Common Audio File Formats

Whether you’re listening to music, selecting a soundtrack for your home movie, or recording a radio show, there is a huge variety of audio file formats to choose from. To some people, it might seem obvious to use a particular format, but there is no right answer. It all depends on your hard drive space and whether your audio software supports the file. Below, we’ve outlined the differences between popular formats, breaking down their advantages and disadvantages. 

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Lossy File Formats
Although these compressed files have lower sound quality, they take up far less space and are supported by most audio players. Used by streaming software like Pandora and Spotify, lossy compression achieves its small size by discarding pieces of data from the original file, while still retaining its approximate sound. 

MP3: By far the most popular audio format, MP3 became infamous during the heyday of Napster. MP3s can be created with a range of bitrates, but most are 128, 192, or 320kbps. Amazon and many other media stores still use MP3 as their standard format, and for the average music listener, the quality is more than good enough. 

AAC: Apple’s version of MP3 is called AAC (or Advanced Audio Coding), and it’s the primary format that they sell in the Music Store. Intended to be a better version of MP3, AAC is generally a higher quality format, with the usual bitrate around 256kbps. YouTube also uses AAC conversion for audio uploaded to their servers. 

WMA: Finally, Windows Media Audio is Microsoft’s proprietary format, and although it isn’t supported by as many programs as MP3, it still does a serviceable job. 

Lossless File Formats
Unlike lossy compression, lossless files retain all of the original audio data, so they usually sound a lot better. However, this approach also results in much larger file sizes, so they might not be realistic for the average audio player or smartphone. 

FLAC: Standing for Free Lossless Audio Codec, FLAC is the most common lossless format. Although iTunes does not support it, there are plenty of programs that do, and the sound is far more impressive than MP3. In effect, you’re getting CD-quality sound at 40-50% the size of an uncompressed file. It also supports metadata, so you can add information about the song and embed it within the file. 

ALAC: This is Apple’s version of the FLAC format (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), which is open source and can be ripped from physical CDs. 

Uncompressed File Formats
Finally, uncompressed files are exact copies of the original audio, without any reduction in size. This makes them the largest and highest quality formats available. It might not make sense to transfer uncompressed files to your MP3 player, but for archiving audio or DJing on a great sound system, they’re the best digital option.    

WAV: Despite its size, the Waveform Audio file format is extremely popular. Designed by Microsoft and IBM in 1991, the format preserves CD-quality audio and is playable on most software. Unlike other audio file formats, however, WAV does not offer full support for metadata. This means you will probably need to put song-related information in the file name itself. 

AIFF: Since Apple does not support FLAC, iTunes users who want uncompressed audio will purchase music in AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) instead. This is Apple’s proprietary format, and it has comparable quality to WAV and FLAC.  

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