What You Should Know About Music Formats and Sound Quality

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AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless Encoder, MP3 and WAV are some of the music formats you should have heard of in the past, some possibly more than others though. These also happen to be the music formats supported by iTunes and therefore also by your iDevice… So which of these is the best music format to use and what should you look out for to unsure the best music quality of your songs to enjoy crisp, clear sound?

Lets get stuck into a quick introduction to the music formats:


Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) was designed to be the MP3 format’s successor. AAC boasts better sound quality than MP3 at similar bit rate, which is generally achieved.

With AAC the following improvements over MP3 were achieved:

  • More sample frequencies (from 8 to 96 kHz) than MP3 (16 to 48 kHz)
  • Up to 48 channels (MP3 supports up to two channels in MPEG-1 mode and up to 5.1 channels in MPEG-2 mode)
  • Arbitrary bit-rates and variable frame length. Standardized constant bit rate with bit reservoir.
  • Higher efficiency and simpler filterbank (rather than MP3’s hybrid coding, AAC uses a pure MDCT)
  • Higher coding efficiency for stationary signals (AAC uses a blocksize of 1024 or 960 samples, allowing more efficient coding than MP3’s 576 sample blocks)
  • Higher coding accuracy for transient signals (AAC uses a blocksize of 128 or 120 samples, allowing more accurate coding than MP3’s 192 sample blocks)
  • Can use Kaiser-Bessel derived window function to eliminate spectral leakage at the expense of widening the main lobe
  • Much better handling of audio frequencies above 16 kHz
  • More flexible joint stereo (different methods can be used in different frequency ranges)
  • Adds additional modules (tools) to increase compression efficiency: TNS, Backwards Prediction, PNS etc… These modules can be combined to constitute different encoding profiles.

AAC is the standard format for iPhone, iPad, iPod, iTunes, DivX Plus Web Player , Nintendo DSi, and PlayStation 3. It is also supported on other devices, such as PSP, Wii, Sony Walkman MP3. AAC is also supported by other cellphone manufacturers, including: Sony Ericsson; Nokia; Android; and some others.


Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF), is an audio format developed by Apple is and used for storing sound data for personal computers and other electronic audio devices. Unlike an MP3, AIFF audio is non-compressed, resulting in it using much more space than MP3.

Fairly unknown to me, AIFF is not a file I have ever used and doesn’t seem like a file I will make use of too soon.

Apple Lossless Encoder

Apple Lossless aka. Apple Lossless Audio Codec(ALAC), was developed by Apple with the idea of lossless data compression of digital music in mind.

Not much info on Apple Lossless is available but seems it that Apple has, as of late 2011, made use of the format royalty-free and “open-sourced”. Worth noting, however, is that Apple does not use the “ALAC” abbreviation, but rather uses the name “Apple Lossless” when referring to it


MPEG-2 Audio Layer III(MP3) is a common audio format used by many devices and consumers for audio storage.

MP3 was designed to reduce the amount of data required to represent the audio recording, while still sounding like a trustworthy reproduction of the original audio for most listeners.

It was created using the setting of “kbit/s” (kilobytes per second), which is referred to as “Bit Rate”. The MP3 file can also be made at higher or lower bit rates, with the higher the bit rate, the better sound quality. MP3 audio may use “Variable Bit Rate” (VBR). This is used to achieve a fixed level of quality, thus ensuring the best quality audio possible for the file.


Waveform Audio File Format(WAV), is the main file type introduced by and for Windows systems, which was developed by Microsoft and IBM. WAV is commonly used by Windows Media Player.

WAV is an “old – school” music format in my opinion, with little functionality to ensure the best sound quality.

*Info above on audio formats taken from Wikipedia.

Let’s get to the sound quality side of things…

I use MP3, as I prefer the format and have been able to get the best quality out of my music. I have tried and tested songs in the AAC format, as it is supposed to be MP3’s replacement and provide better sound quality, but in the end I felt that songs set to MP3 with a “Bit Rate” set to 320 kbps and VBR set to Highest, gave the best quality… Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense, I will show you below how to set your iTunes to these settings to get the best sound quality for your songs. The only possible downside to these settings means that song files will be larger, therefore taking more space.

I listen to music all the time and therefore I am a “Quality over Quantity” kind of guy. I like to get songs with the highest possible Bit Rate, which means a larger music file size per song , but results in a better sounding song, making it more enjoyable. None of this hollow sounding, no bass or clarity music for me thanks.

To get the best sound quality or even just adjust your iTunes settings to improve music quality slightly is as easy as a few clicks.

*Please note that throughout the steps below, you can click on the image to enlarge the photo, if needed

Step 1

Open iTunes on your PC and once it’s open, click on “Edit”:

iTunes Open

iTunes Open

Step 2

Next, click on “Preferences” :

Click "Edit" Then Select "Preferences"

Click “Edit” Then Select “Preferences”

Step 3

Once the “Preferences” window has opened, you should be on the “General” tab, if not, click on “General” to the top left side of the “Preferences” screen, then look for “Import Settings” and click on it:

Preferences Open, Click "Import Settings"

Preferences Open, Click “Import Settings”

Step 4

On the “Import Settings” screen you can choose from the available file formats(The formats mentioned in the beginning of the article), as well as the format’s quality or “Bit Rate”. As I mentioned, I like MP3, so I’ve gone and already chosen MP3, but you can click on the drop-down menu where it says “MP3” to choose a different file format. Once you have chosen the file format, click on the drop-down menu next to where it says “Setting” to choose a quality / bit rate setting. You can choose of the available settings, or choose “Custom” to set a higher bit rate setting as I have:

Choose File Format, Click Drop-down section by Setting

Choose File Format, Click Drop-down section by “Setting”

Step 5

Once you click on “Custom” the screen below will open. Click on the drop-down menu next to where it says “Stereo Bit rate” and choose “320 kbps” for the best quality.

Available Bit Rates, Select 320 For Best Quality

Available Bit Rates, Select 320 For Best Quality

Here is the list of other available bit rates supported by iTunes for MP3:

Available Bit Rates, Select 320 For Best Quality

Available Bit Rates, Select 320 For Best Quality

Step 6

Then click on “Use Variable Bit Rate Encoding (VBR)”, then click on the drop-down menu next to “Quality” and select “highest”. As mentioned above, VBR will ensure the bit rate quality is not lost, setting it to “Highest” will make sure the highest possible quality is preserved:

Tick Use VBR & Set Quality to Highest

Tick Use VBR & Set Quality to Highest

Step 8

Click on “OK” on all the open screens until you have closed the “Preferences” screen and your iTunes looks like it does when you open it.

If there were any songs in your library that were set to a different format, iTunes will automatically start converting them to the current settings that you have just set. Leave it to finish the conversion process.

Also important to note is that these settings are for when you import a CD onto you PC with iTunes(Copying the CD to your PC with iTunes). This doesn’t go for songs you may have downloaded… If you download music and want a song with the best quality, look for songs with the highest bit rate. If you are looking for a site to download music, click here.

In Conclusion

In my opinion, MP3 is the better audio format to use as more electronic devices support this format, but I am sure with time more and more devices will support newer formats and as with everything in technology, there are newer things lying around the corner. Who knows, maybe soon there will be a new file format dubbed “XYZ”… No no, I make joke, but just saying.

So, yes, for the best music quality, make sure your music is the following:

  • MP3
  • 320 kbps (Or as high a bit rate as possible)
  • VBR is on and set to highest or as high as possible

Always remember, give a jackass an education and you’ll have a smartass!

Signing out.


One comment to What You Should Know About Music Formats and Sound Quality

  • […] the 3 open windows to save the settings. If this sounds a bit tricky, please see the article “What Everybody Ought to Know About Music Formats and Sound Quality” and read the steps on how to change to MP3, but choose AAC […]


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