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Audio files come in all types and sizes. And while we may all be familiar with MP3, what about AAC, FLAC, OGG, or WMA? Why do so many standards exist? Which ones should you care about and which ones can you ignore?

It’s actually quite simple once you realize that all audio formats fall into three major categories. Once you know which category you want, all you have to do is pick the format within that category that best suits your needs.

Uncompressed Audio Formats

Uncompressed audio is exactly what it sounds like: real sound waves that have been captured and converted to digital format without any further processing. As a result, uncompressed audio files tend to be the most accurate but take up a LOT of disk space — about 34 MB per minute for 24-bit 96 KHz stereo.

PCM

PCM stands for Pulse-Code Modulation, a digital representation of raw analog audio signals. Analog sounds exist as waveforms, and in order to convert a waveform into digital bits, the sound must be sampled and recorded at certain intervals (or pulses).

As such, this digital audio format has a “sampling rate” (how often a sample is made) and a “bit depth” (how many bits are used to represent each sample). There is no compression involved. The digital recording is a close-to-exact representation of the analog sound.

PCM is the most common audio format used in CDs and DVDs. There is a subtype of PCM called Linear Pulse-Code Modulation, where samples are taken at linear intervals. LPCM is the most common form of PCM, which is why the two terms are almost interchangeable at this point.

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WAV

WAV stands for Waveform Audio File Format (also called Audio for Windows at some point but not anymore). It’s a standard that was developed by Microsoft and IBM back in 1991.

A lot of people assume that all WAV files are uncompressed audio files, but that’s not exactly true. WAV is actually just a Windows container for audio formats. This means that a WAV file can contain compressed audio, but it’s rarely used for that.

Most WAV files contain uncompressed audio in PCM format. The WAV file is just a wrapper for the PCM encoding, making it more suitable for use on Windows systems. However, Mac systems can usually open WAV files without any issues.

AIFF

AIFF stands for Audio Interchange File Format. Similar to how Microsoft and IBM developed WAV for Windows, AIFF is a format that was developed by Apple for Mac systems back in 1988.

Also similar to WAV files, AIFF files can contain multiple kinds of audio. For example, there is a compressed version called AIFF-C and another version called Apple Loops which is used by GarageBand and Logic Audio — and they all use the same AIFF extension.

Most AIFF files contain uncompressed audio in PCM format. The AIFF file is just a wrapper for the PCM encoding, making it more suitable for use on Mac systems. However, Windows systems can usually open AIFF files without any issues.

audio-file-format-waveform

Lossy Compressed Audio Formats

Lossy compression is a form of compression that loses data during the compression process How Does File Compression Work? How Does File Compression Work? File compression is at the core of how the modern web works, one could argue, because it allows us to share files that would otherwise take too long to transfer. But how does it work? Read More . In the context of audio, that means sacrificing quality and fidelity for file size. The good news is that, in most cases, you won’t be able to hear the difference How Audio Compression Works, and Can You Really Tell the Difference? How Audio Compression Works, and Can You Really Tell the Difference? In this article, we'll take a look at how music compression works, and whether it has any real effect on how your music actually sounds. Read More .

However, if the audio gets compressed too much or too often, you’ll start hearing artifacts and other weirdnesses that become more and more noticeable.

MP3

MP3 stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3. It was released back in 1993 and quickly exploded in popularity, eventually becoming the most popular audio format in the world for music files. There’s a reason why we have “MP3 players” but not “OGG players”…

The main pursuit of MP3 is to cut out all of the sound data that exists beyond the hearing range of most normal people and to reduce the quality of sounds that aren’t as easy to hear, and then to compress all other audio data as efficiently as possible.

Nearly every digital device in the world with audio playback can read and play MP3 files, whether we’re talking about PCs, Macs, Androids, iPhones, Smart TVs, or whatever else. When you need universal, MP3 will never let you down.

AAC

AAC stands for Advanced Audio Coding. It was developed in 1997 as the successor to MP3, and while it did catch on as a popular format to use, it never really overtook MP3 as the most popular for everyday music and recording.

The compression algorithm used by AAC is much more advanced and technical than MP3, so when you compare a particular recording in MP3 and AAC formats at the same bitrate, the AAC one will generally have better sound quality.

Again, even though MP3 is more of a household format, AAC is widely used today. In fact, it’s the standard audio compression method used by YouTube, Android, iOS, iTunes, later Nintendo portables, and later PlayStations.

OGG (Vorbis)

OGG doesn’t stand for anything. Actually, it’s not even a compression format. OGG is a multimedia container that can hold all kinds of compression formats, but is most commonly used to hold Vorbis files — hence why these audio files are called Ogg Vorbis files.

Vorbis was first released in 2000 and grew in popularity due to two reasons: first, it adheres to the principles of open source software What Is Open Source Software? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is Open Source Software? [MakeUseOf Explains] "Open source" is a term that’s thrown around a lot these days. You may know that certain things are open source, like Linux and Android, but do you know what it entails? What is open... Read More , and second, it performs significantly better than most other lossy compression formats (i.e. produces a smaller file size for equivalent audio quality).

MP3 and AAC have such strong footholds that OGG has had a hard time breaking into the spotlight — not many devices support it natively — but it’s getting better with time. For now, it’s mostly used by hardcore proponents of open software.

WMA

WMA stands for Windows Media Audio. It was first released in 1999 and has gone through several evolutions since then, all while keeping the same WMA name and extension. As you might expect, it’s a proprietary format created by Microsoft.

Not unlike AAC and OGG, WMA was meant to address some of the flaws in the MP3 compression method — and as such, WMA’s approach to compression is pretty similar to AAC and OGG. In other words, in terms of objective quality, WMA is better than MP3.

But since WMA is proprietary, not many devices and platforms support it. It also doesn’t offer any real benefits over AAC or OGG, so in most cases when MP3 isn’t good enough, it’s simply more practical to go with one of those two instead.

audio-file-format-playback

Lossless Compressed Audio Formats

On the other side of the coin is lossless compression, which is a method that reduces file size without any loss in quality between the original source file and the resulting file. The downside is that lossless compression isn’t as efficient as lossy compression, meaning equivalent files can be 2x to 5x larger.

This is obviously much harder to do well, but there are a few good formats for this. And don’t confuse lossless compression with high-resolution audio (which is most likely a scam anyway High-Resolution Audio: The Future of Music or a Scam? High-Resolution Audio: The Future of Music or a Scam? High-Resolution Audio is new and impressive, but does it live up to the hype and excitement? Is it a gimmick? Or even a scam? Read More ).

FLAC

FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. A bit on the nose maybe, but it has quickly become one of the most popular lossless formats available since its introduction in 2001.

What’s nice is that FLAC can compress an original source file by up to 60% without losing a single bit of data. What’s even nicer is that FLAC is an open source and royalty-free format rather than a proprietary one, so it doesn’t impose any intellectual property constraints What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It's So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It's So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains] Digital Rights Management is the latest evolution of copy protection. It’s the biggest cause of user frustration today, but is it justified? Is DRM a necessary evil in this digital age, or is the model... Read More .

FLAC is supported by most major programs and devices and is the main alternative to MP3 for CD audio. With it, you basically get the full quality of raw uncompressed audio in half the file size — what’s not to love about it?

ALAC

ALAC stands for Apple Lossless Audio Codec. It was developed and launched in 2004 as a proprietary format but eventually became open source and royalty-free in 2011. ALAC is sometimes referred to as Apple Lossless.

While ALAC is good, it’s slightly less efficient than FLAC when it comes to compression. However, Apple users don’t really have a choice between the two because iTunes and iOS both provide native support for ALAC and no support at all for FLAC.

WMA

WMA stands for Windows Media Audio. We covered it above in the lossy compression section, but we mention it here because there’s a lossless alternative called WMA Lossless that uses the same extension. Confusing, I know.

Compared to FLAC and ALAC, WMA Lossless is the worst in terms of compression efficiency but only slightly. It’s a proprietary format so it’s no good for fans of open source software, but it is supported natively on both Windows and Mac systems.

The biggest issue with WMA Lossless is the limited hardware support. If you want lossless audio across multiple devices, you should stick with FLAC unless all of your devices are of the Windows variety.

So Which Format Should You Use?

For most people, the decision is actually pretty easy:

  • If you’re capturing and editing raw audio, use an uncompressed format. This way you’re working with the truest quality of audio possible. When you’re done, you can export to a compressed format.
  • If you’re listening to music and want faithful audio representation, use lossless audio compression. This is why audiophiles always scramble for FLAC albums over MP3 albums. Note that you’ll need more storage space for these.
  • If you’re okay with “good enough” music quality, if your audio file doesn’t have any music, or if you need to conserve disk space, use lossy audio compression. Most people actually can’t hear the difference between lossy and lossless compression.

For those who want utmost quality in their music playback, note that high-quality audio files won’t matter if your playback device can’t faithfully recreate those sounds. Meaning, you need to have good quality speakers Awesome Computer Speakers You Can Buy For Under $100 Awesome Computer Speakers You Can Buy For Under $100 Most laptops, and some desktops, ship with internal speakers. These are often adequate, but only just, and they’re certainly not a good choice for anyone who wants to enjoy media or music. Most computers still... Read More or good quality headphones 10 Terms You Should Know to Identify the Best Headphones 10 Terms You Should Know to Identify the Best Headphones In this guide we'll cut through the jargon and show you what the key headphone specifications actually mean, and why — or if — they matter. Read More !

Are you an audiophile? What kind of audio formats do you use most often? Got any other tips for picking the right format in the right situation? Share with us in the comments!

Image Credits: Digital Waveform via Shutterstock, Headphones via Shutterstock

  1. yusef
    November 7, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    it's seems at least Linux is not for CG guys for sure

  2. Saqib hussain
    October 6, 2016 at 7:24 am

    Great article by Christian Cawley, thanks for sharing great knowledge.
    I can't tell you that i gain lot of knowledge from this article.Also read my website internet radio streaming providers for additional features of create internet radio station.
    Thank you so much again

  3. dosdan
    July 11, 2016 at 11:26 pm

    Article seems focused on stand-alone audio, rather than audio for video. Formats/containers like .MPA, .M4A, .MP2 and AC-3 are not mentioned.

    Dan.

  4. dosdan
    July 11, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    Why no mention of AC-3?

  5. VENKATESH
    June 3, 2016 at 2:56 am

    I USE MP3 FILE FORMAT TO LISTEN AUDIO FOR CONVENIENCE AND FOR RECORDING KAROAKE SINGALONG I USE THE WAV FORMAT.

    • Joel Lee
      June 7, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      How come you use WAV for karaoke? Is the audio fidelity necessary there? Thanks for sharing. :)

  6. Repiano
    May 17, 2016 at 10:48 pm

    Thank you for this simple explanation. I have previously stuck to MP3 because I was familiar with it, but not AAC or OGG. Now I know!

    • Joel Lee
      May 25, 2016 at 2:41 am

      You're welcome, Repiano! Glad the post was helpful for you. :)

  7. A41202813GMAIL ..
    May 17, 2016 at 11:40 am

    If I Have The Choice To Hear **Caviar**, I Definitely Will Not Lose The Opportunity, But Most Of The Times I Just Want To Hear **Good Enough** Music.

    Lots Of Free Utilities Can Allow The Conversions Below.

    I Love MP3 For All Sorts Of Reasons - If You Manually Convert LPs To Digital, MP3 Is The Way To Go:

    A - You Can Convert A Complete LP Side To MP3 96/44 Stereo ( 6 Songs In Total, Or Whatever ),

    B - You Can Use A Cut And Paste Program To Separate The MP3 In Very Small Slices Of 2 Or 3 Seconds Each,

    C - You Can Use The Same Cut And Paste Program To Join The Small Slices Back To Constitute Every Individual Song,

    D - When I Need To Save Space, I Convert The 96/44 Stereo Into 24/11 Mono - **Good Enough** For Me - A 4 Minutes Song Takes Less Than A 800KB File Size.

    ---

    As I Said, MP3 Can Very Simply Be Cut And Paste Back Again.

    What Other Music Formats Allow That, If Any ?

    Do Any Video Formats Allow That, As Well ?

    Thank You.

    • Joel Lee
      May 25, 2016 at 2:42 am

      MP3 is definitely the simplest, if only because it's so popular and a lot of people are familiar with it. I like how you call it "caviar" music, that's brilliant! I'm like you -- not really an audiophile and am fine listening to "good enough" music. Thanks for sharing!

      • A41202813GMAIL ..
        May 25, 2016 at 6:04 am

        Thank YOU For Responding.

  8. Danny
    May 16, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    I use AAC in an M4A container. I like the fact that it is a little better at encoding smaller files than MP3s of the same quality. But, to be honest, I still like MP3s and 1/3 of my music files are encoded in that format. I have partial hearing loss from my days of going to heavy metal concerts, so I can't even tell the difference between any lossy format until we go below 96 kbps, that's when MP3s really start sounding like crap. The downside for AAC/M4A is that it is slightly more complex and therefore decoding/playing it drains more battery power on a mobile device.

    I use FLAC for lossless compression, but only for archiving purposes. I onlt have an SSD drive in my laptop so I usually prefer small file sizes, so I keep my FLAC only as archives in external drives.

    Also, you should have mentioned APE. It is another good lossless compression format, and is more common than lossless WMA. It is more efficient than FLAC and was even the most popular lossless format back in the day.

    • Joel Lee
      May 25, 2016 at 2:45 am

      It's hard to get away from MP3s, isn't it? And good point about AAC using slightly more battery power due to the decompression complexity. I hadn't even thought of that.

      As for APE, maybe you're right. I actually haven't run into it that often (I didn't really care about lossless formats until recently) so I didn't know it was that popular! Good to know, especially the part about it being more efficient than FLAC. Thanks Danny!

      • Danny
        May 25, 2016 at 6:59 pm

        Thanks for replying Joel. Mp3s are here to stay. AAC will always be better despite the added power usage. APE files are slightly smaller than corresponding FLAC files, so you can save about 4-5 megs per file, sometimes more. And it was popular back in the early aughts, and during that time MPC was also a somewhat popular lossy format.

        I ripped my CDs using EAC to PCM/WAV, which I converted to APE format for archiving, and encoded them to MPC for my desktop PC. At the time, you really do hear the quality difference between MPC and Mp3s, which is why I shifted to MPC from Mp3s. I migrated to FLAC when it became more popular, and shifted back to Mp3 when no hardware device supported MPC. I tried using OGG but its hardware support during the mid aughts was limited (it enjoyed support from SonyEricsson Walkman phones, but car CD stereos only accept Mp3s).

        I only started moving on to AAC/M4A when it became popular in the mid-to-late aughts, and when good encoders are becoming available (like the Nero encoder). Today, the best AAC encoder is from Quicktime, with the Apple itunes encoder and the Franhaufer AAC encoder as close seconds. Lame is still king, and the only good choice for Mp3s.

        Moral of the story: better formats aren't always the better choice. Always choose a good format that will remains supported across devices and through the years. Everything else is personal preference.

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