What are the best audio formats and codecs?

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MP3, M4A, AAC and many others. There are really many audio file formats that you can use for manage audio / video content in applications.

In this article we will try to do a detailed study of their own on the different types of audio files , dwelling on which type of audio or video format is best to use for a particular application.

First of all, it is good to provide some clarification , answering some very common questions.

What is the best audio format for sound quality?

Undoubtedly a lossless audio file format, or FLAC, WAV or AIFF. These file types are considered “high resolution” because they are of the same or even better quality than the CD guarantees. Clearly you have to accept a compromise , that is, these files are very large in size.

Which audio file format is best for use on the web?

From a browser compatibility perspective, .MP3 and .MP4 are the best audio file formats to use on the web. All modern browsers support this format, including IE9. However, there are also other formats supported by most browsers, such as OGG, WebM, AAC and WAV.

What is the most popular audio format?

MP3 files are by far the most popular audio format. In the past decades, their ubiquity has represented the best inspiration for a whole category of devices (primarily MP3 players), and despite the passage of time their popularity does not seem to be waning at all.

MP3s can be created in a variety of bit rates, which is used to balance the quality and file size. Their particularly efficient size has made them the “standard” format for exchanging audio on the Web.

How can I convert an audio file from one format to another?

To convert files manually, the best way is to use a program such as VLC Media Player , which allows for conversion between popular audio file formats.

To convert files programmatically you can instead rely on Filestack , which provides an audio transcoding API that makes converting audio files very simple.

Audio file formats

Now let’s see in detail the features of major audio file formats.

.MP3

MP3 files are the most common audio files that can be found around. MP3s have lossy compression , therefore their quality will inevitably decrease with subsequent modifications. MP3s are still from relatively large size compared to other audio file formats that we will describe later.

MP3 files can be encoded at a constant bit rate or at a variable bit rate. A constant bit rate guarantees the same quality throughout the audio file, but it results in a certainly larger file size. The variable bit rate reduces the quality during the “silent” moments of a file, but at the same time allows you to reduce the overall size of the file itself. Most smartphones and music players use the .MP3 format.

.M4A

.M4A is an Apple-based format that corresponds to .MPEG-4 video files. .M4A files feature lossless compression, in such a way as to make more changes without this entailing any loss of quality. Compared to the other audio file formats in this article, .M4A files (which play audio on major Apple products, such as iPhones and iPods) have similar quality but are smaller in size.

.AAC

Like MP3s, Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) files are also lossy audio files. However, .AAC files, in their original state, they have a much higher quality than any other audio file format in this article. .AAC files are generally similar in size to MP3s, although they are slightly higher quality.

In addition to the ability to create them with a variable bit rate or a constant bit rate , the other interesting feature of .AAC files is that they are open-source, so there is no need to pay royalties to create and distribute them (unlike what happens with .MP3 files).

.AAC files are most commonly associated with iTunes , although you can use them on other gaming devices and consoles.

.OGA, .OGG

Just like .AAC files, .OGA files are also open-source and use lossy compression. They use variable bit rate to reduce the file size : however, this aspect does not detract from the overall sound quality. It is no coincidence that .OGA files tend to be higher quality than MP3 , even if they are not supported by many programs.

.FLAC

Like M4A, FLAC is also a lossless audio format. However, the main difference with the M4A format is that FLAC is open source and features a more efficient compression algorithm , which can reduce the file by 50-70% of its original size. This format is very popular among audiophiles, who use it for archive music collections with the highest quality. Since it is open source, the FLAC format is compatible with many devices and programs.

.PCM, .WAV, .AIFF

PCM, or Pulse-Code Modulation, is an uncompressed audio format used very often on CDs and DVDs. This format uses a “sample rate” which defines how often the original audio was sampled; furthermore, the format is characterized by a “bit depth” which defines how many bits are used to define each sample.

The WAV format, or Waveform Audio File Format , is commonly used as a wrapper format to store audio in PCM format, making it more suitable for Windows computers.

AIFF, or Audio Interchange File Format, is used as WAV, i.e. as wrapper format to store audio in PCM format, albeit except for Mac computers.

How to choose the right audio file format

Choosing the best audio format for your needs depends entirely on what you intend to use for the audio itself. It would indeed be appropriate to choose a format capable of achieving the required audio quality , without exceeding. High-quality audio files, if not needed, can be very cumbersome to move, share, convert and manage.

Therefore, the best advice for the professionals they are planning to edit the audio (for example for a podcast) is to use a uncompressed format . In this way, the audio quality can be maintained every time the file is edited and saved. Once this is done, it will then be possible to export in a compressed format that is easier to distribute. Uncompressed formats include PCM, WAV and AIFF.

If, on the other hand, you have different goals, such as listening to your music collection in high fidelity, it is better to opt for a format that uses the audio compression without data loss. In this way, a decidedly lower storage space will be involved than an uncompressed format, but it will still be possible to maintain the full quality of the original recording. These formats include FLAC, WMA, M4A.

If, on the other hand, perfect audio quality is not a priority – for example if you want to share the file on the web or you need to save disk space – the advice is to choose a format that uses lossy audio compression . Fortunately, lossy compression has gotten to the top in recent years, so much so that most people have cannot distinguish between lossy and lossless compression. These formats include MP3, OGA, AAC

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