The Novice's Guide To Audio Formats and File Extensions

Virtually everyone uses these various audio formats. Who hasn’t heard of iTunes or RealPlayer? Whether we realize it or not, this is good information for all of us to know. Let’s cover the basics, shall we?


Created by a contingent of European engineers in the early 90’s, MP3 (aka, MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3) has become something of a household name in today’s world. With MP3 players galore, and iPods everywhere, most everyone uses or at least knows of the MP3 audio format. But do you really know what MP3 is?

In one sentence, the MP3 audio codec compresses the number of bytes used to store an audio file without noticeably lessening the sound quality. But, how does it do that? It uses a compression algorithm. And what is that? How does it work? All good questions – let’s find out.

An algorithm is simply a fancy-schmancy word meaning a set of rules created for solving a specific problem, in an outlined – and preferably small – number of steps. Therefore, a “compression algorithm” can be adequately described as a problem solving equation used to compress a file size. In the case of MP3, it is also meant to maintain as much of the perceived audio quality as possible.

So, how does MP3 work? It's simpler than you think. The MP3 file leaves out a number of sounds which are indiscernible by the human ear (sorry, Rover – you have to lose out on the sound quality.) For example, there are a number of sounds which – despite present in music on CD – are not within the human’s range of hearing. MP3 cuts it out – and the MP3 audio file still sounds very much the same to the human ear. There are some other sounds which the MP3 format cuts out – such as the quieter of simultaneous sounds (after all, you’re not going to hear it anyway.) By deleting these sounds from the audio file, the MP3 format is lowering the file size by quite a substantial amount, while keeping most of the audio quality the same. Not bad for a compression algorithm.


Microsoft created its own audio format back in the late 90’s. They called it Windows Media Audio (WMA). Although not as popular as MP3 format, WMA is still widely accepted by a number of media players and holds quite a following among digital music gurus. It is the default audio format for Window’s Media Player, and can be played on Real Player and WinAmp as well. WMA files can also be found alongside MP3 files on MP3 download services (although you may want to make sure that your MP3 player is able to play protected WMA files – many aren’t.)

Like MP3, WMA uses a compression algorithm to discard sounds which wouldn’t be discerned by the human ear anyway, thus lowering the audio file size. There has been much debate over which audio codec has the greatest quality. Microsoft has boasted that the WMA’s audio quality is superior to MP3 and RA (Real Audio.) However, this claim has not been substantiated, and there are many who tend to disagree.

The debate continues; however, some things are fairly certain. WMA can be a much clearer choice for your audio needs at lower bitrates (around 30kb/s.) MP3, on the other hand, can be the better choice at higher streaming speeds. Thus, MP3 is very popular as a digital audio medium. However, many still give their allegiance to WMA. Compare them, and find out which works best for you.


Real Audio (RA) is an audio format produced by RealNetworks in the mid-90’s and created to be compatible with RealPlayer. The RA file format is unique in the sense that it contains not only one codec – but a string of various codecs which come into play when playing varying speeds of streaming audio data. Therefore, RA is very popular in the online community for streaming online media. Many online radio stations also use RA as a means of streaming their radio programs across the Internet in real-time.


One of the oldest audio formats, WAV (short for waveform) came into being from a joint effort by Microsoft and IBM back in the good-ol’-90’s. WAV is the audio format which still comes pre-installed with most new PCs. It’s been around for a while, and it’s quit trusty.

In this present generation of online song-swapping, WAV has fallen in popularity. It's not a compressed format, and therefore is a slower means of transmitting over the Internet. It also takes up much more space than most have room for, being that many folks have thousand-song-plus audio libraries. However, not being compressed, it is therefore of higher audio quality – and is often used by digital audio geeks who have limitless storage space.

WAV is also compatible both with Windows and Mac operating systems.


Created by Apple Computer in the late 1980’s, AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) is very similar to WAV. It is most commonly used on Macintosh computers. AIFF is an uncompressed audio format, and therefore is quite large, but of high quality. It is used by many professional media outlets. However, unlike MP3 and WMA, AIFF is usually not worth storing if you are concerned with filling your iPod with hundreds of songs.


MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is something of a different story from what we have already covered. Rather than storing or transmitting a full array of sounds in the form of an audio file, MIDI simply deals with the single notes and pitches of the audio file. The MIDI file format is used extensively by professionals in the music industry to communicate and transmit notes, pitches, and tempos. Even entire compositions are sent, note by note. Say goodbye to faxing sheet music – say hello to MIDI file format!

MIDI has remained the unchallenged champion for transferring digital audio note by note since the early 1980’s.

Now that we have the basics of audio file extensions covered, consider yourself a bona-fide digital audio geek. Continue comparing and contrasting the various mediums, and find which works the best for you for your daily needs!

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