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Best Sound Quality Audio Format, Codec [Read Definitive Guide 2019]

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Audio Basis - educational articles

yuri korzunovRead to end definitive guide by audio software developer Yuri Korzunov: what is the best sound quality audio format (audio codec): WAV, FLAC, mp3, AIFF, m4a, AAC, ALAC, PCM, DSD, DSF, DFF, SACD, lossy and lossless compressed, others on Android, iOS, Mac, Windows, Linux Look at infographic how to choose the best audio file format for you.

 
 
WARNING:
• DSF, DFF, ISO (1-bit audio) is supported in maximal PROduce-RD and configurable Modula-R
• For ISO tracks, DSF, DFF with length more 3 minutes FREE demo mute 2 second silence in the output middle
• DVD ISO is NOT supported
Watch and share: Hi Res Audio [How it works. Sound quality. 7 Myths]
 
Watch and share: DSD vs FLAC [Format Comparison]
 

 

What is highest quality audio format?

Sound quality of audio format

Audio format is data structure and coding type to store musical information.

Codec is software and/or hardware to code/encode audio format to processing and/or playback on DAC (digital-to-analog converter).

Additional information:

Original stuff (DSD or PCM modulation) from ADC (analog-to-digital converter) is coded to a format with encoder.

Restoring from the format to PCM or DSD modulation to playback at DAC is performed with a decoder.

Codec = encoder + decoder.

 

Lossy vs lossless audio codec

Lossy vs lossless audio codec

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

Sound quality is considered here as distortion level of original music stuff after storing into an audio file.

There are music file formats:

What is mean compressed, lossy lossless format (codec)?

What is mean compressed, lossy lossless

Compressed mean reduced-by-size audio content. As rule, lossy compression provides size compressing better, than lossless ones, because part of audio information is lost.

Audio formats (codecs): compressed, uncompressed, lossless, lossy

Audio formats (codecs): compressed, uncompressed, lossless, lossy

The best sound quality audio recording formats are called "lossless". They keep audio quality without any losses (audio data of original and decoded music stuff are binary identical).

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

What is the best audio file format for you? [Quick guide. Read details below]

What is the best audio format  [Definitive Guide]

 

The sound quality of playback

Playback sound quality is not the same sound quality of an audio format.

Losses of audio format are only part of playback sound quality.

Playback sound quality includes distortions of:

  • recording, mixing, post-production;
  • format;
  • playback software;
  • playback hardware.

EXAMPLE:

When we upsample music, it can be played back with another distortion level of playback software and/or hardware.

Upsampling is lossy. But distortion level of playback software and/or hardware may be lesser these values for the original resolution.

So, total playback distortions after lossy upsampling may be better, than without the upsampling.

Resume: the best sound quality music formats are any lossless formats. But conversion between lossless PCM and lossless DSD is lossy. However, the conversion of format or resolution audio can give playback quality advantages (read details).

 

Overview of audio files

 

Sound formats intention

Music formats are intended for solving different issues:

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

Music file formats. Conversion and playback

Music file formats. Conversion and playback

 

Audio format types

  • by modulation: DSD and PCM;
  • by size compression: compressed and non-compressed:
     compressed files by sound quality:

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

Audio formats. Common audio file extensions

  lossless lossy
compressed
non-compressed  

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

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

 

Audio formats (codecs)

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 the details below.

Additional stuff:

Investigation of Lossless Audio Compression using IEEE 1857.2 Advanced Audio Coding

 

WAV, AIFF

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 aremay be issues with metadata displaying at some hardware and software.

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

WAV and AIFF can contain 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 creating WAVs with size more 2 GBytes.

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

 

Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC)

flac

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

There are uncompressed FLAC, that some people consider as better sounding. There is a technical hypothesis: why it may be so. But currently no safe evidence. Look details here.

FLAC is not compatible with iTunes player.

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

FLAC maximal resolution is 32 bit / 384 kHz and its size may be more 2 GBytes (may depend on used editing and conversion software).

 

Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC)

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) contains 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 contain track time position. *.cda file copying doesn't provide audio stuff extracting. There is need audio ripping software.

Under Mac OSX *.aiff files are displayed at a compact disk. These files may be copied as usual sound files. But these files contain AIFF-C lossless format. It has 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) has the lossless ability at codec version 9.

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

 

APE

APE (Monkey's Audio codec) has the lossless compressing ability. Metadata are supported. Official codec builds, known by the author, for Windows only.

Read details here

 

WavPack

WavePack is a lossless audio format. Metadata are supported.

Read details here

 

CAF (lossless)

CAF (Core Audio Format) is file container for lossless audio format (uncompressed PCM or compressed by ALAC codec). Metadata are supported. Also, see CAF lossy

Read details here

 

Lossy compressed

mp3, aac, ogg, wma, ac3, dts and other

mp3, aac, ogg

Lossy compressed formats like mp3, aac, ogg and others 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 than mp3. And AAC developers promise better sound quality, than mp3 (details).

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

Bitstream characterizes 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 depending on many factors.

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

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

ac3, aac, dts formats allow to storing multichannel compressed sound.

Watch: Some New Evidence that High School and College Students May Prefer Accurate Sound Reproduction
 

Additional stuff:

 

CAF (lossy)

CAF (Core Audio Format) is file container for lossy audio formats (compressed by AAC, mp3 and other codecs). Metadata are supported. Also, see CAF lossless

Read details here

 

MQA (Master Quality Authenticated)

mqa

MQA is a PCM format. Looks like, it provides better size compression than FLAC (see here). But MQA has some losses, as far as the 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 provides its compatibility with non-MQA software and hardware.

 

 

How to choose optimal bitrate for lossy formats

The main matter of bitrate is storage space spacing. So we need to choose the minimal bitrate, that gives proper sound quality.

As rule, 256 kbit/sec and more is recommended.

But, if you want to define own optimal bitrate, here step-by-step guide:

  1. Take several lossless files (FLAC, WAV, AIFF or other) as samples of your preferable musical genres.
  2. Encode these samples to mp3-audio with different bitrates.
  3. Compare these mp3 files with its originals by audibility of sound quality difference.
  4. To future coding, you can use minimal bitrate, that causes a minimal audible difference.

 

 

DSD formats

 

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

dsd

This format allows to using 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).

 

Metadata

As rule, DFF has metadata displaying issues for playback tools. SACD ISO contains text metadata only.

 

Stereo and multichannel

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

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

Also, SACD ISO file doesn't contain album artworks.

 

 

What is an audio codec

 

An audio codec is a program to convert original audio data stream to certain format and back. Audio codec provides bit/byte order, data headers, compression/decompression and other.

Original audio stream is a raw sequence of non-formatted digital audio data.

As rule, audio codecs are included to audio conversion software and program or hardware players.

Example of audio codec types:

mp3 codec, flac codec, aac codec, other.

 

 

Audio formats for iTunes

 

iTunes audio player software allows to playback both audiophile and lossy formats. But there is a 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 a format compatible with iTunes.

 

 

What is the best audio format? Conclusions

When you choose the best audio format for the sound quality of your music library, it needs 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 lossless formats: 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 promised 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 hard disk space at stereo digital audio players (DAP) and mobile phones.

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

Read where free download:

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

  • Which is the best quality audio format?
        Lossless, high resolution audio formats have maximal sound quality.
  •  
  • What is the most popular audio format?
        According to Google statistics (April 2019), it mp3 is the most popular format (among mp3, WAV, FLAC, ALAC, m4a, aac). Second place - m4a, WAV, AAC. ALAC and FLAC in the 3-rd position. m4a is a container for AAC and ALAC.
  •  
  • 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 supports 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 codec?
        Lossless codecs (FLAC, WAV, AIFF) are preferable here. It is not matter compressed or not.
        The developer of mp3 recommends to using AAC instead.

  • What best audio file format for website and web?
        In general, it is compressed formats: mp3, m4a, ogg, flac.
     
  • What best audio format for movies?
        Lossless multi-channel sound formats (Dolby TrueHD, DTS) are recommended for home music systems.
       To keep hard disk space DTS support lossy compression.
       Also, lossy AC3 may be used.
       Lossy compression is recommended to web and portable applications.

 

 

Author: ,
Audiophile Inventory's developer

Best Audio File Format


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