Audio files Audio formats can become complex quite quickly as they’re available in all types and sizes. For this reason, choosing the best format for your professional audio needs or just for occasional listening can easily become discouraging. Even if we are all familiar with MP3, what about AAC, FLAC, OGG, or WMA?
Audio formats can be divided into 3 different groups. These are Uncompressed, Lossless, and Lossy files. Let’s discuss the best audio formats.
Top Audio Formats
Uncompressed Audio Formats
The uncompressed audio format consists of real sound waves that have been captured and converted into a digital format without further processing. As a result, uncompressed audio files are usually the most accurate, but take up a lot of space on your hard drive — about 34 MB per minute for 24-bit 96KHz stereo.
Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), is a digital depiction of raw analog audio signals. Analog sounds exist as waveforms, and to transform a waveform into digital bits, the sound must be sampled and documented at particular intervals (or pulses).
This digital audio format has a “sample rate” (how often a sample is taken) and a “bit depth” (how many bits are used to represent each sample). No compression is required. Digital recording is an almost exact representation of analog sound. Most digital formats have a sample rate of 24 bit, 44.1kHz.
WAV represents Waveform Audio File Format. It’s a standard developed by Microsoft and IBM in 1991.
WAV is a Windows container for various audio formats. This means that a WAV file could contain compressed audio, but it’s rarely used for that.
The possible bit depth and sampling rate are hardly limited, although at a certain point you don’t need a higher sampling rate than 48kHz.
It is also widely recognized as a professional audio format. This means that the majority of uploads, whether to Apple Music, Spotify, or a streaming service, support and sometimes even require a WAV file.
Most WAV files carry uncompressed audio in PCM format. The WAV file is merely a covering for the PCM encoding, making it more suitable for use on Windows systems. However, Mac systems can open WAV files without any problem.
AIFF stands for Audio Interchange File Format. Similar to how Microsoft and IBM developed WAV for Windows, AIFF is a format developed by Apple for Mac systems in 1988.
Similar to WAV files, AIFF files can contain several types of audio formats. For example, there’s a compressed version called AIFF-C and another version called Apple Loops, which is used by GarageBand and Logic Audio. Both use the same AIFF extension.
Both WAV files and AIFF files represent the highest possible quality in the audio world, they’re the files of choice for any mixing or mastering engineer who wants to maintain the highest possible quality.
Most AIFF files hold uncompressed audio in PCM format. The AIFF file is merely a cover for the PCM encoding, making it more suitable for use on Mac systems. However, Windows systems can usually open AIFF files without any problem.
Lossy files are compressed files that are created by detecting information that is imperceptible to most listeners and then deleting that information. This is a great alternative for streaming or any online service where the speed of the service is more paramount than the quality of the sound.
The quality of lossy files ranges from almost imperceptible uncompressed files to highly compressed files with noticeable aliasing, quantization distortion, and a dampened high-frequency range.
In other words, lossy compression means that sound quality and audio fidelity must be sacrificed for smaller file sizes. If done poorly, you’ll hear artifacts and other oddities in the sound. But if it’s done well, you won’t be able to hear the difference.
MP3 stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 and was released in 1993, enjoyed explosive popularity, and eventually became the world’s most popular audio format for music files.
The main objective of MP3 is threefold: 1) to drop all sound data that is outside the hearing range of normal people, and 2) to reduce the quality of sounds that aren’t easy to hear, and then 3) to compress all other audio data as orderly as feasible.
Virtually every digital device in the world with audio playback can read and play MP3 files, whether it’s a PC, Mac, Android, iPhone, Smart TV, or whatever. If you need a universal device, MP3 will never let you down.
Of course, there’s a downside to this flexibility, MP3 is of course a lossy format, but unlike the compression used by other lossy formats, MP3 is quite resentful of what it chooses to erase.
AAC stands for Advanced Audio Coding. It was developed in 1997 as a successor to MP3, and although it became a popular format, it never really replaced MP3 as the most popular.
The compression algorithm used by AAC is much more advanced and technical than MP3. So if you compare the same recording in MP3 and AAC formats at the same bit rates, the AAC algorithm generally has better sound quality.
Although MP3 is more of a household format, AAC is still widely used today. It’s the standard audio compression method used by YouTube, Android, iOS, iTunes, later Nintendo portables, and later PlayStations. It supports a much more complex compression algorithm, which means less information is deleted, and less relevant information is erased.
OGG stands for nothing. It’s not even a compression format. OGG is a multimedia container that can hold all kinds of compression formats but is most often used to hold Vorbis files—which is why these audio files are also called Ogg Vorbis files.
Vorbis was first released in 2000 and gained popularity for two reasons: 1) it sticks to the ideas of open-source software, and 2) it acts remarkably better than most other lossy compression formats (i.e. it produces a smaller file size for the same audio quality).
It’s an open-source format that offers a high audio quality to file size ratio, because it is exceptionally well designed, the file size for an Ogg Vorbis file ranges from 16kbps to 128kbps per file.
MP3 and AAC have such strong footholds that OGG found it hard to get into the spotlight—not many devices support it by default—but it gets better over time.
Although the open-source platform leads to a large community that offers innovative ideas, relying on that community for the playability of your files might be a problem for some engineers.
WMA stands for Windows Media Audio. It was first released in 1999 and has undergone several developments since then while retaining the name WMA and the extension. It’s a proprietary format developed by Microsoft.
Unlike AAC and OGG, WMA was designed to address some of the weaknesses of the MP3 compression method—and it turns out that WMA’s compression approach is quite similar to that of AAC and OGG. Yes, in terms of goal compression quality, WMA is even better than MP3.
But since WMA is corrective, not many devices and platforms support it. It also offers no real advantages over AAC or OGG, so if MP3 isn’t good enough, it’s simply more convenient to use one of those two formats instead of WMA.
Lossless files take up slightly less space than an uncompressed file, and ideally have no setbacks or compromises in audio quality. Lossless files isolate redundant or repeated data and at the same time provide a “command set” for these parts that are re-created during playback.
As a result, lossless files can be up to 70 percent smaller than an uncompressed file, but still offer the same quality of playback. A common example of lossless encoding is when using a .zip file. Although a zip file is smaller than the files that make it up, all files retain their original file size and information when unzipped.
FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. Maybe a bit on the nose, but since its introduction in 2001, it has quickly become one of the most popular lossless formats.
The beauty of this is that FLAC can compress a source file by up to 60 percent without losing a single bit of data. Even better, FLAC is an open-source, royalty-free audio file format, so it imposes no intellectual property restrictions.
FLAC is supported by most major programs and devices and is the main substitute for MP3 for music. It gives you the full quality of raw, uncompressed audio at half the file size. For this reason, many consider FLAC the best audio format.
ALAC stands for Apple Lossless Audio Codec. It was developed and launched as a proprietary format in 2004, but eventually became open-source and royalty-free in 2011. ALAC is sometimes referred to as Apple Lossless.
ALAC is good, but slightly less efficient than FLAC when it comes to compression. However, Apple users don’t have a choice between the two as both iTunes and iOS offer native support for ALAC and no support for FLAC at all.
ALAC compresses the sound but does not discard any information, instead, it classifies unessential information and unpacks it when needed. ALAC supports files with a bit depth of up to 32 bits and a sampling rate of up to 384kHz.
WMA stands for Windows Media Audio. We covered this above in the section on lossy compression, but we mention it here because there’s a lossless alternative called WMA Lossless that uses the same extension.
This lossless format can process and reproduce files at a sampling rate of up to 24-bit and 96kHz without deleting data, but the compression algorithm used to compress the file is less effective and takes up more space than other lossless formats.
It’s also difficult to find support for the lossless WMA format, apart from a windows media player. However, if you were to send a WMA lossless WMA file to a Mac owner or Apple device user, they would most likely not be able to play the files unless they converted them first.
I know that we just said that all audio formats can be categorized as uncompressed, lossy, and lossless, but this file is the only outlier of this rule.
A DSD file is a high-quality format that is encoded uniquely. Unlike uncompressed files, which use a sampling rate and bit depth, DSD files use only 1 bit but are sampled 2.8 million times per second to recreate the audio file.
The result is very similar to an uncompressed file with 24 bit and 96kHz. Although incredibly innovative and of really great sound quality, the DSD is at the bottom of this list because it is incompatible with most operating systems. To play a DSD file on a mac or windows computer, you would need an external D/A converter.
Which Audio File Format Is Right for You?
When recording and editing raw audio, use an uncompressed format. This way you will work with the best possible audio quality. When you’re finished, you can export or convert it to a compressed format.
If you’re listening to music and want good audio representation, use lossless audio compression. This is why audiophiles always look for FLAC albums over MP3 albums. Keep in mind that you’ll need a lot of storage space to do this.
If you’re okay with the music quality being “good enough”, if your audio file doesn’t contain music, or if you need to save disk space, use lossy audio compression. Most people can’t hear the difference between lossy and lossless compression.
For those who want the highest quality music playback, note that high-quality audio files are of no importance if your playback device can’t reproduce these sounds faithfully.
Although this list considers the technical factors behind the best audio format, we recognize that personal preference plays a major role in deciding what is best for you.
When exporting and sending files, think about your operating system, your disk space, and how you want to be perceived. While it’s nice to save space, this shouldn’t be at the expense of audio quality, or your image as a professional engineer.