Sound Formats Beyond MP3 - dummies

By Mark L. Chambers

Following are some of the sampled sound formats out there on the Internet (and sometimes swapped between PC owners). However, the MP3 format is now so popular for music that these other formats have been reduced to storing Windows sound effects and such. Some sound editors can convert audio between different formats, but if you’re working with music, you can’t lose with MP3.

WAV format

The Microsoft Windows Audio/Video (WAV) audio format is the standard format used by Windows for playing sound effects, and it’s also used in games and on the web. Your browser should recognize and play WAV audio files like a familiar old friend.

Although WAV files can be recorded at audio CD quality — and therefore can be used to record music — MP3 files offer the same (or better) quality and are much smaller (megabytes smaller) in comparison. All versions of Windows since Windows 95 have included a simple sound recorder that can capture WAV files by using a microphone plugged into your PC.

WMA format

Not to be outdone by MP3, Microsoft developed the WMA (Windows Media Audio) format as a contender for the Best Digital Audio Format crown. Indeed, WMA files are as high in quality as MP3 files, and WMA audio can be recorded in multichannel 5.1 Surround sound.

However, the challenger from Redmond isn’t likely to usurp MP3 any time soon. For once, the open standard is stronger than any proprietary standard that Microsoft attempts to enforce. For example, many current MP3 players don’t recognize or support WMA tracks — and portable MP3 players sure don’t need Surround sound.

Plus the built-in DRM protection (short for Digital Rights Management) severely limits what you can do with your WMA tracks — you may not be able to burn an audio CD with your WMA-format music, for example, or play that track on another PC.

AAC format

Apple’s entry into the digital audio format wars is higher in quality and smaller in size than MP3, so it makes a good choice for squeezing the largest number of songs into your MP3 player (as long as it supports AAC, like the iPod). Any music you download from the iTunes Store is in AAC format. Note, however, that Windows Media Player doesn’t support AAC.

AU format

The Audio Unix (AU) format was introduced by Sun Microsystems, so (as you would expect) it’s a popular standard for systems running Unix and Linux. AU audio files are typically of lower quality than MP3 files, but they’re even smaller in size, making them popular on many websites. Luckily, both Internet Explorer and Firefox can play AU files with ease.

AIFF format

At one time, Apple used the Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) as standard equipment within its operating systems, including music files. However, these days, the Cupertino Crew has switched wholeheartedly and completely to AAC, so AIFF has already started down the road once taken by the dinosaurs. (OS X still recognizes AIFF files for sound effects, but that’s about it.)

Although AIFF files can be recorded at CD quality, they’re simply huge, so don’t expect to find them on the web or on your personal MP3 player.

MIDI format

Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) files aren’t digital audio but instead are directions on how to play a song — kind of like how a program is a set of directions that tells your computer how to accomplish a task. Your PC or a MIDI instrument (like a MIDI keyboard) can read a MIDI file and play back the song.

As you might guess, however, MIDI music really doesn’t sound like the digitally sampled sound you get from an MP3 or WMA file.