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Audio File Formats

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

What are the different music audio formats?

Let's take a look at our formats at a glance.

If you're a music beginner, all of these file abbreviations can become confusing. Everything gets a bit simpler though when you realize that all audio formats can be split into three major categories:

- Lossy

- Lossless

- Uncompressed

Each format category is based on how much sound quality is lost during data compression, affecting your music listener’s experience.

Once you have an understanding of how music compression works and what each category means, you’ll be able to choose a format that suits your needs. Let’s start.

Audio Formats With Lossy Compression

Lossy compression is when some data is lost during the compression process - and compression is important because uncompressed audio takes up lots of disk space.

In other words, lossy compression means sacrificing sound quality and audio fidelity for smaller file sizes. You'll hear artifacts and other weirdnesses in the audio when it's done poorly. But when it's done well, you can't hear the difference.

The MP3 is the most popular lossy file available.

Lossy files are compressed files, which are created by recognizing information that isn’t perceivable by most listeners and then deleting that information. This is a great option for streaming, or any online service in which speed of service is more important than the quality of the audio.
The quality of lossy files ranges greatly, from almost indiscernible from uncompressed files, to highly compressed files with noticeable aliasing, quantization distortion, and an attenuated high-frequency range.

Audio Formats With Lossless Compression:

Opposite lossy compression is lossless compression, a method that reduces an audio file's size without ANY data loss between the source and the compressed audio files.

The downside is that lossless compressed audio files are bigger than lossy compressed audio files—up to 2x to 5x larger for the same source file.

Lossless files compress the data but do not delete it.

Lossless files take up slightly less space than an uncompressed files and ideally present no setbacks or compromises regarding the audio quality. Lossless files work by compartmentalizing redundant or repeated data while providing a “set of instructions” for these parts to be recreated during playback.

As a result, lossless files can be up to 70 percent smaller than an uncompressed file, but still, offer the same quality during playback. A common example of lossless encoding can be seen when using a .zip file. Although a zip file is smaller than the files it is comprised of, when unzipped, all files retain their original file size and information.

Uncompressed Audio Formats:

Uncompressed audio consists of real sound waves captured and converted to digital format without further processing. As a result, uncompressed audio files tend to be the most accurate but take up a LOT of disk space—about 34 MB per minute for 24-bit 96KHz stereo.

Uncompressed files are the format choice of professional audio engineers.

Uncompressed files are the large, uncompressed files often associated with professional audio settings. They have a bit depth and a sampling rate of at least 16 bits and 44.1kHz respectively. With that said, you can expect a dynamic range of at least 96 dB and a frequency spectrum of 22.5kHz.

Because these files are not compressed in any way, they accurately represent the master that was created. Due to this, uncompressed files are typically the best for professional audio needs.

Audio formats:

AAC (not hi-res): Apple's alternative to MP3 – stands for 'Advanced Audio Coding'. Lossy and compressed, but sounds generally better. Used for Apple Music streaming.

ALAC (hi-res): Apple has also developed its own lossless audio compression technology. In addition to AAC, the entire Apple Music catalog is also encoded using ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) in resolutions between 16-bit/44.1 kHz (CD quality) and 24-bit/192 kHz.

AIFF (hi-res): Apple's alternative to WAV, with better metadata support. It is lossless and uncompressed (so big file sizes) but not hugely popular.

DSD(hi-res): The single-bit format used for Super Audio CDs. It comes in 2.8MHz, 5.6MHz, and 11.2MHz varieties but, as it's high quality and uncompressed, is (mostly) impractical for streaming.

FLAC (hi-res): This lossless compression format supports hi-res sample rates, takes up about half the space of WAV, and stores metadata. It's royalty-free and is considered the preferred format for downloading and storing hi-res albums. The downside is that it’s not supported by Apple (so not compatible with Apple Music).

MP3 (not hi-res): Popular, lossy compressed format ensures small file size but is far from the best sound quality. Convenient for storing music on phones and iPods.

MQA(hi-res): A lossless compression format that packages hi-res files for more efficient streaming. Used for Tidal Masters hi-res streaming. Also used for the CD format too.

OGG (not hi-res): Sometimes called by its full name, Ogg Vorbis. A lossy, open-source alternative to MP3 and AAC, unrestricted by patents. The file format used (at 320kbps) in Spotify streaming.

WAV (hi-res): The standard format in which all CDs are encoded. Great sound quality but it's uncompressed, meaning huge file sizes (especially for hi-res files). It has poor metadata support (that is, album artwork, artist, and song title information).

WMA Lossless (hi-res): A lossless incarnation of Windows Media Audio, but no longer well-supported by smartphones or tablets.

PCM(hi-res): PCM is the most common uncompressed audio format used in CDs and DVDs. Standing for Pulse-Code Modulation, PCM offers a digital recording of raw analog audio signals. Analog sounds exist in the form of waveforms, so the sound must be recorded at specific intervals (also known as pulses) in order to be converted into digital bits.

PCM doesn’t involve any compression, with the digital recording being a close-to-exact representation of analog sound.

What is a lossy file format?


The most popular lossy format and a universally-recognized name, MP3 files work on most devices and are often only a fraction of the size of lossless files. MP3 files are absolutely fine for the majority of listeners, since most of the sound dropped is inaudible.

MP3 stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 (we prefer the abbreviation) and was released back in 1993, eventually becoming the most popular audio format in the world for music files.

The popularity of MP3 files stems from their manageable file size and the marginal loss of sound data that only exists beyond the hearing range of normal people. These file types are able to reduce the quality of sounds that aren't easy to hear and compress all other audio data as efficiently as possible.

Because of this, pretty much every piece of mainstream tech is able to read and play these files, cementing MP3 as one of the world’s most popular audio file formats.


Originally developed in 1997, Advanced Audio Coding or AAC was tipped as the new MP3. Despite never overtaking MP3 in terms of popularity, AAC files generally produce a better sound quality due to the more technical compression process.

Files take up very little space and are great for streaming, especially over mobile devices. Requiring less than 1 MB per minute of music and sounding better than MP3 at the same bitrate, AAC files are used by iTunes, Apple Music, and Android, as well as games brands Nintendo and Sony PlayStation.


OGG - or OGG Vorbis - is a multimedia container that funnily enough doesn’t actually stand for anything. OGG can hold all kinds of compression formats but is most commonly used to hold Vorbis files.

A popular option for streaming, Spotify itself even uses OGG as the default audio format on its platform. The compression process does result in some data loss, however.

Many music professionals consider OGG to be a more efficient alternative to MP3, with the format providing better sound at the same bitrate - giving the same audio quality through a smaller file size.

What is lossless compression?

Opposite lossy compression comes lossless compression. This method reduces an audio file's size without sacrificing any loss of data between the source audio file and the compressed audio file. Sounds great, right?

The downside to lossless compression is that lossless compressed audio files are bigger than lossy compressed audio files. Sometimes up to 5 times larger for the same source file.

If you’re liking the sound of a lossless file, you have two main options when it comes to this audio format.


Standing for Free Lossless Audio Codec, FLAC has become one of the most popular lossless formats of the last couple of decades. FLAC compresses original source files by up to 60% - without getting rid of any data.

Supported by most major devices, FLAC is the main competitor to MP3 when it comes to music - providing you with the full quality of your uncompressed audio at less than half of the file size.

FLAC files can also provide a resolution of up to 32-bit, 96kHz - even better than CD quality.


Apple Lossless Audio Codec is as you might have guessed, Apple’s lossless compression format. ALAC is another popular lossless option but isn’t quite as efficient as FLAC when it comes to compression.

Despite this, Apple users don't really have a choice between the two as ALAC works exclusively on Apple devices - with iTunes and iOS both only providing native support for ALAC and none for FLAC.

What is an uncompressed file?

The final type of audio formatting we’re going to cover is uncompressed audio files. Uncompressed audio is made up of real sound waves that have been converted to digital formats without any further processing.

Because of this, uncompressed audio files tend to be the most accurate but in turn, take up far more disk space than other file formats.


PCM is the most common uncompressed audio format used in CDs and DVDs. Standing for Pulse-Code Modulation, PCM offers a digital recording of raw analog audio signals. Analog sounds exist in the form of waveforms, so the sound must be recorded at specific intervals (also known as pulses) in order to be converted into digital bits.

PCM doesn’t involve any compression, with the digital recording being a close-to-exact representation of analog sound.


Developed by Microsoft in the early 90s, the Waveform Audio File Format - or WAV to its friends - retains all original data, making it a sound engineer favorite.

WAV is a Windows container for different audio formats, meaning that a WAV file could actually potentially contain compressed audio - but it's not often used for that.

Particularly useful for visual projects such as your music videos, WAV is more suited to use on Windows systems, but nowadays Mac systems can usually open WAV files without any issues.


Originally created by Apple, AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) files are like WAV files in that they retain all of the original sounds and therefore take up more space than MP3s. They can play on Macs and PCs, but they don’t hold time codes, so they’re not as useful for editing and mixing.

Similar to WAV files, AIFF files can also contain multiple kinds of audio formats. AIFF-C and both use the AIFF extension and are used by GarageBand and Logic Audio.

Opposite to WAV, AIFF is more suited to Mac systems but Windows can also open these files with little to no trouble.

What’s the best audio format for your music?

The file format that you choose depends entirely on whether you’re more concerned about storage or sound quality - as well as which devices you intend to play it on.

There are so many audio file formats available to choose from in 2023, but which one you decide on using will depend on what sound quality you’re wanting to achieve and what technology (and budget) you have at your disposal.

Now it's your choice, and no one else's.

Hi-Res Audio FB:

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