What’s the best audio file format and settings to use?

Preface

Before you start reading my article on the much highly debated and subjective topic of ‘best’ audio file format to use. I would like to disclose that I am by no means, any expert at audio file formats. This is a non-technical article based purely on my own experiences.

Introduction

Choices, choices, and more choices. Who doesn’t like that? Certainly not me. I’m lazy. I hate having to troll through pages and pages of unnecessary text in order to make an informed decision. And since I’m a kind guy – well at least I try to think of myself that way! :P I’ll share my research findings with you in this short blog post.

Audio file formats

All audio file formats fall into one of three categories: uncompressed, lossy and lossless.

Uncompressed

Uncompressed formats, as its name suggests, the raw audio data is not compressed in anyway. Therefore, the file size of uncompressed audio file formats are unnecessarily large.

Examples of uncompressed audio file formats: WAV, AIFF

Lossless

Lossless formats uses a compression algorithm to reduce the file size without loss of any information (sound data). Thus, a lossless file produces the exact same sound as its uncompressed file equivalent, all while only taking up roughly half the space of its uncompressed equivalent. (File size estimates are based on my own experiments)

Examples of lossless audiot file formats: FLAC, APE, ALAC

Lossy

Lossy formats employ compression algorithms aimed at achieving the best compression results at the cost of sound data. And depending on the algorithm and settings chosen, the amount of data loss varies.

It should be noted that one cannot recreate the original uncompressed file from a lossy file and for correctness; the sound produced from a lossy file will sound very similar to its uncompressed equivalent, but are not the same – as with a lossless file.

Examples of lossy audio file formats: MP3, AAC, WMA

Audio sources

The audio source is very important. There’s no value gained in converting a lossy file to a lossless file format, nor is there to convert a 16bit file to a 24bit file. So understand your source and keep it at the highest-level possible for that particular source.

Digital Downloads

Digital downloads are pretty straight-forward. What you buy/download is what you get. There’s really not much to mention here, except to look at paying a little bit more and get a lossless version.

I wouldn’t fuss over 24bit, unless you have very sensitive hearing like me, coupled with a decent Hi-Res DAP/DAC/AMP and cans; it’ll be very hard to tell the difference between 16bit and 24bit. A good rule of thumb: if you didn’t understand the jargon I used in the previous sentence – you don’t need 24bit. :)

Compact Disc (CD)

Compact Disc should be ripped to a lossless format at 16bit/44.1kHz.

Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD)

Super Audio Compact Disc are not very common, but if you have some, I recommend converting them to a lossless format at either 16bit/44.1kHz or 24bit/88.2kHz. And keep the .iso files for futureproofing.

Vinyl

Vinyl should also be ripped to a losseless format at 16bit/44.1kHz.

Conclusion

There is no straight-forward answer to the question: ‘best audio format to use’. The biggest deciding factor isn’t the benefits of a particular format, but rather what your audio source is. However, in saying so, the next time you buy music, you should prioritise buying it in a lossless format and the lossless format I recommended is FLAC.

Note: At the time of writing this article, Apple’s iDevices do not support FLAC files. So for Apple users, my recommendation is the Apple alternative: ALAC.

Bonus Tips

  • Don’t freak out if the album/song you’re looking for is not in FLAC, but in another lossless format like ALAC. You can safely convert between the lossless and uncompressed formats without loss of information.
  • Don’t know which player to use to play/convert your files, try foobar2000.
  • There’s no harm in having different lossless formats.
  • From my research, Monkey Audios (APE) produces slightly smaller files than FLAC (a few MBs). However, APE files require a bit more CPU to decode. Thus, if you’re playing the files on a portable DAP, it will have an impact on the DAP’s battery life.
  • If all you use to listen to your music is the bundle headphones you got with your mobile phone/unbranded music player, then chances are you will not benefit from having your music in a lossless format.

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