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Nerd Out Like a Real Audiophile - Here’s How Audio Works

So you have a incredible new pair of headphones, but are your audio files up to the challenge?

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Nerd Out Like a Real Audiophile - Here’s How Audio Works

By InMotion
May 15, 2018

InMotion’s curated headphone selection allows us to listen to music at high fidelity quality with the latest technologies--but have you ever thought about how any of it works? Even with the highest end product, low-quality audio files will hamper your listening experience. For those of us who aren’t audiophiles, we may not know the nitty-gritty of audio quality.

However, you can learn the basics to keep yourself informed:

  • How is audio recorded?
  • What types of audio formats are there?
  • What is bitrate?
  • What’s this about “compressed” and “uncompressed”?

How is audio recorded?

Audio recordings all start the same. The two main ways to record audio are analog and digital, which both involve a microphone turning sound into an electric analog signal.

Analog is the original, old-fashioned way of recording music before the rise of technology. Think of the 90s movies with the group of buddies popping a cassette tape into their car stereo or the couple dancing to a vinyl record.

audio recording

Now, the most popular way to distribute audio is through digital means. Digital recordings are created by converting analog signals into a series of numbers (computer language) that our computers can read. All digital audio can be stored as files and be distributed by compact disc or--the popular choice--online.

But not all digital audio files are created equal.

What types of audio formats are there?

MP3 is the most popular format that you could download from iTunes and other music sharing sites, but multiple formats exist. The easiest way to categorize is by lossy (compressed) or lossless (uncompressed) formats.

Format and bitrate (separate things) will determine the quality of your music and, as a result, your listening experience.

What is bitrate?

Bits are really small pieces of data that make up anything digital. So bitrate is the number of bits per second that can be processed by your music player whether that be through headphones that allow you to privately listen or through a speaker that plays music aloud like the JBL Flip 4.

JBL 4
‍Image courtesy of Facebook

Audio is measured by kbps (kilobits per second). The higher the kbps, the higher amount of sound information presented to the listener every second. To give you a frame of reference, the typical iTunes music file is about 256 kbps and lossless audio is about 1411 kbps. Bitrate is the amount of sound information per second that you hear--the higher the number, the richer the details.

High fidelity or “hi-fi” music has higher bitrates that could be played at full quality given a powerful listening device such as the Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H9i Bluetooth Wireless Over-Ear Headphones.

So what’s this about “compressed” and “uncompressed”?

With audio, compression refers to a process that can reduce file size for storage and sharing. Keep in mind that compression also implies decompression for when you want to open the contents of your files. Both lossy and lossless formats cut details from the original audio to minimize file size, but the type of format will determine how closely the decompressed file could replicate the original recording. The below formats some of the most notable and commonly used.

Lossy

Lossy formats create smaller files than lossless ones because they cut more details but just enough to be barely perceptible.

MP3

As the most popular digital audio file format, MP3s can be virtually be used on any machine that could play audio. Audio quality varies because higher bitrate MP3 files can produce hi-fi sound, but lower bitrate files don’t.

Advanced Audio Coding (AAC)

AAC tends to be more efficiently compressed (smaller) and produce better sound quality than a MP3 at the same bitrate. It’s compatible with less devices than MP3 but still widely usable.

Windows Media Audio (WMA)

Microsoft designed WMA to compete against MP3. Because it can be compressed at a higher bitrate like AAC, it’s still a commonly used format even though MP3 remains the most popular.

Lossless

Lossless formats are compressed so that they retain all the details of the original files without affecting sound quality.

Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC)

FLAC is a popular audio format like MP3 except it’s lossless so it reproduces the original source material.

Waveform Audio File (WAV)

Wave or .WAV is a Microsoft audio file format that’s meant to store uncompressed (raw) audio files. But it’s not for PCs only; it can also be used on Mac and Linux platforms!

Why don’t people use lossless all the time if it produces the highest quality sound?

Because lossless compression comes with larger file sizes that would take up too much space on portable music players to be feasible for most of us who want to store other files on our computer and phones such as software and apps. But you could still use it for your CDs!

Let’s catch up!

Most of us listen to music digitally. With digital recordings, audio files need to be stored in either lossy or lossless formats. Lossy format files replicate a step below the quality of the original recording while lossless format files could reproduce the original recording. These formats are separate from the bitrate. Bitrate determines the audio detail per second you hear. If we used lossless formats for portable music reasons, then we would have a more difficult time storing other nice things like software and apps on our devices.

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