MP3, WAV, and other popular audio file types explained

MP3, WAV, and other popular audio file types explained

Image Credit: Canto

There are a variety of different audio file types. The most popular are WAV and MP3s, and these are actually two very different types of audio file. Though both do have their pros, audio fidelity is where WAV files reign supreme in comparison.

This article is going to explain the technicals and differences between audio file types. And when we’ve discussed the difference between lossy and lossless compression, we’ll finish with a list of the most common audio file types that you’ll come across.

Which file type you choose is usually down to your needs. For example, if you want an audio file type that preserves the quality of your music then a lossless file type (FLAC) or a PCM file type (WAV) are preferable choices. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a file type that is small and will therefore transfer across devices or upload online faster, a lossy file type (MP3) is the choice to go for.

More to the point, different situations call for different file types. For example, CDs use PCM file types, whereas streaming services usually prefer lossy file types. So, if you’re wondering which audio format is best for your needs then keep reading.

To send files from one place to another, files need to be small. To make large music files smaller, we need to compress them. And lossy & lossless compression formats have different methods of doing that. In contrast, PCM types don’t compress your audio at all. But file compression is important because files are too big to send between devices and over the internet. As a result, transfer and download speeds are incredibly slow.


The definition of lossy compression

Lossy compression is a way of compressing a file down in size by slicing away “unnoticeable” pieces of the files. As a result, the compressed file won’t feature every single minute detail of your original song. And this is precisely why MP3 file types aren’t desirable if you’re looking to preserve the full quality of your song.

Lossy file type doesn't preserve every piece of your song. However, only "unnoticeable" bits of the audio are snipped. And if the audio is mixed and mastered well, the compression shouldn't be noticeable anyway.
Image Credit: Bits of Bytes

In other words, a lossy file type doesn’t preserve every piece of your song. Therefore, you’re sacrificing sound quality for the sake of transferring, uploading, or streaming your track. The advantage of lossy compression is faster streaming and download speeds, and this is why some streaming platforms including Spotify utilise lossy file types over lossless! But if the mix and master of the original song are to a professional standard, the differences shouldn’t be noticeable.


The definition of lossless compression

Trying to get your bed out of your doorway is usually a mission, right? After trying every single possible angle to get it out of the door, you decide it’s better to disassemble it, transport the pieces to your new place, and then reassemble it – with every single piece back where it should be. Now your bed is far easier to move from one house to the next, despite the fact you have the same amount of mass you had before you took the bed apart.

And that is exactly how lossless compression works! Lossless audio types reconstruct your audio back to its original size when you play the file. As a result, they maintain sound quality as they account for every piece of audio. Lossless file types disassemble and reassemble your audio!

Audiophiles love to maintain as much audio fidelity as they can. This is why lossless compression is often the go-to choice when exporting our projects. Lossless file types like FLAC files can be several times bigger than lossy file types like MP3s because no audio is sliced away.

If you are unsure whether a FLAC or MP3 file type is your best option, consider the volume of your tracks and how much you have going on. Volume and file density are huge factors that determine the size of lossless file types. So, if you are reaching high volume levels and you have lots of channels in your music, your lossless file will be much bigger.


What are PCM files?

PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) files replicate the process that occurs as you record analog audio into your digital computer. For a detailed look at this, we’ll drop the article we wrote about it here.

What is digital audio? A guide for music producers

PCM file types take thousands of samples of your audio to accurately represent the original audio. In fact, PCM files take two samples per wave cycle to accurately read the amplitude.

PCM file formats sample analog audio twice per cycle to accurately represent the original audio. In fact, two samples are taken per cycle of your audio. Two samples are taken to accurately read the amplitude of your audio.
Image Credit: iZotope

PCM file types are the standard format for telecommunications and CDs, in addition to other digital audio mediums too. A PCM file is an uncompressed file format. Additionally, they retain all audio fidelity as a lossless file type does. As you may have guessed, this means that PCM file types can also be far bigger in file size than lossy and even lossless file types.

For more information on recording digital audio, don’t forget to see our articles about microphone types, cable types, and why you need an audio interface.


Lossy file types

MP3

The most popular lossy file format out there is MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, otherwise known as MP3. MP3 files came to the stage in 1993. They became so universally popular that media players even got their names after them. Before the days of the iPod, MP3 players reigned supreme over consumer audio.

Lossy MP3 files cut all audio that’s beyond the human hearing threshold. Furthermore, they reduce the quality of hard to hear sounds while compressing all audio as efficiently as possible.

AAC

Arguably the best lossy audio format for streaming across mobile devices, Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) files don’t take up very much space on hard drives at all. They actually require less than 1MB of storage per minute of streaming, so just one tune would be around 3MB. Both Apple Music and YouTube use AAC file types because they sound better than MP3s while using the same bit rate. 

AAC file types are a favourable choice if you’re looking for the best audio quality and a small file size.

OGG Vorbis

Rather than a compression format, OGG Vorbis (which doesn’t stand for anything) is a multimedia container that can hold many different types of compression formats. Essentially, it’s a box inside a box. Its most common use is to hold its own Vorbis files (OGG is the creator name whereas Vorbis is the compression format name).

OGG is open-source, patent-free, software. And this is why it grew in popularity very quickly among developers after its launch in 2000. Furthermore, it has a smaller file size than other lossy formats while retaining the same amount of audio fidelity.

However, the main issue with Vorbis files is that many devices don’t support them. AGG & MP3 files are all the rage as they’re universal file types, so Vorbis files struggle to get any time in the spotlight.

WMA

Finally, Microsoft released Windows Media Audio in 1999 with the intent to improve on some flaws of MP3 files. For example, audio quality after compression beats MP3 files like OGG Vorbis & AAC files.

Due to end-to-end encryption, you can only use WMA files across Windows software & hardware. However, there aren’t really any benefits to WMA files that AAC & OGG can’t give you, to be honest.


Lossless file types

FLAC

Free Lossless Audio Codec is another of the most popular lossless formats available since its birth in 2001. As a matter of fact, most major programs and devices support the FLAC file type. Furthermore, FLAC files compress audio by 60% before they compromise any audio quality!

FLAC actually holds second place on the podium of general popularity, just behind  MP3 files. With half the file size of WAV files, you get the same noticeable quality of a raw, uncompressed, audio file.

ALAC

Sometimes referred to as Apple Lossless, Apple the tech giant launched Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) in 2004 as a proprietary format for Apple products like WMS for Windows. Unlike Windows, Apple changed their minds and ALAC is now open-source and has been since 2011.

In spite of this, ALAC isn’t as top-tier quality as FLAC when it comes to compression. In addition to iOS, iTunes only has native support for ALAC and not FLAC file types. As a result, Apple users don’t have freedom of choice like Windows users.


PCM file types

AIFF & WAV files are two common PCM file types. In fact, they actually have more in common than they do differences.

AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) allows you to change the metadata of the file itself (such as changing the name of the owner, etc.), but WAV doesn’t. And this can be very annoying if you’re exporting your audio and haven’t taken care of metadata inside your DAW.

Additionally, these two file types organize data differently. Neither file type compromises sound quality whatsoever, but what is different is the storage mechanisms of the file types.

Many people commonly use WAV (Waveform Audio File Format) and AIFF files as “wrapper formats” to store PCM format audio. As a result, they’re more suitable for Windows computers rather than Macs.

Now that you’re an expert in the differences between audio file types, it’s time to export your music and upload it to streaming services and download stores. If you’re unsure what audio file you need, don’t forget to read our RouteNote Troubleshooters guide.


Once you have an MP3 or FLAC file, don’t forget to check out RouteNote. We can upload your music to Spotify, iTunes, and every major download store and streaming service for free, and you keep 85% of the revenue.

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