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There is no consensus on the best-quality file format for listening to music but there are plenty of opinions, so let’s try to get a handle on them.
Neil Young denounced all digital formats for their inability to faithfully reproduce analog, and Steve Jobs preferred vinyl. But digital, specifically in the form of streaming and downloads, is the dominant means of delivering music today, so we need to embrace it.
Digital formats have been around for many years. The best-known of the first generation is MP3, but other formats soon competed with and often exceeded the quality of this standard format. More recently, high-resolution audio - or hi-res - was developed but existed for some time as a niche phenomenon. With the arrival of new hi-res streaming services like Amazon Music HD, Tidal and Spotify, HiFi is now reaching a mainstream audience.
There are several audio file formats, and six of these are hi-res. Before we run through each of them, since most formats use some form of compression in converting audio recordings, let’s define two very important terms pertinent to the process: lossless and lossy. Lossless formats preserve all the information contained in the original uncompressed recording, while lossy audio removes the data that is inaudible to the human ear in order to make the files more easily transferable over the internet.
MP3 and AAC are the least sophisticated formats, lossy and compressed. Their small file size makes them ideal for storage on smartphones and iPods, but the sound quality is compromised and they are the two that don’t support hi-res.
OGG Vorbis is used by Spotify and is a compressed format with smaller files than MP3 but capable of better sound quality. It is lossy, but some audiophiles rate it more highly than the FLAC format mentioned below.
WAV is the standard CD format, which gives great sound but is uncompressed, so the files are huge. AIFF is Apple’s hi-res alternative to WAV and compares very well but has never gained much popular support.
FLAC files are about half the size of WAV files because they use compression even though they are a lossless format. Although Apple doesn’t support FLAC, it is nonetheless a favorite format for downloading and storing hi-res albums.
Following a familiar pattern, Apple plough their separate furrow with their own lossless compression format ALAC. This is the iTunes and iOS-compatible alternative to FLAC.
Then, there are two advanced hi-res formats, DSD (Direct Stream Digital) and MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), which some predict as the future of digital music not least because of their ability to handle analog recordings without the kind of loss you experience in most other formats.
Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) is the standard method by which analog is converted to digital, whatever the final format is going to be. DSD is a single-bit format used for Super Audio CDs but is not yet widely supported. It was originally developed to archive old analog recordings, and although standard recordings in the format are still rare compared to PCM versions, some enthusiasts insist that DSD is the nearest thing to analog sound that the digital industry has yet managed.
MQA is a lossless compression format designed to store original master recordings. MQA files are small enough to download and stream but maintain the kind of quality that other compressed format files frequently sacrifice.
As you can see, this question involves several competing considerations. The differences across the many formats in terms of storage space, download speed and compatibility will be more important to some users than others. But if you are concerned purely with finding the best sound quality, it makes sense to choose the most advanced hi-res format.
However, it may not always be simple to access recordings in the format you favor. Until that changes, the best thing you can do is ensure that you have the most capable, advanced equipment on which to play your digital files - whether as downloads, streamed music, or digital rips from your vinyl. Digital to Analog Converters (DACs) are the perfect solution. For great performance, try something like the Volumio Premio Network Streamer or the Rega DAC-R.
Alternatively, a compact audio system like this wireless speaker from Naim Mu-So that connects to your smartphone or streaming service does a very good job.
Perfect sound quality? Maybe we’ll never get there, but we can get incredibly close.
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