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AIFF versus WAV: Which audio file format is best?

AIFF versus WAV: Which audio file format is best?

AIFF or WAV File format?

Which is best for audio? Mp3 and Mp4 as well as FLAC and other less common formats make a small portion of the audio files out there as well. What’s best?

Answer: AIFF and WAV are almost the exact same quality

WAV is mostly used for PCs and AIFF being used mostly for MAC, but either can be played on virtually all types of computers and devices. Both use the same type of encoding that results in a relatively large file size, but a maintaining a higher quality sound than mp3 m4a or other smaller files.
 

So when should you use WAV / AIFF and when should you use MP3 / M4A etc?

When you are concerned with speed and small file size, use mp3.  For example, on the internet, or in an email. No one wants to download a 50mB file to listen to song on their phone, or send a quick tune to a friend. If you’re streaming on a website, or youtube, thats likely streaming a lossy file format similar to mp3. In fact, mp3 is just a video file, without the video part. 
 
Sound Wav Represnentation

Image before Downsampling Data

 
Image Downsampled

Image after Downsampling Data (Lossy Data Compression) 

 
 
This image shows how a downsampled image can be lower quality than the original to save space. Generally it looks about the same, but closer inspection shows loss of detail. Just like a pixelated JPEG, audio files that have too much lossy compression can be lackluster, and sound like they lack the detail of a WAV or AIFF file.  The top image would parallel a WAV or AIFF, and the bottom image would parallel a MP3 or Mp4, although the image is a not an actual representation, but for illustrating how compression affects quality. 
 

WAV and AIFF Encoding Explained Further

Both AIFF and WAV are lossless file formats, in other words, there is no loss of data. The file format differs slightly, but the digital information is stored as an exact mathematical representation of the waveform. WAV and AIFF both use PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) to encode the data in a manner that has no loss of quality. WAV or AIFF are both CD quality or Studio quality, with CD being 16bit and usually studio quality being 24 bit. The general rule of thumb is if you record at 16, render the files at 16. If you record at 24 bit, render your mixes at 24 bit. Files can always be downsampled to a lower bit rate. For example 24 bit can easily be downsampled to 16, but once you are at 16, going back to 24 bit is pretty useless.

Both WAV and AIFF can be encoded with timestamps, tempo information, and other types of information like markers. Pro Tools or Logic can create WAV or AIFFs. According to internet “sources” the difference is the byte order. With AIFF being optimized for motorola processor, and WAV files optimized for Intel based microprocessors.

 

The exciting world of Pulse Code Modulation

Pulse code modulation is a mathematical way to digitally represent analog signals. It is used in digital audio devices. The amplitude (otherwise known as the energy level or loudness of a sound) is measured at different points. The amount of times the amplitude is measured a second is called the sample rate. For example, 44.1k sample rate, means that 44,100 samples per second are captured. For 96k, 96,000 times a second the sound is measured.

Bit rate is the amount of steps on the ‘measuring stick’ that measures the amplitude. 16 bit and 24 bit are the most common, but the general idea is that a higher bit rate is more precise. 24 bits has a higher dynamic range than 16 bit , or more precise measurement because it has 24 units of data to measure, versus only 16 bits, which has 6 less steps on the scale.

While this may be a slight oversimplification, you get the idea. More Bits is better. A higher sample rate is better.

Some common sample rates would be:

 

  • 44.1 16 Bit  (CD Quality)
  • 48k 16bit (DVD-Video Quality)
  • 96k 24bit DVD-Audio Quality (DVD-A)

 

In the studio 48k 24bit  or 96k 24bit are often used as “studio quality” and then downsampled later. Most people do not want 96k WAV files. It’s just too big, and who listens to “better than CD quality” these days anyways. Maybe audiophiles and studio people, but many listen to mp3 or lossy versions too. You need your songs to sound great in all formats, and getting caught up in all the different versions can be a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down. Plenty of great material has been recorded at 44.1k, plenty of terrible material has been recorded at 192k (or even higher!) but it doesn’t make it sound any better.

Quality Analysis via Nyqust- Shannon Sampling Theorem

Nyqust Theorem or Shannon Sampling theorem is a mathematical formula for determining what the theoretic maximum frequency you can reproduce using different sample rates. The nyquist theorem states that frequencies below half the sampling rate in kilohertz can be reconstructed. The range of human hearing can be estimated to be 20hz-20khz. So using that formula, 44.1k should be able to reproduce well up to the 20k limit (that being said, 20k is barely perceptible, and with 2.5k to 5k still registering in the “higher pitch” areas, 10k and 12k being piercingly high, 20k is not that useful of a frequency when it comes to mixing audio)

Debate and Conclusion

In my experience bit rate (16 bit vs 24 bit) oftentimes make more difference to the audio than the sample rate (e.g. 44.1k vs 48k)

So why use 96k at all? By ensuring frequencies up to 40k are covered, we have a very accurate version of the sound that can be use to mix down to 44.1k or something more reasonable. Most plugins can use 96k, and most listening tests DO show quality difference between 44.1k and 96k. 192k can be used or even higher, but that could be debated as far as perceptible quality vs file size. Try it out for yourself.

There are literally hundreds of factors that go into the sound of the recording. Microphone choice and placement, pre-amps, converter quality and anti-aliasing, clocking, as well as physical environment all play a role making much greater changes to the sound than 48k vs 96k or 44.1 vs 48k. So don’t sweat it too much.

So AIFF vs WAV? there is absolutely no difference at all in quality. Use either. I would say WAV is slightly more common.