The battle of which digital audio format for both music and recordings continues. Two of the most popular audio file types are WAV and MP3. However, there's often much confusion surrounding the benefits and drawbacks of each audio format. Which is better for music? What about recordings?
Which is a better digital audio format, MP3 or WAV? MP3 and WAV are the most popular formats of compressed and uncompressed digital audio files, respectively. MP3 is a lossy compressed format with “unnecessary” info removed, making it smaller. WAV is an uncompressed format containing all the original audio information, making it larger.
In this article, we'll explore each format's strengths and weaknesses and ultimately establish which, between .wav and .mp3, is the best audio format.
What Is MP3?
Standing for MPEG Audio Layer III, MP3 was developed in 1991 as the default audio format for the MPEG-1 video format. The Moving Picture Experts Group developed the audio file format – a consortium of standards organizations including the ISO.
The format was popularized in the late 1990s, and the early 2000s as the advent of file sharing on the web meant that MP3's file size efficiency made this format perfect for online music distribution.
As mentioned before, MP3 uses lossy compression, meaning that some data is irreversibly lost when an MP3 file is encoded. This decreases the size of audio files by cutting out part of the sound the human ear can't hear (particularly in the high-end frequencies and via masking). This leads to MP3's main advantage, its brilliant file size efficiency.
The human hearing range is universally accepted as 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. However, our hearing becomes rather insensitive at the extremes of this range. As we age and sustain hearing damage, the high-end of this range drops, often reaching 16 kHz or lower. MP3 files reduce or eliminate some frequencies in this range to save space without having a huge effect on the sound—the lower the MP3 bit rate, the lower the high-end frequency cutoff.
Masking is a phenomenon whereby a quiet sound is unheard due to a much louder sound “masking” it. With complex algorithms, the encoding process of the MP3 format can get rid of “masked information” to help save extra space.
Often when listeners complain about the quality of MP3 files, this can be attributed to that particular track having a low bit rate. This refers to the number of bits (the basic unit of information – a binary digit “1 or 0”) within a second of playback time. The higher the bit, the higher the fidelity and sound quality of the track since less information was removed during encoding.
Bit rates for MP3 files usually range from 90 kbps to 320 kbps.
By comparison, an audio CD, which uses 16-bit, 44.1 kHz WAV, will always have a bit rate of 1,411 kilobits per second.
The removal of non-vital information generally makes imperceptible changes to the sound of the MP3 audio file. However, at lower bit rates, the loss of information becomes audible, typically in the form of filtered high-end, distortion, phase issues and more.
MP3 is brilliant for the online distribution of music files, including streaming. However, many producers shy away from this format for recordings and stems since data is lost each time an MP3 file is encoded (due to its lossy nature).
While this data loss usually isn't noticeable after one or two compression passes – if your stems and recording tracks are compressed in serial over and over again, this may affect the sound quality of your project.
Note that audio is simply a representation of sound, whether the audio is analog or digital, digitally compressed or uncompressed. The information contained within digital audio files like MP3s and WAVs is ultimately converted into sound via transducers (headphones or speakers), which translates through the air (physical medium) and reaches our ears, where our brains register it.
For more information on audio and sound, check out my article What Is The Difference Between Sound And Audio?
What Is WAV?
The Waveform Audio File Format, also known as WAV or WAVE for its filename extension, is the default audio format used by Microsoft Windows for uncompressed audio. Unlike MP3 with its lossy compression, when a WAV file is encoded, there is no attempt made to reduce the number of bits contained in an audio file.
WAV isn't the only uncompressed format, with RAW being its main competitor. WAV beats RAW as it uses differential pulse code modulation (DPCM) to reduce the number of bits required for an audio representation by 25% compared to RAW uncompressed audio.
Note that uncompressed formats shouldn't be confused with lossless compression formats like FLAC. These audio files are compressed but without any loss of information. This means that this compression can be reversible. WAV files aren't compressed at all, and that's reflected in their massive file sizes.
To learn more about lossy and lossless compressed audio, check out my article How Does Digital Audio Data Compression Work?
Our testing shows that a 25 MB WAV audio file can be converted into a 320 kbps MP3 file of only 5 MB. For creators and music producers, using WAVs means we get the full information of our audio at the expense of increased strain on our storage device capacity. Our hard drives will fill up 5-times faster with every project.
For more information on hard drives for audio, check out my Top 11 Best External Hard Drive Brands For Music/Audio
In the early days of the internet, MP3 was preferred as it was just too uneconomical to transfer large WAV files through the web. While advancements in download speeds mean that this problem has been somewhat reduced, your end-users will still be using a lot of their storage space on their phones and computers downloading your tracks.
Which Is Better: MP3 Or WAV?
Of course, the answer to this question depends on the purpose and application of the audio file.
As there's no compression process involved in their encoding, WAV files have an objectively better sound quality and more accurately represent original recordings than MP3. However, there's a huge trade-off regarding file size that should be considered.
WAV is far more suitable for recording and mixing tracks before distribution as you're not losing any data when encoding to WAV. It's therefore good practice to record stems, podcasts and voiceovers in WAV.
It's better to have a full project in uncompressed WAV, which can then be compressed into MP3 and published as both WAV and MP3.
A final project made of MP3 source material or an MP3 bounce could be converted to WAV, though the lossy encoding has already stripped away the information. Therefore, the result would be a larger file that is technically a “.wav,” even though the information contained within it will be limited by the losses of the MP3 format.
Where MP3 shines is distribution. With a file size around five-times smaller, it's far easier for listeners to download and – increasingly – stream your content. As most audio setups won't be able to make out the difference between 320kbps MP3 and uncompressed WAV, MP3 is a far better audio format for sharing your audio files on the web.
The answer is, therefore, simple. Use WAV files (or even a lossless compressed format like FLAC if you're low on storage space) when working on your audio projects and deliver your final mixdowns via MP3 when sharing to listeners on the web through downloads or streaming.
To learn about digital audio formats in much more detail, check out my article Complete Guide To Digital Audio Formats (MP3, WAV, & More).
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.