What are the Best Audio Formats?

22.11.2019 0 Matt Jackson
What are the Best Audio Formats?
There have been many years of controversy over which audio format is the best one. These discussions have been mainly fuelled by arguments based on perception, science, or personal preferences.

In the last few years, Portable Hi-Res audio products have advanced, and since the introduction of the iPod, there have been several audio formats new to the market, but only a few of them have been embraced to a large extent by the mainstream.

Originally, music savvy geeks and audio fans were the sole users of audio formats such as FLAC etc. With the high cost of storage on mobile devices, DAP’s were out of reach for many users who didn’t have enough space on their mobile devices for large audio files. Several years ago, it cost a lot to find a resolution to storing hi-res audio files, especially if you had a substantial and varied library of music.

Currently, however, there is expandable storage upwards of 500 GB on mobile phones and portable audio devices, so you don’t have to worry about limiting the quality of your sound. So there should be no excuse not to seek out the best quality sound for your device to get the most enjoyment out of your listening experience.

Times Are Changing - Hardware is Catching Up!

For portable audio enthusiasts, there existed another problem. Another constraining component was the hardware. High Definition audio files could not be processed on portable devices for many years. Neither players or headphones and speakers could handle the setups and so you could not listen to your favourite Hi Res music. The hold up to the solution seemed impossible to solve, but now we have several advancements.

*Saramonic has a great range of audio interfaces and mixers to help you record high quality audio at home.

personal mp3 audio players

In the past decade, manufacturers have begun to genuinely value the improvement of high res portable audio. The leading product to start this was the iPod, leading to a highly contested new market space.

Online communities fostered a new consumer interest in sound quality. Head-Fi and the now obsolete AnythingbutIpod grew in popularity and demonstrated that there was a demand for portable high-end audio products. Consumers were now very interested in achieving the best sound quality available.

It’s unclear where the demand for higher quality audio started. It may have come from a trend of tech-savvy kids who grew up around digital media, but it also could have been influenced by the smart marketing of audio companies. The outcome, however, is that audio file formats now play a big part to improving your sound and this trend will continue.

How Sample Rate Impacts Quality

To begin with, we need to look at sample rates. A sample rate is the number of samples recorded from an analogue, to a digital signal. Typically, sample rates are illustrated as 96khz and 192khz etc. Usually, more is better and the higher the sample rate the more micro-detail and distinctions engineers are able to seize.

There are many elements that can influence the format of how sound is acquired and distributed for its end users. In many of these situations, the result is a sequence of trade-offs and negotiations. A smaller sample of music might not take up as much space, but it won’t sound as nice.

Costs Involved with HD Music

Lower quality music formats such as low bitrate MP3 files take over the market to meet the lower price demand of consumers. It takes more money to produce higher resolution files with a higher cost in bandwidth and storage.

Since digital music consumers value price, usually there is a compromise to ensure the price is low, but sometimes then the performance also lowers. The aim is to make the files more accessible, the files smaller, but still sound okay at a satisfactory price point for consumers.

high quality audio production via laptop and dj set

There are a number of sources to purchase Hi Res audio tracks, and they typically cost more than the standard compressed MP3. This solution seems better however than in previous years when you could go through the trouble to obtain D quality sound by purchasing an Audio CD and ripping the disc to a lossless format.

Usually, this was more expensive than current day practices, so given that thought, paying a little more for your lossless music should be okay. Most people would be happy to purchase direct and forgo the time it takes to rip the CDs themselves.

Where Can You Buy HD Music?

HDtracks and Bandcamp are specialist websites among others provide a good source for obtaining music in the best quality audio formats. You can purchase lossless music on these sites and given the demand by consumers, more and more online companies launch every month.

One drawback however, is that you may not be able to find your favourite artist as some artists are missing from these catalogues. Because MP3 tracks are commonplace, it will take time for standards to change in the availability.

colourful record player

Fortunately, higher resolution formats are now being offered by Apple, Google and Amazon. The Lossless support is lacking however, but soon there will be a higher amount of good quality audio files than bad quality files.

Torrent sites offer a more despicable source. Everyone has their own opinion on these sites, but they do have large quantities of high-resolution audio files in torrent form. The ethics come into question when using this downloading method. Additionally, in some countries, downloading from these sites is illegal.

Where to Stream HD Music

Tidal and Spotify are streaming services that now offering higher quality packages but the pressure for this service still remains quite small. Spotify is the dominant player in this market, and in the world of audio streaming, it takes the top choice given its hi-res streaming support. Tidal doesn’t have enough fanbase to compete.

There are premium options priced higher than the standard package cost with both Spotify and Tidal to consume your audio in higher bitrate. Bandwidth usage can be an issue that mobile users need to be aware of with this option.

These options provide a positive direction, other than the higher price point, and are still great value for the money. The possibility now exists to stream HD music direct to our device and we have to be grateful for this. It is hard to tell the difference between fully lossless and not fully lossless, and right now the tidal premium subscription is my preferred choice of consuming music on a daily basis.

Best Audio Formats - Highest Quality Compared

The answer lies in what you personally value in your streaming preference and there isn’t much difference between them realistically. The highest quality formats are: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF and DSD – get to know them below.

FLAC

FLAC, or Free Lossless Audio Codec, delivers CD-quality audio in much smaller file sizes. It’s also a non-proprietary, open-source codec that's great for software developers who want to use lossless audio. Though FLAC files are easily accessible, they take longer to download because they can be 6x bigger than normal MP3s. There are other limitations (such as software and hardware incompatibility) but it sounds great over Bluetooth and streaming.

ALAC

ALAC, or Apple Lossless Audio Codec, keeps all of the file, and after compression sounds just like the original recordings. ALAC works mainly with Apple products, so this format is only for iOS users. It also takes a longer time to download than lossy formats do, but it sounds great over Bluetooth. It's possible to stream with ALAC, but this codec isn't commonly used because of its incompatibility with non-Apple devices.

audio codec

DSD

DSD, or Direct Stream Digital, is an extremely high-resolution uncompressed audio format. DSD is even higher in quality than CD-quality and HD download formats such as FLAC and ALAC. You may need digital audio converters to play DSD files if they're not compatible with your computer because it is such a high-quality audio codec. At this time, DSD is not a good option for streaming because it is a challenging encoder. However this sounds the best out of all over Bluetooth.

WAV

WAV, or Waveform Audio Format, is uncompressed, so it’s great to use when you want to get original recorded material, but not lose sound quality. WAV files are best for shorter sound bites because the normal, uncompressed form produces large files, which can be difficult to stream, especially in situations where bandwidth is limited. It can be worth it though, because the audio is crisp and the sound quality remains good, even over Bluetooth.

WMA

WMA is Windows Media Audio, and is available in lossy and lossless WMA formats. This allows users to give listeners some choice over quality. WMA files are usually smaller than uncompressed formats, and the result is similar to MP3s and FLAC files. WMA offers versatility, but has some limitations. For example, it isn’t compatible with some devices, most notably Apple products. It is possible to stream audio in WMA format, but it is not used by major streaming providers. The format sounds great over Bluetooth, though, and most people won’t hear any difference in quality at all.

Ogg Vorbis

Ogg Vorbis is a patent-free, open-source audio codec that's perfect for streaming over the internet without slowing you down. Ogg Vorbis provides remarkable sound at lower bit rates than other lossy formats. The only negative part of Ogg Vorbis is that it compresses audio and discards data for smaller file sizes. However, it does have fast transfer speeds and good output via Bluetooth. There are not many compatible devices with this format however, because the average music lover doesn't use this format to compress audio.

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HD Audio Format - Is it the Future?

To put it simply, yes.  To give a more complex answer, yes but it will take more time. We need advanced consumer technology to make this a reality and the more consumer awareness to create a model to follow.

It is interesting to think about the demand for owning the newest technology and how quickly it becomes outdated. When HD came to TV, the quality was not very good. 4K quickly replaced HD and so 4K was no longer attractive to purchase. 4K couldn’t stay in the lead before 8K became the newest choice for consumers. The difference in quality is noticeable on TV, but in audio, it is harder to tell between an actual advancement or perception. Will the audio quality increase or will the market make us perceive it has changed?

older cassette audio format

Once we can solve the issues with storage and streaming of true lossless, we should have a new precedent set for the future for Hi-Res audio. We are now in the 2nd generation of HD music players which are expensive to purchase, but the cost of the audiophile-grade DAPs continue to decline and fall into the expected normal.

It’s been almost a decade of advancements in the technology of headphones, earphones, and speakers. Now this hardware is where we need them to be to enjoy the highest quality audio formats. Despite these critical advancements, we are only waiting for the other parts of the sound chain to fully develop. 

An audiophile can really thrive in this day and age. Whether you listen to music portably or not, there are several options to listen to music in a way that you like. Now its time to go and listen to some awesome high definition music.

You can browse all Saramonic Audio Equipment here.

References

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3180/5b44becba45cbb80211758e84eea68671223.pdf

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-642-29219-4_12