The field of digital audio formats can be confusing, especially with so many different options around. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, and choosing the perfect one for your project can be challenging.
What are digital audio formats? Digital audio formats are file formats for storing digital audio data on computer systems. These formats can be uncompressed (all the original data) or compressed in one of two ways: lossy (unnecessary info is irreversibly removed to save space) or lossless (redundant data is removed to save space).
There are so many formats to choose from for digital audio. WAV, AIFF, FLAC, MP3… the list goes on and on. Which format should you use? Which are better for studio use? Which will help your music stand out in the digital marketplace?
Learn more about all the different formats in this comprehensive guide. In this guide, we'll explore each major digital audio format and analyze its advantages and drawbacks.
Lossless Vs. Lossy Vs. Uncompressed Audio
Digital audio formats can be split into three neat categories based on compression.
Most audio files are compressed in some way to reduce the file size – i.e., the space a sound clip takes on your hard drive. The two methods of compression are lossless and lossy.
When lossy audio formats are encoded, some data is irreversibly lost to reduce the file size. If compressed well, lossy compression doesn't noticeably degrade the sound quality of the file. Lossy formats have far greater file size efficiency and therefore are much more suitable for distribution over the Internet and for streaming.
For lossless audio, on the other hand, no information is destroyed, and lossless files can be converted back to an uncompressed format easily. The advantage here is that your sound will stay crystal-clear. The downside is that file sizes are around five times larger than lossy formats.
For more information on how digital audio is compressed into lossless and lossy formats, check out my article How Does Digital Audio Data Compression Work?
Uncompressed Audio Formats
We'll start by exploring neither of these two compression methods and look at uncompressed audio.
Studio professionals love the default audio format on Windows, WAV, for storing and manipulating stems and vocal takes. However, the downside of WAV is the file size. A minute of music encoded using WAV is around 10 MB – double the typical lossless file size efficiency.
The Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) is the equivalent of WAV for Apple Mac devices. It stores uncompressed pulse-code modulation (PCM). It exhibits the same quality advantages and file size disadvantages as WAV.
Lossy Audio Formats
Now, let's turn to lossy compressed formats. To recap, these broadly are brilliant for distributing audio like music and podcasts thanks to their high file size efficiency.
As a universally supported and insanely popular format, MP3 is often synonymous with digital audio itself. A 128 kbps MP3 will run at around 1 MB per minute.
Increasingly, high-bit-rate MP3s have been preferred by listeners for the improved sound quality – running at around 2.3 MB.
Related article: WAV Or MP3: Which Is The Superior Audio Format?
The Advanced Audio Coding standard aims to fix many of the common criticisms of MP3. It is the audio layer of the MPEG-4 video standard and offers better compression-to-quality ratios than MP3.
AAC is one of the most efficient file formats available – with an average size of 1 MB per minute of music for an audio file with comparable quality to a 320 kbps MP3. It has now also enjoyed near-universal support and compatibility with operating systems, media players and web browsers.
As a free and open-source audio codec, this is the first-choice standard for Spotify. It is also more efficient than MP3, offering similar quality and file size advantages to AAC. A .ogg file with comparable quality to a 320 kbps MP3 file runs at around 1.2 MB per minute.
However, OGG Vorbis isn't as widely supported by media players and operating systems. For example, iOS and Safari mobile browsers don't support OGG.
Lossless Audio Formats
With the introduction of lossless streaming services like TIDAL, more focus on fidelity and high-definition Bluetooth codecs like apt-X HD, lossless audio has never been more popular. Lossless formats are also a great option for project files as each encode doesn't destroy any data.
As no data is lost through encoding, there is virtually no difference in sound quality between these formats.
The Free Lossless Audio Codec is by far the most popular lossless standard out there. It's also free and open-source. It is widely supported, barring Apple operating systems and browsers who prefer to use ALAC.
The main disadvantage of lossless audio compared to lossy is its file size inefficiency.
FLAC files can also provide a resolution of up to 32-bit, 96 kHz. This is better than CD quality – and hence FLAC is the most popular “hi-def” format.
A CD-quality FLAC usually runs at around 5 MB per minute of music.
ALAC is Apple's proprietary lossless audio format – and the default hi-res format for their streaming platform Apple Music. Unlike FLAC, ALAC is closed-source. Therefore, native support is limited on non-Apple devices.
The max resolution of ALAC is 24-bit/192 kHz. Apple Lossless is also slightly less efficient than FLAC, running at around 6 MB per minute of music.
Does hi-res audio make a difference? Check out my article Do High-Resolution (Hi-Res) Audio Files Make A Difference? to find out more.
Which Format Should I Use?
As mentioned before, the answer to this question depends on what you plan on using this particular audio file for.
Is this for online distribution, streaming or sending to friends? Then, a lossy format is brilliant. This is often the best option for mixdowns and distribution as the lower file size makes it easier to share the file on the web and reduces the space it takes on listeners' hard drives.
For more information on hard drives and audio, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top 11 Best External Hard Drive Brands For Music/Audio
• SSD Or HDD For Audio Engineering & Music Production?
AAC is the best lossy audio format, making some key improvements over the older MP3 format.
Are you looking to create a high-quality master? A lossless audio format is great here. FLAC is the most widely used lossless format, and for good reason. It enjoys some decent file size efficiency for a lossless standard, and its open-source nature allows for a wide roster of supporting media players and browsers.
Is this file a stem, instrument track, voice-over or vocal take? If you plan on editing the sound clip and you're still in production, an uncompressed format like WAV is a brilliant idea.
Related article: What Is The Best Audio Format (Size, Quality, Compatibility)
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.