What is an audio file format?
Let’s go back to the basics for a minute. An audio file format is the format in which audio data is stored on your computer or device.
Remember, the CD is generally seen as the baseline standard for good quality audio. So when you’re thinking about your audio quality, that’s the standard you should be comparing to.
Some other key terminology includes:
Audio coding format
When it comes to lossy vs lossless audio, we’re interested in the audio coding format which can be uncompressed or compressed.
When an audio file is created it is encoded as a particular file type
High quality audio will be created as PCM and stored as WAV or AIFF.
Bit-depth refers to the number of ‘bits’ to every sample. A bit is the smallest measurement of computing data which is expressed as 1 in binary.
For high-quality audio, you’re looking for a high bit-depth (at the very least exceeding 16-bit which is what a CD has).
Sample rate, otherwise referred to as sampling frequency, tells you how many samples of audio have been recorded each second. It is measured in kilohertz (kHz) and audio is usually produced at a minimum of 44.1 kHz.
A codec is a program that works to encode audio so that it is a useable file. There are two types: lossy and lossless codecs, so these play a fundamental role in producing the various audio file formats.
When an audio file is compressed, the overall file size is reduced. Usually, compression involves removing data so that the resulting compressed file is smaller.
MP3s are typically between 128 kbps and 320 kbps, whilst an uncompressed file is 1,411 kbps.
Compression can be lossy or lossless.
What is a lossless audio format?
Lossless audio is audio that has been compressed using a method that doesn’t sacrifice any of the audio quality. So although the overall file size is smaller, the original quality is not lost. Lossless audio compression can shrink a file to half its original size without losing its quality.
What is a lossy audio format?
Lossy audio format, as the name suggests, is audio that has been compressed using a method that permanently removes some of its data, thus reducing the quality.
What are uncompressed audio file formats?
Uncompressed audio, rather simply, is audio that has not undergone compression. Though they retain their audio quality they also take up substantial storage.
PCM stands for Pulse Code Modulation. PCM turns analog audio into digital bits and is a broad term for different types of audio recordings.
Best most common audio file formats
Lossless audio formats
In this section, we take a look at the most common lossless audio formats:
Free Lossless Audio Codec (‘FLAC’) is comparable to a lossless version of MP3. It’s generally seen as one of the most ubiquitous lossless audio formats that is widely supported. FLAC audio is compressed to approximately half of the size of the original file. Notably, FLAC is open format and royalty-free.
ALAC, which stands for Apple Lossless Audio Codec, is Apple’s lossless audio coding format. Originally Apple’s proprietary format, it has now been made open source and royalty-free like FLAC. FLAC and ALAC are basically identical. The biggest difference? Apple Music only supports ALAC.
APE, also known as MAC, is another lossless audio format. APE was first developed by Monkey’s Audio and the encoder is completely free to use.
Lossy audio formats
Now let’s dive into the most widely used lossy audio formats.
Whether you’re an audiophile or not, you’ve definitely heard of MP3. It’s one of the most widely used and popular lossy audio formats out there. MP3 was first developed and launched by the Moving Picture Experts Group. Critically, MP3 files can be a maximum of 16-bit, which is not really enough for professional audio production.
Want to convert your files to MP3s? Try our WAV to MP3 converter.
AAC stands for ‘Advanced Audio Coding’ and was intended to replace MP3, offering slightly better audio quality. It’s the default audio format for a number of devices and music services especially because of the fact that it radically reduces the file size whilst still maintaining good audio quality.
OGG Vorbbis was developed by the Xiph.Org Foundation and is another lossy file format. It is also free and open-source, and this is the audio codec used by Spotify.
Windows Media Audio (WMA) is the Windows Media Player’s default audio format. There is also a lossless version (WMA Lossless).
Uncompressed audio formats
Some lossless file formats contain audio which is uncompressed, meaning that they offer higher quality audio but require more storage space.
WAV (hi-res and uncompressed)
WAV, which stands for Waveform Audio File Format, is an audio file format that IBM and Microsoft developed together. It’s the most widely used lossless and uncompressed audio format by Microsoft Windows devices, and is also the standard encoding format for CDs.
The most interesting characteristic of WAV files is that they maintain all of their original data which is why it’s so popular with those working in the professional audio industry. Plus, WAV also shows time codes, which is super helpful when you’re editing.
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AIFF (hi-res and uncompressed)
AIFF stands for Audio Interchange File Format and was also developed by Apple. It is uncompressed file format. Just like WAV, AIFF files also preserve all their original data. However they can’t hold time codes which might pose a challenge when you’re editing.
DSD(hi-res and uncompressed)
DSD stands for Direct Stream Digital and is an uncompressed file format that was first developed as an alternative to PCM.
What are high-resolution audio formats?
High-res lossless audio is exactly what every podcaster should aspire to. ‘High-res’ audio usually refers to any digital audio that is better quality than a CD (meaning 16-bit/44.1kHz), but it’s important to note that for a while there wasn’t actually a fixed standard metric. However, after some US based record labels came together, they concluded a formal definition for high-resolution audio: ‘lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better than CD quality music sources.’
Since the rise of music streaming services such as Tidal, high-res audio has entered the mainstream. The most widely used high-res audio formats are FLAC, ALAC, WAV and AIFF.
Which is the best audio format for your needs?
When it comes to deciding the best audio format for you, it can be overwhelming trying to weigh up the respective advantages and disadvantages of the most common types.
One thing is for sure though, if you’re serious about audio quality; you should definitely only be considering lossless (and ideally uncompressed) audio formats - think WAV, AIFF or PCM. M4A and FLAC are also good contenders.
Which is the best lossless audio format?
This again, depends on your specific needs and circumstances. For sound quality alone; WAV or FLAC are strong contenders for their high fidelity audio quality and the fact that it’s uncompressed.
FAQs on Lossless Audio Formats
What are the three audio formats?
The three broad categories of audio file formats are uncompressed, lossless compressed, and lossy compressed.
What is a standard audio format?
As we’ve seen, there are a number of standard audio file formats that are used widely. Depending on the context, the platform or software you’re using, you’re likely to encounter a number of different audio formats.
What file formats are lossless audio?
There are a range of lossless audio file formats as we’ve seen. Some of the most common include FLAC, ALAC and WAV.
What is the most lossless audio file?
If you’re looking for the highest quality audio file format out there, opting for any one of the high-res lossless file formats is a safe bet. Try FLAC, WAV or AIFF.
Is WAV lossless?
Yes, WAV is both uncompressed and lossless.
Is FLAC or WAV better?
Objectively, there is no better option between FLAC or WAV files because it depends what you’re looking for (and who you’re speaking to).
In terms of audio quality, the difference is minimal. The biggest factor is the file size. Since WAV is uncompressed, you’ll need substantial storage space to accommodate all your files.
Is MP3a an audio format?
MP3a is a renamed MP3 file. It used to be the file extension that some media players used as their version of a normal MP3 file.