In the audio community there’s a constant discussion about which audio files sound better than the other – and why. Two of the most popular formats for storing digital audio data are WAV files and MP3 files. What’s the difference between WAV and MP3 files? We’ll give you a rundown of each file type, then compare the pros and cons of each.
After reading through our comparison, you’ll be an expert at explaining the difference and why one is better/worse than the other. If you’re ready to learn one of the technical aspects of the audio that you listen to, let’s get started!
What’s The Difference Between WAV and MP3?
Aside from the obvious difference in spelling, there are some pretty important differences between these two audio file types. At their core, they both act as a vehicle for the digital data that makes up your favorite songs, albums, audiobooks, and podcasts.
Unless you want to buy a new turntable and start collecting vinyl – most digital players are compatible with one (or both) of these file formats. We’ll start with WAV files, then go into MP3s, and finally – breakdown the major differences and reasons for both.
WAV (or WAVE) – Waveform Audio File Format
WAV files come in both compressed and uncompressed formats. When it comes to preserving the audio quality of a recording, uncompressed files tend to have a higher level of sound quality. This is mainly because the compression process can “water down” a high-fidelity recording.
Uncompressed WAV files are sometimes used by radio station broadcasters like BBC Radio and Global Radio. This way, they’re able to broadcast high quality recordings over the airwaves.
File Size and Portable Audio Players
Uncompressed audio files are larger and therefore take up more space on your harddrive, MP3 Player, iPod, or smartphone. For some, this is one reason why they tend to steer away from using WAV files on their portable devices.
For most audiophiles, the WAV format has to be used over an MP3 file once you’ve heard the difference in quality. This is also one reason why many high-end portable audio players have a micro SD slot. It makes it easier to expand the amount of memory that you can carry around in your pocket – without sacrificing basic audio quality.
Let’s say you have a player that’s micro SD-compatible and you bought a card that can hold up to 8 GB of data. You load up your card with enough songs to max out your 8 GB limit, but you still have a ton of music or podcasts that you want to listen to on your player.
Instead of having to go back and manually delete some of the songs that you can live without, just grab another micro SD card and load the rest on there.
Unlike an iPod that has a set amount of storage space (and no micro SD card slot), the players with expandable memory are much better for hi-fi audio enthusiasts. It becomes a juggling act of balancing audio quality and memory space.
MP3 – MPEG-1 Audio Layer III or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III
MP3s are the third iteration of MPEG audio file formats (hence the “3”). MP3s are a better version of the previous MPEG-2 format. MP3s are compressed using “lossy compression”. Lossy compression is a less accurate form of data encoding used to minimize the audio file’s size.
The files are made to be smaller but the main downside is that the final product is ultimately degraded. Here’s an analogy that might help you visualize the process.
How Sound Quality Is Affected By Compression
Picture a band, artist, or solo musician that came from nothing. The hunger, ambition, and raw drive to succeed served as a consistent undertone in their earlier songs.
A few years pass. They’ve started to pick up steam, made their first million, bought a house, and have managed to secure a comfortable lifestyle for themselves.
When they release the next album, you notice that something feels and sounds different now. It’s missing something that you can’t quite place your finger on. Then, you realize what’s missing.
The chords sound more simple, the vocals are watered down, and the lyrical content isn’t very lyrical at all. The hunger’s been filled and replaced the raw drive you recognized before into a more apathetic musical approach. (I don’t want to name any specific bands or musical artists, but I’m sure a few come to mind when you think about it.)
Once audio has been heavily compressed, the overall essence and quality of the file starts to suffer. While there are some well-designed lossy compression programs, ultimately the original quality won’t transfer over.
Differences In File Size To Consider
Another important thing to keep in mind is the difference in actual size between these two file types. An MP3 will take up less space than the typical WAV file will. Since MP3 files are highly compressed they take up less space, which means you can store more songs in the same amount of GB space.
8 GB of WAV files at 44.1 kHz = approx. 12 hours 45 minutes
8 GB of WAV files at 48 kHz = approx. 11 hours 45 minutes
8 GB of MP3 files at 64 kbps = 282 hours 40 minutes
8 GB of MP3 files at 128 kbps = 141 20 minutes
You can see the full recording times chart for MP3 and WAV files here. That should give you a better idea of one of the key separations between file type.
Can You Hear The Difference In Sound Quality?
The compression (or the lack of compression) both impact the difference in sound quality between these two file types. Another factor that will affect this is the audio gear that you’re using to listen to both file types.
Try This At Home
A lower-priced pair of headphones is able to play both types but it will be harder to hear an actual difference. On the other hand, a higher-end pair of ‘phones was specifically designed to produce hi-fi audio quality.
If you listen to an MP3 file on a $35 pair of headphones and then (using the same pair) listen to a WAV file – you will most likely not hear any difference at all.
Another Example You Can Experiment With
In the second example, you can try the same experiment – but this time with a higher quality pair. In this case, even an untrained ear can hear an increase in overall quality, volume, and detail.
This is where it starts to become more important when you’re trying to decide if you should invest in a more expensive pair of cans, or stick with buying multiple cheaper pairs. If you don’t need (or want) to hear the finer details in your audio then by all means stick with spending less.
For hi-fi enthusiasts, the sound quality takes precedence above all else. This is why some people are willing to spend upwards of $5,000 on a new pair of headphones. Whether or not a $5,000 pair sounds “out-of-this-world” better than a pair that costs $500 is a topic for another time.
What Devices Support WAV file Playback and Which Ones Don’t
Most MP3 players that have a micro SD card slot will be able to play WAV files. On the flip side, a player like Apple’s iPod doesn’t support the WAV file format. Although you can listen to them uncompressed within your iTunes library, they won’t transfer over to your iPod.
Apple does have it’s own version of lossless audio formats like the AAC and AIFF formats, but even then – an iPod Classic won’t play AIFF files. When you download an album from iTunes it comes in AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) format by default. They also tend to sound better than MP3s.
The majority of portable devices still support the MP3 format but devices that play WAV files have to be researched on a case-by-case basis. This is partly due to the larger amount of space that they take up and partially due to a simple lack of compatibility.
This isn’t to say that you have to spend a huge amount of money to experience higher-quality audio playback. There are plenty of affordable portable players (like the Sandisk 8GB Clip Jam MP3 Player) that support the WAV format.
When it comes to smartphones – most Android devices support WAV file playback. As of now, Apple’s iPhones do not support direct WAV playback. If you own an iPhone and want to play this type of file, you’ll have to first convert the file into another format. Unfortunately, that’s the only way to do it until they decide to change the compatibility.
Which One Should You Use?
If you’ve made it this far you’re probably wondering which file type you should use – and why. To answer this question, first you have to ask yourself what your goal during listening happens to be.
Consider This and Ask Yourself:
- Do you just need the waves of audio to enter your ear and set off your brain’s sensory system to get you through your day?
- Are you a melomaniac to the point where you come off as a “weirdo” or “music nerd” because you know too much about your favorite albums and artists?
- Maybe you don’t fit in either category but you’re interested in experiencing a higher level of sound quality.
If you fit the first description, I would recommend saving on storage space and sticking with MP3 listening.
My recommendation for those of you in the second category would be to do some self-experimentation. Try the side-by-side test we went over above and see which one you think sounds better. Keep in mind that if you’re planning to use your smartphone as your primary listening device, the WAV files will take up more space.
If You’re Just Curious…
Lastly, if you’re just curious about how big a difference it will actually make – the best way to find out is to give it a try! A lot of people out there have strong opinions about what headphones sound the best, what audio files produce the highest level of sound quality, and so on.
While there are some pretty clear cut rules of thumb, there’s no reason you can’t try it for yourself and reach your own conclusion. For example, going against the advice of others out of curiosity and trying less well-known pairs of headphones like the Status Audio CB-1 studio monitors can result in you being very pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, some of the other stubborn self-experimentation (against the recommendations of others) won’t produce a similar result (but hey, at least you gave it shot, right?).
Do you share a similar opinion? Do you think the world of audio is as cut-and-dry as some claim it to be? Will you try converting some of your audio files and trying a new file format, or are you just as happy sticking with MP3s?
Were you able to get a satisfying answer to your original question “What’s the difference between WAV and MP3?” or would you like some additional clarification? If you’d like some more information, feel free to ask your question below. Also, feel free to leave a comment below with your thoughts and opinions. I always do my best to respond as quickly as I can!
Thanks for stopping by to learn about new ways to listen to your favorite audio, I hope you enjoyed it!
Sonic Elevation: Ride The Waves.