Audio File Formats and Compressions Explained

If you are into music, it might seem like there are just way to many audio formats to choose from. Can’t we just use Mp3 for all? No! We can not. There is a very good reason for all of the madness.

Different audio formats make things more optimized for different types of users, like electronic music artists, home theatre enthusiasts or just straight up base head. Let’s start by looking at common formats used by average listners Mp3, AAC and Vorbis (.ogg).

Lossy Compression

These all store audio using “lossy compression”, Which means these formats are often defined by the fact that they discard some information from the original audio source. Well, hold on now. Is that like Mp3 of a song which doesn’t include composed music?

Not Exactly, you see most people simply can not hear much of the information in the uncompressed audio files, you would find on a retail CD. We are talking about sounds that are so low in volume, so high in pitch or so close in time to other sounds that the vast majority of people can hardly perceive them.

So, Lossy formats just cut them out and obviously they also save space by using a different bit rate. You see when a song gets digitally recorded in a studio, the recording equipment takes samples of the analogue sound waves coming out of a guitar or a singer’s mouth and stores them as digital bits, Standard Ones and Zeros.

On an uncompressed CD, the audio you hear is typically stored at a bit rate of 1411 Kbps, but lossy compression discards a lot of these bits to make the file often many times smaller.

For Example, a four minute uncompressed song that takes up about 42 MB would only be about 8 MB as a relatively high 256 Kbps Mp3 and although Mp3 is probably the most familiar lossy format, others are widely used for different reasons.

Such as AAC, which pitches higher quality at lower bit rates due to a fancy compression algorithm and Ogg vorbis, which is completely open source and patent free, unlike Mp3. But some folks are not satisfied with the level of quality you get with lossy audio, especially audio files.

Lossless Compression

Who want to get the most out of their high end headphones and speakers and instead they turn to formats like “.FLAC” or “.ALAC”, which offer lossless compression. These files contain all of the original audio data, but with smaller file sizes.

audio file formats and compression suratnow

If that sounds like magic, it is not. Lossless compression is accomplished by looking for ways to more efficiently store redundant data.

For Example,

“ABCDABCDABCD” This is string before compression and after applying Lossless compression we will get “(ABCD)³”

By Predicting what sound should come next, lossless codecs can store only the difference between the predicted data and the actual data which takes up much less space.

Because of formats like “.FLAC” and “ALAC” are specifically designed for audio, they can compress sound clips much more than general purpose compression schemes like “.Zip”. In fact a typical audio file with lossless compression will only take up about half as much space as an uncompressed equivalent.

If you are wondering about the difference between “.FLAC” and “.ALAC”, you will need to use the latter, if you want to listen to lossless music in iTunes and that is about it.

Lossless Codecs

But there are also other lossless codecs like Dolby True HD and DTS HD master audio for both home theatres and commercial multiplexes that have proved popular with movie studios, so look out for logos of those when you are out buying blu-rays, If you are a home theatre enthusiast.

dolby true hd and dts hd audio file formats suratnow

Even more interesting is Dolby Atmos, which en-course each sound in a movie soundtrack, spatially meaning it can scale to a huge number of speakers because the audio is mapped in space, instead of being coded for just one speaker.

Uncompressed Forms

Despite the popularity of compressed formats, keeping an audio in uncompressed form does have its advantages. Uncompressed files stored in “.WAV” or “.AIFF” format, are not only compatible across a huge range of devices, because they undergo very minimal processing from the original audio signal, But they contain all of the information that was originally converted from Analog to digital.

They are easier for audio editors and creators to fine tune as much as they would like. All of that being said at the end of the day, if you just like listening to music pick a format that you think sounds good or whatever the format the music already comes in.

And Be sure not to judge other people too harshly because their library is full of 128 kilobyte RIPs from YouTube. Let me know in comments if there any doubt in your mind about Audio formats.


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