Digital audio technology has come a long way since its inception in 1971, when the first-ever commercial digital audio recordings were released. In recent years, these advancements have culminated in a rivalry between two audio formats, WAV vs. MP3, each with its own benefits and shortcomings.
WAV and MP3 are popular audio file formats with numerous differences, advantages, and drawbacks. Therefore, knowing which format is the most fitting for various purposes is crucial for all professionals dealing in commercial digital audio.
For example, professionals like podcasters should know which of the two file formats is best suited for audio recordings. On the other hand, recording artists have to know which one is ideal for music.
This article highlights and elaborates on the critical differences between WAV and MP3 audio file formats. Read on to understand how the two formats differ and how each one can serve you best.
WAV vs. MP3: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Encoding method||Uses the LPCM (Linear Pulse-Code Modulation) format||Uses the perceptual coding format|
|Sound quality||Has similar sound quality to the original recording||Has lowered sound quality compared to the original recording|
|Ease of editing||Easy to edit||You need to decode, edit, then re-encode|
|File size||It is more prominent in size||It is 5 to 10x smaller|
|Compression||It is uncompressed||It is compressed|
|Device compatibility||It is compatible with most mainstream devices but may pose challenges to others||It is compatible with almost all devices|
|Special software consideration||You need special software to upload files to platforms like YouTube||You can upload on any platform without using any special software|
|Playback||Has smoother playback, except when streaming||Has smooth playback when streaming|
What Is a WAV File?
In essence, WAN (Waveform Audio) files are plain audio files initially created by Microsoft and IBM. Microsoft and IBM originally made these files to eradicate the beeping noises associated with computers. They found that WAV files could replace the unpleasant noises, leaving computers to run silently.
Today, WAV files have evolved from their initial function to professional music producers’ use. Music producers use these files and audio editing software to produce high-quality audio with smooth playback.
What Is an MP3 File?
Over the years, MP3 files have served as the standard in audio file recording. Professionals in the music industry have typically worked with MP3 files and occasionally MPEG Audio Layer-3 in all their recording needs. However, despite its long standing in the audio recording industry, MP3 files are considered lossy versions of audio files.
They are called lossy because they often lead to data loss. MP3 files have an embedded compression algorithm which makes them much smaller in size. However, once a file is compressed, the process is irreversible, which means some data gets lost.
Although this data loss is not alarming enough to impact the audio quality considerably, it still reduces it to 80% or 90% compared to WAV. However, despite this drawback, MP3 files are still vastly popular due to their compression capability. In this day and age, when smaller hard drives are ideal, MP3 file compression is incredibly beneficial.
WAV vs. MP3: What’s the Difference?
The most significant difference between MP3 and WAV files is their encoding method. Since WAV are uncompressed audio files, they are typically encoded in the LPCM (Linear Pulse-Code Modulation) format. LPCM is a digital method of encoding uncompressed audio data.
The LPCM format uses a sequence of amplitude values to represent the audio waveforms. These amplitude values are sampled from a linear scale where the values and the amplitudes are proportional, instead of scales with the values demarcated as logs of amplitudes.
In contrast, you can encode MP3 audio files in various ways. One of the ways to encode an MP3 file is through perceptual coding. This approach is based on various psychoacoustic models, which authorize the codec to discard some data.
This discarded data reduces the precision of the resultant audio components, but only to a small extent. Additionally, MP3 file encoding comes with audio options up to 16-bit, typically with a 320 kbps maximum bitrate. In contrast, the LPCM encoding method comes with 24-bit options, which are much better for data preservation than the 16-bit option.
WAV files are far superior to their MP3 counterparts when it comes to sound quality. WAV audio formats numerous lossless PMC codecs that prevent data loss when encoding the audio files. This measure ensures that the PMC codecs reproduce files that closely replicate the source audio, resulting in better audio quality.
The audio quality of WAV files is so superior that most sound engineers choose only to work with this format. For similar reasons, most audio distribution agencies, like Amazon, Apple Music, and Spotify, also demand WAV files. The agencies later convert these files to formats better suited for streaming purposes.
Furthermore, the WAV audio format allows the storage of audio files with sample rates of up to 4GHz. Since most applications support sample rates of up to 192kHz, the WAV 4GHz audio files have more than enough space.
In contrast, MP3 files are typically lossy due to their compressed nature. As mentioned earlier in the article, the embedded compression algorithm within MP3 files makes them smaller and leads to data loss. This slight data loss results in reduced audio quality.
Although the sound quality of MP3 files is lower than that of WAV, they are still good enough to listen to. The quality difference between the two audio formats is so minimal that it is imperceptible to the human ear. Only with the assistance of audio technology can one spot the quality difference between the two.
Ease of Editing
Editing is a fundamental part of all commercial audio recordings. This factor often means that the easily editable audio format is ideal. In this case, WAV files come ahead of their MP3 counterparts.
WAV files typically have a simple format that allows editing with most software in the industry. This compatibility reduces outsourcing and ensures affordability. With the podcast industry growing exponentially, WAV files prove helpful, since they are compatible with nearly all podcast recording software.
In comparison, MP3 files are not compatible with some editing software. Furthermore, you must decode your MP3 file before editing the audio and re-encode it before storing it. However, the right audio editing software can make the process much easier.
Size and Compression
Due to the compression involved with the MP3 format, these files are typically smaller than their counterparts. Most MP3 files are typically five to 10x smaller than WAV files. With such small sizes, thousands of files can fit within a small space on a storage disk. This factor has dramatically impacted data storage technology, allowing for even smaller storage devices.
On the other hand, without compression, WAV files are much bigger and need more storage space. Such files often require users to have storage disks with larger capacities, which is expensive.
Both WAV and MP3 files are widely compatible with most devices. Although WAV files may be incompatible with some software options, they are still vastly compatible with nearly all modern media players. For instance, you can play WAV audio files on both Apple and Android devices.
In contrast, since MP3 files have been the standard for over 20 years, their compatibility is much broader. After sound quality, this is the next significant difference between the two audio formats. Indeed, it is almost impossible to find an audio system that does not recognize MP3 files.
Special Software Consideration
Although it is slowly becoming rare, some devices may need special software to play WAV files. Typically, this issue lies with some Android devices that require you to install specific media players for WAV files. Moreover, WAV files can also have software compatibility issues when uploading somewhere.
For instance, you may be unable to upload WAV video files to platforms like YouTube. To get around this, you will need the help of special software like Movavi Video Converter to alter the file to a more compatible format.
MP3 files will typically work with any software, whether you are playing on a device or uploading to a media platform. This factor often makes MP3 files preferable to the typical user who wants to avoid spending time finding special software.
WAV audio files normally express smoother playback than their MP3 counterparts. However, this might be different depending on the source of the audio. For example, if you are streaming, WAV files can be slower, take longer, and sometimes result in buffering.
In comparison, MP3 files perform expertly during streams but could be slower in other cases. Indeed, MP3 files are the ideal audio format for streaming, especially when working with limited bandwidth.
Pros and Cons of WAV
|WAV files are uncompressed, making them easier to edit and process without the risk of losing any data||WAV files take up a lot of storage space and can be slow to transfer over the internet|
|WAV is a lossless audio file format, meaning that it retains all of the original audio data without any loss in quality||WAV files may not be compatible with some devices, particularly older or less common hardware|
|WAV files provide the highest level of audio quality possible and are commonly used for mastering and storing high-quality audio tracks||Because WAV files are uncompressed, they do not have any built-in compression to reduce the file size|
|WAV files are compatible with multiple operating systems, including Windows, Mac, and Linux||Limited metadata support|
|WAV files can support multichannel audio, making them suitable for surround sound recordings||Large file sizes can be a disadvantage for storage and transfer|
Pros and Cons of MP3
|MP3 files offer a good balance between file size and audio quality, making them ideal for mobile devices and other low-storage devices||MP3 files have a limited bit rate, which means that they cannot capture as much detail as lossless formats|
|MP3 files support metadata, such as artist name, album, and track information, making it easy to organize and find audio files||Due to the lossy compression, MP3 files may have reduced audio quality compared to lossless formats like WAV|
|MP3 files are commonly used for streaming and sharing audio online since they are small and easy to upload and download||MP3 uses a lossy compression algorithm, which means that some audio data is lost during the compression process|
|MP3 files are widely compatible with most media players, devices, and software|
|MP3 files are compressed, making them much smaller in size compared to other lossless formats like WAV|
WAV vs. MP3: 9 Must-Know Facts
- WAV audio files typically use Linear Pulse-Code Modulation encoding format, while MP3 files use perceptual coding.
- WAV files have better audio quality than MP3 files.
- MP3 files are much smaller than WAV files and consume less space on a storage device.
- MP3 files are considered lossy audio files since their compression algorithms lead to slight data loss.
- WAV files are typically not compressed but can be if needed.
- MP3 files are compatible with nearly all devices and software, whereas WAV files are primarily compatible with modern media players.
- You might need special software when playing or uploading WAV files to media platforms like YouTube.
- WAV files have better playback than MP3 files, except when streaming.
- MP3 files are the ideal option for streaming purposes.
WAV vs. MP3: Which One Is Better?
For Streaming Purposes
MP3 files have proven to be the ideal format for audio streaming purposes. MP3 files tend to have smoother playback during streaming compared to WAV files. This factor results in a better streaming experience with little to no buffering.
WAV files are typically easier to edit than MP3 files. The main reason is that WAV files are not compressed, which allows you to jump straight into editing.
In contrast, MP3 files typically require you to decode the file before beginning the editing process, then re-encode it. This process can be challenging for people unfamiliar with it. It can also be frustrating, time-consuming, and inconvenient.
For Storage Purposes
MP3 files are the ideal option for storing vast amounts of audio files. Due to their compressed nature, MP3 files are typically 5 to 10x smaller than WAV files. This difference in size allows MP3 files to take up smaller storage space.
Therefore, if you have many audio files that need storing, it is best to convert them to MP3 files first. Alternatively, if you have limited space, MP3 files can help you store your audio data without having to buy more storage space.
For Uploading and Distribution
If you intend to upload your audio recordings to media platforms like YouTube, MP3 format is your best bet. MP3 files are compatible with more platforms than WAV files. This feature makes uploading MP3 files to YouTube easier than WAV files.
However, if you only have WAV files, there is a unique software that can help. Software like Movavi Video Converter can help you convert your WAV files to MP3, which you can then upload to YouTube. Furthermore, if you intend to distribute your files to be played on various devices, it is also best to convert them to MP3, since the format is compatible with more devices.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Kiselev Andrey Valerevich/Shutterstock.com.