10 Common Audio Formats Compared: Which One Should You Use?
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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.

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 What are the best desktop computer speakers under $100? Most computers require external speakers to sound their best. We've rounded up the best add-on computer speakers out there for under $100. 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

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  1. Ccmoll
    October 17, 2017 at 1:29 am

    Uncompressed pcm is best. Nonetheless, the sound wave you listen to is not the sound wave on the stage. It is a digital approximation, a guess really, of what the actual sound wave was. Sure the algorithm for the digital to analog converter does the same job every time, but there is still some dude or dudett writing the algorithm make compromises on what sounds best to him or her. Look, at the best, digital reproduces it's 24 bit sample 196 times per second. Analog reproduces the actual wave form continuously - there is no times per second! It's not a sample. Nor is there a converter. It is the same sound wave that hit the microphone. So, do you want the real sound wave, or 196 samples of it per second.?
    Plus, all this trash talk about the noise in records. Listen, if took care of your records, they sound like new 50 yrs later with no noise. That's right, no noise.

    • r1ch
      November 12, 2017 at 11:26 am

      I find it funny how people who are ignorant say things. First PCM uncompressed, is not the best. Lossless compression is exactly the same. There is no best, identical, it is like the wave is zipped up. When unzipped, the numbers are exactly the same. In the recording process if the studio is not recording digital, it is going to tape. Tape introduces compression and saturation and noise. It is not an exact representation of the wave hitting the microphone. In the playback process, records add colorization to the "wave" as you call it. It is not even an approximation, it has altered the sound. It is not the sound that is hitting the microphone. It is compressing it and adding saturation, it is reducing the separation between channels with bleed over from the other channel. It adds wow and flutter as well as noise, pops and click. Even a brand new record had clicks and pops and there are defects in the record and the recording process. Every record is not identical. The "wave" is actually altered when the recording from the studio is put on to the record because the music on the tape has to be adjusted to make it fit within the confines of the record media. Because the record has limited frequency response, dynamic range, the original performance or wave as you called it has to be adjusted. It is not the pure sound hitting the microphone. There is even more coloration. After your "wave" comes of the record, it is immediately colorized again. Do you know what RIAA equalization is? Read this and what the record does to your sound https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RIAA_equalization If you take a oscilloscope and compared the differences between digital and analog process from the mic to your ear, The digital process will look much closer to the original performance. The digital process will also sound more like the original performance. You cannot debate it. It is fact. Now which sounds better, a CD or a record? That is debatable because people especially older people like the colorization that records add to the sound and find it pleasing to the ear. Compression and saturation artifacts introduced by records are desirable for them, and they put up with all the noises clicks and pops of the media to get this colorized sound.. And because digital is more accurate and because the recording studio may not add these colorization on the CD. When comparing the two same performances, on processed using analog and the other digital, the CD may sound more harsh or sterile to the listener. But this has nothing to do with which process, analog or digital is more accurate or closer to the original performance.

  2. rony ben nachum
    May 29, 2017 at 7:23 pm

    Just wanted to say thank you for the information.

  3. ProDigit
    April 3, 2017 at 8:04 am

    MP4 at 24 bit vbr (aac) for speech.
    WMA at 32 bit is equal in quality, but larger in size.

    OGG at 80kbps equals 128-144 kbps MP3, for standard CD music.

    FLAC or wav, only for recoding.

    WMA uses a crystalizer, compressing sound to a certain frequency, and reconstruct harmonics from the lower frequencies.
    For that, it's not useful for music, as it doesn't faithfully reproduce the lows and highs (eg: cymbals all sound about the same).

    The crystallizer helps with speech though, by making it more understandable.
    However , I found that speech still goes best with MP4 container of the AAC file format, down to 24 bit.
    Though audibly having artifacts, the file formats are surprisingly small in size, and very clear and understandable.

  4. Jakob
    February 24, 2017 at 9:42 am

    I keep my master music library in FLAC format.
    It will play on all my stationary players, as they are just cleverly disguised windows PCs.
    It will also play on a good selection of portable players. A great rule of thumb, if the portable player supports FLAC, the general audio quality of the player is also pretty good. I prefer Sansa players from Sandisk as they are cheap.

    I also keep a MP3 version of my library for use in the car (no FLAC support) and when someone requests a copy for a party.
    Flacsquisher will create a, folder by folder, MP3 backup of any music library you desire. It will run through your FLAC library and make a copy of all files that are not already converted to MP3.

    https://sourceforge.net/projects/flacsquisher/

  5. Tino Wolf
    January 30, 2017 at 12:06 am

    Is it possible to publish a comparison table of all listed file formats, focusing on which bitrate of the one file type is comparable to the bitrate of another one? Thanks in advance.

    • Cat's Meow
      February 10, 2017 at 5:14 pm

      I second that motion! I too would love to see a comparison chart. Visuals make it easier to understand and process.

    • Sakthi Geek
      July 12, 2017 at 3:26 am

      Yep.. That'd be nice..

    • Sakthi Geek
      July 12, 2017 at 3:26 am

      Yes.. That'd be nice...

  6. Wendy
    January 12, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    My call recording at upgraded and I accidently hit the wrong format for audio recording, and it won't let me go backck and change to the mp3 that I was using. Some recording I use instead a a note bad, memory, then delete. Others are recorded for evidence in a court case to be presented. The recordigs need to be transferred onto an flash drive, iTunes and put on an IPAD, a digital recorder, or audio Disc to be provided as evidence in court. I have an android phone, {GOOGLE DOMINATED} & a Windows 10 LT, {MS DOMINATED}
    DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR BEST FILE TYPE IN THIS SITUATION?

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

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

  8. 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

  9. Anonymous
    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.

    • ProDigit
      April 3, 2017 at 8:06 am

      MPA, m4a and MP4 are containers that host the AAC sound mostly.

  10. Anonymous
    July 11, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    Why no mention of AC-3?

    • ProDigit
      April 3, 2017 at 8:06 am

      Aac sound

  11. 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. :)

      • ProDigit
        April 3, 2017 at 8:07 am

        Probably because wav is easy to record, and ok to be recompressed later.

  12. 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. :)

  13. Anonymous
    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!

      • Anonymous
        May 25, 2016 at 6:04 am

        Thank YOU For Responding.

  14. Anonymous
    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!

      • Anonymous
        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.

    • Rifwalker
      January 16, 2017 at 6:49 am

      Ape has a problem with starting up individual tracks, compared to FLAC. It is slower and may even skip seconds. So it is really inferior to FLAC and that's why it is only seen in whole disc images still. Most of these are older. Ape is propretary and of these formats it is again not the best. Forgetting about Ape altogether is the right thing to do. If there must be one, I would sooner pay attention to Wavpack as a Flac alternative.

    • Matt
      November 7, 2017 at 5:36 pm

      Holy cow! I haven't seen anyone mention APE in nearly 3 decades. It was around when a little-known file compression, called UC2 (Ultra Compressor v2), kicked the crap out of the early ZIP format.