What Are the Different Types of Music Files?

MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, and PCM

Pixelated music notes with psychedelic lights
Digital music can come in many forms, each with some beneficial characteristics. Getty Images

Today, most devices are capable of playing a wide variety of digital media formats right out of the box, often without any required software/updates. Such is the beauty of modern technology. But if you happen to flip through the product manual and read the list of compatible files, you might be surprised to find that there's quite a few.

When it comes to digital music, does the format really matter?

The answer is it depends. Some file types are more universal than others. Then there's compressed and uncompressed audio files, which may have either a lossy or lossless quality to it. If you're streaming music from a source with ample storage (e.g. PC/laptop, NAS, media server, HTPC, etc.) – especially if you own higher-end audio equipment – there are benefits to using uncompressed or lossless audio. But if space is at a premium (e.g. smartphones, tablets, portable players) and/or you plan to use basic headphones/speakers, then the smaller-sized compressed files can be the way to go.

So how do you choose? Here’s a quick and simple breakdown of common format types, some of their important characteristics, and reasons why you would use them:

  • MP3: Designed by the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG), an organization that develops standards for coded audio and video programs, the MPEG-1/MPEG-2 Layer 3 (MP3) is arguably the most prolific and supported audio file type. MP3 is both a compressed and lossy audio format, with bit rates ranging from 8 kbit/s up to a maximum of 320 kbit/s, and sampling frequencies ranging from 16 kHz to a maximum of 48 kHz. The smaller file sizes of MP3s means faster file transferring and less space used, but at the cost of a reduction in sound quality (versus lossless).
  • AAC: Made popular by Apple iTunes, the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) format is similar to MP3, but with one added benefit of greater efficiency. AAC is both a compressed and lossy audio format, with bit rates ranging from 8 kbit/s up to a maximum of 320 kbit/s, and sampling frequencies ranging from 8 kHz to a maximum – with the right encoding process – of 96 kHz. Pound for pound, an AAC file can deliver the same audio quality as an MP3 while taking up less space. It also supports up to 48 channels, while most MP3 files can handle only two. AAC is widely accepted (but not limited to) by iOS, Android, and handheld gaming devices.
  • WMA: Developed by Microsoft as a competitor to the MP3, Windows Media Audio files offer a similar, albeit proprietary experience. The standard WMA is both a compressed and lossy audio format, although newer, distinct sub-versions with more advanced codecs can offer a lossless option. While many types of portable media and home entertainment players support WMA files by default, few mobile devices do. Many smartphones and tablets require downloading a compatible app in order to recognize and play WMA audio, which can make it less convenient to use versus MP3 or AAC.
  • FLAC: Developed by the Xiph.Org Foundation, the Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) has much appeal due to its royalty-free licencing and open format. FLAC is both a compressed and lossless audio format, with file quality able to reach up to 32-bit / 96 kHz (by comparison, a CD is 16-bit / 44.1 kHz). FLAC enjoys the advantage of a reduced file size (about 30 to 40 percent smaller than the original data) without having to sacrifice audio quality, which makes it an ideal medium for digital archiving (i.e. using it as the master copy in order to create compressed/lossy files general listening).
  • ALAC: Apple's version of FLAC, the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) shares much similarity with respect to audio quality and file size. ALAC is both a compressed and lossless audio format. It's also fully-supported by iOS devices and iTunes, whereas FLAC audio may not be by default. As such, ALAC would most commonly be used by those using Apple products.
  • WAV: Also developed by Microsoft, the Waveform Audio File Format (WAVE, or more commonly known as WAV) is a standard for Windows-based systems and compatible with a variety of software applications. WAV is both an uncompressed (but can also be coded as compressed) and lossless audio format, essentially an exact copy of the source data. Individual files can take up a significant amount of space, making the format more ideal for archiving and/or audio editing. WAV audio files are similar to PCM and AIFF audio files.
  • AIFF: Also developed by Apple, the Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) is a standard for storing audio on Mac computers. AIFF is both an uncompressed (there is also a compressed variant) and lossless audio format, And just as Microsoft's WAV, AIFF files can take up quite the amount of digital storage space, making it best-used for archiving and editing.
  • PCM: Used to digitally represent analog signals, Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) is the standard audio format for CDs, but also for computers and other digital audio applications. PCM is both an uncompressed and lossless audio format, quite often acting as the source data for creating other audio file types.

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