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Music file formats and their codecs

Audio file formats: wav, mp3, wma, ogg, flac, aac
Audio file format types
As a human being we listen to music on the radio, our soundsystem, our computer and our portable mp3 player. The music comes in various file formats, each with their own codecs. These terms can sound a bit technically, but no worry we explain everything to you. The real question is what file format and codec do we need to choose from? First we need to know for what reason we use the music. Is it to use on an MP3-player or our car? Than we need less quality. Or is it for professional use for example in a studio? Than we need quality.

Some devices like our radio can play CD's full of mp3's. Our cars can now play usb-stick full of music just like our portable music devices. But, because of the format diversity, some of the formats will not be compatible with some devices. We explain the most common formats and codecs that are compatible with almost every device. Also our software and our computers can play a role in what types of formats we want to use. For example: if you use an Apple computer with iTunes and an iPhone or iPod than you have to deal with AAC and MP3. If you have a laptop running Windows than it will be more likely that you use WMA and MP3. FLAC and WAV is for more advanced audio in professional audio studio's. There are a dozen other exotic audio file formats but as common user you will never be in touch with one of these exotic formats. We only mention the most important audio file formats.

This it the most known format that is free to use. Almost every device can play an MP3 file these days.

What you need to know is that MP3 files are very small files that has a little loss on the music quality after converting CD quality to MP3. There are a various of settings that can be chosen of to convert the music. But there are also a various of codecs available. Some codecs provide you with better audio quality. The Fraunhofer IIS codec by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is the most used because this institute is the main developer of the MP3 file format, so this is the standard you should go for. There is also LAME that claims to have better audio quality but it's less supported.

You can play with 3 settings:

1. The sort of bitrate:
Constant Bitrate (CBR), this is the most compatible.

Variable Bitrate (VBR), this is the most efficiƫnt, give you smaller files, but sometimes a passage of the music is converted in less quality.

Average Bitrate (ABR), this is something between CBR and VBR.

I prefer the Constant Bitrate for all my files.

2. The Bitrate
This indicated in kilobits per second (this is not the same as Kilobytes per second, see here for more explanation)

You can choose from 8 to 320 kbps. More bitrate, gives you always a better audio quality but gives you also bigger files.

96 kbps – reasonable quality

128 kbps – average quality

160 kbps – good quality

192 kbps – fine quality

256 kbps – excellent quality, almost audio-cd quality

320 kbps – highest quality

3. Mono/Stereo:
If you copy an audio CD than be sure that you choose the stereo option to have 2 audio channels.

Ideal settings
Now we know these things we can make our ideal mix of settings to have the perfect settings that match our needs. In our settings we set everything to stereo. Than we only need to deal with 2 different settings the sort of bitrate and the bitrate itself. I prefer to go with a constant bitrate of 192 kpbs but here you have some more compositions:

reasonable quality: 96 kbps CBR

average quality: 128 kbps CBR

good quality: 160 kbps CBR

fine quality: 192 kbps CBR or VBR

excellent quality, almost audio-cd quality: 256 kbps VBR or CBR, 192 kbps ABR

highest quality: 320 kbps CBR

telephone: 16 kbps mono ABR

short band: 24 kps mono ABR

AM: 40 kbps mono ABR

voice: 56 kbps mono ABR

Notice that if you want good audio quality you need to go for CBR and have at least 192 kbps.

This is a format made by Microsoft that is used by their media player. It's like the MP3 format and has almost the exact same settings that can choose from. Microsoft claims that WMA offers a better quality to MP3 when using the same settings. The WMA codecs has reached version 10 with a standard and a pro version. The pro version gives a better audio quality but isn't supported by many devices while the standard is more supported. 8 bit, 16 bit (CD-quality), 24 bit (DVD-quality) and 44100 hz (CD-quality) and 48000 hz (DVD-quality) is also supported. A disadvantage is that WMA is still less supported than MP3. But it has been my favorite format for years now. Files can be protected with the DRM to be played only on your devices.

This format is an open-source format made by the Xiph.Org Foundation. It provides a good compression / quality rate but has bigger files than MP3 and WMA. Because this format is less know and less supported by many devices.

This format is made by Apple and is used by iTunes that provide music you can buy. Almost the same settings of an MP3 can be made. The format can include a protection inside so it can only be played by your device that is made by Apple like the iPod and iPhone.


This format is more like the OGG and has larger files. You can also choose between 8 bit, 16 bit (CD-quality), 24 bit (DVD-quality) and 44100 hz (CD-quality) and 48000 hz (DVD-quality).

This format can hold the original quality of an Audio-CD and more. It was one of the first audio formats for the computer and is used by professionals and audio studios. You can also choose between 8 bit, 16 bit (CD-quality), 24 bit (DVD-quality) and 44100 hz (CD-quality) and 48000 hz (DVD-quality). It can be buffered very fast. The only disadvantage is that it needs to have many storage capacity: 1 minute CD-audio in WAV-format needs an average of 10 MB in CD-quality. This format can be played by almost every program and device except those who only supports MP3 or AAC.

Related topics:
If you want to convert or play many exotic music formats you can use MediaMonkey on your computer.
Difference between bits and bytes

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