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Improve Your Sound: Different Audio Formats Explained

January 25, 2024 | Tero Potila

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Audio formats are integral to how you experience music and sound on all your devices. With a range of audio file formats available, it's helpful to understand the differences to choose the right one for your listening needs. 

The most common audio formats include uncompressed audio files like WAV and AIFF and compressed formats such as MP3, AAC, and FLAC.

While uncompressed formats retain all the audio data and provide high-quality sound, their file sizes can be quite large, which isn't always ideal for storage space. 

Compressed formats, on the other hand, reduce file size by eliminating some audio data, with lossy compression, like MP3 and AAC, sacrificing sound quality for even smaller files, and lossless compression, like FLAC, providing a middle ground with reduced file sizes without compromising sound quality.

When it comes to the most popular audio formats, MP3 continues to be widely used due to its compatibility with almost all playback devices and its decent sound quality at smaller file sizes. 

However, audiophiles prefer lossless formats such as FLAC or WAV to ensure their audio is heard as intended in the recording studio or when otherwise using high-end audio equipment. 

When deciding what format to use, it will depend on your priorities—file size, sound quality, and compatibility.

Understanding Audio Formats And Quality

Audio quality is primarily determined by two factors: the resolution of the audio file, which includes sampling rate and bit depth, and the method of compression, which can be lossy or lossless

High-quality audio often refers to high-resolution audio that provides a more detailed and faithful reproduction of the original sound.

Sampling Rate and Bit Depth

Sampling Rate

Sampling Rate refers to the number of times a sound is sampled per second when converted to digital form. The higher the sampling rate, the more accurately your audio represents the original recording.

The most common sample rate used today is 44.1kHz, which is the standard for CDs; hence, it's referred to as CD quality.

Digital video typically uses a sample rate of 48kHz, and high-resolution audio for professional audio work uses 96kHz or even 192kHz.

Bit Depth

Bit Depth measures the number of bits of information in each sample. A higher bit depth increases the dynamic range, meaning you'll get a more detailed sound with greater clarity and less noise. 

16-bit bit depth is the most common bit depth used for general audio, and it's referred to as the standard CD quality because that is the bit depth used on CDs.

Professional high-resolution audio files use 24-bit bit depth, which allows for a wider dynamic range and, therefore, a more detailed sound.

Lossy vs. Lossless Compression

Lossy compression reduces the file size by removing parts of the audio information, which can result in a loss of quality. 

Formats like MP3 are known for this type of compression. While you get a smaller file, you may sacrifice some detail, especially if the bitrate is low.

Lossless compression, such as in FLAC files, retains all original audio data while reducing file size. This means you get CD quality or better without the loss of fidelity that comes with lossy methods.

High-Resolution Audio

High-resolution audio goes beyond standard CD quality, offering higher sampling rates and bit depths. This translates to a broader frequency range and greater detail. You hear nuances and textures in the sound that are closer to the original performance.

To truly appreciate high-resolution audio, you'll need playback equipment that can handle the extended range, like higher-end hi-fi gear or studio equipment.

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Audiophiles prefer lossless formats such as FLAC or WAV to ensure their audio is heard as intended.

Common Lossless Audio Formats

Lossless audio formats are the right choice when you're looking for high-quality audio with no loss of detail. These formats maintain the integrity of the original recordings, so you can enjoy music as the artists intended.

FLAC: Free Lossless Audio Codec

FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec and is known for providing high-quality audio without any loss of data. It uses lossless compression to reduce file size without sacrificing sound quality. 

FLAC files are widely supported across various software and devices, making it a popular choice for enthusiasts.

ALAC: Apple Lossless Audio Codec

ALAC, or Apple Lossless Audio Codec, is Apple's equivalent to FLAC. It offers a similar sound quality and file compression ratio. Although Apple developed it, ALAC files are also playable on non-Apple devices, giving you great flexibility no matter what gadget you choose.

WAV: Waveform Audio File Format

WAV, short for Waveform Audio File Format, is an uncompressed audio format. It's a staple in the music industry and a common format for CDs. WAV files offer the purest form of audio, with no compression, resulting in large file sizes compared to their lossless compressed counterparts.

AIFF: Audio Interchange File Format

Developed by Apple, AIFF stands for Audio Interchange File Format. It provides uncompromised audio quality, similar to WAV, with file sizes to match. AIFF files store uncompressed audio.

Both WAV and AIFF formats are ideal for professional audio editing and production tasks.

Popular Lossy Audio Formats

Lossy audio formats are widely used for their ability to compress audio files to smaller sizes, making it easier for you to store and stream music. However, this compression often means some data is discarded.

MP3: MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3

MP3 files are the most common audio format you'll encounter. Thanks to lossy compression, MP3s manage to keep file sizes small, historically making them a favorite for downloading and streaming. 

They strike a balance between audio quality and file size by removing sounds that are less likely to be heard by the human ear.

AAC: Advanced Audio Coding

Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) files are a step up from MP3s in terms of quality at similar bit rates. This format is the default for Apple's ecosystem and is known for more efficient compression, resulting in better sound quality than MP3s, especially at lower bit rates. AAC is part of the MPEG-4 standard and is favored in streaming services.

WMA: Windows Media Audio

Developed by Microsoft, Windows Media Audio (WMA) is another lossy format you might come across, especially in Windows software environments. WMA files were designed to compete with MP3, offering file size reduction with a claimed higher sound quality at similar bit rates.

Ogg Vorbis

Less common than the aforementioned formats but favored by audiophiles and open-source advocates, Ogg Vorbis files offer an alternative to proprietary formats like MP3 and AAC. 

Ogg Vorbis tends to provide better compression and quality than MP3 at equivalent bit rates, with the added benefit of being unrestricted by patents.

Digital Audio and File Storage

When storing your digital audio collection, you’ll need to factor in the format of your audio files, as it can greatly impact the required storage space and the choice between hard drives or cloud solutions.

Storage Space Considerations

Different audio formats lead to varying file sizes. Uncompressed audio files, like WAV and AIFF, offer the best sound quality but take up more storage space

Compressed formats such as MP3 or AAC create smaller files at the cost of some quality loss.

For example, looking at a 3-minute song, an MP3 file at 128kbps would typically result in about a 3MB expected file size. 

In comparison, an AAC file at 256kbps would result in about a 6MB file size. 

FLAC would come in at a much larger file size, around 18MB, and a WAV or AIFF file at the largest size, around 30 MB.

Hard Drive and Cloud Storage

When it comes to storing your digital audio library, you have two main options:

  1. Hard Drives:

    • Ideal for large libraries with uncompressed files.

    • Local storage allows quick, offline access.

    • May require an initial investment for multiple or high-capacity drives.

  2. Cloud Storage:

    • Convenient for accessing your music from multiple devices.

    • Offers scalability for a growing collection.

    • Typically involves a subscription fee for sizeable storage plans.

Choosing between the two will depend on your usage habits, internet connectivity, and budget. Cloud storage wins in accessibility, while hard drives offer a more tangible, one-time purchase solution for your digital audio needs.

Choosing the Right Format for Your Needs

Considerations for Professionals

If you're working on music production, audio engineering, mixing or mastering, look for audio formats that preserve sound quality and are easily editable. WAV and AIFF are common choices due to their uncompressed nature, ensuring high fidelity. 

Both formats are excellent options, though they can take up significant storage space, so make sure you have the storage available for your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).

Best Choices for Personal Listening

Your personal listening experience hinges on finding a balance between sound quality, file size, and compatibility with your devices. MP3 remains a popular format, favored for its compact size and compatibility with virtually all media players, including Windows Media Player. 

On mobile devices and for Apple Music users, AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) may be the best choice as it offers better sound quality at similar bitrates to MP3 and is optimized for streaming services.


Choosing the right audio format is crucial for an optimal listening experience. 

Whether you prioritize high quality with lossless formats like FLAC or WAV or smaller file sizes with lossy formats such as MP3 or AAC, your choice comes down to your specific needs. 

For audiophiles, music producers, and audio engineers, uncompressed formats like WAV and AIFF maintain fidelity, while personal listeners may find MP3 or AAC more convenient. 

Understanding audio quality factors like sampling rate and bit depth and their impact on storage space is key when deciding on the best audio format for your preferences and usage scenarios.

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Making music is more than just a hobby — it’s a form of self-expression, a way to unleash your creativity, and a means for you to bring your unique voice to the world.

Soundtrap is the ultimate audio production software for music makers and producers to easily collaborate and create music online, with thousands of audio loops, instruments, and samples only a click away. 

About the author

Tero Potila is a professional music composer and producer. His career combining knowledge and experience from music, TV, film, ad, and game industries gives him a unique perspective that he shares through posts on

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