Edited by Pat Bitton
January 15, 2020
WAV vs. MP3: Which Is Better Quality, WAV or MP3?
If you've used computer audio in almost any capacity you've likely come across both MP3 and WAV file formats. You probably know that these formats are audio file formats, but do you know which one is better? Better, of course, is a relative term. Whether you want to use an MP3 or WAV depends on what you will be using it for. In this post, we'll talk about the difference between WAV and MP3 files. We'll talk a little bit about the formats themselves, so you can understand how they work. Then we'll talk about which situations you may want to use each in. Is WAV better than MP3? Is MP3 better than WAV? At the end of this post, you'll know.
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Choosing Between MP3 vs. WAV Files
Before we can examine the difference between an MP3 file and a WAV file, we need to take a look at the difference between compressed data and uncompressed data. Then we'll be able to discuss which one MP3 is and which one WAV is. From there, we can look at when each of those formats is the best option.
Compressed vs. Uncompressed Data
Although our data storage capacities are increasing all of the time, computer files are always a trade-off between quality and size. Uncompressed files will give the highest quality, but are often large. Compression doesn't always involve loss of quality but in order to get the smallest size possible, quality must drop in some way. In the world of computer audio, there is no shortage of competing file formats. The most popular choice is between WAV or MP3. WAV files being the most popular uncompressed audio option and MP3 being the most popular compressed audio format. What exactly is the effect of compression on the audio though? Can you just convert to WAV and magically get the quality back? Let's briefly take a look at each of the formats before diving into when to use them.
About the WAV File Format
The Waveform Audio file format, often called WAV or WAVE because of its file extension, was created by Microsoft and IBM back in 1991. The format can technically support compressed audio but is most commonly used to encode LPCM (Linear Pulse Code Modulation) data. Two tracks of LPCM data is what CDs use to store the two stereo channels that make up their audio. CDs are stored with 16-bit data recorded at 44.1khz. Although LPCM data is not compressed, it's quality can be increased by increasing the sampling rate or the bit depth of the recorded data. Professional musicians will often use 48khz data recorded with 24-bits during the mixing portion of their production. Some will go as high as 96khz, although as you go higher, the quality to size trade-off begins to diminish. In order for you to understand what these numbers mean, let's take a look at what sampling rate and bit depth mean in relation to audio files.
- Sampling Rate - The sampling rate of an audio file is the number of times per second the audio data is captured. Increasing this number increases the precision of the data as time goes on.
- Bit Depth - This is the maximum size of the numbers that can be used to store each entry. Increasing this number increases the precision of the data at any given moment in time.
From this information, you can see that a WAV file's size is a product of its sampling rate, bit depth, length, and the number of tracks it contains. Most audio files are mono (1 track) or stereo (2 tracks), although surround sound systems can have significantly more tracks of data.
About the MP3 File Format
The MP3 file format was first released in 1993 by the Moving Pictures Experts Group, who at the time were most famous for the MPEG video file format. MP3 is the compressed option between MP3 and WAV. More specifically MP3 is a lossy compression format. This means that data from the audio file is thrown out in order to make the file size smaller. A file format could throw out all of the frequencies in an audio file that the human ear is incapable of perceiving and shrink the file some, but MP3 goes further.
MP3 files rely on something called audio masking. The perception of some frequencies is masked when certain other frequencies are present. This phenomenon was first discovered in 1984, long before computers were even a thing. By getting rid of this data where the human perception is lowered (but not eliminated), MP3s can lower the size of the file with a small loss in quality. By changing how much of the data gets eliminated, the trade-off of quality and size can be controlled.
MP3 file quality is measured in bitrate. This is the amount of data that is allowed per second of audio. The smaller the bitrate, the more data must be lost. The files can take advantage of intelligent algorithms that will vary the bitrate as the file is encoded. This means that data can be preserved when deleting it would lower the quality too much, and discarded in the parts of the file that would not suffer as much.
Which Is Better?
Now that we've discussed the formats, which formats when the WAV vs. MP3 battle and when? It should be obvious that WAV files will have the highest quality. If you absolutely want the highest quality available, go with WAV. MP3 files, especially those encoded at reasonable bitrates, can sound almost indistinguishable from the larger files, however. For most final use scenarios, MP3 files are fine unless you are the pickiest of audiophiles.
Outside of final use scenarios, however, WAV files begin to be the best choice. If you compress an audio track to MP3, load it in to be mixed with another track, and then compress that to MP3, you've compressed the data twice. In other words, you've degraded the quality twice. If someone else then loads that track in, makes changes, and saves the file out as an MP3, the quality is degraded further. This repeats each time the process repeats. For this reason, an uncompressed format like WAV is the far better choice for audio files that are still in the editing process. Once an audio file has been degraded, converting it back to WAV will not restore the quality.
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