We are reader-supported. Links on our site may earn us a commission. More about us

Top 12 uncompressed, lossless, and lossy audio file formats

The countless audio formats available might confuse even the most experienced musicians and audiophiles.

Getting the audio format wrong might lead to missing job opportunities, sub-par reproduction quality, or time-consuming adjustments.

So I decided to focus this article on the most popular file and compression formats, their purpose, and when you should use one or the other.

About me

Marco Sebastiano Alessi, writer at Higher Hz

I’ve worked in the music industry most of my adult life and have often received songs in the wrong audio format: producers sending me their beats as an MP3 file via WhatsApp, musicians sending me huge uncompressed songs just to “get an idea of their sound.” The list is endless.

As a music producer and audio engineer, I understand the importance of using the right audio formats in all situations, whether you’re uploading your content online or sharing it with others.

Similarly, during my journey as an audiophile, I’ve learned to understand the crucial importance of audio formats and their role in reproducing an impeccable sound.


Use these links below to navigate to the desired section of the article.

Let’s start with some distinctions: audio formats can be divided into two main categories, compressed and uncompressed. In turn, compressed audio formats feature two sub-categories: lossy and lossless.

Here are some definitions you need in order to understand the differences between audio formats:

What is uncompressed audio?

Uncompressed audio formats are files in which no data compression has been applied.

This means the file contains raw audio in its original size, with a level of accuracy defined by the sample rate and bit depth (more on that later) used during the recording session.

The most common uncompressed audio formats include WAV and AIFF.

What is compressed audio?

Compressed audio formats use compression algorithms to reduce the size of an audio file without sacrificing too much audio quality.

They’re a great solution to save disk space, and a smaller file size doesn’t necessarily mean a huge quality loss, at least for the occasional listener.

Compressed audio formats can be either lossy or lossless.

What is lossless audio?

Lossless audio is music stored in a format that doesn’t compromise audio quality and yet manages to make the file much smaller than its uncompressed counterpart.

They do so thanks to an efficient compression algorithm that decodes the data included in an uncompressed file and makes it smaller without audible differences.

Naim Uniti Atom HE amp with Focal headphones
If you’re into digital hi-fi, you’ll typically be listening to lossless compressed files | Image: Naim

Lossless compressed audio formats include FLAC, ALAC, and APE.

What is lossy audio?

Lossy audio is music stored in a format where compression causes some critical information to be removed, resulting in a loss of audio quality.

Lossy formats were extremely popular in the early 2000s, and many stores like Bandcamp and Beatport still allow users to download MP3 files.

Lossy compressed audio formats include MP3, AAC, Vorbis, and Opus.

Foundation of high-resolution audio: Sample rate and bit depth

Alright, so these are rather complex topics, and you might not even need to know what they mean unless you work with audio.

However, I’m going to briefly explain what sample rate and bit depth are as they define the quality of an audio file.

When you record music digitally, the original sound wave is converted to data that your computer, tablet, or smartphone can decipher and recognize as the sound you just recorded.

Essentially, what you’re hearing is a sound reconstructed digitally and translated into bits through a method called pulse-code modulation or PCM.

The accuracy of this representation is defined by the sample rate and bit depth.

The sample rate defines how many “snapshots” of the waveform are taken to create the digital signal: 44.1 kHz is the standard rate for CDs, but you can go much higher than that with modern recording gear (and I’d recommend you do so if you’re a producer: the more information you have, the better).

The bit depth determines the number of bits available to define the amplitude values of a sound wave.

The more bits we have, the more accurate our digital representation of the sound will be. 16, 24, and 32-bit are standard bit-depth resolutions for professional audio recording.

To sum it up, high-resolution audio is a digital file that was recorded using bit depth and/or sampling frequency superior to those found on CDs, which are normally 16-bit and 44.1kHz.

The result is an enhanced listening experience that’s closer to listening to the original studio recordings, so long as the source material was recorded equally professionally.

Uncompressed vs lossless vs lossy: A comprehensive comparison

Let’s analyze all the aspects that differentiate audio formats, whether compressed or uncompressed.

You’ll see that each format has a defined purpose in the life of a music listener or audiophile, and all can become valuable tools in your sonic journey.

Sound quality

Obviously, uncompressed audio has the highest fidelity because no data is removed.

Lossless audio formats maintain the level of fidelity of uncompressed formats, and there should be no audible difference between the two formats.

Lossy audio formats reduce quality because of the data loss happening during compression. The better audio system you have, the more audible the difference will be.

File size

Uncompressed audio files are massive, roughly 10 MB per minute of audio.

Lossless audio files are around 50% of the original, uncompressed file.

Lossy audio files are about 1 MB per minute of audio or 10% of the original file.


Uncompressed audio files offer the highest possible fidelity but are not efficient in terms of disk space optimization.

Lossless audio compresses audio without losing sound quality, which makes it the most efficient format.

Lossy audio optimizes space but sacrifices audio quality, so it’s good for casual listening only.


Uncompressed audio is compatible with most software and hardware and is widely used in the music industry to share audio projects that require post-production.

Lossless audio formats are also widely used in playback systems and are a great combination of high resolution and disk space optimization.

Lossy audio formats are supported by many, if not all, devices and platforms, which makes them great for non-professional audio sharing.

Ease of further editing/compression/conversion

Uncompressed audio is the only format you should use for audio editing and post-production.

Lossless audio is good for uploading and streaming your music online because it offers the high-fidelity level that music deserves.

Lossy audio for editing is a bad choice: you’ll be working with highly compressed audio with missing data. The result will be subpar, no matter what.


Given the size of uncompressed audio, you might end up spending more on storage and data transmitting, both as an artist and as an audiophile.

Usually, lossless audio requires no additional costs because of its size and wide compatibility.

Lossy audio, being the most common online and having the lowest storage requirements, is usually the most inexpensive format to use for audio streaming and uploading.

Streaming and downloading

Uncompressed audio is impractical for streaming. It’s simply too heavy.

Lossless audio is great for those into high-fidelity but requires high bandwidth.

Lossy audio is great for casual listeners because of its small file size, which makes it easy to stream and download in any circumstances.

Top 12 most common audio file formats


  • Extension: .mp3
  • Type: Lossy compressed
  • Resolution: 16 bit / 320 kbps
  • Ideal for: Casual listening, sharing online, and storing music

MP3 stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 and is a lossy compressed audio file format. MP3 files are ideal when disk space is limited and audio accuracy is not crucial.

It was developed by the German Fraunhofer Society in the late 80s and has been one of the most popular audio formats since the dawn of file sharing when data was scarce and downloading 300 MB would take days.

Still, MP3 provides good-quality audio for casual listening and won’t fill up your disk space easily.

What’s to like about MP3

  • Small file size.
  • Versatile.

What’s not to like about MP3

  • Other files provide better quality.


  • Extension: .aac
  • Type: Lossy compressed
  • Resolution: 16 bit / 256 kbps
  • Ideal for: Casual listening, sharing online, and storing music

AAC stands for Advanced Audio Coding and is a lossy compressed audio file format. It’s the standard lossy audio format for the Apple ecosystem.

AAC is essentially a better version of the MP3 that never managed to become as popular as its predecessor.

AAC files are accepted by most music platforms and playable on all devices, and its well-designed algorithm allows better compression and less quality loss than MP3.

If you want to share small-size audio files in the best possible quality, AAC is a valid option.

What’s to like about AAC

  • Good audio quality.
  • Small file size.

What’s not to like about AAC

  • Still a lossy format, with minimal differences when compared to MP3 quality.


  • Extension: .ogg
  • Type: Lossy compressed
  • Resolution: 16 bit / 320 kbps
  • Ideal for: Casual listening, sharing online, and storing music

Vorbis is a lossy compressed audio file format. Vorbis is the open-source competitor of MP3 and AAC and offers excellent audio quality considering its small size.

The downside is that most devices will require dedicated software to play these files, as they don’t natively support the format.

Despite that, the quality of Vorbis files is beyond doubt, which is why Spotify chose it to stream its music.

What’s to like about Vorbis

  • Great quality for a lossy file.
  • Small size.
  • Open-source.

What’s not to like about Vorbis

  • Not widely used.
  • Compatibility issues.


  • Extension: .opus
  • Type: Lossy compressed
  • Resolution: Variable bitrates up to 510 kbps
  • Ideal for: Streaming, real-time applications, VoIP

Opus is a lossy compressed audio file format mostly used as a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and in popular platforms such as Discord, WhatsApp, YouTube, and more.

Developed by the Xiph.Org Foundation in the mid-2000s, Opus is probably the best lossy format in terms of audio quality, outperforming MP3 and AAC at both 64 kbit/s and 96 kbit/s.

However, it’s nowhere near as widely compatible as the other lossy formats.

What’s to like about Opus

  • Excellent quality.
  • Low latency.

What’s not to like about Opus

  • Other lossy formats offer better compatibility.


  • Extension: .mqa
  • Type: Lossy compressed
  • Resolution: Up to 24-bit/192 kHz (effective)
  • Ideal for: High-quality streaming despite being lossy

MQA stands for Master Quality Authenticated and is a lossy compressed audio file format.

A rather controversial format, MQA was released by Meridian Audio in 2014 with the objective of delivering high-resolution audio in a small file size.

At the time of its release, many experts were impressed, but over time, the hype died down, and even Tidal, which used MQA as its main file format, is gradually replacing it with FLAC.

What’s to like about MQA

  • High-quality audio for a lossy file.
  • Great for streaming.

What’s not to like about MQA

  • Requires specific licenses and specific software/hardware to work.


  • Extension: .m4a
  • Type: Container (typically AAC or ALAC)
  • Resolution: Variable (up to lossless ALAC 24-bit/96 kHz)
  • Ideal for: iTunes, Apple Music

M4A stands for MPEG-4 Audio and is a container format for AAC or ALAC audio.

M4A was developed by Apple and is used in iTunes and Apple Music. It offers better sound quality than MP3 and has a rather efficient compression system, so files are usually quite small. However, MP3 is still more widely supported.

What’s to like about M4A

  • Container format for both lossy and lossless files.

What’s not to like about M4A

  • Limited support outside the Apple ecosystem.


  • Extension: .flac
  • Type: Lossless compressed
  • Resolution: 32-bit/192 kHz
  • Ideal for: Critical listening, sharing high-quality files

FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec and is a lossless compressed audio file format.

The format was developed and released in 2001 by the Xiph.Org Foundation and provides CD-quality audio at roughly half the file size of uncompressed formats.

FLAC is open-source and works on all devices (except iTunes) without needing third-party apps, making it the most popular option for sharing and uploading lossless compressed files.

What’s to like about FLAC

  • Smaller size than uncompressed files with the same audio quality.
  • Open-source.

What’s not to like about FLAC

  • Not compatible with iTunes.


  • Extension: .alac
  • Type: Lossless compressed
  • Resolution: 32-bit/192 kHz
  • Ideal for: Critical listening, sharing high-quality files

ALAC stands for Apple Lossless Audio Codec and is a lossless compressed audio file format.

Developed by Apple as an alternative to the FLAC format, ALAC provides the same level of fidelity but is optimized for the Apple ecosystem.

What’s to like about ALAC

  • Smaller size than uncompressed files with the same audio quality.

What’s not to like about ALAC

  • Optimized for Apple environment only.


  • Extension: .ape
  • Type: Lossless compressed
  • Resolution: Up to 32-bit/192 kHz
  • Ideal for: High-quality audio, audiophile listening

APE, also known as Monkey’s Audio, is a lossless compressed audio format.

Seamlessly compatible with Windows’ ecosystem, APE offers a slightly higher compression amount than FLAC, but requires more processor power to do so.

Also, universal formats like FLAC and ALAC offer better hardware integration.

What’s to like about APE

  • High compression ratio.
  • Lossless.

What’s not to like about APE

  • Limited compatibility.
  • Not open-source (unlike FLAC).
  • CPU-intensive.


  • Extension: .wav
  • Type: Uncompressed
  • Resolution: 16-bit/44.1 kHz (standard CD quality)
  • Ideal for: Music production, high-fidelity audio

WAV stands for Waveform Audio File Format and is an uncompressed audio file format.

If you’re a music producer, you’ll be using WAV files a lot. Both WAV and its Apple counterpart, AIFF files, don’t compress audio in any way, meaning you’ll get a file with all the information stored during the recording session.

The downside is the file size, which is huge when compared to lossy and even lossless files.

Nevertheless, WAV files are the most common files when recording, mixing, and producing music.

What’s to like about WAV

  • Highest possible fidelity.

What’s not to like about WAV

  • File size.


  • Extension: .aiff
  • Type: Uncompressed
  • Resolution: 16-bit/44.1 kHz (standard CD quality)
  • Ideal for: Music production, high-fidelity audio

AIFF stands for Audio Interchange File Format and is an uncompressed audio file format.

Developed by Apple and very similar to WAV, AIFF files offer high-fidelity audio and are common in Apple-driven music production environments.

What’s to like about AIFF

  • Highest possible quality.

What’s not to like about AIFF

  • Size.


  • Extension: .dsf, .dff
  • Type: High-resolution uncompressed
  • Resolution: 1-bit, 2.8 MHz (standard), 5.6 MHz, 11.2 MHz
  • Ideal for: Audiophile listening, high-end audio production

DSD stands for Direct Stream Digital and is a high-resolution uncompressed audio file format.

Developed by Sony and Philips at the end of the millennium for the publication of Super Audio CDs (SACDs), the format has been back in fashion for some time and provides exceptional, analog-like sound quality.

DSD uses a single bit and a high sampling rate (2.8 million times per second) to capture audio, which is simpler and cheaper than PCM (Pulse Code Modulation).

However, despite the exceptional audio quality, DSD also comes with higher levels of noise than PCM, which needs to be filtered out. Also, getting the right equipment to make the most of a DSD library might be expensive.

What’s to like about DSD

  • Superior sound quality.
  • Used in high-end audio production.

What’s not to like about DSD

  • Very large file size.
  • Limited compatibility.

Different needs = Different audio files

As I said earlier, the fact that all these formats exist means that each one of them has a purpose in the world of music production and consumption.

But which audio format should you go for? That’s up to the purpose you have in mind for your music collection. Here are the three main categories:

For music production and audio editing

For music production and any kind of professional audio work, use uncompressed formats like WAV or AIFF.

These formats maintain the original data, giving you more freedom when you manipulate audio.

Anything other than uncompressed files might result in audio that won’t be detailed enough for large-scale publication.

For critical listening and high-fidelity sound

For critical listening and audiophile-level music, lossless compressed formats like FLAC or ALAC are your best bet.

These formats give you the same audio quality of uncompressed files while considerably reducing the file size, which makes them ideal for portable music and audio streaming.

For casual listening

If you only want to carry your music with you at all times and are not interested in high fidelity, lossy files like MP3 and Vorbis are a great option.

They’re much smaller than lossless files, so you can store thousands of songs in your DAP or smartphone. The downside is, of course, a degraded sound quality.

Frequently asked questions

Since the very first version of this article in October 2021 here at Higher Hz, we have received numerous questions about the different audio file formats.

These inquiries range from “which is better” type questions to detailed questions about specific features and use cases.

I’ve compiled these questions, and in this section, you will find the answers to the most frequently asked ones.

Can I hear the difference between lossless and lossy files?

Yes, a trained ear (and sometimes even an untrained one) can notice the difference between lossless and lossy files, especially on high-quality audio equipment. Lossy files often make the music feel flatter and less detailed, with additional distortion and artifacts disturbing the listening experience.

Which file formats do streaming platforms use?

Spotify uses Ogg/Vorbis, Tidal and Qobuz use FLAC for their hi-res streaming, and Apple Music uses AAC and ALAC.

Is WAV better than MP3?

WAV is better in terms of audio fidelity and music production, whereas MP3 is more practical and requires less storage space.

Is FLAC better than WAV?

FLAC is a lossless compressed format that’s more storage-efficient than the heavy WAV format. There are no audible differences between FLAC and WAV when listening to music, even on high-end gear, so FLAC is definitely a better option for audiophile-level listening. For music production, uncompressed WAV files are still a better option.

Is FLAC better than MP3?

FLAC is superior to MP3 in terms of audio quality as it’s a lossless format, while MP3 requires less storage space and is highly compatible with most devices.

Is AAC better than MP3?

AAC is supposed to be an improvement over MP3, with more sample frequencies, channels, and efficient coding. It also supports higher bit rates and variable frame length, performing better with audio frequencies above 16 kHz. Bear in mind they’re both lossy files, so they are less than ideal for critical listening.

Is ALAC as good as FLAC?

There’s no audible difference between ALAC and FLAC, as they’re both lossless audio formats. ALAC is optimized for Apple’s ecosystem, while FLAC is more universal. Go for ALAC if you’re using Apple devices and FLAC for anything else.

Is AIFF better than WAV?

AIFF (Apple) and WAV (Windows) are both uncompressed files. As such, there’s no difference in terms of high-fidelity between the two.

Is OGG better than MP3?

OGG Vorbis offers better sound quality than MP3, thanks to more sophisticated compression techniques. In turn, MP3 is compatible and versatile enough to work on any device.

Is M4A better than WAV?

M4A is a container for lossy and lossless formats great for streaming and audio storage, while WAV offers a higher level of fidelity you’ll need when editing audio.

Is M4A better than FLAC?

M4A can contain either lossy AAC or lossless ALAC audio and is designed with Apple users in mind, whereas FLAC is just a lossless format and is compatible with any device. ALAC and FLAC provide the same quality, and AAC has less data than FLAC and is therefore less accurate.

Is it OK to convert one file to another?

Yes, you can convert audio files from one format to another: all you need is a software designed for the task (there are dozens). Bear in mind that converting from a lossy to a lossless format won’t improve audio quality, as the missing data can’t be replicated during the conversion process.

Final thoughts

Now you know everything there is to know about audio formats!

If you’re a musician, it’s crucial you keep a copy of your songs as uncompressed, high-quality files, either WAV or AIFF.

Lossless formats like FLAC and ALAC are great for uploading your music on SoundCloud and sharing it with collaborators, labels, and magazines.

Lossy files are useful when you want to save disk space and internet data, and a good-quality MP3 file can definitely satisfy the needs of casual listeners.

Good luck, and stay creative!