MP3, AAC, FLAC, WMA... which audio format to choose?

MP3, AAC, FLAC, WMA... which audio format to choose?

Picture credit: Mike Wren/ Moving Picture Experts Group

Ever wished the music files stored in your smartphone or music player sounded better? It could be the bitrate of the file or the audio file format that's the problem.

The most common compressed audio file format we are used to is the MP3 – short for Motion Picture Experts (MPEG) Group Audio Layer III. The other file format commonly used is the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC).

MP3 and AAC were developed so that music files could be compressed and the file size became smaller. That way, one could fit a lot more songs into a memory card. For instance, music is stored in the ‘WAV’ format in regular audio compact discs (CD). But each WAV file could be nothing less than 30 megabytes (MB) and a lot more if the song is longer.

Carrying around a bunch of your favourite CDs is not exactly convenient. Music players began to flood the market but with limited memory. This is when these lossy MP3, AAC and such other formats became common because the bitrate was low and file size could be smaller. The other lossy formats are Windows Media Audio (WMA) and the OGG (Vorbis), but MP3 and AAC remain the popular ones.

Bitrate is the amount of bits (information in simple terms) used per unit of playback time in music files. If there are more bits, there is more detail in the music, but the file size begins to increase.

All this was some time ago.

These days, memory on smartphones or music players is huge and can hold a lot of songs. Even if the phone or player’s internal memory is running out of space, an external memory card can be used to store more music.

In this scenario of large storage space, it would be worth considering other audio file formats that offer clearer and more detailed sound than MP3 or AAC.

MP3 and AAC were nightmares for audiophiles. In came new lossless formats, which are audio storage formats that are compressed or not compressed but the original audio clarity is intact.

The most popular is the Free lossless audio codec (FLAC), which was released in 2001.

FLAC is an open-source format and there is no royalty involved. The main advantage with this file system is that the file size could be reduced up to 70 per cent without any loss of musical quality.

This came as a great boon for those who wanted to back up their CD collection for instance. Since it can be compressed to about 70 per cent, it is a good way of archiving music. Music stored in the FLAC format will be exact copies of the original and one’s music will not be lost even if the original CD is lost or damaged.

Converting CD music to FLAC is easy. A lot of software is available online that can be used.

Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) is a proprietary software introduced by Apple Inc. in 2004, but it later became open source in 2011. However, this is considered slightly less efficient than FLAC.

Apple also created the Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) that is not compressed at all. Music stored in this format can be played on Windows devices as well.

While WMA is a lossy compression format, there is also a lossless version called WMA Lossless. But this is not open source.

So, which audio format must one use?

It depends on two things – how much memory the smartphone or music player has and whether the user wants high-quality audio.

Smartphones are the most common device used to listen to music on the go. With micro SD memory card capacities reaching 256 GB, a lot of music can be stored even in the FLAC or such other uncompressed music format. This is for the listener who wants to listen to the highest quality sound all the time.

On the other hand, if you're a casual listener who wants a bit of music while jogging or exercising, MP3 will do just fine.

The file format chosen for adding music files into the smartphone or music player depends on two of the above scenarios.