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Best Audio File Format [Explanation, Infographic]

Audio Basis - educational articles

There are many music file formats, that intended to storing sound stuff. But what is the best audio file format for sound quality on Android, iOS, Mac, Windows, Linux? What is highest quality audio format? In this article audio formats are explained. Read and look at infographic
how to choose the best audio file format for you.



Overview of audio files


Sound formats are intended to solving different issues:

  • maximal sound quality providing;
  • saving of hard disk space at musical device;
  • song information (metadata: album artwork, song and album name, performer, etc.) providing;
  • maintenance of file compatibility with software and hardware.

Audio format types are divided into categories:

  • by modulation: DSD and PCM;
  • by size compression: compressed and non-compressed:
     compressed files by sound qualty:
    • lossless,
    • lossy.

Sound quality is not matter of used operation system (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux) of computer or mobile device. The quality depend on playback system settings rather, including operation system drivers.


How to choose the best audio file format

How to choose the best audio file format


Audio formats. Common audio file extensions

  lossless lossy
non-compressed WAV, FLAC, AIFF, CAF, DFF, DSF, SACD ISO  

* MQA format is lossy, as far as the author know (details).

FLAC in the table mean "Free Lossless Audio Codec". *.flac file may be used as wrapper to other formats (MQA, as example).

Read more about PCM formats >

Read more about DSD formats >



PCM formats


PCM formats (WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, MQA, CD-audio) may be compressed (lossless or lossy) or not.

Most popular WAV and AIFF may have metadata compatibility issues with audio software and hardware.


Lossless audio formats


What is the best lossless audio format? By sound quality all lossless formats are identical. But there are  compatibility and metadata issues. Read details below.

Additional stuff:

Investigation of Lossless Audio Compression using IEEE 1857.2 Advanced Audio Coding



wav, aiff

These music files are most popular among uncompressed lossless formats. Lossy compressed audio data may be stored in the *.wav and *.aiff files though.

Many sonic devices support these formats, but there are may be issues with metadata displaying at some hardware and software.

AIFF may be recommended as uncompressed format for iTunes due metadata compatibility.

WAV nad AIFF can contains DoP packed DSD audio stream. Such files cannot be played back without special processing or hardware.

In general WAV, AIFF may be used to editing software (faster opening without additional processing), home music library at big size hard disks. For the libraries Free Lossless Audio Codec is more recommended.

AIFF and WAV have no special limitation by sample rate and bit depth (except header field size). File size for these types is limited: 2 GBytes.

WAV RF64 and SONY's WAV64 formats allow to create WAVs with size more 2 GBytes.

There is AIFF-C lossless format for CD-aduio tracks. Read details below.


Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC)


FLAC compressed lossless format reduce file size and keep binary audio content without altering. FLAC have compatibility by metadata with many hardware and software.

There are non-compressed FLAC, that some people consider as better sounding. There is technical hypothesyis: why it may be so. But currently no safe evidences. Look details here.

FLAC is not compatible with iTunes player.

Like WAV and AIFF, Free Lossless Audio Codec can contains DoP packed DSD music.

FLAC maximal resolution is 32 bit / 384 kHz and its size may be more 2 GBytes.


Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC)


It is losslessly compressed audio file format. The format may be recommended as FLAC replacement for iTunes.


CD audio

cd audio

Compact disk (CD) conatins data in format like WAV 16 bit / 44.1 kHz. Audio data from compact disk may be stored in WAV and other audio files via CD ripper software.

Under Windows at compact disk *.cda files are displayed. But it is index files that contains track time position. *.cda file copying don't provide audio stuff extracting. There is need audio ripping software.

Under Mac OSX *.aiff files are displayed at compact disk. These files may be copied as usual sound files. But these files contains AIFF-C lossless format. It have inverse order of audio bytes, than usual AIFF. AIFF-C may be converted to AIFF without losses.

Read more about CD ripper software >


WMA lossless

WMA (Windows Media Audio) have lossless ability at codec version 9.

The decoder WMA to WAV (wmal2pcm) may be downloaded here



Lossy compressed


mp3, aac, ogg, wma and other

mp3, aac, ogg

Lossy compressed formats like mp3, aac, ogg and other are intended to save maximal song number into limited hard disk space of musical device (especially mobile phone or portable digital audio player) or computer.

AAC more modern codec that mp3. And AAC developers promise better sound qaulity, than mp3 (details).

Lossy compressing technologies are balance between audio quality losses and minimal size.

Bitstream characterize lossy files. The bitstream is bit number of audio information per second. The best bitstream audio quality (kbps / kbit per second) mean minimal file size, but still good sound quality.

As rule lossy files have no metadata compatibility issues.

WAV and AIFF have lossy modifications. But they are not widespread.

What is best audio codec for lossy file? It is unknown exactly, because depend on many factors.

In general, to provige high sound quality of mp3, 256 kbit/s and higher bitrates may be recommended.

Windows Media Audio (WMA) format is one of popular lossy codecs, that also have lossless abilities in version 9.

Additional stuff:



MQA (Master Quality Authenticated)


MQA is PCM format. Looks like, it provide better size compression than FLAC (see here). But MQA have some losses, as far as author know (see details). Of course, MQA losses are minimal to provide high sound quality.

MQA may be played back without decoding with lesser (than MQA's maximal) sound quality. It provide its compatibility with non-MQA software and hardware.



DSD formats


DSF, DFF, SACD ISO (*.iso) are lossless DSD formats based on 1-bit sigma-delta modulation.


This format allow to use simplified (in concept) digital-to-analog converters, comparing PCM ones.

DFF and SACD ISO (file-image of SACD optical disk) may be DST compressed.

DSD audio content may be packed in DoP format (not compressed). DoP is stored in lossless PCM files (WAV, FLAC).



DFF have metadata displaying issues for playback tools. SACD ISO contains text metadata only.


Stereo and multichannel

SACD ISO may contains 2 variants of single album stereo and multichannel. It cause consuming of additional space at hard disk.

To avoid the consuming SACD ISO may be extracted to DSF files with certain channel number. As example, for stereo digital audio player, stereo album variant is the best option.

Also SACD ISO file don't contains album artworks.

Read more about DSD format comparison >

Read more about PCM and DSD DACs >



What is highest quality audio format?


Some formast are called "audiophile file formats". They provide higher sound quality, than "non-audiophile" ones.

As sound quality we'll consider distortion level of original music stuff after storing into an audio file.

The best audio recording formats (lossless), that keep audio quality are:

  • non-compressed: WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, DSF, DFF, SACD ISO.
  • compressed: FLAC, APE, DFF, SACD ISO.

Lossless formats are capable to store original musical stuff without altering. I.e. sound quality of any lossless format (compresses or not) is identical. However, transformation between DSD and PCM lossless audio files is lossy.



Audio formats for iTunes


iTunes audio player software allow to playback both audiophile and lossy formats. But there is limitation: iTunes don't play FLAC and DSD files. Also iTunes can't read WAV metadata.

FLAC may be replaced to Apple Lossless Codec (ALAC with *.m4a extension).

WAV may be replaced to AIFF. However, metadata (text and artwork) should be stored in format compatible with iTunes.





When you choose the best audio format for sound quality of your music library, it is need to consider:

  • compatibility with used software and hardware;
  • desirable sound quality (maximal for your audio system);
  • desirable number songs in limited hard disk space of computer or musical device.

For audiophiles may be recommended: DSF, FLAC, ALAC (*.m4a), WAV, AIFF, CAF files.

DFF and WAV may have metadata compatibility issues.

To saving more songs at disk it is recommended to use mp3, aac, ogg. AAC is promissed as the best sounding than mp3 (see above).

Extracting of stereo tracks from SACD ISO (with stereo and 5.1 album variants) and/or downmixing of multichannel tracks to stereo can save space at stereo digital audio players (DAP) and mobile phones.

Operation system of computer or mobile phone don't impact to sound quality of played back files. It is matter of playback system settings rather.


Author: , ,
Audiophile Inventory's developer

Best Audio File Format


Frequently Asked Questions

  • What the best audio file format converter software?
        Read the article >
  • What the best audio file format for iTunes?
        To maximize sound quality use lossless AIFF and ALAC (*.m4a).
        Convert similar lossless audio files to mp3 and m4a and compare its sound.
        Bitrates 256 kbps and above are recommended.
  • What best audio file format for car CD player?
        If car stereo support FLAC or WAV files, these files give maximal quality.
  • What is the best sounding audio file format?
        To achieve maximal sound quality use lossless files.
  • What best audio file format for mobile phones, iPhone, iPad?
        If internal phone/tablet's DAC is used, lossless PCM formats are preferable.
        Some external DACs support DSD.
        Compare your audio player app sound for DSD and PCM lossless formats.
  • What best audio file format for editing?
        It is lossless non-compressed PCM file formats (WAV, AIFF).
  • What best audio file format for website and web?
        In general, it is compressed formats: mp3, m4a, ogg, flac.



Read other articles about audio issues

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