FLAC, WAV, AIFF, DSD… these are just some of the acronyms you may encounter when searching for a digital format. They are also accompanied by technical data such as sample rates and bit depth.
So many terms can leave you more confused than a chicken at a ball. Unless you are an expert in digital sound, the process of choosing the audio format that best suits your needs can be a mess. But once explained, the subject is relatively straightforward.
That's why in Culturasonora we have prepared a complete guide about the most used audio formats.
This will prevent any acronyms from leading you to the dark side, dear Padawan.
What are Bit Depth and Sample Rate in an audio format?
These two concepts are basic. To understand how an audio file format works you need to know what Bit Depth and Sample Rate are.
These are two measures that indicate the quality of a digital audio file. Let's try to summarize it so that you get the general idea:
When you read the specifications of audio formats you come across a couple of numbers. For example 32-bit/192kHz or 24-bit/96kHz.
These numbers indicate the bit depth and sample rate. These references tell us how much information the different formats transmit and the quality of the sound. For example, the audio we hear on a regular CD, or in a Spotify stream, is 16bit/44.1kHz. Samples are always measured in Hertz (or hertz) and bit depth in Bits.
Software or hardware usually do not work with a continuous flow of information but use chunks, samples, or samples to efficiently handle the data transmitted in audio types.
The sample rate is the number of samples per second obtained from a recording. The greater the number of times a device plays samples, the higher the sound quality of the audio file types.
Each of these extracts or samples has a certain amount of information, which is the bit depth.
For you to understand it better, let's make an analogy, which is not entirely accurate, but it will help you grasp the meaning of all this. Which is what we are interested in. If you know a little bit about photography and image you will understand it immediately: the sample rate would be something similar to the frames per second of a video, and the bit rate would be similar to the pixels of a photograph.
The higher the bit depth number, the more information each sample will have. The more pixels an image has, the higher the resolution of each frame of a video. The more frames per second a film has, the higher the definition. In short, the higher the Bit Depth and Sample Rate, the higher the audio file quality. easy, right?
Audio formats: MP3 vs WAV vs AIFF
What is MP3 format?
If you're interested in getting good audio fidelity and decent sound from your files, you'll want to avoid this format. Why? Because basically, MP3 types of audio formats sacrifice quality to minimize size.
They weigh very little so they can be read by any device. The negative? The compression of these files provides a poor, almost lifeless sound. Nowadays almost nobody uses this audio format in a serious way. Even its creators recently terminated the license by declaring it dead.
But you will surely come across a zombie file with this format from time to time.
What is the WAV format?
The WAV (Waveform Audio File Format) is an audio format type just as common as MP3, but better for anyone who wants a decent audio format. They are higher resolution files than MP3 files.
A WAV is a piece of audio that is encoded with something called Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), a medium that encodes analog audio pieces and converts them to digital so that they can have the Sample rate and Bit Depth that we have already discussed above.
What is the AIFF format?
The AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) audio format is very similar to WAV, as it also uses PCM to encode analog audio pieces and present them in digital format.
This format was born as Apple's answer to Microsoft's WAV, and at the beginning, it could only work on MAC computers. Currently, AIFF and WAV sound files are more or less interchangeable.
To close this topic we will tell you that if you have a file in WAV or AIFF audio formats you will hear a good-quality sound piece.
Typically these digital audio formats are used in files we play through services, such as the iTunes music library. We will not see them in online streaming services, which tend to use special file types. We will now review this point.
Audio Formats: OGG vs Opus vs FLAC vs ALAC
Nowadays much of the music that is listened to is played through online platforms. It's worth taking a closer look at the audio file formats used by services such as Spotify, Tidal, or Apple Music.
What is the OGG format?
OGG audio formats are like supercharged MP3s. They are compressed audio files, which means that they have a size that allows them to be transmitted via WiFi, but at the same time, they avoid the damage that is usually generated in the compression process.
Spotify uses these OGG formats. Depending on how much you want to pay for this service, you can listen to them through this portal with different sample rates: from 96 kbps, up to Premium files of 320 kbps. The audio quality provided by Spotify for Premium users is quite good.
What is the Opus format?
Opus is a new codec that uses the Ogg container. It was developed by the same creators of FLAC, with the help of Mozilla and Skype. It can handle up to 510 kbps and 48 kHz.
This new format stands out for its low latency, so it's ideal for online audio transmissions. Its average latency of 22.5 ms is well below other codecs. It's versatile, open, and more platforms are adopting it.
What is the FLAC format?
With FLAC audio codecs the sound quality is improved compared to OGG. They are lossless audio formats that perform a great trick: they compress the size of the files up to 60% without losing quality.
In addition, they allow the transmission of sample rates up to 1,411 kbps, which is much higher than any other audio format. This is the format used by the Tidal platform, the best high-quality audio streaming service.
What is the ALAC format?
Finally, we have the ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). This format is basically Apple's alternative to FLAC. It's the format used by Itunes and for Apple Music streams.
You can divide the above-mentioned audio formats into two categories: those used to store audio files on hard disks (MP3, WAV, AIFF), and those used in online streaming services (OGG, FLAC, ALAC).
What is the DSD format?
Some time ago, Sony and Philips started experimenting with very high-quality audio codecs: the DSD format was the result. DSD files are the best audio format in the world.
How does the DSD format work? A CD or Spotify streaming service features bit depth and sample rates of 16bit/44.1kHZ.
DSD audio formats, on the other hand, provide 1bit/2.8224MHz. In other words: a DSD file samples a whopping 2,822,400 times per second, and each time it gets these samples it produces 1bit of information.
Having 16 bits of information would not make any difference in this audio codec. When the sample rate is as high as in DSD files there is no benefit in a higher bit depth.
This sampling of 2,882,400 times per second produces incredible detail.
In addition, 2.8225mHz is not the limit for DSD files.
There are also DSD64 and DSD128, which refer to DSD files with even higher sample rates.
The highest we know of is DSD256+, which features 12,288mHz sampling. This is really overkill, and recordings in this format are rare.
Long story short, the only thing worth keeping in mind is that the sound of the DSD files is excellent.
You can perceive the music as if you were in a room with the musicians, every detail of every note is great and as we have mentioned before, it's the best audio format.
How can we listen to DSD?
These sound formats are so special that in order to play them properly you have to invest in an external DAC, a headphone amplifier capable of handling the files, and a specialized digital player. We are not kidding when we say they are special.
There are also some downsides to these music formats: the most notable is that there are probably no DSD recordings to listen to all your favorite artists.
If you are a fan of musicians like Norah Jones or Carlos Santana you will probably find some gems in DSD sound formats. But if you prefer more mainstream artists, there are most likely no recordings available in DSD music formats.
And even if you get the DSD recordings you enjoy the most, you will have to pay for them. An album in DSD audio format costs about 20 €. They are also quite heavy: each album can take up to 12 GB of your hard drive. In addition, if you invest so much in audio files you will want to avoid playing them with your computer's built-in DAC or with the poor quality amplifiers that many headphones may come with.
To really savor them we recommend that you invest in a quality external DAC and headphone amplifier to make the most of the quality of these files. As you can see, these are files made for audiophiles or industry professionals.
What is MQA audio Hi-Res? High definition format
One of the things that streaming services like Spotify or Tidal can't do is that files stored on discs can provide real high-definition audio. This is a somewhat ambiguous term that relates to many things, but it basically means audio of the highest quality. A recent development, however, could bring these high-definition files to online broadcasts.
The novelty is called MQA (Master Quality Authenticated): these audio codecs provide enormous sound quality for fairly lightweight files. They use sophisticated digital technology that allows them to be attached to a FLAC or WAV container so that they can be transmitted via a WiFi signal.
They are already available, but are not yet very popular among today's dominant audio formats. You can listen to MQA audio on Tidal, but you will need special hardware to play them. Like DSD, MQA files require some special internal components in order to sound as intended.
We have not touched on all the audio formats available on the planet in this article, but we have touched on the most important ones. With this information, you will be able to easily distinguish between the different audio formats and make a decision on which one is best for you.
You can check out our culturasonora page to read guides on how to prevent hearing loss, or our in-depth reviews of the best headphones, DACs, speakers, or any audio equipment you want to know more about. And as a final touch we leave you with a hilarious video about the reactions of some users when listening to MQA files: