When it comes to audio file formats, there are basically two types: lossless, and lossy.
Lossless audio retains all of the original quality from whatever source it came from, whether it be compact disc, tape, vinyl, or something else.
Lossy audio sacrifices quality so that it can save space, resulting in a smaller and more compressed file, but with less data attached for better storage capabilities. If at all possible, the lossy format tries to avoid cutting out any “crucial” audio, which is a bit like removing just a few select pieces of someone’s internal organs with a rusty blade, sewing them back up after the operation, and hoping they don’t die ten minutes later. Sorry, that’s the audiophile in me talking right now. 😛
Let’s begin by talking about lossless audio file formats, of which there are several.
Lossless Audio File Types
AIFF files are uncompressed, which means you get exactly what audio the source has. This file format is made by Apple, which is why you will see these files more associated with Apple products. This can be good or bad depending on how much you like Apple. A file like the AIFF is designed to be used for various purposes, but not really designed to be stored, necessarily, as it would take up a lot of space on any drive you put them. That said, if you have an audio file that you are particularly attached to, want to archive, or you have just recorded something yourself (as an artist), for example, you may want to store that audio as an AIFF on your computer, as it is often an available file type to export as with many different pieces of music software.
WAV is another totally uncompressed file format, like AIFF, and they’re basically the exact same, bit for bit, except that WAV is a more universal format, and hence it holds that distinction. So, the same characteristics apply here with WAV as with AIFF, in that the quality of the file is completely intact and no information is lost. Similarly, WAV files are large and take up a lot of space, so they’re not very handy in that regard because they take up lots of room. Both AIFF’s and WAV’s use a bitstream method of storing data in chunks, except that WAV is based on the IFF file format. Overall, WAV files are more compatible with more players, and they serve as great audio to be editing, if you’re into that type of thing.
FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec, if you were wondering about its name. It is, these days, the most popular lossless audio file format, and the most popular for storing music, mainly due to the fact that it has been compressed. And yet, it is still considered a lossless format, so you’re still getting the same audio as the original source, and overall listeners who are concerned about archiving prefer it to WAV or AIFF for this reason. In fact, many music collections are stored as FLAC files just to save some space, and they are found online everywhere. For instance, if your great uncle gives you his digital music collection, if he’s a good guy, it’ll be in FLAC. Unlike AIFF, which belongs to Apple, FLAC is both open source and free.
ALAC, or Apple Lossless is very much the same as FLAC, as you can see even by the name. Like FLAC, it’s lossless, but it’s also compressed, and it’s essentially Apple’s version of the FLAC format. It has a slightly less efficient system for compressing the audio files, to you might end up with a slightly larger file overall, but whereas FLAC is essentially a non-affiliated format, ALAC is strongly associated with iTunes, and iOS. Hence, you do get the benefits of what Apple has to offer, giving it an edge over FLAC in this respect. On the other hand, some naysayers have said that Apple is putting a stranglehold on the music industry by trying to control people in a rather fascist manner using iTunes, by keeping you locked into the iTunes software and the way they have the music library set up. So, if you are an Apple / iTunes hater because of that line of reasoning, you probably won’t want to go with their proprietary audio file format, because you’ll be stuck in iTunes land for the forseeable future.
Whereas ALAC is lossless but compressed, and FLAC even more so, we have APE, which is extremely compressed and yet still lossless, which means that if you’re interested in opening up more storeage space, APE might be for you. It has essentially the same high quality that other lossless audio files provide, but on the downside, it isn’t quite as friendly with as many players as either FLAC or ALAC. And, since the compression is so extreme, you will find that your computer is going to have to use more processor power to read the files. But, with the right player, APE is still a great format.
Lossy Audio File Types
If you consider yourself a normal music listener, or in other words, a non-audiophile, without too many expectations for the quality of the audio you listen to, then you’ll probably be going with the lossy formats, including all the favourites – MP3, AAC, OGG, etc.
In terms of space saving, you will save a lot more space than the lossless files, obviously. This means, you can pile these types of files (ie. songs) onto your favourite player and hit the road. Now, what matters in terms of quality is bitrate, and if your lossy file is of a particularly high bitrate, then you’ll be treated to audio that is, to the common listener, pretty much the same as the lossless files.
Also known as MPEG Audio Layer III, MP3’s are without question the most popular of all lossy audio formats you’ll come across. In fact, when some people download music, they simply expect an MP3 because people assume it’s the only audio format that exists. That’s how pervasive MP3’s are. And, even though it is essentially the BK Whopper of audio formats (mass produced, lacking integrity), people still love it to death (like the Whopper). Partly, this is due to the MP3 being the most widely supported, and so there’s really no way around the fact that this is the first choice when it comes to lossy audio files. And, after all, the MP3 isn’t that bad, unless you’re a real stickler for quality.
This stands for Advanced Audio Coding, and the format is very similar to MP3, and yet it is a step up when it comes to efficiency. By efficient, I mean that the files take up even less space than an MP3, but you get just about the same sound. One thing to note is that Apple supports the AAC format, making it just about as widely used as MP3’s nowadays, since it can be used with iTunes. Also, most devices can play AAC files, with there being only a select few that can’t. This all makes AAC a great alternative, or even preferential, to MP3’s.
Meant to be the successor to MP3’s, M4A’s, or MPEG 4, are another lossy audio file format made with AAC encoding. In terms of quality, M4A’s were designed to improve upon the design of the MP3, by adding certain enhancements like cutting out sound information that isn’t perceptible to the human ear. Or, in other words, compressing a sound file to keep what is essentialy for listeners only. Also, M4A’s have a way of “sampling” the audio at a bitrate that captures more nuances. M4A is also widely supported, with platforms available such as iTunes, Windows Media Player, Quicktime, and certain Roxio products. All of this sounds pretty good, right? However, many car stereos won’t play M4A’s, and often times if you want a certain media player to play an M4A, you have to rename it as MP4, which is a nuisance.
This oddly named file format is named as such because it is used in conjunction with what’s called an Ogg container, supported by the xiph.org Foundation. Vorbis is free and open source, and together these two are called Ogg Vorbis multi-plexed media files. Similar to MP3 and AAC, it is a lossy format, but it is considerably less popular, possibly due to it’s bizarre name, but also because it doesn’t have the support of AAC or MP3. One thing to consider is that Ogg Vorbis is not limited by any patents, although that has no immediate effect on its users. On the other hand, this file format loves to suck your power like a vampire when you attempt to decode it, due to the way it is compressed and needs to be opened up. In any case, despite its negative aspects, open source proponents are big on the Ogg Vorbis audio file format because of their dedication to all things open source. Do you use it? Let us know, it’s always interesting to connect with users of a particular format like this one which is relatively obscure.
Microsoft also has its own audio file format, which is the Windows Media Audio, which is very similar to both the AAC and the MP3 in many ways. Unfortunately for Microsoft, this format is not extremely well supported, because the WMA doesn’t really have any benefits to MP3’s or AAC’s, so it remains in its own little world of users who happen to use it for whatever reason, but for your average listener, there is no particular reason to start using the WMA format if they do not already.
Lossy vs Lossless – Which Is Better?
Ok, so now you basically know the difference between some of the more common lossy and lossless audio formats. Which one should you go with? Well, if you haven’t decided by now, let’s recap for a minute. AAC and MP3 are the most popular by quite a stretch, but that’s because they work on just about any player out there, and they also save on hard drive space. This falls in line with what your average consumer wants or needs, that being – give me something cheap and relatively efficient and I’ll go for it. The other thing we mentioned already about AAC and MP3 is that unless you have a fairly discerning ear, you’re not even going to really tell the difference between and MP3 and a WAV, unless you’re a sound engineer, or just a person with really sensitive hearing. Remember that even with MP3’s, a high bitrate means you are getting most of the “important” data from your source audio, so that makes it even more indistinguishable. There are definitely MP3’s that have a low bitrate, and sound clearly terrible. Watch out for those.
Here’s a quick video sample of compression comparison, from 8 Kbps to 320 Kbps from a Youtuber named Eat Me.
If you have the inclination to archive your music in any way, and storage space is not so much an issue, then definitely you’ll want to go with a lossless audio format like FLAC. For instance, if you are converting audio files from one lossy form to another, the degradation of the quality will soon become apparent. On the other hand, if you stick with lossless high quality audio file formats like FLAC or AIFF, your files will remain sounding great, even if you convert between two different lossless files. In other words, the file quality will not change.
At the end of the day, it’s whatever works for you and whatever allows you to get the most enjoyment out of your audio, whether it be music or otherwise. I hope this article clears up any questions you have about this, but if not, feel free to ask further questions in the comments section and we’ll try to field them!