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What Is The Best Audio Format (Size, Quality, Compatibility)

My New Microphone What Is The Best Audio Format (Size, Quality, Compatibility)

A hugely important part of producing and distributing music, podcasts and audio, more generally is selecting the right audio format for the job. There are a lot of different audio formats available today. As a music producer, narrator or even an average Joe trying to record your memories, it can be confusing knowing which format to choose.

What is the best audio format? The best audio formats are typically among the most popular and compatible. The best lossy compressed format in size and quality is AAC, while the best lossless compressed format is FLAC. As for uncompressed formats, WAV is the best in terms of quality, space and compatibility.

Of course, it's not as simple as that. In this article, we'll dive deeper into our understanding of what the best audio formats are today.

We'll answer questions such as: Which should you use? What is the difference between the main types of audio files? And are some formats more useful for certain applications than others?


Lossless & Uncompressed Vs. Lossy

There are three main types of audio formats, split based on their compression type. This is lossless audio (like FLACs and ALAC), lossy audio (mp3, AAC) and uncompressed (WAV, AIFF and PCM). There are more examples, though I've listed the most popular.

Lossless audio compresses your audio file without any loss of quality—it's just a smaller version of the original copy. The advantage here is that your sound will stay crystal clear. The downside is that it can take up more space on your computer, and it may take longer to download if you're sharing online.

For most intents and purposes, uncompressed audio formats like WAV have the same advantages and disadvantages as lossless compressed files, so we'll bunch them together here.

Lossy audio compresses the file more than lossless does—so much more that, in the process, some of the information gets lost. As a result, the file takes up less space and downloads faster than its lossless counterpart, but it doesn't sound as good.

Lossy compressed audio formats are by far the most popular type of audio format. This is the category that popular options like MP3, M4A and AIFF fall into. Lossy audio is a type of audio format that compresses the original file to a smaller size by permanently removing some of the data.

It's important to note that every time you encode a lossy audio file, it gets compressed again—so if you keep saving over an already-compressed file, the quality continues to degrade each time. That's why it's better to work with a lossless or uncompressed file while editing and mixing your projects.


Best Lossy Audio Format: AAC

While the most popular lossy audio format is MP3, the best lossy compressed audio format is, by far, AAC or Advanced Audio Coding. AAC is Apple's choice for the default audio format in iOS and iPad, along with the Apple Music streaming platform.

AAC’s main selling point is that it generates higher-quality compressed audio at the same bit rate as MP3. As with MP3, AAC supports bit rates of up to 320 kbps and a sample rate of up to 96 kHz. Listeners will be able to enjoy higher fidelity than if you were to encode in MP3.

To cut down further on the file size efficiency of preceding lossy formats, AAC only uses a modified discrete cosine transform (MDCT) algorithm instead of MP3, which uses a blend of MDCT and a fast Fourier transform algorithm. What does this mean for you?

AAC is one of the most efficient file formats available – with an average size of 1 MB per minute of recording. This is the key reason Apple opted for AAC when selecting the format for their streaming platform, Apple Music. It cuts the streaming bandwidth needed. This is the same for download speeds and bandwidth.

AAC enjoys near-universal support. AAC is natively supported on macOS, and Windows 10 brought AAC support to Windows Media Player. Moreover, according to caniuse.com, all major web browsers support the format.


Best Lossless Audio Format: FLAC

The honest answer to which lossless format to use will include the fact that all three of the major file types will produce mostly identical sound quality. This is a clear by-product of the lossless compression method. There will be no degradation in sound quality when encoding uncompressed audio to lossless.

Therefore, the main differentiator comes with support and compatibility.

ALAC (Apple's Lossless Audio Codec) is the preferred choice for syncing to iPhones and iPods. However, this file type is difficult to work with on other operating systems – especially Windows (as you'll require a third-party audio player to listen to ALAC audio).

Lossless Windows Media Audio (WMA) has the reverse problem, unsupported on Apple's operating systems.

That's why FLAC – the Free Lossless Audio Codec – is the best. It is free and open-source.

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.

The main disadvantage of FLACs is their file size inefficiency. This is a disadvantage the format shares with its other lossless competitors. FLACs of CD quality generally run at 5 MB per minute. This is, however, far better than uncompressed audio formats like WAV – which typically are twice as big.


Conclusion: Which Format Should I Use?

The argument between lossy and lossless often comes down to how you plan on using – and indeed sharing – the audio file you're looking to encode.

Are you sending it to friends to listen on their phones? Is it being shared over the Internet? Is this a final distribution of the project rather than a stem or track? Then, using a high-quality lossy audio file in the AAC format would be a brilliant idea! For most people and most audio setups, you won't be able to tell the difference between a good AAC file and a FLAC.

However, a high-quality master of your project may benefit from being encoded losslessly. Suppose you have the space to keep such a file. In that case, FLACs are a great alternative to both uncompressed WAVs and lossy audio – offering a brilliant middle ground between quality retention and file size efficiency.

Though we've discussed the AAC and FLAC as the best lossy and lossless audio formats, respectively, the wildly popular MP3 and WAV are also worth mentioning.

To learn more about WAV, MP3, and all the other digital audio formats, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
WAV Or MP3: Which Is The Superior Audio Format?
Complete Guide To Digital Audio Formats (MP3, WAV, & More)


Leave A Comment!

Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section at the bottom of the page! 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.

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