by Paul Sanders
You may have noticed that not all of the digital music on your computer is saved as the same file type. Not all MP3 players and iPods can play the same music file types. Some players only play MP3s, but most will be able to read several MP3 file alternatives. Below are the most common file types for music and their common applications.
WAV: The Waveform Audio File format (WAV) is a very common form of audio file. WAV files are much larger than MP3 files because they usually contain uncompressed audio information. CDs store music in the WAV format, and if you transfer audio from your CDs to your computer, it typically will be saved in the WAV format.
AIFF: Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) is another uncompressed alternative to MP3. It's favored by audio engineers over MP3 because MP3 files lose some clarity during compression. While songs in the AIFF format may sound better, the tradeoff will be they take up a lot more space on both your music player and your computer's hard drive.
AU: This audio file format is the basic file format used by open-source computer operating systems, like UNIX and LINUX. The audio quality using this file format does not provide the best quality sound. However, it is easily supported by most music players and software.
Raw: This is another uncompressed MP3 alternative for storing raw audio data, and therefore features a large file size. Raw files don't have any "header" information to tell your MP3 player how many audio channels or what bit-rate to play the music at. RAW music files are most commonly used when editing or creating music on a computer.
AAC: Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) files have a similar, "lossy" compression to MP3 files, although they produce better audio quality at the same bit-rates. AAC is used as the audio standard for certain video file types. This file type is also the standard for iPods and other Apple products. Any music you download from iTunes by default will be in AAC format.
WMA: Windows Media Audio (WMA) files are similar to MP3s in that they compress audio data to make the files smaller. These files allow for digital rights management (DRM) features to be used in the file to prevent copyright infringement.
You're only limited to the music file types that your MP3 player will support. Check the manual for your music player for a complete list of compatible digital music files and video files.
"Lossless" audio formats are available for many of the above MP3 alternatives, meaning the audio is encoded without losing any audio quality.
Published January 21, 2011
Updated November 21, 2014