Digital Audio File Formats – Lossy Vs Lossless

We’ve come a long way from toting around cases of acim audio. While there’s part of us that never wants to let go of that mix tape, or that Van Halen or Madonna collection, you can’t ignore the fact that we’ve gone digital. Analog still has its place, even if it’s just to revisit old times, but most of the audio and music we deal with now is in a digital format.

Not all digital audio is the same however; not only can it be found in variable compression formats but because we deal in so many different types of technology and how that data is read, there are numerous digital audio formats.

Those digital audio formats, also referred to as codecs (MP3, WMA, AAC, AIFF, etc.) are grouped into two different categories; Lossless and Lossy. Regardless of where it’s grouped however, a codec is named such because of its overall function. Codec= compression + decompression of music into digital audio files.

Working with Lossless Codecs

With Lossless Codecs, every bit of the musical data and information that forms the overall audio file is maintained and preserved upon compression. That data is then stored for retrieval. When compared to other audio, lossless codecs offers up the highest audio fidelity with the crispest digital sound.

The unfortunate downside is that the files they create can become expansive and rather large. Depending on the size of your music server or drive, you could be limited with the number of songs you can store. As technology continues to advance however this is becoming less of an issue. Terabyte external drives and small portable drives and players exceeding 500 gigabytes will have little problem with storage capacity.

The most common Lossless Codecs:

Windows Media Lossless – this codec is built into newer versions of Windows Media Player software from Microsoft and is widely supported by a number of other media adapter systems.

Apple Lossless – Of course Microsoft has its competitor in Apple. This codec is included in the iTunes software and the Apple Lossless Encoder is their answer to the Windows Media Lossless.

Free Lossless Audio codec (FLAC) – Wherever there is something commercial there can often be found something free. As the name implies the FLAC is a codec that is free on the digital market. It’s widely supported, and a few of the audio players that support the free codec includes the Sonos Digital Music System and Slim Devices (of course there are numerous others).

Working with Lossy Codecs:

When you’re dealing with data compression, you can expect some loss of data. Lossy codecs discard some of the music information intentionally in order to reduce the size of the audio file. This is done for a variety of reasons including the reduction of overall size in order to allow more digital files to be stored. Likewise, size reduction makes it easy to move files over the web. To the human ear, listening to the music on a run of the mill audio system won’t reveal much difference. If you play the sound through a quality sound or home theater system you can begin to pick up the subtle difference in quality and tone.

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