Different Audio Formats and their Qualities

Unless you are a technical person, it is easy to believe that all audio formats are created equally. But if you are a serious music listener, you know that some audio formats are better than others. Some lose the middle range notes and so while you know something it not quite right with the music, you cannot put your finger on it. Knowing about the different audio formats and their specific characteristics will help you understand the best audio format to store your favorite music in.

The good news is we will not be getting so technical you will run screaming into the night, giving up all hope of ever understanding audio quality. There are two basic audio qualities that almost every type of audio format will fit under. Those two are lossless and lossy. You know this is true because you can’t make up some of these technical terms.

Lossless audio formats are created without any loss of data between formats. For example, if you take a CD and copy the files to a lossless format, the data on the copy will be exactly the same as on the CD original. That is why it is called lossless. The types of files that are lossless are likely to be very familiar to you: WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, and APE.

Lossy audio types compress the original data in order to save space and reduce file size. There are a number of reasons to prefer lossy formats. If you are a website owner and need to get your content loaded onto a mobile device, the slight loss of quality is offset by the much faster download speed for the user. People who are running low on disk space may choose a lossy format, especially if they do not hear a noticeable difference in audio quality. Most people are familiar with mp3, Apple’s AAC, Microsoft’s WMA, and OGG file formats.

One important note is that while the compression is much greater in lossy formats, as much as 67 percent smaller, there are lossless formats that also compress the original data. However, during the compression no data is sacrificed and therefore no quality is lost.

Before leaving the subject, one bit of technical information will help you understand the difference. Bitrate, a term that you likely have seen but not paid much attention to, is a critical part of audio quality. It is basically the amount of data (bits) that is packed into one second of audio playback. An audio file that has a bit rate of 192k means that 192,000 bits of data is contained in every second of the audio file.

All that is required for you to think about is the math. An audio file that is 300 megabytes in size will contain much more data, and therefore have a higher quality, than the same audio file that is 100 megabytes in size. For this example, you can presume that 200 megabytes of data were lost in the conversion to a lossy format.

Like most products and services, some people will swear by lossless formats, while others will swear at them. Audio is clearly a personal experience, so you need to choose which format meets most of your needs.