WAV vs. FLAC vs. MP3: What Are the Differences?
Updated: August 26,2022
RAW, TTA, CDA, WEBM, VOX, WAV, FLAC, MP3, AAC, ALAC. No, this isn't some type of code or an encrypted message from the future. Those codes can make the world go round since each represents an audio file format, and we all know what music does.
In this article, we'll check out the differences between the most popular audio formats: WAV, FLAC, and MP3. So whether you’re an audiophile or just looking to improve your listening experience, read on for everything you need to know about WAV vs. FLAC vs. MP3!
Compressed vs. Uncompressed Audio Files
Before we delve into audio formats, we must first explain the three categories to which all audio files are allocated: uncompressed, lossless, and lossy.
As the name suggests, uncompressed audio files are not compressed. They are usually large and maintain the original quality of the recording. The downside of uncompressed audio files is that they take up a lot of space, and we mean a lot of space!
There is a good reason why audio engineers have quite a bit of hardware. Not all of it is for recording. It takes plenty of space to record, hold, mix, or reproduce music. WAV and AIFF files are examples of uncompressed audio files.
Lossless audio files are compressed without sacrificing much of the quality for size. The compression process in lossless audio files makes them smaller than uncompressed audio files, but they still sound identical to the original recording. Not only are you getting almost noticeably better quality when compared to lossy files, but they also save you a ton of hard drive space. FLAC and ALAC files are examples of lossless audio files.
Lossy audio files are the most compressed of all audio file types. The compression process in lossy audio files sacrifices quality for size, resulting in a smaller file with a lower quality recording. MP3 and AAC files are examples of lossy audio files.
Audio Files 101
On the surface, it would appear that WAV vs. FLAC vs. MP3 audio files are essentially the same thing. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find some pretty big differences among these audio formats. In this section, we'll look at several audio formats and attempt to make sense of them all.
WAV vs. AIFF
The Waveform Audio File Format, known simply as WAV, is a format developed by Microsoft and IBM. WAV files are the most common uncompressed audio format on Windows PCs. They are large, but they maintain the original quality of the recording.
In the early 1990s, Apple developed the Audio Interchange File Format because, well, Apple couldn't just use the same format as the Windows PC. It is a standard format for storing uncompressed audio on Apple computers.
Jokes about Apple aside, AIFF files are similar to WAV files but generally use a different bit depth and sampling rate. They can also include more information than WAV files, such as track metadata and album art.
FLAC vs. ALAC
The Free Lossless Audio Codec is an audio file format developed by the Xiph.Org Foundation. It is a popular royalty-free format used by many non-Apple online music stores for lossless audio.
The FLAC technology compresses digital audio to 50%-70% of its original size and decompresses it to an exact duplicate of the original audio data. FLAC files are smaller than WAV files but still have very good quality. They are great for storing music files and can also be used for streaming audio. We recommend using the FLAC audio format if you decide to record a podcast or music.
If you use Apple devices, you’ll be better off with the Apple Lossless Audio Codec. The sound quality is the same, but FLAC isn’t natively supported by Apple. Like FLAC, ALAC has been open-source and royalty-free since 2011.
MP3 vs. AAC
The MPEG-1 Audio Layer III (MP3) is an audio file format developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). It is the most common lossy audio file format, invented in the early 1990s by a team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits.
Owing to the fact that MP3 audio files are small, they are a popular choice for portable audio devices. There is a good reason why we had MP3 players instead of other formats. However, the lower quality of these files means they are not always suitable for high-quality audio recordings. MP3 files are smaller than WAV or FLAC files but have the worst audio quality.
As of 2017, all MP3 patent licensing has been terminated, causing some news outlets to believe that MP3 was dead, although the fact is that it’s very much alive and kicking. Even though still quite popular among users, it will be phased out by all services, and consumers will follow suit.
The Advanced Audio Coding file format is the successor to MP3. A lossy audio file format developed by Sony and Dolby Laboratories, AAC has files that are smaller than MP3 ones and offer better quality at the same bitrate, i.e. depth of information.
AAC is now the standard audio format for Apple's iOS devices, including the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. If you purchase music from the iTunes Store, it will likely be in AAC format.
MP3 vs. FLAC
The main difference between MP3 and FLAC files is that the former is a lossy audio format, while the latter is a lossless audio format.
MP3 files use lossy data compression to reduce the file size. It works by diminishing the quality of some sound components that are thought to be beyond the hearing capabilities of most people. This means some of the data in the original audio file is lost during the compression process.
On the other hand, FLAC files are compressed using a lossless method. Specifically, no data is lost during the compression process, and you get an exact copy of the original audio file.
Needless to say, FLAC files are larger than MP3 files because they contain more data. However, the difference in file size is not always noticeable. For example, a three-minute song in MP3 format can be around 3 MB, while the same song in FLAC can be around 15 MB.
The main advantage of MP3 files is that they are small and easy to store, whereas the major benefit of FLAC files is that they retain the original quality of the audio file.
FLAC vs. WAV
The most noticeable difference between FLAC and WAV is that WAV is an uncompressed audio format, while FLAC is a compressed one. This means that FLAC files are smaller but slightly lower quality than WAV files. However, both formats are lossless, so they provide the best possible sound quality.
The compression of FLAC files is executed using a lossless compression algorithm, which means that no quality is lost when the file is compressed. This is in contrast to MP3 and AAC files, which are lossy audio files.
If you are looking for the best audio quality, then WAV files are the way to go. However, if your priority is a file format that takes up less space on your hard drive and is more practical, then FLAC files are a better option.
MP3 vs. WAV
The difference between MP3 and WAV lies in quality and size. MP3 files are compressed using a lossy compression algorithm, meaning quality is reduced when the file is compressed, while WAV files are uncompressed. In line with that, WAV files are larger but have better quality.
Consequently, MP3 files are small and easy to store, while WAV files take up more space but provide the best sound quality. If you are looking for something to store your music collection, then MP3 files are a good option. However, if you find that quality outweighs quantity, then WAV files are a superior choice.
So, Which Is Best - WAV, FLAC, or MP3?
We don't know about you, but we still have a large library of MP3 files we’re reluctant to give away. But the truth is, we haven’t listened to it for ages. Why would we when FLAC is incomparably better?
Even if we use the best PC gaming speakers or the best wireless outdoor speakers to play the MP3 audio files, they won't be able to match the FLAC audio played on any low-budget Bluetooth speakers. The quality is beyond compare!
Only WAV files are slightly better than FLAC, but since they are most often found on audio CDs, listening to them would involve connecting speakers to a TV or audio CD player, which is just too much hassle. For a special night, sure. But for every day, FLAC wins hands down.
Frequently Asked Questions
Although uncompressed files offer the best audio quality, we still prefer the lossless format because it is more practical and has about the same quality as uncompressed audio files.
There is no clear answer as to which format is better. If you are looking for the best sound quality, then WAV files are the way to go. However, if you need a file format that takes up less space on your hard drive without sacrificing any quality, then FLAC files would be a better option. You can check out our “WAV vs. FLAC vs. MP3” article for more details.
Absolutely! Once you hear FLAC for the first time, you’ll never want to go back to MP3 ever again.
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With a degree in humanities and a knack for the history of tech, Jovan was always interested in how technology shapes both us as human beings and our social landscapes. When he isn't binging on news and trying to predict the latest tech fads, you may find him trapped within the covers of a generic 80s cyberpunk thriller.