Types of Audio Formats – A Size and Quality Comparison

There are dozens of types of audio formats available to use these days. Some are proprietary formats pioneered by well established companies, others are open sourced alternatives which aim to deliver smaller file sizes without sacrificing quality. This overview of the types of audio formats compares the most popular and widely accepted formats to better give you an idea of the differences and pros and cons of each.

Types of Audio Formats

This audio format comparison chart categorizes each format in terms of lossy vs lossless, meaning whether or not there’s any quality loss associated with the compression. For instance, in comparing FLAC vs WAV files, FLAC are compressed yet lossless, so there’s no difference in the quality of the audio itself in the two.

Speaking of WAV files, each audio format covered is also compressed to some extent, though note that WAV and AIFF are also mentioned at the top as the two most popular uncompressed and as such highest fidelity and quality formats.

types of audio formats

Now let’s break down each format with a line or two on each to expound on the information from the audio format comparison chart.

Lossless

Lossless files are compressed yet don’t sacrifice audio quality (the difference is typically null between uncompressed formats and these). The difference in size between each of these formats isn’t considerable with most existing in that 40-60% the size of their uncompressed counterparts.

FLAC

FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec and it was released in 2001 by the Xiph.Org Foundation.

Like all lossless file types covered here, this is still a compressed audio format and runs on average 50-60% smaller than WAV or AIFF (uncompressed) files.

That said, it doesn’t sacrifice any audio quality and still maintains the option to tag metadata, album art, etc.

As such, FLAC is the preferred format for storing a library of audio as it takes up a fraction of the storage that the uncompressed equivalents take up with no difference in audio quality.

One of the larger music streaming services in Tidal is increasingly using FLAC format audio.

The one downside is that FLAC STILL isn’t universally accepted or supported, particularly with Apple technology. Speaking of which…

ALAC

ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) is essentially the FLAC equivalent but for Apple users/systems. The Apple Music library is encoded using this codec.

MQA

Standing for Master Quality Authenticated, MQA is used by Tidal though it’s widely being phased out in favor of FLAC.

WMA

WMA stands for Window Media Audio and is their largely defunct lossless format, and by defunct I mean it’s not widely supported unless you’ve got a special media player which can accommodate it outside of the Windows Media Player or VLC.

Lossy

Lossy types of audio formats begin to sacrifice audio quality for the sake of considerably smaller file sizes. Despite the tradeoff, most listeners can’t tell a difference, depending on the specifics of the format itself.

OGG

OGG Vorbis (and its successor, Opus) is a lossy open source alternative to MP3 and AAC which typically boasts higher quality for comparable file sizes which is why I list it first in the types of audio formats comparison chart and here. Spotify still uses OGG files on their streaming platform for their relative ability to maintain quality at 20% the size of their uncompressed equivalent files. Smaller files means less data is required during the streaming process, hence their use of OGG files.

(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. 

AAC

Apple’s answer to the MP3, it stands for Advanced Audio Coding and typically offers between audio quality at a comparable file size to MP3s.

Apple Music uses this format, as well, for users who don’t need the highest quality or lossless audio.

MP3

The original well known lossy format which averages around 10-20% the size of WAV or AIFF files, depending on the amount of kbps (kilobits per second) it’s encoded with. On the higher end at 192kbps or even 320kbps, most listeners can’t tell the difference between this and an uncompressed equivalent file.

At 128kbps, the loss in quality is more obvious compared to a 16 bit, 44.1k WAV file which is roughly 10% the size (which makes sense mathematically in that the WAV file clocks in at 1,411kbps, or roughly 10 times larger).

MP3s have been around since the early 90’s and are still nearly universally accepted which is why they’re still around and relevant despite not always turning in the quality for the same size of OGG or even AAC file.

Uncompressed

WAV and AIFF

WAV and AIFF files are simply the Microsoft/Windows and Apple equivalents in uncompressed audio formats, though the argument can be made that AIFF files have better metadata support.

Both uncompressed file formats average roughly 10MB per second at 16 bit depth (see my bit depth comparison), meaning they’re 30-45MB for an average song.

This is compared to say a FLAC equivalent which is 15-22MB in size for the equivalent without sacrificing any quality, or 3-5MB in size for the equivalent on OGG with barely any perceptible difference in quality.

As I answered in my overview of FLAC vs WAV in terms of which is better to use, it depends on the context.

While most DAWs allow you to render your mixes to FLAC, WAV, or AIFF, my own music/mixes which I create, I render them to uncompressed WAV files.

For songs and albums which I’ve bought, or in other words my audio library, I keep this in FLAC format for saving space. Whenever I purchase an album on BandCamp, I download it in FLAC.

Hopefully this comparison of the various, most common types of audio formats helped to clear up the differences between formats you’ve seen mentioned or heard of in the past but didn’t know how they all related or what the reasoning

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