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Guide to Different Audio Formats & What They Really Mean for Hi-Fi Speakers

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Just like there are a large number of hi-fi audio equipment, there are also a lot of different audio formats.

When I first started listening to music, there were only a couple of audio formats, primarily MP3 (but there were mostly cassettes or vinyl records). But now, there are so many different types of audio formats that it can be hard to keep track of them all.

So many formats also come with different bitrates and speaker system preferences, which can further add to the confusion. On your journey toward becoming an audiophile, it is important that you know everything there is to know about audio formats.

In this article, I’m going to give you a brief overview of some of the most popular audio formats and what they mean for hi-fi speakers.

Breaking Down Audio Formats

The journey toward audio formats begins first with whether the audio is being recorded digitally or physically. For example, cassette tapes and vinyl records are both physical recordings of audio, while MP3s, WMAs, and more are digital.

In the case of physical recordings, the audio is converted into an electrical signal, which is then stored on the medium.

These are usually permanent “etchings” on a magnetic tape or disk that may not be suitable for overwriting. Naturally, physical recordings are much more fragile as well. 

On the other hand, with digital recordings, the audio is first converted into a stream of 1s and 0s (binary code) and then stored on the medium.

This is where I get to the next important question – what kind of medium are we talking about?

Hi-Fi Speakers
Image: JumpStory

The most popular medium for storing digital audio used to be the Compact Disc or CD, but it has now moved towards the cloud. CDs can store up to 700 MB of data, which is enough for around 80 minutes of music.

The cloud is much more portable and can store potentially unlimited data on it. It is also resistant to damage, which makes the cloud ideal for storing music.

Digital and analog audio can also be stored on other kinds of mediums, such as USB flash drives, memory cards, digital audio players (DAPs)and even hard disks.

‘However, where audio is stored is not the only thing that matters – the bitrate and the file format itself also plays a very important role.

I have personally found that analog audio does tend to sound a bit better than digital audio for classical and jazz nuts, but for those looking for more modern music, digital is the way to go.

Pros & Cons of Digital Audio

Digital audio has a few advantages over analog audio, such as:

  • Digital audio is more resistant to noise and distortion. This is because digital audio is stored in binary form, which means that each 1 or 0 represents a specific amplitude of the sound. As long as the 1s and 0s are intact, the audio will be perfectly fine.
    • Analog audio is stored as a continuous voltage signal. This means that even a small amount of noise or distortion can completely change the sound of the audio.
  • Digital audio is much easier to store and transport than analog audio. This is because digital audio can be compressed to a much smaller size without losing any quality.
    • Analog audio, on the other hand, takes up a lot of space and is very delicate. Even a small amount of damage can completely ruin an analog recording.
  • Digital audio can be edited much more easily than analog audio. This is because digital audio is just a stream of 1s and 0s, which can be easily manipulated.
    • Analog audio, on the other hand, is much more difficult to edit without causing damage.

Digital audio also has a few disadvantages.

  • Digital audio can suffer from something called aliasing. Aliasing occurs when the sampling rate of the digital audio is not high enough.
    • This can cause the audio to sound “scratchy” or “grainy.”
  • Digital audio can suffer from something called quantization noise. This is caused by the fact that digital audio is stored in a finite number of bits.
    • This means that the sound will be limited to a certain number of levels, which can cause distortion.
  • Digital audio can suffer from something called jitter. Jitter is caused by the fact that digital audio is stored in a stream of 1s and 0s.
Astell & Kern DAP on a table in a stand with the retail box next to it.
Astell & Kern do great DAPs which handle almost all formats | Source: Make Life Click

Considering The Audio Format: PCM & DSD

When I talk about digital audio, I am usually referring to two different formats – Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) and Direct Stream Digital (DSD).

PCM is the most common format for storing digital audio. It is used for CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays, and even some video games. PCM is stored in a lossless format, which means that no quality is lost when the audio is compressed.

DSD is a newer format that is slowly gaining popularity. It is used by some high-end audio players and music services, such as Tidal. DSD is stored in a lossless format, which means that no quality is lost when the audio is compressed. It is also being adopted widely by cloud services, which most of you will already be familiar with. 

DSD also has the advantage of being able to be converted to PCM without losing any quality.

What Bitrate Should I Use?

The bitrate of an audio file is the number of bits that are used to represent one second of audio.

The higher the bitrate, the better the quality of the audio. This means that a 24-bit/192kHz file will sound better than a 16-bit/44.1kHz file.

For many, the difference is not always noticeable. When I didn’t have any hi-fi speakers or headphones, I didn’t notice much difference, either. But the high-bitrate and low-bitrate audio file make a marked difference with the right equipment. 

Different formats have different bitrates. For example, MP3 files usually have a bitrate of 128kbps, while FLAC files have a bitrate of 1,411kbps. Though this is the norm, you can find higher bitrates in MP3 as well (up to 512kbps). 

Overview Of Different Audio Formats

There are many different audio formats, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

MP3

MP3 audio format logo
Guide to Different Audio Formats & What They Really Mean for Hi-Fi Speakers 9

The most popular audio format is MP3. MP3 files are small, which makes them easy to store and transport. They are also compatible with almost all devices. However, MP3 files have a low bitrate, which means that they can sound “scratchy” or “grainy.”

AAC

Another popular audio format is AAC. AAC files are slightly larger than MP3 files, but they have a higher bitrate, which means that they can sound better than MP3 files. However, AAC files are not compatible with all devices.

FLAC

FLAC website screenshot - Free lossless audio codec
Guide to Different Audio Formats & What They Really Mean for Hi-Fi Speakers 10

FLAC is a lossless audio format. This means that no quality is lost when the audio is compressed. FLAC files are large, which makes them difficult to store and transport. They are also not compatible with all devices but are best suited for hi-fi speaker systems

ALAC

ALAC is another lossless audio format. It is similar to FLAC, but it is compatible with more devices. However, for hi-fi speaker systems, FLAC is a better choice. Finding ALAC files can be much more difficult than finding FLAC. 

WAV

WAV is a lossless audio format. This means that no quality is lost when the audio is compressed. WAV files are very large, which makes them difficult to store and transport. They are usually compatible with more devices.

Audiophiles may think that WAV is the best format, but the file size is truly a bit too much to handle in many cases, while the difference (even with hi-fi equipment) is not as noticeable between WAV and FLAC. 

Other audio formats that can be used for lossless audio are AIFF and WMA Lossless.

What’s The Best Format For Hi-Fi Speakers?

The best format for hi-fi speakers is FLAC. FLAC files are lossless, which means that they have the highest quality.

They are also compatible with more devices than other lossless audio formats. However, your own preference also matters, and there isn’t particularly a one-size-fits-all solution. 

What’s The Best Format For Portability?

If you want to be able to take your music with you, MP3 is the best format. MP3 files are small, which makes them easy to store and transport. They are also compatible with almost all devices.

Astell & Kern lossless audio player
Astell & Kern DAP for Lossless audio on the go | Source: Make Life Click

What’s The Best Format For Streaming?

If you want to stream your music, AAC is the best format. AAC files have a higher bitrate than MP3 files, which means that they can sound better. However, AAC files are not compatible with all devices.

You may also want to consider using a lossless audio format, such as FLAC or ALAC. These formats are compatible with more devices than MP3 and AAC.

However, I have found that when streaming lossless audio files, there can be a lot of buffering. This is because lossless audio files are very large and require a lot of bandwidth to stream.

In general, I would recommend using MP3 or AAC for streaming. These formats are compatible with more devices, and they don’t require as much bandwidth to stream.

Most importantly

There is no point in researching what audio formats you should use if your source cannot handle playing these formats.

This means you might need to buy a digital audio player or DAP, if you want to play a lot of lossless audio or set up hard drives as sources for your HiFi amps.

You can also stream on audiophile streaming services like Tidal but that will cost you and you need good internet speeds.

I have an Astell & Kern DAP but you could also just stream using Tidal.

Not a blocker to getting the best audio formats. Just something to consider.

What’s The Best Format For Audiophiles?

If you are an audiophile, you should use a lossless audio format, such as FLAC or ALAC. These formats are the best for hi-fi speakers. They have the highest quality, and they are compatible with more devices.

In my personal experience, I have found that FLAC files sound the best. Whether you are gaming or simply listening to music, these files tend to have much more details embedded in them than any other format – but they may be a bit difficult to find!

Endless hours of experimentation, professional work, and personal investment in Home Theatre, Hi-Fi, Smart Home Automation and Headphones have come to this.

Former owner of Headphones Canada, a high-end headphone specialty retailer.


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