Once you’ve made your awesome mix and mastered it to perfection, the question arises of how to deliver it to the customer. When it comes to exporting your project, there are literally dozens of audio formats to choose from, each and every one of them has its own advantages and downsides. It’s obvious that you want the highest quality possible, but it’s also clear that the solution has to be practical yet with as few compromises as possible. So in this article, we will help you to choose the best audio file format for sound quality that is also reasonable.
Best Audio File Format for Sound Quality: explained
Before we decide what is the best audio format for sound quality, we need to discuss a few things. First of all, every professional audio production always ends up delivered to a customer one way or another. That means that apart from the quality of the highest standard, we also need to remember the capabilities and preferences of our listeners.
And until recently, the average listener was more concerned with the storage space than the sound quality. Of course, nowadays, that situation drastically changed with the rise of numerous streaming services and high-speed internet connection. This means that we have to be less concerned about the file size and more about the requirements of the streaming services.
Secondly, you have to keep in mind that the more sound quality you want, the more information the mixdown will have. This, in turn, means that the sound quality directly correlates with the file size. And while we don’t have to worry about the storage space of our customers anymore, our own storage remains a concern. This, of course, wouldn’t be a problem if audio producers wouldn’t have a need to store all of their projects and files for future references, and the majority do.
Anyway, as you can clearly see, the best sound quality is not achievable without some compromises. But what do we have to sacrifice?
In digital audio, a codec is an algorithm that translates computer code into an audio signal and vice versa. Based on the codecs, we can easily divide all audio formats into three different categories.
First of all, we have uncompressed audio formats. This kind of files represents the most accurate audio but at the cost of a significantly larger file size. Most of the internal processes in your DAW are made with uncompressed file formats, so inevitably, this would be the type of files that you would want to use for the best sound quality, but apart from the file size, there’s the compatibility concern with consumer digital audio systems or utilities.
Secondly, there are lossless audio file formats. These files are significantly smaller than uncompressed formats, but they use compression. Although that sounds like they lack the sound quality compared to uncompressed sound formats, they actually don’t. They use some very clever algorithms that allow them to structure redundant and recurrent information in a way that makes lossless files up to half of the size of uncompressed audio without any noticeable difference in sound quality.
And finally, we have lossy file formats. In the age of dial-up internet connection and relatively small HDDs, lossy files were the most used file formats. Actually, they still are, but with the evolution of modern technology, they slowly became obsolete. The only advantage they had is significantly smaller file size at the cost of the sound quality compared to other formats. Lossy files use compression in a way that allowed them to detect redundant or unperceivable information and delete it.
MP3 is a lossy file format that everybody is familiar with. To this day, this is the most popular file format due to its versatility and file size. This file format is compatible with literally any audio device or piece of software and to this day is still a file format of choice for some audio streaming services. If you want versatility and don’t want to worry about compatibility, this is the file format you are looking for. But when it comes to the sound quality, MP3 shouldn’t be your first choice since, compared to other file formats, this one offers significantly less actual quality.
We believe that MP3s could be used only as an addition to greater file format when delivering the final mixdown to the client. And only in case of a very improbable situation when your client doesn’t have the means to use any other file format.
DSD is a unique and rather obscure file format. If other codecs use PCM technology when a certain amount of bits are sampled with a certain periodicity, DSD uses only one bit of information that is sampled 2.8 million times per second. That offers you a rather superior sound quality, but, unfortunately, this file format struggles with compatibility. In order to recreate DSD files on your operating systems, you’d have to install a special external decoder. Needless to say that not many people around the world have the means to use this file format, and it’s certainly not a good idea to send it to your clients or streaming services.
WMA stands for Windows Media Audio which has both options of lossless and lossy file formats. There’s no point in discussing lossy WMA because if you want versatility, you are better of with MP3. On the other hand, lossless WMA offers you great sound quality and has rather an effective compression algorithm. The only downside is that it’s a native Windows format, and it’s rarely used anywhere outside Windows Media Player. So as you can see, it can be quite challenging to try to reproduce it on other operating systems.
AAC is a lossy file format that has a far superior compression algorithm compared to the MP3. This means that AAC files offer you a significantly greater sound quality but with the same versatility and compatibility. Although this file format is better than MP3 in every way possible, what is remarkable is that AAC files don’t even remotely match the MP3s popularity. That being said, almost every device and piece of software that can reproduce MP3 is compatible with AAC files. So if you need to send your client a small-sized file with good sound quality, you can be sure that the client most certainly will have the means to use it.
FLAC is a lossless file format that offers high-quality sound and takes less space compared to the other lossless formats. Due to its practicality, this file format becomes more and more popular amongst enthusiasts and audiophiles. Nowadays, most consumer audio electronics and audio software can reproduce it easily. So you’d be pretty much safe if you send this type of file to your client.
That being said, for quite some time, FLAC files were exclusive to PC, and to this day, it’s not supported by iTunes. So if you’re an Apple user, you’re going to need a QuickTime player in order to open FLAC files. Nevertheless, the FLAC file format is a perfect choice for someone who is looking for superior sound quality and wants to save up some storage space.
WAV is an uncompressed audio format that became somewhat of a standard in professional audio production. At the cost of a significantly larger file size compared to other formats, you get superior sound quality and compatibility with every platform and operating system possible. Regardless of what DAW you would choose, by default, every internal process will be made in this file format. So it makes perfect sense to also export in WAV. At this point, almost every streaming service and media production work with 24bit WAV files.
Most of them actually demand that any audio that would be sent to them should be strictly 16 or 24bit WAV files. When it comes to sending a final mixdown to the client, the only downside could be the size of the file, since digital file transport applications sometimes limit the size of a transferred file. But there’s a very simple workaround that allows you to overcome those limitations. Simply convert your WAV file into an archive file, but make sure that your client has the means to open it.
To conclude, the best audio file format for sound quality is undeniably WAV. It offers you uncompressed digital audio (at the cost of a larger file size), and it’s compatible with every possible audio application and is demanded by most streaming services and audio productions. The second best choice is the FLAC format which offers you a slightly smaller file size with almost no reduction in sound quality. If you are concerned about the file size and can tolerate lesser sound quality, use AAC files. Using MP3 files makes no reasonable sense anymore, but you can still do it if you want.