Tech Tuesday

What's The Difference Between Audio Formats?

You've probably seen a few format swaps in your time. And if you haven't, well, count your blessings. Many of the rest of us spent hundreds of dollars or more only to wind up with a packed-full CD rack that now just gathers dust in the corner. Or maybe it's a box full of cassette tapes. Or worse—eight-tracks. But now that the preferred format is all on the cloud, it seems unlikely that another format will take the MP3's place. Actually, a revolution is almost certainly coming. And this one won't have to be televised.

Analog Vs. Digital Formats

You might hear a debate between sound aficionados about the pros and cons of analog versus digital, but the fact is that every new iteration of audio formats has come with its own set of positive and negative qualities.

Analog formats — those that rely on machine parts to translate something physical into soundwaves — go all the way back to Thomas Edison's wax cylinders. These were basically the only way to play back sound recordings in the first decade of the 20th century, but soon enough they were replaced by vinyl records.

It's important to remember that records weren't just objectively better than their predecessors. Actually, early records sounded worse than wax cylinders, and they couldn't be used to record at home. They were smaller, though, and cheaper, and as time went by, their fidelity only increased. Since those days, there have been dozens of new analog formats, those that incrementally changed older formats (like adding a B-side to a record) and those that came up with entirely new ways of capturing sound (like recording onto a magnetic tape).

But the audio format that set the stage for the biggest revolution in listening was the one that introduced us to digital sound — CDs. Where analog formats convert soundwaves into physical materials, such as grooves on a record or magnetization on a tape, digital formats convert sound into a binary code that can be copied and read by any computer that understands it. The file can be exactly replicated with ease, so a listener can make thousands of mixtapes without losing any audio quality — but the quality of a digital recording is limited by its format, whereas the resolution of analog recordings is limited only by the physical materials. Like analog formats, there have been many iterations of digital formats since they first made it big (does anyone remember MiniDiscs?). The current digital champ is the MP3. It's not the only format with skin in the game, though.

Lossless Vs. Lossy Formats

The key to understanding the difference between modern digital formats is understanding the difference between lossless and lossy audio. Lossy formats, such as MP3s, compress a file so that it takes up less disc space, sacrificing a degree of audio quality in the process. Lossless formats are those that have found a way to compress a file without losing data — or they may just not compress the file to begin with. It sounds like lossy formats are clearly inferior to their cousins, doesn't it? The thing is, they're still much smaller than lossless compressed formats such as WMA, and there's some debate over whether the human ear is even capable of discerning the difference between the two.

One file format that might still knock MP3s off their throne is Vorbis. Though there still aren't many devices that support it, this open-source format has been shown to compress files even better than MP3s do. That means you won't have to get an extra hard drive for all of your music — and you can use that space to store your record collection.

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Videos About Audio Formats

How Is Music Stored On Vinyl Records?

The History & Importance Of The Cassette Tape

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 19, 2017

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