Audio (and Music) File Formats

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EarbudsThis is a section of our article on file formats explained that describes different audio file formats. Learn what powers your iPod and iPhone songs and why you’re able to store so many songs on such a little device. We cover mp3, mp4, wav, wma, and aiff. If you have a question about a file format that you don’t see listed here, please comment below.


The MP3 audio file format is perhaps the most recognized of all due to the popularity of MP3 players in today’s society. The MP3 file format is an audio encoding format that is also known as the MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 Audio Layer 3 but most people do not recognize these terms as they do the term “MP3”. This type of file format was created by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) and was published in 1993. MP3 files are formed through a process known as “lossy” compression, which is a process of encoding the data where some of the material is lost; however, the final product is close enough to the original format to prove useful. The reason that “lossy” compression is utilized for audio files is that the original format is generally extremely large and if it remained as such a large file placing a “playlist” on an MP3 player would be virtually impossible due to the size of the individual files.


The MP4 audio file format is becoming increasingly recognized by users of the video iPod since MP4 file formats can not only hold audio data but they can also hold video data as well. Like the MP3 file format MP4 files can be streamed via the web. The MP4 file format was published for the first time in 2001 and its creation was based upon the QuickTime video format. One confusing aspect of MP4 files for many people is that while most people refer to all aspects of this file type as MP4, the audio files alone are generally recognized by .M4A extensions rather than .MP4 extensions. Just to make things a little more confusing some audio only files utilize an .MP4B extension, generally these types of files are used with audio books since they allow for the file to bookmark your last location and take up where they last left off upon restarting.


WAV audio files are also referred to as “Wave” files. The Wave file format was released in 1991 and is most often an uncompressed audio format which makes these files larger than MP3 file formats, these files can, however, contain compressed audio files as well. WAV files are universal meaning that they can be utilized on Linux, Windows and Macintosh operating systems. It is common to find small audio clips on the web in the WAV audio format such as sound effects and one word of small phrase sound clips; however, due to the amount of disk space that these files take up it is not common to find songs or albums in this format.


WMA files are otherwise known as Windows Media Audio files because the compression technology utilized to create these files was developed by Microsoft. The initial marketing of the WMA file format in 1999 was based around claims that Microsoft had been able to take MP3 files and compress them further without sacrificing sound quality. These claims of superior audio in a smaller package were quickly met with disagreement and Windows continued to develop their technology. The original WMA files were toted as being 64 Kbits/second and like the MP3 files they were classified as “lossy” audio files. The most improved version of WMA files is the Windows Media Audio Professional or WMA Pro files which are WMA files utilizing the most modern compression technology.


AIFF audio files are also known as Audio Interchange File Format files. AIFF files are among the oldest audio file formats being introduced by Apple in 1988. AIFF files contain uncompressed or raw audio file data which is both a positive and a negative depending upon how you look at it. Since AIFF files are uncompressed data it allows for much faster streaming of audio; however, since the files are so much larger they take up considerably more disk space. The thing that many Apple lovers like about AIFF files (this file format is used most often on Apple systems) is the clarity of the audio since there is no loss of data as occurs in lossy data formats.

About The Author:

Amy grew up in England and in the early 1990's moved to North Carolina where she completed a bachelors degree in Psychology in 2001. Amy's personal interest in writing was sparked by her love of reading fiction and her creative writing hobby. Amy is currently self employed as a freelance writer and web designer. When she is not working Amy can be found curled up with a good book and her black Labrador, Jet.

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April 25, 2012 5:34 am

What a useful article this was! I always wondered what the differences were between MP3, WAV, and MP4/M4A, and why certain players were able to read different file types but not others. I was not aware that MP3 and MPEG were the same, either, or what the acronyms stood for. Very useful and educational. I find it especially interesting about MP3 that when the files are compressed, some information is lost. I wonder how that was figured out and whether that is what makes MP3s un-playable when you burn them onto a disc and try to play them on regular CD stereo systems.

The MP4 information was definitely useful as well. I literally had always wondered why some of the MP4 song files I have list the file extension as “.M4A”. That was an incredibly interesting and informative piece. I had my suspicions as to whether it was just iTunes that could read these, as well. I think a companion article explaining why different personal music devices can only play certain file types might be interesting, or at least listing which programs will open music files of different types. For instance, I just bought a digital album off of MOG, but when I downloaded it, the files were in .FLAC format, which my CD player, car stereo, and iTunes will not recognize. Fortunately I have Windows Media Player, so I can still listen to the album at all, but I cannot put it into my iTunes playlists or listen to it on my iPod- quite a bummer! If I had known about file formats and which types are compatible with which software and programs, this and other incidents might have easily been prevented.

The WAV portion of the article also answered a lot of lingering confusion I had about this file type. I once wasted an entire burnable disc on two WAV format sound clips when I had wanted to burn a twelve song mixed CD interspersed with sound effects. Ten years later, I realize why after reading this article: The WAV clips are just that large. (At the time, I wondered whether the WAV files were somehow making the disc un-writeable after they were burned onto it.) The cross-compatibility with different operating systems is some information that I am always glad to see listed, too, since I have a Mac myself and I do run into compatibility issues not infrequently.

The AIFF information was useful, but I am not entirely sure that I have come across this file type although it is more than likely that I have. Although the file types are large, I would like to at least hear the difference between an AIFF and an MP3, as supposedly the sound quality is better and there is no data lost. I think I would like AIFF as a recording artist so that my live or studio performances were produced without the data loss before being put into the popular MP3 or MP4 formats.