What Everybody Ought to Know About Digital Audio Formats

Today in mid 2011 most everyone has a portable music player like an iPod or something similar, and most know that the most common file type for audio players are MP3 files.  But many of you have been asking if there are better format to use and if certain audio file types are recommended over others for specific audio players.  I’ll dive into what the more popular audio file types there are currently and what devices give you the best sound for each type.

What Happens When You Rip a Music CD?

The majority of audio CD can be ripped via iTunes, iTunes alternative or Windows Media Player, well at least all the DRM free audio discs.  DRM is a copy protection that stands for Digital Rights Management and is found on some audio CD’s but the majority of discs are unprotected.  When music is ripped by one of these applications you can usually choose which format to rip to in the settings. Windows Media Player by default uses the WMA format while iTunes uses the AAC format. However you can choose to tip wo MP3 or WAV file also.  No matter what format you choose both music managers will connect to the online central database that stores all music information such as Artist, Songs Titles, Album Art, Composer, etc…, and try to fill in all the necessary data about your album.

MP3 Explained

If you choose to rip to MP3 format there are a few things you should know before hand. But first a little background on this format.  MP3 uses a lossy data compression which  reduces the amount of data that is required to make the audio recording sound as close to the original as possible without noticing a sound quality reduction.  The accepted rate at which MP3 files sound the best without loosing quality is 128kbs, this makes the new file size roughly 11 times smaller than what is found on the audio disc for the song.  You can also choose to rip to a larger file size such as 196kbs which will make the audio slighly crisper in sound, but for most people it is not noticeable.

WMA Away!!

By using Windows Media Player you will most likely be ripping into the WMA format which is still supported by all portable music players so there is no issue with using this format on your iPod.  The wma format was developed by Microsoft and is a part of the Windows Media Framework.  According to Microsoft, they claim that an audio ripped as the same bit rate as a MP3 will give better sound quality and a smaller file size.  So according to this if you rip your audio at 96kbs you should have the same quality at a 128kbs MP3 file.

Other Music Formats to Consider


This is the default audio format from Apple Corp. This is a lossy compression scheme which means that the data encoding used compresses the data by removing some of actual file thus reducing the file size but still maintaining a good sound quality.  This format was developed with the notion that it would replace the MP3 format since if offers a better sound quality compared to MP3 and with smaller bit rates.  AAC supports up to 96 kHz in one audio stream plus 16 low frequency effects, and up to 16 data streams.  This format is default for all Apple products (iPhone, iPod, iPad) and Nintendo gadgets (DSi, 3Dsi) as well as the PS3.  This is one of the many formats that are supported when using an iPod transfer software including the default iTunes or one of the many 3rd party applications.


Or otherwise known as Free Lossless Audio Codec is an audio specific format that does not offer a loss in quality while compressed.  Similar to how a ZIP file is with data, FLAC is with audio file compression.  You can still have full quality but at a reduced file size.  Still typical sizes can be 20MB for a 3 minute song file, compared to 3-4MB in MP3 format.  The tradeoff though is supurb sound when played on a home stereo system.  This is the format of choice for those that want that crisp sound coming from your speakers.  There are many software players that support FLAC including the free VLC Player and VideoLAN players for Windows, Cynthiune for Mac, and Aqualung for Linux.  Also many hardware components for the home stereo now support FLAC in addition to car stereo systems.  Most manufacturers will list in the features if FLAC is indeed supported on their devices. From Wikipedia: “Since FLAC is a lossless scheme, it is suitable as an archive format for owners of CDs and other media who wish to preserve their audio collections. If the original media is lost, damaged, or worn out, a FLAC copy of the audio tracks ensures that an exact duplicate of the original data can be recovered at any time. An exact restoration from a lossy archive (e.g., MP3) of the same data is impossible.”

So no matter what format you choose hopefully this article has explained what each format offers in relation to the other and which will suit your particular needs.

Rob Boirun is the author of www.burnworld.com which is an industry site around DVD and Blu Ray burning technologies. After working for GEAR software which makes a burning API for vendors such as Apple, Symantec, and others I decided that the web was missing out on some useful information around the optical recording industry, thus the site was created. The industry is shifting the way users receive digital content and I will be shifting the focus as well into more digital streaming, cloud storage, Blu-Ray, etc… You can follow Rob on Twitter @burnworld. Rob’s Google Profile