Unless until you are an audiophile, all audio file formats may sound same to you. Also, when it comes to audio, your obvious pick is the MP3 file format. But when a range of choices is thrown in front of you such as WAV, AAC, OGG, ALAC, WMA, etc. then you scratch your head. Probably, you are not sure how to choose the best audio format for your need.

Back in the old days, we primarily chose audio formats based on the file size because of space limitations on CDs, DVDs, computers and even on portable music players. But with the advancement in technology, space seems to be no more a significant constraint.

In short, you must know the audio coding format. All these sound formats fall into two major categories which are Uncompressed and Compressed. Compressed can be further divided into two sub-categories as Lossless and Lossy. Once, you are through with this information then it will be easier to make an informed choice for your requirements.

Uncompressed audio format

As the name suggests, audio files falling in this category have no compression at all. You get to hear the As Is copy of an originally recorded sound waveform that got converted into a digital format without any compression. There is not even the slightest loss in audio data. Uncompressed audio files occupy more disk space, and the size can go up to several hundreds of MBs for a ten minutes music file. Typical examples are WAV, PCM, AIFF, AU, etc.

Compressed audio format

The only motive behind audio compression is the reduction in file size. But the question remains – To what extent since you lose data if you go below the threshold line. You can either compress an audio file without any loss or can compromise over quality and achieve the highest possible reduction in size.

Lossless audio format

Lossless audio compression will result in a compressed file without any loss in quality or data when compared to its source file. The resulting file will retain the quality of the uncompressed audio file in a less possible space. But the lossless sound file is three to four times more in size as compared to its lossy version. Typical examples are WMA, FLAC, ALAC, etc.

Sometimes, uncompressed audio formats such as WAV, AIFF, PCM, etc. can fall into this category after they go through Lossless compression method.

Lossy audio format

Lossy compression further decreases audio file size by carefully removing part of audio data. The compression method involves scientific method such as Psychoacoustics which primarily deals with how we humans perceive any sound. For instance, we may not be able to notice low pitched background sound at the time of high pitched portion in a sound file. Similarly, there are parts in an audio file whose removal may not affect the listening quality.

Most of the time, a normal human being may not be able to differentiate between Lossless and Lossy audio files. Lossy audio files take substantially less space as compared to other file formats. A typical four minutes MP3 music file only occupies 3-4MB space. Also, different kbps or kilobits per second audio files, such as 128 kbps, 320kbps, etc., exists in Lossy format. Typical examples are MP3, AAC, OGG, WMA, etc.

Popular Lossy formats

MP3

MP3 or MPEG Audio Layer III terminology has become synonymous with the music industry. This popular music file format came into the market sometime in 1993 and soon became standard because of its reasonable sound quality and low file size. In fact, in those days, file size was the biggest challenge whenever it came to disk space or storage capacity.

Original or source audio files are compressed to an extent where sound data beyond human hearing range are taken out. Also, the quality of background sounds, which are not easy to detect, is reduced.

The compressed file or MP3 version is much smaller as compared to uncompressed and Lossless audio formats. As of today, there is no system in this world which cannot play MP3 songs or audios.

AAC

AAC or Advanced Audio Coding is similar to MP3, but AAC audio files take less space compared to MP3. It follows more efficient lossy compression method where the quality of music or any sound file is better than Mp3 with a significantly lower file size. AAC follows ISO and IEC and is also part of the MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 specifications.

MP3 must have become a household name, but in reality, most of the most significant platforms such as iTunes, YouTube, Android, PlayStations, etc. follows AAC audio compression method.

OGG or Ogg Vorbis

OGG is a free and open source container format. It holds Vorbis files format and often called Ogg Vorbis. Vorbis files follow a better compression method than MP3 or AAC with same audio quality and smaller file size.

But still, Ogg Vorbis audio files have not gained much popularity, and there is not much support either from the most popular audio devices.

WMA

Microsoft released WMA or Windows Media Audio in 1999. It consists of series of audio codecs and is a proprietary technology which is also a part of the Windows Media framework. This format has a few benefits over MP3 file format. There are no significant advantages of WMA over AAC or OGG.

Also, there is no support for WMA audio files on most popular players. WMA also has a Lossless version called WMA Lossless which again faces the same challenges as WMA does. This file format can be played on Windows as well as MacBook.

Popular Lossless formats

FLAC

FLAC or Free Lossless Audio Codec is an open source software. It is one of the most popular Lossless formats which is available as on today. FLAC can compress uncompressed or raw audio file by 50% – 60%. In short, you get a raw uncompressed sound file in almost half size.

Most of the devices and system supports FLAC audio format. Apple devices do not support FLAC audio format. If you are an Apple fan, then you should go with ALAC.

ALAC or Apple Lossless

Apple developed ALAC or Apple Lossless Audio Codec in 2004. Initially, it was Apple’s proprietary format, but soon it became open source. When it comes to audio compression, ALAC is less efficient than FLAC. But still, it has a lot of use among Apple users because of FLAC incompatibility with Apple.

Both iOS and iTunes, provide native support to ALAC.

Popular Uncompressed formats

Till now, you must have got an idea that if you need to edit any raw audio files, then you should look for uncompressed audio file formats.

PCM

PCM is also known as Pulse Code Modulation. Raw analog audio signals exist as sound waveforms. These waveforms are further converted into a digital format without any compression. Several waveform samples are taken at specific intervals where each sample is made up of digital bits. These samples are also known as pulses.

There is another sub-type which is also known as LPCM or Liner Pulse Code Modulation. In LPCM, the samples are taken at liner intervals. CDs and DVDs often use this file format to store audio files.

WAV

The full form of WAV is Waveform Audio File. Microsoft and IBM collectively developed this format back in 1991. It is most common audio file formats used on Windows for storing raw and uncompressed audio files. You can run this audio format without any issues in Windows, MacBook and Linux systems.

A WAV file call fall in both Uncompressed and Lossless file formats. In the Uncompressed mode, WAV files are encoded in LPCM, where there is no compression, and file size is enormous.

On the other side, in the Lossless mode, there is significant compression of data with no loss in audio quality and data.

AIFF

AIFF or Audio Interchange File Format is similar to WAV format. Apple developed this format for Mac systems in 1988. Again, AIFF files can be compressed in a lossless format commonly known as AIFF-C and Apple Loops. Apple Loops is used in GarageBand and Logic Audio.

The uncompressed version of AIFF files follows PCM format. You can open AIFF audio files in Windows without any issues.

How to decide over audio formats?

I am sure you have got fair enough idea regarding popular audio formats. But still, the question remains – How to decide which one suits my need? Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all. You have to access your requirements and match them with the available formats.

  • If you are a sound editor or someone who want to reproduce several altered or modified version of the source audio file, then you should stick to the Uncompressed format.
  • If you are a real music lover and want to listen to your favourite music on the world’s best music speakers, sound systems or even headphones, then you should go for Lossless audio formats.
  • If you are a casual music listener and mostly download free music with the help of applications or websites, then you can go ahead with Lossy audio file formats. This format saves tons of space.