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News and Perspectives from IT Experts
April 15, 2020
Irina Lazutenkova

What Audio Formats Are the Best?

In this article, you will find great tips on audio file types and formats and explore the 3 main audio categories.

There are many audio file formats, including MP3, M4A, AAC, and OGA, among others. Understanding these formats helps a media server operator save significant time. In this article, you will find great tips on audio file types and formats and explore the 3 main audio categories.

We are all familiar with MP3, and most of us seem to be satisfied with the format. Therefore, why have so many audio formats if one could do the trick?

Read more to find out…

What Are the Different Types of Audio Formats?

When it comes to audio formats, there is more to them than what meets the eye initially. It all gets clear once you understand the three main audio categories. Once you understand the meaning of each category, it becomes easy to pick any audio file type based on your needs. The 3 major audio categories include:

  • Uncompressed Audio Formats
  • Lossy Compression Audio Formats
  • Lossless Compression Audio Formats

Uncompressed Audio Formats

These are audio formats that incorporate unprocessed captured sound waves converted to digital format. Therefore, uncompressed audio files are large and take up much storage. Since the sound waves are not further processed, the audio is in its original state. Uncompressed file types include PCM, AIFF, AU, WAV, and BWF.

Pulse-Code Modulation (PCM)is a digital audio file type that represents raw analog signals of the audio. PCM presents sound in waveforms. The waveforms are converted to digital bits through sampling and recording of sound at different intervals or pulses. The converted format features a sampling rate and the number of bits that represent a particular sample. PCM files are not compressed, and they are the closest thing to analog sound. The PCM audio file type is common among CDs. The sub-version of PCM is Linear Pulse-Code Modulation (LPCM), where samples are captured at linear intervals. It is the most popular PCM file type, hence the reason why people commonly interchange the terms.

WAV was developed by Microsoft together with IBM in 1991. Although the majority of users think all WAV files are uncompressed, that is not always the case. WAV is a container for various audio file types, which means it can contain compressed audio files, although that’s a rare occasion. Most of the WAV files contain PCM audio files, which means WAV is commonly used as a wrapper for PCM encoding. The wrapping makes PCM audio more compatible with Windows platforms, even though most of the macOS systems do not have any issues opening the file type.

Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) is an audio file type that was developed back in 1988 by Apple. This audio file format is more suitable for macOS systems. Its nature is somewhat similar to WAV as it also functions as a container for various audio file types. This means not all AIFF audio files are uncompressed. However, the compressed version of this file format is called AIFF-C. AIFF audio files contain PCM files, therefore working as a PCM encoding wrapper, which makes the audio files more compatible with Mac platforms.

Lossy Compression Audio Formats

These are audio file formats that are compressed to preserve some storage space. These audio files lose some data during the compression, which reduces their quality. This type of compression sacrifices the quality of sound to achieve a smaller file size. When the compression is not done properly, you can hear artifacts coming from the sound. However, when done professionally, you will need a high-quality sound system or an expert to tell the difference. Below are the types of lossy compression audio file formats:

MP3 was developed back in 1993 and went on to become the most used audio format worldwide. The popularity of the MP3 audio file type compelled major brands to design MP3 players. MP3 has three main targets, which are to:

  1. crop sound data which is beyond the hearing range,
  2. reduce the quality of sound that is beyond the hearing range,
  3. efficiently compress all of the audio data.

Almost all devices designed with audio playback can play MP3 files. Therefore, the MP3 audio file format is ideal if your audience is universal. Just to clarify, MP3 is not the same as MP4.

Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) was released back in 1997. Although this file format was released as the successor to MP3, it didn’t take the stage. The compression method applied to AAC file formats is much more complicated, technical, and advanced compared to MP3. Therefore, AAC audio file types with the same bitrates as MP3 recording demonstrate better sound quality than its predecessor. Despite MP3 being more popular, AAC file formats are widely used, especially on YouTube, iTunes, Nintendo, PlayStation, as well as Android and iOS.

OGG is not an audio file format. Just like WAV, it functions as a container that holds all sorts of compressed audio file types. However, OGG is commonly used for Vorbis audio files, hence the reason why you have come across audio files called OGG Vorbis. OGG was developed back in 2000 and managed to become popular due to its features of open-source software and its ability to deliver small-sized compressed audio file types with equivalent sound quality. However, the trade-off with OGG audio is that not many devices are compatible with it.  

Windows Media Audio was developed in 1999 and has since managed to ride various waves while keeping its original name and extension. It is an audio format developed by Microsoft. Unlike OGG, which holds other file types, WMA was designed to correct the flaws within the MP3 compression method. Therefore, WMA’s compression method is somewhat better than that of MP3 and has a similar structure to AAC. Considering that WMA is a proprietary brand, it has some compatibility issues with the majority of devices and platforms. Moreover, this format does not have significant benefits over AAC and OGG. Therefore, it is practical to opt for either of these two options if MP3 is not ideal.

Lossless Compression Audio Formats

This is a compression style that tries to reduce file size without losing any data. With this type of compression, the main aim is to maintain the quality of the sound. Compared to Lossy Compression files, Lossless Compression files remain 2 to 5 times larger. Therefore, if the size is an issue, lossless compression might not be the best option.

FLAC has been one of the most popular lossless compression file formats since its introduction back in 2001. What makes this file format ideal to many people is its ability to compress a raw audio file by 60% without losing any data. Free Lossless Audio Codec is open-source software with no intellectual property constraints. The format is compatible with most of the major audio software players and devices. It is the leading alternative to MP3, which is the reason why it is considered the best by many.

ALAC was released in 2004. Initially, it was developed as a proprietary format but became open-source in 2011. It is commonly known as Apple Lossless Audio Codec. Although the format is good, it is less efficient than FLAC. However, Apple users do not have much say when it comes to selecting between the two as iTunes and iOS devices don’t natively support FLAC.  

WMA (Lossless) is a Windows product that uses a compression style that focuses on diminishing data loss during the process. I mentioned the WMA under the lossy category because it comes in two versions even though they use the same file extension. In terms of efficiency, when compared to either FLAC or ALAC, WMA is the worst. That doesn’t mean it’s bad though since the difference isn’t much. Another problem is that it’s proprietary, which is a turn-off for open-source software lovers. However, on the bright side, it is natively supported on both Windows and macOS platforms. The major issue with WMA is in its lack of hardware support. Therefore, it is better to stick to FLAC if you want to play lossless audio files.

Which Audio Format Is the Best?

As you can see, it all depends on your needs. The best sound format that will give you high-quality audio output is uncompressed. However, in terms of file size, it might not be ideal for the purpose. Therefore, to ensure that I don’t generalize about things, I have listed below the best audio file formats based on various niches.

  • For editing and capturing raw sound, it’s best to use uncompressed file formats. At this level, you need the most realistic quality of audio. Once done, you can then convert the file to other file formats.
  • If you love music and want to enjoy something close to studio experience, then lossless audio compression is the best. This is the reason why audiophiles still prefer CD albums or FLAC music to MP3 albums.
  • If space is of utmost concern and you are fine with ‘okay’ music, then lossy audio compression will suit you best. Moreover, the majority of people can’t tell the difference between lossy and lossless audio compression.

Ultimately, regardless of your love for music, opting for lossless audio compression without a proper playback device will be the worst choice. You need good-quality headphones or speakers to recreate the beauty of original sound with high-quality audio files. If you have everything covered, then my suggestion would be to give the WAV audio file format a shot.

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