Audio files are used by professionals in many fields, from music to video production and communication. There are several most commonly-used audio file formats, each with its own characteristics and functions.
The sound experts at Fillion Électronique explain the differences between various types of audio files, to help you decide which one is the most appropriate for your project.
What is an audio file?
Audio files are the digital equivalent of the analog audio formats that have existed for many years. To create a digital audio file, computer code is used to convert and store audio languages in various formats.
Uncompressed audio format (lossless)
An uncompressed audio format retains all original sound data. This format does not remove unnecessary information as a way to reduce data size, and ensures maximum sound quality.
Commonly used uncompressed audio formats include:
- DSD (Direct Stream Digital )
- AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format)
- WAV (Waveform Audio File Format)
These formats are often used for professional recording and post-production, as they offer very high sound quality. They are rarely used in broadcasting, where lossless compressed audio formats are preferred because they offer high-fidelity (hi-fi) audio quality but with reduced file size.
The compressed audio format (lossless)
Lossless compression preserves the CD quality of the original source but reduces the size of the file.
Commonly used lossless compressed audio formats include:
- FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec)
- ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec)
Lossless compressed audio formats rely on compression algorithms to preserve all information contained in the original. The sound information is identical but takes less space in the file. These audio formats are popular with audiophiles and/or music lovers looking for high quality sound.
Compressed formats still require a comparatively large amount of memory for data storage. Digital music players like the Sony NW-ZX707 offer a generous amount of memory and/or the option of adding extra storage (with a memory card).
Sony's high-resolution NW-ZX707 offers up to 25 hours of 44.1 KHz FLAC playback
Compressed audio format (lossy)
Compressed audio reduces data size by removing audio information that is deemed ‘unnecessary’ so that more data can be stored in less disk space. This loss of information partly distorts the sound: in the case of music, this can mean quieter cymbals, a softer bass, a blurred attack or even some degradation of the vibration of a bass string.
Commonly used compressed audio formats include:
- MQA (Master Quality Authenticated)
- MP3 (MPEG-1 Audio Layer III)
- AAC (Augmented and Alternative Communication)
This type of format is often used by mainstream online streaming services like Apple Music (which uses AAC) or Spotify (Ogg Vorbis). The small size of these files (like MP3) makes them easy to download and store on a smartphone. In short, compressed audio formats offer acceptable sound quality with a significantly reduced file size.
Overview: the main audio formats
WAV, FLAC, ALAC, MQA – if you still aren’t sure what these terms mean, take a look at the chart below. It summarizes everything you need to know about the main audio file formats on the market.
|Audio file type||Audio format||File size reduction||Function|
|WAV||Uncompressed||No||WAV is the preferred format for music production. Mainly used on PC, but compatible with Mac.|
|AIFF||Uncompressed||No||AIFF files are mainly used on Apple computers (but they are also compatible with most PC software). Allow you to add additional information such as the artist's name, copyright information and other notes.|
|DSD||Uncompressed||No||DSD is the storage process used for Super Audio CD (or SA-CD). It was developed by Sony and Philips.|
|FLAC||Compressed (lossless)||Up to 60 %||FLAC is the most widely used lossless compressed audio format. FLAC files are about half the size of their uncompressed counterparts. Note that iTunes does not support this format.|
|ALAC||Compressed (lossless)||Up to 60 %||ALAC is an open source and royalty-free file type developed by Apple. It is available on Apple Music (in addition to AAC files) for audiophiles looking for superior audio quality.|
|MP3||Compressed (lossy)||Up to 90 %||MP3 is the most popular and widely used audio format. It is commonly used for sharing music on the Internet. The sound quality is limited.|
|MQA||Compressed (lossy)||Up to 90 %||An MQA file requires about 50% less bandwidth than a FLAC file, which makes it the preferred format for online music streaming platforms like Deezer, Tidal or Qobuz.|
|AAC||Compressed (lossy)||Up to 90 %||AAC is the format used by the iTunes store for downloading compressed music (lossy) and by YouTube for its online music service.|
How to choose an audio file format
When selecting an audio file format, you need to find the perfect balance between sound quality and available space. Your choice will also depend on the type of device you will use to play the audio files. Always consider the following:
- Sound quality
- Storage space
- Device compatibility (PC, Mac, smartphone, car stereo).
If you are a music producer or sound engineer, you will want to use uncompressed audio files with high sample rates. WAV, AIFF, and DSD formats are particularly popular in the professional context, as they preserve the original quality of the audio recordings.
If you are an audiophile or music lover and want to listen to your music in high resolution, we recommend lossless compressed audio formats (FLAC and ALAC). These allow you to use less storage space than uncompressed formats while maintaining the quality of the original recording.
If you don't care about having perfect audio quality, or if you plan to share your audio file on the web or need to save disk space, we suggest a lossy compressed format (MP3, MQA, AAC). Keep in mind, however, that the sound quality may differ from the original recording.
Play your favorite audio files on products from Fillion
There are plenty of different audio file formats for storing and playing digital music. Choosing the best audio file type involves assessing your preferences for sound quality, knowing your available storage space, and deciding which devices you will use.
If you are looking for a rich, high-quality musical experience, come visit our store! Benefit from expert advice and try out a wide variety of audio equipment.