Audio Format Roundup

audioformats Audio Format Roundup

With the move to digital music there was no longer just the physical media one had to worry about. As the years have passed more and more formats have emerged and no player on the market is capable of playing them all.

The term “MP3 player” is only good as long as the music format is actually MP3. DRM has had it’s part in confusing people and creating incompatible players and the more “high end” formats like FLAC and Vorbis are unknown to most consumers and ignored by many manufacturers. Read on for a “what’s what” on audio formats.

Bitrate

Before digging into the various formats (aka codecs), some terms have to be clarified – bitrate is one of them. Bitrate is the space needed for one second of music. 128kbps (Kilo Bits Per Second) = 16KBps (Kilo BYTES per second) which is about 5MB (Mega Byte) for 5 minutes of music. The higher the bitrate, the higher the sound quality, BUT that’s only true if the source format is higher than the output format. Ripping a CD to 320kbps MP3 gives you better sound quality than 128kbps, but converting a 128kbps to 320kbps won’t give you higher quality – in fact conversion might take off some quality and give you worse sound quality.

On average consumer level, 128kbps MP3 is known as CD quality. If you have any gear whatsoever capable of decent sound, 128kbps won’t be anywhere near good enough. Manufacturers tend to do estimates for number of songs a player can hold based on very low bitrates as too many consumers don’t know that audio files are different sizes. Don’t ever trust those numbers, check your music collection and see how much space YOUR music takes up.

Compression

Uncompressed audio takes up a lot of space. To make smaller audio files, like MP3 does, the software removes the part of the frequency range that tisn’t important for the human ear. Various formats compress audio in different ways and bitrate again plays a role in determining how much the audio is compressed. Sampling rate also plays a role in this and is a number measured in hertz that tell you how many samples per second the audio file is. The bottom line with sampling rate is that most your audio files will be 44.1kHz (44100Hz), and that a lower number = bad.

VBR vs CBR

Constant Bit rate (CBR) and Variable Bit Rate (VBR) are two ways of handling bitrate. Constant bitrate means you got a specific bitrate through the entire file, while variable bitrate varies depending on how big a bitrate is needed at a specific point in the music file. The chorus of a heavy metal song naturally requires higher bitrate to sound good than a pan flute solo, which is what VBR is all about. CBR is like packaging something in a oversized box, VBR is like using shrinkwrap. People tend to overdo it and use 320kbps CBR to get max quality while VBR with an average of 192 kbps (aka V2) would basically do the same thing.

DRM

DRM (Digital Rights Management) is the most evil invention since the nuclear bomb and anyone and everyone should keep away from it at all costs. Basically DRM is something music stores can slap on the files they sell so that the application you use to transfer music have to connect to a server to verify you own the file to transfer it. More and more companies shut down these servers after cutting out DRM’d files and people that bought the files can no longer transfer them to any device. DRMd files are also not compatible with all players out there and with DRM you can forget drag and drop file transfer using MSC/UMS mode. DRM’d music normally are WMA or AAC, but be aware that it’s not automatically DRM just because a file is that format. My plea to the people is to not support any music store using DRM, it’ll only cause you problems.

Audio Formats

WAV

WAV aka WAVE is basically what most people mean with uncompressed audio. While you can compress WAV (for example like many MP3 players do for voice recording) the main use is for totally uncompressed audio both quality wise and size wise. Most players play it, few people use it – mostly because of the file size.

MP3

MP3 is the most used compressed audio format and frankly the only format you’ll ever need if you’re in the 99% group of mainstream consumers. If you’re wondering if there’s any point in using a “better” format, the short answer is no. There are audiophiles out there that swear to lossless formats and think MP3 is the devil – and that’s fine – but few mainstream consumers will ever need another format for everyday portable music listening. It’s not perfect but it does it’s job. Just make sure that you get decent quality files – not 128kbps – and if you rip the music yourself you might want to consider VBR. Using MP3 also means you don’t have to look for audio codec compatibility when looking for a new player.

Vorbis

Vorbis is often called Ogg Vorbis or even Ogg because it uses the Ogg container format (read the video format roundup for info on container formats). Vorbis is open source and is often considered to sound better than other lossy formats at the same bitrate, but again most consumers won’t hear any difference.

FLAC

FLAC is an open source codec for lossless audio. Lossless means that even though it compresses the audio size wise, the quality is exactly the same – no quality loss. Compared to a WAV file you might get as much as 50% smaller file sizes. Being open source, it’s free to implement, but since few people use it (speaking compared to number of MP3 player users in the world) it’s not prioritized by many companies.

AAC

AAC is basically the theoretical successor of MP3, being superior in any way. Apple uses AAC for iTunes music and Sony also heavily support the format in their devices. Compared to MP3 it has the technical capabilities to beat it but lacks the support by other manufacturers. Apple has also made AAC a format many think of as DRM only because of iTunes while MP3 is always DRM free. AAC is packed in a variety of container formats and you might see file extensions such as .mp4, .aac, .m4a or .m4b if you’ve ever had dealings with iPods. AAC compatibility isn’t that important unless your music is in this format and again you have the fact that MP3 is good enough for most uses, won’t give you trouble with DRM and have way more compatible players.

WMA

WMA is Microsoft’s main audio format and is available in both lossy and lossless variations. The lossy version is most used and with DRM stuck to it it’s often what’s sold in music stores that don’t sell MP3. WMA is second to MP3 in popularity and frankly there’s no reason to use it unless you’re using DRM’d files (which you shouldn’t).

Apple Lossless

In a response to a forum post about the Cowon D2 on another forum, an iPod fanboy once wrote that iPod supported more formats than the D2. Well, when a company makes their own proprietary audio formats that only their own players can use, sure you can add a lot of funny formats to your specs list. Apple Lossless is for the iPod what FLAC is for other players. Unless you plan on using an iPod forever, it’s not really a format you need to worry about.

Monkey’s Audio

Monkey’s Audio, aka APE, is a lossless format that is supported by a very small number of players. It’s not really that useful when you have FLAC and it’s rather buggy and incompatible even with compatible players.

Audible

Audible is a format used by – you guessed it – Audible. For those that don’t know what Audible is, it’s an audio book website that allows you to buy audio books and listen to them on an MP3 player. Their website has a list of compatible players and manufacturers also tend to advertise Audible compatibility. Audible uses 4 different formats depending on quality and most (if not all) new MP3 players with Audible support can play back the highest quality Audible files.

Conclusion

The point of this article is solely to explain the basics of audio formats on a consumer level so people will know what it means when manufacturers list compatibility with this and that format. To bottom line it all however, most people won’t ever need a format besides MP3. Lossless formats are only useful for audiophiles (or as a master copy of your music on the computer) and other lossy formats are only useful if your music is already in that format or for people that (think they) hear a difference between the codecs. Speaking to the common consumer, my advice is to stick with MP3. It’s not best, but it’s th
e most used format and it’s more than capable of delivering the quality that most people need. Having done tests on the subject, people can’t tell the difference between bitrates let alone audio formats. When it comes to portable audio, the headphones will matter the most, the player used will come second and music format will come third – as long as you’re not using 64kbps files.




22 Comments

Andreas Ødegård on November 11, 2008 6:51 PM

When I first wrote this article there was a storm of people complaining that I recommended MP3. It’s technically inferior, old, doesn’t provide the same quality per bitrate etc etc etc. On ABi we have users with every kind of knowledge level there is, from people that think iPod is another word for MP3 player to people that spend more money on audio equipment than on rent. Roundup articles targets the mainstream consumers, meaning the everyday man in the street with his anything but ipod version of iPod and iBuds – people with basic knowledge. After all, a lot of what we talk about isn’t required knowledge to use a MP3 player, but it makes things easier and might explain a few problems people might have had if everyone had a basic understanding of things. Basic understanding of audio formats means knowing there are different formats, what the difference is and what bitrate etc means. Basic understanding does not however mean people should throw out their MP3 files and buy CDs and rip everything to Vorbis to get better quality for their stock earphones. High end users need to accept that they’re not mainstream and allow us to write for the people that are without interfering. All comments that was related to the discussion about what audio format is the best was removed – they have nothing to do in this article, as that is something only high end users bother with. The discussion is more than welcome however, but do it on the forums. I encouraged a lot of people to start a thread for it, but no one bothered, so I’ve created a thread for this discussion myself. I say this once and only once: Stay on topic. Discussion about what format is technically the best goes in the forum thread. Comments about typos, things missing, questions etc about this article goes here and are very welcome.

daglesj on November 17, 2008 3:30 PM

I have to say I have got great results using WMA Pro at 192kbps.It sounds really good, punchy and smooth when needed on my Zune and I find it really hard to tell the difference from the CD. I never ‘swap or share’ tracks so having a common format isnt important.Its the closest in ‘musical’ quality I’ve heard to the later versions of ATRAC.Worth a try for Zune users.

daglesj on November 17, 2008 3:33 PM

Sorry maybe you should have pointed out the forum discussion in the main text……..whats the point of having a comment section otherwise.

Schermvlieger on November 21, 2008 8:30 AM

Great topic!I’d like to see some hints at what (preferably free, open source) software would be good choice for mainstream users to rip your precious cd collection into the formats covered in this piece.

R.Mint on November 23, 2008 1:55 PM

most use EAC to rip then convert with foobar2k

Kamen on November 26, 2008 3:45 AM

Great summary with surprisingly rich information! Cheers, mate and keep up the excellent work!!!

Donp on November 26, 2008 9:11 PM

There’s also speex which is optimized for spoken word (NOT music!). Nice for putting podcasts or audio books on a flash player as you can fit an hour into about 5 MB, and books may be 3-4 hours.As far as I know, speex only runs on players with rockbox firmware.

jaXx on December 17, 2008 9:27 AM

“converting a 128kbps to 320kbps won’t give you higher quality – in fact conversion might take off some quality and give you worse sound quality”Is this still true when converting say a 320kbps mp3 to a wav file?

Andreas Ødegård on December 17, 2008 12:48 PM

@jaXx: when the quality is gone, its gone, converting it to any higher bitrate wont get the quality back. Think of it as rubber band, if you cut off some of it you can strecth it back out to make it look as long as it was, but thats an illusion and you wont get the cut off rubber back

chris on January 1, 2009 12:13 PM

Actually, MP3 encoding software, i.e. ‘codecs’ have become so good that a VBR-encoded MP3-file that averages around 128 kbps will be indistinguishable from the original for most users.Have a look at the results of a public listenting test in which people who are used to listening critically for signs of quality-loss in audio-encodings rated most MP3 codecs between 4 and 5, where ’5′ indicates complete fidelity to the original sound:http://www.hydrogenaudio.org/forums/index.php?s=40be464c3990e93f7e6c03683d8269c0&showtopic=67529In short: Using other codecs than MP3 can only be justified by two reasons:1) You want to encode at considerably less than 128 kbps (then use HE AAC); or2) you are afraid of ‘problem samples’; those 1 in a million cases where an encoder fails and produces an audible glitch in a song (use lossless codecs then).

Roberta on January 31, 2009 11:33 PM

Laughable article…..With the capacity of some portable machines exceeding 80GB, there’s no longer any reason to use poor sounding lossy formats. You can store about 250 LOSSLESS CDs in FLAC format on compatible players, so why anyone would want to listen to muffled, flat lossy formats such as MP3, OGG, AAC or any of the others is beyond me.Just say NO to lossy!!!R

socuja on February 4, 2009 3:53 PM

This is a very good article. I have always thought of myself as a high fidelity kind of guy. I have no problem spending money on speakers and headphones. Back in the day I swore I would never replace my albums, you know vinyl, but around the mid to late ’80s I started the conversion to CD. I felt like I had held out a long time. At first I thought I could hear a difference but as time passed it didn’t matter anymore. The sound was there; the highs, the lows and the clarity; not to mention the ease of access and loss of needle pop and crackle.I was downhill skiing rockin’ out to all my favs. Me and the Beatles goin’ nowhere chasing rainbows on our way back home. Alright, I’m trippin’ left when I actually had a point and/or a question.My musical journey gets a little dorkier now as I got into karaoke in the ‘90s. “Got into?” I’ve been singing since I put a nickel on the needle of my turntable when I was 10. I’m to the point now where I am performing my own show (not open mic just me) in public via my own PA mixing board and JBLs. It rocks and so do I.I would love very much to have a player for CD+G. It would be nice for fellow singers and such if I could get the words on the screen for them; so much for pipe dreams. I am on the verge of ripping my karaoke disks to MP3; hence my search that led me here.Divergence: I am so against IPod, arrogant eccentric Bs. I cringe every time I see someone invest in one; because I did. Actually I bought 2; one for me and one for my daughter.After hours of down loading CDs and blah blah blah to only step all over each others libraries. Oh that’s right a PC for member on the planet; god forbid we’d have to share a PC in a family. Anyway that’s enough on that.I don’t need the words to do my shows so no need for G in my format; but it would be nice if it was available. I’m concerned about sound. CDA vs MP3; I didn’t really see the comparison in the article and I intend to play my MP3 out my JBLs (1000W Peak 650W Continuous if needed). Before I buy MP3 what can I expect? Should I stick with the CDs or can I simplify my life with MP3?Any word on the CD+G format coming to personal players?

stolennomenclature on March 31, 2009 1:39 AM

I understand that many people cannot tell the difference between bitrates of formats when “put on the spot” in organised, public test situations, but that does not mean that they will not have a lower level of satisfaction when listening to their music, rather than “evaluating” or “comparing” their music. Appreciating the subtleties of music is a subliminal unconcious process that is not easy to analyse, but I am sure that given better quality recordings most if not all peoples level of enjoyment of their music will improve, whether they be concious of the difference or not.

Alex on May 5, 2009 4:13 AM

For those that said they can tell the difference between file formats, it would be interesting to subject them to a blind test and see how many would pass the test… :)

Jacob on September 21, 2009 3:36 AM

What about .m4a file format?

Andreas Ødegård on September 21, 2009 8:29 AM

@Jacob: .m4a isnt really a file format. Its a container containing .aac files. It’s basically a proprietary version of .mp4 developed by apple. Useless in many cases as you dont even have to put a single audio file in a container, however it does have some nice featues like being able to chapter aac files with individual album art – used for podcasts on the ipod/iphone. I dont think any non-ipods can read .m4a unless you rename it .mp4, not sure.

Not Sony on October 7, 2009 10:23 PM

Good article.Thank you for pointing out that the “general public” is the one that this forum is really geared to, NOT the “gearheads” (aka audiophiles).Most people couldn’t care less except to listen to their music.To each their own!Period!

Brandon on December 20, 2009 5:56 AM

I encode my music in WMA Pro 384kbps 96khz 24bit, I have no problems with it, but it will crash most any player you put it on, I plan on redoing my music in flac… Eufony works well for what I need, it converts to ANYTHING.

mmrocker13 on December 29, 2009 5:33 PM

Er, this is probably a very simplistic question, but…So I am going to start putting my CDs on my computer (and then my new mp3 player…sony s series). My husband used my computer for his iTunes and ipod.I was planning on using Windows media player, and after doing my reading here was going to use VBR with mp3s.But when I go to Rip>more options, there is no place to select variable… the only option with a VBR is WMA?Should I just use itunes? But if I do that, and I go to import preferences, and select MP3, then I go to custom… I click VBR, then which setting do I select? High? And what do I put in for stereo bit rate?Sorry…I am so in the dark ages. Really, I just tossed my ACTUAL walkman (cassette) not that long ago. :p

Jaigoda on January 29, 2010 10:27 AM

@Roberta, only hard drive players have gotten above 64GB capacity, and the only 64gig flash player I know of is the Touch (which would make little sense to play lossless formats since it has only average sound quality). I have to be careful with choosing the size of songs on my 4GB Clip, and I can’t fit all of my library on to it if they’re lossless. And anyway, I like most people don’t have high-end headphones, so I wouldn’t hear a difference in those formats no matter how carefully I listened.For the vast majority of people who, A: can’t hear much of a difference in sound quality, and/or B: can’t afford or just don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for good sound quality, compressed, “lossy” formats work perfectly fine and mean less transfer times, more songs, and no need to find a player that has lossless format playback.

Ian on February 3, 2010 5:03 PM

FYI the .m4a file extension worked with my Walkman, my Zune, and works fine with my Nokia. My guess: manufacturers want to avoid telling former Apple users they have to rename their 60 GB music library to use it with their new non-Apple hardware =)

Sonnie on November 7, 2010 2:22 AM

^
It also worked for my Samsung G600 phone which was pretty cool. The aac container didn’t work though.

Comments Closed. Please continue the discussion in the forums