audio formats to retain optimal sound quality throughout the entire audio production process. In addition, many software applications only support certain audio formats, making it essential to choose the right format for the intended application.

However, if you have an audio file in one format and need it in another, you can easily convert it using various audio conversion software. There are numerous software applications available for both desktop and online use. Some popular options include iTunes, VLC Media Player, Audacity, and online converters like Convertio, Zamzar, or Online Audio Converter.

image of iTunes open on a laptop screen
Image by iTunes

It's important to consider the implications of file compression and quality loss when converting between different audio formats. Avoid converting between lossy and lossless formats as the former lacks the necessary data to create a lossless version, leading to irreparable quality loss. If you do convert a lossless file into a lossy format, it is recommended to keep a backup of the original files for future use or conversion to different formats.

When working with professional audio applications, it is important to ensure that the file format chosen is capable of supporting the necessary bitrate and quality levels of the track. Depending on the software or online tool that you use, you may have options to adjust conversion settings, such as bitrate, sample rate, channels, or other audio-specific parameters. You can customize these settings based on your preferences or the requirements of your target format.

Remember to adhere to the legal requirements and ensure that you have the necessary rights and permissions to convert and use the audio files according to the applicable laws and licenses.

Wrapping up

Choosing the right audio format is essential in achieving the optimal listening experience for your needs. By understanding the differences between compressed and uncompressed, lossless and lossy formats, and the advantages and disadvantages of each format, you can make an informed decision and enjoy high-quality sound in every situation.

image of two men working in a recording studio
Image by Anna Pou

Choosing between the three types depends on how you intend to use your audio file as well as the audio equipment and software that you're using. If you are looking to store or stream audio online, lossy formats such as MP3, AAC and WMA may be the best choice. However, if you are working on a professional audio project, uncompressed and lossless formats such as WAV, AIFF, FLAC and ALAC offer the highest quality audio format.

Ultimately, however, whether you're a music enthusiast or a professional audio engineer, the world of audio formats offers something to suit every need and application.

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