Compressed and Uncompressed Audio – An Insight

Storing digital audio has never been easier. Before streaming platforms existed, the audio was stored on media like Disc (CDs) that contained the notorious MP3 format. Other formats have been getting more attention, with streaming becoming more relevant nowadays and the need for uncompressed audio for particular applications. Whenever we have an audio file, it usually has a specific format attached to it, whether it is .mp3, .wav, .ogg, .aiff, or some other standards. To most people, differences between these can’t really be perceived; the only noticeable factor is the file sizes. Uncompressed audio in the .wav format takes up much more space, usually around 6-8 times more than mp3 audio at 320kbps. What are the key differences?

Explanation

in-ear headphones plugged in black Sony Walkman on vinyl record
Photo by Oleg Sergeichik on Unsplash

Mp3 or MPEG Layer 3 was developed by Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). It is a form of lossy compressed audio algorithm format that is widely used today for storing audio life. The critical point here is compression, which reduces file size for consumers, which is beneficial for streaming platforms to minimize bandwidth usage, and for consumers to use less space for what is considered “unnecessary factors” in an audio file. The consequence of using mp3 however, is reduced audio quality due to the fact that certain audio data is simply compressed or removed. Mp3 focuses on the bitrate of the file, which determines the compression ratio, commonly used ones for Mp3 is 128kbps and maxes out at 320kbps. The lower the bitrate, the more noticeable the quality drop, but at the benefit of significantly reduced file sizes. 

On the contrary, WAV audio was developed by Microsoft and IBM and is a form of Uncompressed audio format. WAV retains all of the audio samples and data; there are no alterations or removal of data; however, WAV audio format’s file sizes are generally larger than lossy compressed formats like Mp3. WAV utilizes the PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) standard, allowing for raw audio sampling. WAV has significantly better audio quality as it retains every audio data; however, WAV isn’t as efficient when it comes to storage on things like flash drives and discs, and most consumers can’t easily perceive the differences.

Comparison

MP3WAV
Lossy CompressionUncompressed PCM
Much Lower File SizesHigher File Sizes
Developed by MPEGDeveloped by Microsoft and IBM
Lower Audio QualityHigher Audio Quality
Reduction of Redundant Audio InformationMinor Alterations

Applications

MP3 is ubiquitous in platforms like physical media and is used for a lot of streaming platforms as well to cut down on bandwidth usage. MP3 is much more commonly used for WAV and allows for much better file sharing because of its much smaller sizes. General consumers won’t notice much of a difference between MP3 and WAV; MP3 is also compatible with almost all devices. WAV, on the other hand, is used for more prosumer and professional means, such as Audio Production and manipulation, where audio engineers require uncompressed, original samples with the least modification. WAV is compatible with more devices than MP3 because of minimal alterations only. WAV is generally preferred for movies and media like blu-rays as well. 

Other Forms

MP3 and WAV aren’t the only file format standards; there is a lot more that is also being used, such as Ogg Vorbis, which is a free and open-source lossy compression codec similar to MP3,  and AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) that is developed by Apple and used for iTunes music streaming which also an uncompressed format rivaling WAV. All of these have their advantages and their disadvantages, but general consumers won’t notice much of a difference between these formats.

Conclusion

In conclusion, MP3 and WAV formats are one of the most common audio file formats that can be seen with almost all audio files; general consumers should stick to what works best for them, as all of these formats serve the same principle purpose, translating digital audio into analog audio for playback.

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