Home > Articles > Home & Office Computing

Choosing the Right File Format for Your Digital Music

MP3, AAC, WMA, or FLAC? Lossy compression or lossless? Low bitrate or high? These are all important questions when ripping your CDs and building a big digital music library. In this article, Ultimate Digital Music Guide author Michael Miller walks you through all the options and helps you decide which is the right file format for your digital music.
Like this article? We recommend

When you’re building a digital music library – via either downloading or ripping from CD – you have some choices to make. First and foremost is the file format for your digital collection; which file format you choose determines, to some extent, which music player apps you can use, which portable music players or smartphones you can buy, and which music player hardware you can install. That’s because not every app or device is compatible with every available file format; rip your music in the wrong format and it won’t play on your iPhone or Sonos music player.

Part of the file format decision includes whether to go with lossy or lossless compression, and which bitrate to employ. There are compromises to be had; which is more important to you, audio quality or file size? Go with superior sound quality and you might not have enough storage space for your entire library. Go with smaller file size and your ears may notice the difference.

Which file format, compression, and bitrate should you choose? It depends to a large degree on what’s most important to you – and which compromises you’re willing to make.

Choosing Between Lossy and Lossless Compression

Let’s start with the issue of compression, because that drives the file format choice. Why is that? Because some file formats use lossy compression, and some use lossless compression. You have to make the choice between lossy and lossless to determine which file formats are available.

Some of you are no doubt wondering what this lossy/lossless stuff is. Well, it’s all about file size and audio quality – two issues that go hand in hand.

Uncompressed audio, such as what you have on a physical CD, results in very large file sizes. Think about it; a typical ten-song compact disc takes up between 350MB and 400MB of storage space. Now, there’s more than enough room on a CD for those ten track (you can store up to 800MB on a single CD), but that’s not the case with other storage media.

In particular, if you tried to store your entire music collection in its original uncompressed format on your 16GB iPhone, you’d run out of space somewhere around album number forty. It’s even an issue on personal computers; even though most new PCs come with 500GB (or larger) hard drives, if you have a very large music library, you’ll eat up that storage space sooner rather than later.

The solution, of course, is to compress audio files so that they have significantly smaller file sizes, and thus take up less storage space. The type and degree of compression used determines how much space savings you get.

Unfortunately, the compression you use also determines the resulting sound quality of the audio file. The more compression you use, the lower the fidelity. So if you need really small files (which you do for smartphone use), you end up with severely compromised musical playback. If you want to preserve some semblance of the original sound quality, then you have to use less compression – which produces larger files. Like I said, it’s a compromise.

When it comes to compression, then, you have three choices:

  • No compression. As you no doubt figured out for yourself, an uncompressed file offers the best audio quality – but at very large file sizes. This is not an option for most people.
  • Lossy compression. Lossy compression works by sampling the original audio file and removing those ranges of sounds that the average listener presumably can’t hear. This approach creates the smallest file sizes, but at noticeable degradation of audio quality. The amount of degradation depends on the type of compression used, the amount of compression used, and the bitrate at which the audio file was recorded. You’ll probably be forced to employ some form of lossy compression if you’re storing your music for playback on an iPhone or other portable device.
  • Lossless compression. If you care about audio fidelity, lossy compression just doesn't cut it. No matter high the sampling rate or how good the compression algorithm, lossy files don't sound quite as good as the originals. For serious music lovers, lossless compression is a better compromise in terms of audio quality vs. file size. Lossless audio compression works more or less like traditional computer ZIP compression; redundant bits are taken out to create the compressed file, which is then uncompressed for playback. So what you hear has exact fidelity to the original, while still being stored in a smaller-sized file. Of course, a lossless compressed file isn't as near small as a file with lossy compression; while a lossy file might be 10% the size of the original, uncompressed file, a file with lossless compression is typically about 50% the original's size. This is why lossless compression isn't recommended for portable music players, where storage space is limited – although it works just fine if you’re storing your library on a computer’s hard disk. (You can easily store 1,000 CDs on a 300GB hard disk, using any lossless compression format.)

So if you have all the disk space in the world (which you probably don’t), going the uncompressed route obviously yields the best sound. If disk space is at a premium, however, you want to go with some sort of lossy compression and accept the lower audio quality. And if you care about both sound quality and file size, consider some sort of lossless compression.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020