Songs and other audio recordings come in many different formats, and they are not all equal. Whether you’re recording, mixing, mastering, or listening to music, you want the best sound. But what is the highest quality audio format? This article will guide you through some of the most popular formats and help you select the option that suits your needs best.

Lossless vs. Lossy Compression

During processing, lossless compression rips audio files in a way that reduces them in size and keeps the sound quality intact. Lossless formats can be converted to other lossless formats without any loss of quality as well. Many people, predominantly artists, engineers, and audiophiles, prefer lossless audio because it sounds clearer, crisper, and deeper.

On the other hand, lossy audio formats are up to ten times smaller than the original, but some data is irreversibly lost during the transmission. As a result, lossy compression may reduce the file size from 100MB to 10MB but the sound quality is going to be worse than that of the original. Because of this, audio professionals prefer lossless formats to lossy and do not use the latter.

Many regular listeners can’t tell the difference between lossless and lossy since they are used to poor-quality headphones and speakers. They normally prefer lossy formats like MP3 because it allows them to store significantly more songs, download and export them faster due to the smaller size. However, lost sound waves, weird audio artifacts, and overall lacking quality of lossy files are painfully clear to the trained ear.

WAV

Filename extension: .wav

Format type: Uncompressed lossless

WAV (Waveform Audio File Format) — an uncompressed lossless audio format developed by IBM and Microsoft, and a gold standard in studio recording. WAV files recreate the original source audio at the highest quality with no loss whatsoever, making it ideal for sound engineers. On top of having a great bit depth and dynamic range, the WAV format holds embedded time code which makes for precise synchronization useful for collaborative projects. Most audio players and devices support the format and can play WAV files without any problem. The only downside is that the file sizes are quite large, so much so that sometimes it isn’t practical to convert and store files in this format unless you need to restore, edit or manipulate audio.

AIFF

Filename extension: .aif and .aiff

Format type: Uncompressed lossless

AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) — an audio file format standard created by Apple. Similar to WAV, it offers the highest possible audio quality and sound replication. AIFF stores data in uncompressed lossless format with no quality loss, retaining the original sound as is. There is a slight difference in the way AIFF and WAV files are created, though it doesn’t reflect on the sound. Both formats store CD-quality audio (16-bit, 44.1kHz) which also means that AIFF files, just like WAV, take a lot of space — around 10MB of the hard drive per minute in length.

If you decide on which of the two formats to use for editing and mixing, WAV could prove to be more useful since AIFF doesn’t hold time codes. But otherwise, you will get the exact same superb audio quality with either of them.

FLAC

Filename extension: .flac

Format type: Compressed lossless

FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) — a free open-source audio format developed by Xiph.Org Foundation. It’s the most popular lossless format today due to the fact that FLAC maintains the same quality as the source audio while compressing the file size by approximately 60 percent. FLAC supports metadata tagging, cover art, and fast seeking. Even though FLAC is a widely used lossless audio codec, it’s still not supported on all devices. In comparison to WAV and AIFF, FLAC is more convenient storage-wise. In comparison with MP3, FLAC has a lot of similarities but it’s way better quality-wise.

MP3

Filename extension: .mp3

Format type: Compressed lossy

MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer 3) — the most popular lossy format. MP3 is the default audio format for many music providers and video platforms today. MP3 became a staple of the Internet era due to the capability to compress files to very small sizes (as small as one-tenth of the size of lossless files) while still maintaining relatively high sound quality. For the consumer, the quality of MP3 files seems fine but audio engineers and producers usually abstain from dealing with the format. Compression to MP3 permanently deletes audio information that cannot be properly recovered, especially so when it comes to bit depth. Recording and mixing music requires at least 24-bit or higher, while MP3 files are only up to 16-bit.

M4A

Filename Extension: .m4a, .mp4

Format Type: Compressed lossy

M4A (MPEG-4 Part 14) — the successor to MP3 created by Apple. It was the primary audio format in iTunes Store and still remains the preferred format for all music files within iOS App Stores and on Mac devices in general. Though M4A has already become one of the go-to audio formats across many platforms besides Apple, it still cannot beat the universally compatible MP3 in popularity. However, when it comes to sound quality and size, M4A makes headway. Sonically M4A is comparable or better than MP3 while being more light-weight. Because of that, it’s wiser to pick M4A when choosing between compressed lossy audio formats.

OGG

Filename Extension: .ogg, .ogv, .oga, .ogx, .opus

Format Type: Compressed lossy

OGG — a free open-source audio format developed by Xiph.Org Foundation. It has a container for Vorbis, Theora, Speex, Opus, etc. The compression bitrate varies depending on the requirement of the file. Since OGG is a lossy audio format, some data from the original is irretrievably lost after the compression, so it’s no match to FLAC, WAV or AIFF. However, in comparison to MP3, OGG is superior in sound quality and file size alike. It’s not as popular, but if your device supports OGG, it’s better to pick OGG over MP3 because of smaller file size, higher bitrate and overall audio quality.

Wrapping Up

Depending on your goals and needs, you can select any of the above formats, each of them is great in its own right. If you are building up a music library on your computer, CD, flash drive, or HDD, you can go with FLAC, M4A, MP3 and OGG — audio files in these formats won’t take too much space as WAV and AIFF would. Select FLAC for top-notch sound quality, since it’s lossless and doesn’t miss as much data after compression as lossy formats.

If you can’t tell much of the sonic difference between lossless and lossy files and plan on listening to music on a variety of different desktop and mobile platforms. In case your devices support the playback of OGG and M4A, it’s wiser to pick one of them (or both) over MP3 because they are normally better in quality and won’t take up as much space as MP3 files.

If you are a musician, engineer, producer, or another audio professional who is going to deal with raw audio files, it’s best to choose WAV. In case you don’t need audio files to hold time codes, AIFF and FLAC will do just fine.

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