There are so many formats to choose from. As suppliers of audio conversion tools, we’re often asked which audio format is the best, or, more conservatively, which one we recommend. While we do feel that some audio formats are better than others in some respects, there is no single ‘best’ format or codec. Instead, there are audio formats and codecs offering the best fit for a given purpose.
“OK, I see there’s no ‘best’, but how do they compare, really?” Audio quality is a single most important aspect when people think of audio formats and codecs. Comparing audio quality between the many lossy compression formats is tricky. All modern codecs employ some sort of psychoacoustic optimization, throwing away or applying higher compression to different parts of the sound wave. Some of the early MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer-3) compression schemes were pretty dumb, applying higher compression to parts of audio spectrum that carried the least compressible information: the high frequencies. As a result, MP3’s compressed with low bitrates sounded flat and unimpressive, lacking the ‘hiss’ and clarity of properly recorded high frequencies.
With the development of psychoacoustic models, this became less of an issue. However, similar basic principles still apply. Designers of different algorithms pursued different priorities, employed different psychoacoustic models and achieved remarkably different results.
For medium and high bitrates, AAC may be producing files that sound best at any given bitrate, followed by OGG, then MP3, and trailed by WMA. For smaller bitrates and tiny, streamable files, the order is nearly reversed; WMA is currently the best choice, followed by MP3 (with joint stereo encoding), and then the rest of the pack.
That said, MP3 is the oldest format, with OGG, ACC and ALAC being much newer and, potentially, employing better psychoacoustic models. With other things equal (bitrate, compatibility, file size etc.), AAC, ALAC and OGG Vobris may have an edge over MP3 in terms of pure audio quality.
Depending on your needs and formats supported by your audio player, it may be worth it to convert from a single lossless audio source into an MP3, AAC, ALAC and OGG file, then listen to the resulting audio on your particular device, and making your own choice. If you hear no difference and still want to figure out the ‘better’ format, try applying higher compression (smaller files) and repeating the test.
What about WMA? WMA is even older than MP3. Developed by Microsoft for the use with streaming applications, WMA delivers reasonable sound quality for the lowest bitrates. Think phone-streamable audio data. At higher bitrates, MP3 offers better audio quality over WMA. Use WMA for the lowest-bitrate, smallest file size and streamable applications.
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