Why Are There So Many Different Audio Formats And Which One Is The Best?

If you’ve ever created or downloaded an audio file, you may have wondered why there are so many audio formats and which type to use.  While keeping them all straight can be a challenge, it’s easier when you understand that audio formats can be broken down into three encoding types. 

Here, we’ll take a closer look at each audio file category, its characteristics, and which audio file formats fall under its umbrella.  You can use this knowledge to pick the best format for your needs and goals.

1. Uncompressed Audio Formats

This type of audio file captures real sound waves and converts them to digital without additional processing. This means that while they’re the most accurate, they also use up a large amount of disk space. As such, only portable mediums like CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs are suited for holding them. 

Popular uncompressed audio formats include:

  • WAV

Short for “Waveform Audio,” the WAV format was developed by IBM and Microsoft as one of the earliest audio file types for PCs. Compatible with all players, hardware and software for digital files, WAV files offer high quality and accurate recording; however, they’re also large in size and use a lot of bandwidth. 

  • AIFF

Short for “Audio Interchange File Format,” the AIFF format was developed by Apple for Apple products.  Very similar to a WAV file, AIFF files are also an uncompressed, HD format with a comparable file size and audio quality. Additionally supported exclusively by Mac computers, AIFF is now supported by Windows, too. AIFF outperforms WAV in supporting additional metadata tags, such as album titles.

2. Lossy Compressed Audio Formats

This audio encoding type uses psychoacoustic analysis to detect and discard inaudible (or masked) content. This drastically reduces file size by up to 1/10th of the original. However, this data is permanently lost and cannot be restored to its original uncompressed format.  

Popular lossy compressed audio formats include:

  • MP3

Short for “MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3,” MP3 is a very popular lossy/compressed file format thanks to its small file size, low bandwidth usage, and universal compatibility with digital media players. While MP3’s compact file size comes with a tradeoff of audio quality, it’s difficult for the “naked ear” to tell the difference as long as you encode at the highest resolution of 320kbps. 

  • AAC

Short for “Advanced Audio Coding,” AAC was developed to improve upon the MP3. It offers the same compact bitrate as MP3 but with more efficient audio compression and a higher-quality sound. While AAC is not HD, its advantages make it the format of choice for many paid streaming music platforms. 

  • WMA

Short for “Windows Media Audio,” WMA was Microsoft’s answer to MP3—albeit with improvements to sound quality. However,it lacks widespread acceptance, and is not supported by certain hardware and software, including on Android devices. 

  • OGG

Short for “OGG Vorbis,” OGG was also developed as an improvement to MP3. Offering one of the smallest file sizes and low-bandwidth usage, this open-source audio format lacks the uptake of MP3 and ACC, and is therefore limited in support. 

3. Lossless Compressed Audio Formats

Often regarded as a “best of both worlds” audio format, lossless compression reduces the file size for easy distribution and storage, but can also be decoded to its original uncompressed state with no loss or degradation. (In this sense, it’s comparable to a ZIP file.) 

Popular lossless compressed audio formats include:

  • ALAC

Short for “Apple Lossless Audio Codec,” ALAC was developed by Apple and is used by both Quicktime and iTunes. In their compressed state, ALAC files are approximately 60 percent of their original file size. However, they are uncompressed in playback and therefore preserve the audio quality of the original source. While ALAC files are supported by many software media players, hardware support is limited for mobile players. 

  • FLAC

Short for “Free Lossless Audio Codec,” FLAC is similar to ALAC in characteristics, but is open-source. It also offers faster streaming and decoding with very little latency. Beloved by audio files as well as the format of choice for Amazon’s HD streaming service, FLAC is not supported by Apple products. 

Which Audio File Type is Best?

All of which begs the question: Which is the best audio file type?

By now, it’s probably clear this is somewhat of a trick question because there is no single-best audio file type. Rather, it depends on factors ranging from your sound quality goals to the media player you’re using.

Here are a few general guidelines to go by:

If you want optimal sound accuracy (either recording or listening) and have concerns about file size….

Choose an uncompressed audio format, like WAV or AIFF, which preserves the original sound quality with unparalled accuracy. 

If you are an audiophile seeking high-quality sound but don’t want to deal with unwieldy file sizes….

Choose a lossless compressed audio format, such as ALAC or FLAC, which offers the original sound quality in a compressed file size.

If you casually listen to and/or stream music…..

Choose a lossy compressed format, such as MP3, AAC, WMA, and OGG, which will provide acceptable (if reduced) sound quality and shorter download times without maxing out space.

Ultimately, the “best” audio file type will be determined by the specifics of the situation and your desired outcomes. Now that you’ve got a better understanding of the pros and cons of each type, you’re prepared to make the most informed choice when you’re recording, sharing, downloading, streaming, or sharing audio files. 

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