AAC vs FLAC vs WAV vs MP3: The Best Formats (Explained)

Table of Contents Which Audio File Format Is Right for You?What Is the Best Audio File Format for Editing FilesWhat Is the Best Sound Quality for Music?What Audio File Format Is Best for Use on …

mp3 vs aac vs wav vs flac

Which Audio File Format Is Right for You?

Let’s get straight into this. You may know that there are different audio formats for different uses.

Is storage a priority?

Is music quality more important?

Is editing the files necessary?

Or is it a mixture of all three.

Below I give my recommendations for the most common uses.

What Is the Best Audio File Format for Editing Files

To work on (edit) any audio file then use an uncompressed version.

If using a Windows PC then this would be the WAV file format.

On the other hand, if you prefer working on a Mac then AIFF should be your go-to choice.

Once you’re finished editing the file you can export it in a compressed lossless version, so FLAC would be a good choice there.

FLAC is a great choice for archival use also. A smaller file size while still being able to uncompress to the full audio track when needed,

What Is the Best Sound Quality for Music?

The best sound quality available will come from a lossless format. This can either be compressed or uncompressed.

For compressed we recommend FLAC. This is best for simply listening to music/audio. It also has the added benefit of the smaller file sizes compression can bring.

For uncompressed we have to go with WAV on Windows or AIFF on Mac. This is best for when you also have a need to edit the audio files.

What Audio File Format Is Best for Use on the Web?

This has to go to the AAC format. Taking as little as only 1MB for every minute of audio, plus sounding better than its MP3 counterpart, this little file format shines when delivering over the internet.

What Is the Most Popular Audio Format?

There is a clear winner in this category and that is the old man of the group, the MP3.

It is by far the most popular file type for those listening to, or storing music.

This isn’t because of any technological advantage but more of the historical prevalence of this file type.

Introduction to Audio Formats.

Almost everyone who has ever been on the internet knows about the all-conquering MP3 file format. But did you know there are lots of other better formats to consider if you are either working with music, or want to listen to a higher quality sound when playing your music collection?

mp3 vs aac vs wav vs flac

Audio file formats can be broken down into three camps. I’ll cover those in detail in the rest of this article, but for now just know that they are comprised of the compressed audio format, this can be either lossless or lossy, or uncompressed.

How Is High-Quality Audio Defined

Sound at its most basic level is simply an analogue waveform. To digitise it that waveform must be sampled and converted to digital bits.

The amount of sampling per second and the range of bits used to represent the sound dictates how high-quality the conversion will be.

Sound is saved in the files as bits. That simply means that audio is digitally encoded into the file that is saved on your PC, phone or another end device.

Firstly, please take on board that if your speakers and audio equipment are not high-quality, then the format you use is probably not going to matter that much, as you won’t be able to differentiate any difference in the music quality.

If you are using top-notch equipment, then consider what you want to use the music for. You may want high-quality, but if you’re attaching it to an email, for example, then the larger file sizes of the uncompressed file types are probably not going to be suitable.

Similarly, if the music is going to be used on the Internet. Once again, the larger file sizes may not be suitable. In these cases MP3 or MP4 would be the most probable choice, due to their smaller file size.

How Is Sound Quality Affected by the Audio File Format

High-quality audio usually has a much higher sampling rate than its lower quality brethren. The sampling rate is simply the number of times a second a signal is broken down and encoded.

The next parameter that I should mention is bit depth. This is the amount of information that can be stored in each one of those tiny chunks that has been broken up from the sample.

A high-quality audio file may have a sample of around 44.1 kHz with a bit depth of 24. In all honesty, the difference between a 24-bit and 32-bit bit depth is not going to be noticeable on most kit, or to most ears. But 24 bit is seen to be preferable over 16-bit.

WAV or AIFF?

What Is the Best Audio Format for Sound Quality?

The best sound quality for music is going to be an uncompressed file format. This format can offer better quality than a CD. That is, if your original sound source has higher audio quality than a CD.

This could be audio supplied from a recording studio, or even captured from a vinyl record player/turntable.

The best uncompressed file formats are WAV or FLAC or AIFF. Many devices are capable of playing these formats, but there are a great many others that cannot.

This should be borne in mind when either purchasing new kit or converting your music to a digital format for others to consume. Take a look further down to discover which I recommend for which kit.

Compressed vs. Uncompressed Audio Files Overview

Let’s have a little delve into the compressed and uncompressed file formats and how they differ.

Uncompressed formats have an overwhelming advantage when the file is to be used for editing or mixing.

However uncompressed means that the file sizes are going to be enormous.

This will be of little concern to a professional. But for the everyday user, these file sizes can fill up a hard disk very quickly.

Lossless or uncompressed file formats are always going to offer the best audio quality for listening to music.

Audio File FormatBit RateCompression
Compact Disc1411kbps 
AIFF1411kbpsUncompressed
WAV4608kbpsUncompressed
ALAC2304kbpsCompressed-lossless
APE1411kbpsCompressed-lossless
FLAC4608kbpsCompressed-lossless
AAC529kbpsCompressed-lossy
MP3320kbpsCompressed-lossy
OGG500kbpsCompressed-lossy
WMA768kbpsCompressed-lossy

Uncompressed Formats

AIFF

Definition: Audio Interchange File Format.

Extension: .aiff

AIFF was developed back in 1988 for use on Mac computers by Apple.

Most Windows PCs are also capable of opening and playing this format.

AIFF is a container that can hold different audio formats. They can hold compressed data, but are usually associated with the uncompressed format.

AIFF when used as an uncompressed file format (a container for PCM-Pulse-Code Modulation) represents one of the highest audio quality available to engineers for mixing and mastering.

Windows users, you don’t have to feel left out that Apple computers can open your WAV files. Your Windows machine should not have a problem working with AIFF files.

WAV

Definition: Waveform Audio File Format

Extension: .wav

This is the granddaddy of the professional audio format for files.

Very similar to the AIFF file definition above WAV files are very popular amongst audio engineers because of their high quality, they too tend to hold PCM format audio.

They tend to be more popular simply because they were developed by Microsoft in 1991 for the Windows platform.

WAV is another container that can hold compressed or uncompressed audio files. However, it is mostly used for uncompressed data.

Even though it’s used in the Windows environment the majority of the time, a Mac computer will have no problems opening a WAV file.

audio speaker & equalizer on black background

Compressed Formats

Loseless

ALAC

Definition: Apple Lossless Audio Codec

Extension: .m4a & .caf

Another format developed by Apple.

When compressed this file type saves an impressive 40% of the original file size. When it comes to playback time it is uncompressed on the fly and the audio is as good as the original uncompressed audio.

Slightly behind FLAC in compression, these files will be just a little bigger than their FLAC counterparts.

The drawback to this file type is the playback support is going to be limited to the Apple ecosphere with some more esoteric hardware devices thrown in for good measure.

Playing on other hardware devices was made possible when the file format was made open source back in 2011.

ALAC hits a sampling limit of 384kHz and a bit depth limit of 32 bits, which is more than adequate for most needs. But there is a HD version available that goes to 2304kbps.

APE

Definition: So called because it is encoded with Monkey’s Audio algorithm.

Extension: .ape

Even though these files can be compressed to around 50% of their original size, they are lossless, so no data is lost in the compression activity.

It is similar to ALAC or FLAC but the encoding/decoding is slower than that offered by the other two.

Because it is rarely used hardware support for it is limited.

FLAC

Definition: Free Lossless Audio Codec

Extension: .flac

Established in 2001 the FLAC format has quickly gained a following to become one of the most popular lossless formats for audio files.

As with ALAC, FLAC can also compress files saving around 40%, (increasing to 70% in a best case example) of file space without losing any information whatsoever.

A small advantage that FLAC has over ALAC is that it can be streamed (decoded) a little faster. Whether this makes a difference in the real world depends on whether you’re just listening to the audio or maybe watching a film or playing a game.

The FLAC algorithm has 9 levels of compression to choose from. None of which result in data loss and the only difference is the time taken to encode a file and the subsequent file size.

Because of its popularity FLAC is supported by many of the mainstream players available today. The only exception is that it is not natively supported in the Apple world.

Lossy

AAC

Definition: Advanced Audio Coding

Extension: .m4a, .m4b, .m4p, .m4v, .m4r, .3gp, .mp4, .aac

Sporting better compression than MP3 while retaining a better sound experience it’s the iTunes file format of choice.

It generally compresses files to around two thirds the size of MP3 files and is able to be played in most of the hardware that can play MP3 files.

Fully compatible with Windows and Mac, but also Android and the iPhone. A general all-rounder of a file type.

MP3

Definition: MPEG Audio Layer III

Extension: .mp3

Initiated by the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) the MP3 file format has been fundamental in bringing audio and music playback to the masses.

With file sizes around one tenth of those of WAV or AIFF it is still in common use today as file storage and playback option for many.

It achieves these massive reductions by removing data from audio streams that are already difficult for the human ear to pick up. It can also encode with a variable bit rate, which simply means that the file size can really be compressed if there are quiet moments in the audio.

All this compression does come at a cost though. The audio quality of an MP3 file can be quite noticeable if compared to some of the higher quality file types in this list, when played on good hardware.

Playable on all major platforms it’s been around since 1993. If you don’t know if your hardware will play a particular file format then choose MP3.

OGG

Or OGG Vorbis.

Definition: OGG is a container that holds other compressed formats such as VORBIS.

Extension: .ogg, .ogv, .oga, .ogx, .ogm, .spx, .opus

The majority of OGG use is in holding VORBIS files, hence the term OGG VORBIS.

The VORBIS format was introduced in 2000 and holds up well with other lossy formats, offering smaller file sizes for the same quality audio.

This is a free and open-source format but it isn’t supported by a large number of devices. So I won’t go into any more detail.

WMA

Definition: Windows Media Audio

Extension: .wma

This is a proprietary format from Microsoft that offers little over the other formats listed in this article.

It is very similar to OGG and AAC in the compression it uses. Delivering slightly better quality than MP3 for a similar file size, the Windows only constraint of WMA discounts its use for most users.

Note: this format does offer a lossless version in addition to the lossy version. But once again, it suffers from lack of support for media players outside of the Windows environment.