Most modern devices, whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, MP3 player or computer of some kind are able to play a wide range of digital formats, often immediately without having to go through any firmware or software updates. You may be amazed to learn just how many kinds of formats are out there though.
With this in mind, you might rightly wonder ‘what makes each format different and is it really that important?’ and ‘Does a music file’s format really matter?’
The basic answer to the second half of the first question and the second question is that it really depends.
There are some audio files that are uncompressed and some that are compressed, that can either have lossless or what is known as lossy quality. Although they are far bigger in size, if you have sufficient storage space and use top quality audio equipment, there are many great benefits to using lossless or uncompressed audio files.
On the other hand, if space is not something you have much of, because you are using a portable MP3 player, tablet or smartphone, and only intend on using very basic level speakers and/or headphones; you probably will do just fine with compressed or lossy files.
How then do you decide which is for you from the plethora of modern and common file formats? In the following post we will discuss them, outline their characteristics and why you might want to start using them.
MP3 was designed by the organisation MPEG or Moving Pictures Experts Group. They develop video program and coded audio standards, and their MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 Layer 3 or MP3 is probably the most widely supported and commonly used audio file format.
This format is both lossy and compressed and has bit-rates in the 8 to 320 kbps range, with a 16 to 48 kHz sampling frequency range. Less space is used and files are transferred quicker when MP3s are smaller in size. However, the quick transfer speed and smaller size means there is a trade off in the quality of the audio, particularly in comparison to lossless formats.
AAC or Advanced Audio Coding, is a similar format to MP3 and commonly associated with iTunes. The one thing that it has over MP3 is that it is more efficient. It is a lossy and compressed format, that has a 8 to 320 kbps bit-rate range, and an 8 to 96 kHz sampling frequency range. Although the higher end of that range is only possible with the appropriate encoding process.
With AAC, you can have the same quality of audio as MP3 without taking up as much space. Additionally, while MP3 can only handle two channels, AAC can handle as much as 48 channels at once. AAC can be used with anything from portable games consoles to Android and iOS devices.
WMA or Windows Media Audio is a format that Microsoft designed as competition for MP3. It is very similar to MP3, though a more proprietary format. While the basic WMA is lossy and compressed; modern versions featuring advanced and updated codecs are capable of providing lossless quality.
Although various entertainment systems and portable media devices are capable of supporting WMA files, there are not many tablets or smartphones that do. As many of these devices require a compatible app being downloaded before you can play WMA files, they are not as convenient as AAC or MP3 files.
FLAC or Free Lossless Audio Codec was created by Xiph Org Foundation and is very popular due to its open source format and royalty-free licensing.
It is a lossless and compressed format, that offers high audio quality of 32 bit/96 kHz. To explain why those numbers are important, it’s worth highlighting at this point that 16 bit/44.1 kHz is a CD’s quality.
One of the major advantages offered by FLAC is a smaller sized file (around 30 to 40% than the original) but not at the expense of the sound quality. This is why it is one of the best options for digital archiving. In other words, using the FLAC format as the master copy of a file to create lossy/compressed files for day to day use.
ALAC or Apple Lossless Audio Codec, as you might have guessed from the name, is Apple’s own version of the FLAC format. It is very similar to FLAC too – as it is a lossless and compressed format. Unlike FLAC however, which is often not directly compatible, ALAC is obviously supported by iTunes and other Apple iOS products. This means, if you own and use Apple products and are looking for a lossless and compressed format, you would be more likely to choose ALAC over FLAC.
WAV or Waveform Audio File Format is another that was designed by Microsoft and is a standard used in systems using Windows and compatible with a full range of different applications.
It is a lossless and uncompressed format (though it can be specially coded to be compressed) and is more or less a direct copy of its source. This file format is better used for audio editing and archiving, as files are considerably bigger than other formats. WAV files share similar qualities to AIFF and PCM, which are both discussed below.
AIFF or Audio Interchange File Format is another Apple format, designed to be used by Macs for storing audio. It is a lossless and compressed file format, though there is a compressed version available. Similarly to WAV, individual files made from AIFF take up a large amount of space, which means it is best used for editing and archiving.
PCM or Pulse Code Modulation is mainly associated with CDs as it is the standard format used for them. However, it is also used in various digital audio apps and computers.
It is a lossless and uncompressed format, and often is used as a source that is reproduced in other formats.
We hope the above guide has given you a better understanding of what is out there in terms of audio file formats and which may suit your circumstances and needs better. Along with the above, another interesting tool you should be aware of is Audioham – free way to get MP3 from YouTube.