Different types of audio formats explained

There are plenty of audio formats out there. The most common of them are such formats as MP3 (MPEG-2 Audio Layer III) and WAV. The format type usually corresponds to the file extension (the letters in the file name after the dot, for example .mp3, .wav, .ogg, .wma).

A codec is an algorithm for encoding and compressing data into an audio format. For some file types, there is a specific codec assigned. For example, the MP3 format always uses the MPEG Layer-3 codec while the MP4 format can use a range of different codecs. 

Often times the notions of codec and format are used as interchangeable.  Especially when a format always uses a single codec. However, it is necessary to understand the difference between a format and a codec. In simple terms, a format can be compared to a container in which a sound or a video signal can be stored using a particular codec.

Some formats, such as MP4 or FLV can store both audio and video streams. 

If you do not know what program should be used to open one audio format or another, we recommend using our audio converter. It supports almost all the formats out there. 

Depending on the type of compression, two types of codecs can be distinguished:

Lossless Codecs

This group of formats records and compresses a sound in such a way as to allow preserving its exact original quality when decoding.

The most common lossless encoding formats are:

  • FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec),
  • APE  (Monkey’s Audio),
  • ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec).

Lossy Codecs

When compressed with losses a sound undergoes certain modifications. For example, the compression cuts the sound frequencies that are inaudible for a human ear. When decoded, the file will be different from the original in terms of information stored in it, but will sound pretty much the same. 

Some of the common lossy formats are:

  • MP3
  • WMA
  • OGG
  • AAC

More on the Common Audio Formats

WAV is one of the first audio formats. It is mainly used to store uncompressed audio tracks (PCM) that are identical to the audio CDs in terms of quality. On average, one minute of WAV formatted sound requires around 10 megabytes of memory. CD discs are usually digitized into WAV format and then can be converted into MP3 with an audio converter.

MP3 (MPEG Layer-3) is the most widespread sound format in the world. MP3, like many other lossy formats, compresses the file size by cutting out the sounds inaudible for a human ear. Currently, MP3 is not the best format in terms of file size to sound quality, but since it is the most widespread and supported by most devices, many people prefer storing their records in this format.

WMA (Windows Media Audio) is a format owned by Microsoft Corporation. It was initially introduced as the substitute for MP3 with higher compression characteristics. However, this fact was compromised by some independent tests. In addition, the WMA format supports data protection via DRM.

OGG is an open format that supports audio encoding by various codecs. Codec Vorbis is the most commonly used in OGG. The quality of compression can be compared to MP3, but it is less widespread in terms of support by various audio players and devices. 

AAC is a patented audio format that has higher capabilities (number of channels, discretion frequency) as compared to MP3. It generally achieves better sound quality at the same file size. AAC is currently one of the highest quality lossy encoding algorithms. A file encoded with this format can have the following extensions: .aac, .mp4, .m4a, .m4b, .m4p, .m4r.

FLAC is a common lossless format. It does not modify the audio stream, and the sound encoded with this format is identical to the original. It is often used to playback the sound on high-end audio systems. Its playback support on devices and players is limited, therefore, if desired, it is often converted to other formats prior to listening in a player.