Ask LH: Which Audio Format Should I Choose?

Dear Lifehacker, I know MP3 is the most popular audio format out there, but there are so many others — like AAC, FLAC, OGG and WMA — that I'm not really sure which one I should be using. What's the difference between them, and which one should I use to rip my music?Sincerely, Frustrated with Formats

Dear Frustrated,

You aren't alone in your confusion, but luckily it's pretty simple once you understand the basics. Here's a quick lowdown on the differences between each of these audio formats.

The Lossless Formats: WAV, AIFF, FLAC, Apple Lossless and Others

We've talked about the difference between lossless and lossy before, but the short version is there are two types of audio quality: lossless and lossy. Lossless music keeps all the audio quality of the original source — in most cases, CD — intact, while lossy music compresses the files for space savings (at a slightly diminished quality). Lossless files include:

  • WAV and AIFF: Both WAV and AIFF are uncompressed formats, which means they are exact copies of the original source audio. The two formats are essentially the same quality; they just store the data a bit differently. AIFF is made by Apple, so you may see it a bit more often in Apple products, while WAV is pretty much universal. However, since they're uncompressed, they take up a lot of unnecessary space. Unless you're editing the audio, you don't need to store it in these formats.
  • FLAC: The Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) is the most popular lossless format, making it a good choice if you want to store your music in lossless. Unlike WAV and AIFF, it's been compressed, so it takes up a lot less space. However, it's still a lossless format, which means the audio quality is still the same as the original source, so it's much better for listening than WAV and AIFF. It's also free and open source, which is handy if you're into that sort of thing.
  • Apple Lossless: Also known as ALAC, Apple Lossless is similar to FLAC. It's a compressed lossless file, although it's made by Apple. Its compression isn't quite as efficient as FLAC, so your files may be a bit bigger, but it's fully supported by iTunes and iOS (while FLAC is not). Thus, you'd want to use this if you use iTunes and iOS as your primary music-listening software.
  • APE: APE is a very highly compressed lossless file, meaning you'll get the most space savings. Its audio quality is the same as FLAC, ALAC and other lossless files, but it isn't compatible with nearly as many players. APE files also work your processor harder to decode, since they're so highly compressed. Generally, I wouldn't recommend using this unless you're very starved for space and have a player that supports it.

Photo by Tracey R.

The Lossy Formats: MP3, AAC, OGG and More

For regular listening, it's more likely that you'll be using a lossy format. They save lots of space, leaving you with more room for songs on your portable player, and if they're high enough bitrate they'll be indistinguishable from the original source. Here are the formats you'll probably run into:

  • MP3: MPEG Audio Layer III, or MP3 for short, is the most common lossy format around — so much so that it's become synonymous with downloaded music. MP3 isn't the most efficient format of them all, but it's definitely the most well-supported, making it our #1 choice for lossy audio. You really can't go wrong with MP3.
  • AAC: Advanced Audio Coding, also known as AAC, is similar to MP3, although it's a bit more efficient. That means that you can encode your files at a lower bitrate for the same quality compared to MP3 — netting you more space to fit more songs. With Apple's iTunes making AAC so popular, it's almost as widely compatible as MP3. I've only ever had one device that couldn't play AACs properly, and that was a few years ago, so it's hard to go wrong with AAC.
  • Ogg Vorbis: The Vorbis format, often known as Ogg Vorbis due to its use of the Ogg container, is a free and open source alternative to MP3 and AAC. Its main attraction is that it isn't restricted by patents, but that doesn't affect you as a user — in fact, despite its open nature and similar quality, it's much less popular than MP3 and AAC, meaning fewer players are going to support it. As such, we don't really recommend it unless you feel very strongly about open source.
  • WMA: Windows Media Audio is Microsoft's own proprietary format, similar to MP3 or AAC. It doesn't really offer any advantages over the other formats, and it's also not as well supported outside of Windows. There's very little reason to rip your CDs into this format.

Photo by Carl Berkeley.

So Which Should You Use?

Now that you understand the difference between each format, what should you use for ripping or downloading music? In general, we recommend using MP3 or AAC. They're compatible with nearly every player out there, and both provide high bitrates that are indistinguishable from the original source. Unless you have specific needs that suggest otherwise, MP3 and AAC are clear choices.

However, there is something to be said for ripping your music in a lossless format like FLAC. While you probably won't notice higher quality, lossless is great for storing your music if you plan on converting it to other formats later on — since converting a lossy format to another lossy format (AAC to MP3) will produce files of noticeably lower quality. So, for archival purposes, we recommend FLAC. However, you can use any lossless format you want, since you can convert between lossless formats without changing the quality of the file.

The bottom line? Don't stress out about it. Just make sure you're using something widely compatible, don't convert between two lossy formats, and just enjoy the music!

Cheers Lifehacker


Comments

    I've converted all my CD's to FLAC and never looked back. Granted a good mp3 rip is hard to distinguish on small headphones and speakers, the better your earbuds/headphones/Hi-Fi the more you'll notice the drop in quality, especially in the higher frequencies.

    With storage being as cheap as it is, why compromise on quality?

      Same, although my ears can't reliably tell the difference between 256kb/s MP3 and FLAC. For me FLAC means I never have to rip my CDs again, even if a new format arises or the CDs themselves get destroyed. Chucking 9000+ FLAC files at a transcoder will leave the PC processing for a while, but it's definitely preferable to sitting there swapping CDs in and out of an ODD! With full metadata encoded in the FLAC files I can convert the vast majority of my collection to whatever compressed format suits the device I happen to be using day-to-day without any hassles.

    FLAC: "which means the audio quality is still the same as the original source, so it’s much better for listening than WAV and AIFF."

    If it's the same, how is it better?

      Because "Unlike WAV and AIFF, it’s been compressed, so it takes up a lot less space."

        Yes but that doesn't make it better for 'listening' as expressed. It makes it better for storing. Storage is cheap. I want it to sound as good as possible.

          The audio quality on lossless media is just that - lossless. It'll sound identical whether you listen to it on CD, in FLAC format, ALAC, APE, etc. The distinguishing factors between these formats is their support for metadata, compression and device compatability. That's why FLAC is recommended over other formats.

        Also, FLAC files have metadata making it a helluva lot easier to actually find the tracks you want to listen to! ^_^

        That doesn't make it better to listen to. It makes it exactly the same.

          You are being awfully pedantic. Your point is made - move on.

          But it does make it better to listen to. It means you can fit more lossless audio on the one drive with proper tagging and album art, which gives more choice, better organisation and a better listening experience overall..

    Flac uses less bits during silences. Ergo less file size when compared to wav or aiff. I'm a bit of an audiophile and use wav for all my production work, but mp3 320 for my library which won't be converted later. Flac doesn't have enough support and it's not worth keeping two of everything for songs you may only hear a few times IMO.

    I have all of my CD albums ripped to FLAC files & stored on my NAS unit. I have it set up this way for archival purposes. Each album is one continuous .flac file, with a .cue sheet for track info (I use EAC for ripping). If needed, it's easy to change metadata in one .cue file, compared to fluffing around with tags on mp3s for individual tracks - easier to keep library sorted etc.

    Because an album is a single FLAC file, all of the correct track spacing/silences are embedded correctly in the file, and a perfect image of the album can be created on a new CD from my library, if needed.

    Because of their ubiquity for playback I keep 192 kbit/s mp3 copies of all my library in individual track format. 192 kbit/s is perfectly ample for my current audio system & listening abilities.

    The system works great for me - the FLAC library are my master copies. They stay in one place on my NAS. It doesn't matter how much I move music files around on other devices, delete them etc. If I'm missing anything, I just transcode from my library.

      You don't need to keep it as one big file. Metadata on gapless playback is stored in the CUE file, so if you decide to rip the FLAC back to CD, it will burn the disc as an identical 1:1 copy of the original. Having the album as one continuous file is just a hassle when you want to listen to specific tracks, and there's no reason to do it.

    With the guys using flac what playing do you use? I have always been interested in the format but I've been using apple lossless for a few years now in combination with iTunes as at the time I couldn't find a decent flac player that had the same usability for sorting tracks etc.

      Winamp. Always. Ever.

      Although there are many people who would recommend foobar2000, and for good reason. Go check them both out. If I remember correctly the latter is more customisable.

      My entire library is in FLAC and I play all mine on an Apple TV modded to run XBMC. Brilliant.

    Not entirely sure that I agree with the OGG conclusion. From my personal experience (yours may be different), OGG provided a much nicer sound at a higher compression rate ( smaller files ) than mp3 and AAC. The difference in audio quality / file size between AAC and OGG isn't as noticeable but mp3 is pretty noticable and most android phones and generic MP3 players now support OGG. Pretty certain it's appeal is not primarily opensource supporters.

    I think webm also uses vorbis for audio.

    A good way I find to see the difference is to get a file in a lossless format, and convert it to whichever lossy format you want. Place both files into an audio editor like REAPER or Audacity, and invert one of the files. What this does is it cancels out the frequencies that are common between both files, leaving you with only the frequencies missing from the lossy format.

      The ABX blind test plugin for Foobar2000 was specifically made for doing blind tests between Lossless and Lossy media. Check that out if you're using Foobar2000.

    I've downloaded an audio/voice "smart recorder" app onto my Android and in its settings offers me the choice of saving my recordings as either .amr , .3gpp , or Mp3 file types ... I've come across this before and generally go with Mp3 just because I know of it but I've always wondered whether the others are better quality and size wise? Any insight you can fill me in in?

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