Essential tips for choosing the best audio file formats

Best audio file formats with soundwave image

Audio file formats are used everywhere. You will find them on your smartphones and computers as soundtracks, podcasts, and radio ads. They are used on TVs, CDs, and DVDs. And they come in come in all types and sizes. But which one is the best for your design project?

It’s quite simple once you realize that all audio formats fall into three major categories. Once you know what each category means, you can select a format that best suits your needs.

Uncompressed audio file formats

Uncompressed audio is made up of real sound waves that have been collected and translated into digital format without any further processing. As a result, uncompressed audio files are the most accurate, but they consume a lot of storage space. Typically, they are used for large-scale theatrical and television broadcasts, and for storing or archiving audio.

  • PCM file format stands for Pulse-Code Modulation. It captures raw analog waveforms and turns them into a digital representation. PCM is the most common audio format used in CDs and DVDs.
  • WAV file format stands for Waveform Audio File Format. It’s a standard developed by Microsoft and IBM in 1991, making it more suitable for different music formats on Windows systems. Most WAV files are just wrappers for uncompressed audio in PCM format.
  • AIFF file format stands for Audio Interchange File Format. Apple developed AIFF in 1988 as an audio file format for Mac systems. Similar to WAV, AIFF file is just a wrapper for the PCM encoding, making it more suitable for use on Mac systems. Although AIFF doesn’t hold time codes, so they’re not as useful for editing and mixing.

Audio file formats with lossy compression

Lossy compression is used when you want to reduce the usage of disk space. As a result of the compression process, data is lost and sound quality sacrificed. However, when it’s done well, most people can’t hear the difference.

  • MP3 files stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 and is the most common audio file. MP3s can be created in a variety of bit rates, which is used to balance the file’s quality and size. Their efficient size has made them the standard format to exchange audio on smartphones, music players, and the web. Although their lossy compression means their quality will degrade over subsequent edits. MP3s are still relatively large in size when compared to other audio file formats on this list.
  • M4A is an Apple-based format that corresponds to .MPEG-4 video files. M4A files feature lossless compression, allowing for multiple edits without loss of quality. Compared to the other audio file formats on this list, M4A files have a similar quality but are lower in file size. You will see M4A files play audio on Apple products such as iPhones and iPods.
  • AAC stands for Advanced Audio Coding. It was developed in 1997 as the successor to MP3. Although it never overtook MP3, it generally has better sound quality. In fact, it’s the standard audio compression method used by YouTube, Android, iOS, iTunes, later Nintendo portables, and later PlayStations.
  • OGG is not a compression format. Instead, OGG is a multimedia container that can hold all kinds of compression formats but is most commonly used to hold Vorbis files. Vorbis files are an open-source format and perform significantly better than most other lossy compression formats (meaning it produces a smaller file size for equivalent audio quality). OGGs are slowly growing in popularity.

Audio formats with lossless compression

Lossless compression is a newer method that reduces an audio file’s size without any data loss between the source and the compressed audio files. Although it does require more computer power to play since the data is reconstructed in real-time as you play the file, it keeps sound quality intact (hence ‘lossless’). Audio professionals want all the original sound waves, so they prefer lossless.

  • FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. It is an open-source and royalty-free audio file format launched in 2001. FLAC can compress an original source file by up to 60 percent without losing any data. Its wide range of support by most major programs and devices makes it the main alternative to MP3 for music. Many see FLAC as the best audio format, as you get the full quality of raw uncompressed audio at half the file size.
  • ALAC stands for Apple Lossless Audio Codec. It was developed and launched in 2004 as a proprietary format for Apple but eventually became open-source and royalty-free in 2011. ALAC is sometimes referred to as Apple Lossless as it only works on Apple devices.

Which audio file format is right for you?

The decision of which audio format is right for you depends on how you are intending to use the audio file, and whether further edits will be needed.

  • Best audio format for sound quality? Lossless file formats including FLAC, WAV, or AIFF. The tradeoff is that these files will be very large.
  • Best audio file format to use on the web? For browser compatibility MP3 and .MP4 are the best audio file formats. Other formats that are supported by most browsers include OGG, AAC, and WAV.

Ensuring your audio files are perfect

For review and approval of your audio files, there are a range of online proofing platforms to aid this process. PageProof makes it easy to collect feedback and approvals. Supporting mp3, mp4, and wav file formats in all bitrates, you simply drag and drop the file into PageProof.

Play, pause, skip forward and back 5 seconds, and nudge through audio second-by-second is useful to get right into the detail when reviewing. Comments will be added directly onto waveforms with a start and end timestamp for easy reference. @ mentioning, uploading attachments, and threaded replies assist collaborating on audio creative, letting you fly through approvals with ease.

With PageProof, it is simple to add feedback to waveforms.

Wrap up

Choosing the right audio format depends entirely on what you plan on using the audio for. You should choose a format that achieves the quality of audio you require, but nothing more. Unnecessarily high-quality audio files can be unwieldy to move, share, convert, and manage. No matter your needs, there’s an audio file format for you. Once you have decided on the best file format for you and recorded the audio, don’t forget to collaborate with your team to ensure it’s perfect. PageProof, is perfect fit for this purpose.