If you make or work with audio recordings of any kind, you probably have come across two different primary types of files—WAV files and MP3 files. Perhaps you’ve not known the distinction of the difference in the past whilst you continue on with your music creating or listening. You might want to know if they really are just interchangeable, or if maybe there are differences between the two types that can make one file type preferable over the other, depending on what you’re using it for.
The differences between MP3 vs WAV has been discussed before, and we’ve collected all of our findings on the topic to provide you with the most accurate and comprehensive answers to your questions. Read on to find out if a WAV file really is better than an MP3, and learn what the difference is between the two file types.
What is a MP3 File?
MP3 files were created with one goal in mind—to replicate the quality found in CD audio recordings, in much smaller file size. This allows for these files to take up relatively little space on your computer or other digital devices, and they’re easy to share—you can attach them to emails, text messages, and other communications and have them sent rather quickly, even if your connection is not the best, thanks to their small file size. This also means that if you have audio files in other formats, converting them to MP3 files can reduce their size and help you save space on your device, without sacrificing the quality of the files in the process. Converting a file to MP3 can reduce the file size by a factor of 10-12, creating a significant impact on the amount of space that they take up.
What makes MP3 files smaller?
This is done through a method called lossy compression. Lossy compression utilizes complicated and complex algorithms to determine what information from the original file is “extra” or unneeded. This information is then discarded, creating a file with a much smaller footprint. The information that is lost through lossy compression includes frequencies in the original audio that the human ear will likely be unable to detect, as we can usually only detect sounds with frequencies that fall within the range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Lossy compression uses this information and produces a file that contains only frequencies that fall from between about 18 Hz to 10 kHz, a more limited range of frequencies than the original, uncompressed file. It’s likely that, if the original audio was high quality enough, the listener will not be able to tell the difference in quality from the original file and the converted MP3 file. The sounds that fall above or below the frequency range and quiet sounds that are masked by louder ones are removed (or converted to mono) in order to save space.
The downside of lossy compression is that on occasion, the removal of these “unnecessary” sounds can create tiny instances of strange gaps or interference in the resulting compressed audio file. While these interferences can take many various forms, the overall difference from the original file is almost always unwanted and considered a decrease in quality. If you’re converting files to MP3, it’s always a good idea to listen to the resulting file with some high-quality headphones so that you can determine if it meets your quality standards before you delete or move the original file.
What's a WAV file?
In short, WAV files are the larger counterpart of MP3 files. These two often go hand in hand—most times, when you’re converting a preexisting audio file to MP3 in order to save space or make it more portable, the original file that you’re converting from is, in fact, a WAV file. Compared to MP3s, WAV files are often huge, coming in at 10-12 times the size. However, when we’re talking about audio, this is still a comparatively small size in most cases, at least when compared to videos or other huge files. If you’re using any type of professional music software in accordance with your audio files, or if you’re planning on distributing your music, podcast, or audiobook in the mass market (iTunes, Spotify, etc.), it’s best to steer clear of MP3 files and instead use the original WAV files. Even if the difference isn’t discernable to you, the processing that occurs in order to share your recordings on these sites can magnify any damaged sections of your file.
WAV files allow you to take full advantage of dynamic range, meaning that your recordings will often sound more full and complete when listened to. WAV files are also easy to work with—every widely-used audio software, such as Audacity and GarageBand, supports full high-quality WAV files, as does every video editing program we’ve used.
What’s better for audio - MP3 or WAV?
So, here’s the bottom line: working with audio files we recommend using WAV files when you export your songs in order to retain all of the quality of the work that you’ve put into creating them. Even if you personally don’t notice a difference, if the audio is played or streamed by someone else at a lower quality setting, strange artefacts may be audible which is not ideal. However if you’re just sharing a file to a friend, and looking to attach a draft of a song, podcast episode, or other recordings quickly and easily, or if you want to back up some files on a flash drive, hard drive, or to the Cloud for your own listening or peace of mind, you can rest assured that the use of MP3 would be best. They might not be as perfect when it comes to quality as a WAV file is, but they’re still fine for everyday use. Always make sure to keep a copy of the original, high-quality WAV file on hand, though—you never know when you might need it!