AAC can’t compete with Wav or MP3 in sound quality

There’s been a lot of hype lately about Apple’s decision to start offering music in its iTunes store as non protected higher bit rate AAC files starting in May. I argued in an earlier post that as long as Apple keeps selling songs in AAC compressed format, it basically remains a protected song since you can’t do much with AAC except put the songs on your iPod. I know a lot of you Apple people believe that AAC is the defacto standard, but can you seriously see AAC music blogs popping up? There is a reason that most music available on the internet is in MP3 format. First off, it’s much more universal and you can use it on just about any audio device, from a home DVD player to a car stereo. Secondly, the sound quality is better than AAC.Audiophiles have complained forever about the loss of sound quality because of the compression and I’m not going to argue that. People complained about the warmth of a song on a vinyl record being lost when the cd came out, but going from cd to mp3 was a much bigger loss. Luckily bandwidth has improved so much in the last couple of years that downloading and using any music in less than 192Kbps is a complete waste of time. If more music was available in 320 Kbps we would have music that is audibly almost as good as the original wav file from a store bought cd.

Funny thing that with all this modern technology we are creating a whole generation of people who walk around listening to music with their ear buds that, in simple terms, is the difference between AM and FM radio. I remember joking that my dad had AM or Mono ears because he couldn’t tell the difference when stereo first came out.

Ironic how a whole generation grew up listening to High Fidelity records and cd’s and now the latest generation is growing up listening to lousy sound quality songs from the iTunes store. In my mind the record labels made a huge marketing mistake by not using the sound quality angle. Hey, you can drink a PBR or a nice micro brew. Both are beer, but they’re definitely not the same.

There is an audible difference between an AAC, MP3 and Wav file. Try it at home with a song that you have from the original store bought cd, then make a MP3 version of the song and after that download the same song in AAC format from the iTunes store. Unless you have mono ears like my dad, you’ll hear a clear difference.

If you still don’t believe me, I imported the “Nickodemus” song “Cleopatra In New York – Karuan Remix” into Adobe Audition and you can visually see the difference in quality.

If you’re going to compress your music, only use the highest bit rate MP3 your computer and hard drive can handle. MP3 needs to become the defacto standard in compression. Don’t use AAC. Don’t use WMA.

wav song file

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31 Comments

  1. I did my comparisons and found the ACC format to have much better quality than WAV or MP3 and using less KBS. Love the ACC format and I’m converting all my MP3’s to ACC. Love the new Itunes DRM free music.

    • You idiot you can’t make your mp3’s better by converting them to AAC. In fact the more you convert your files the worse they will be. AAC is not much better than most mp3’s, and some mp3’s are better than AAC.

      To skip all of that nonsense, I only download FLAC, or WAV, or I rip songs directly from the CD I own from their PCM format, which is identical to the original WAV format in which it was recorded, to WAV or FLAC. WAV and FLAC are the only truly lossless formats, ALAC isn’t truly lossless because it is usually converted twice to become ALAC. Which sucks.

      CD quality music is 16 bit, 44100mhz. WAV and FLAC will play on the Sansa ClipZip +, a cheap and expandable FLAC, WAV, and MP3 player. iPods do not play FLAC.

  2. Sure. The reason the files are smaller is because they are even more compressed than MP3’s. Why would you pay $1.39 for an AAC file that’s watermarked with your personal info while you can get a 256kbps MP3 file from Amazon for 89 cents? This is what happens to people who drink the Steve Jobs Cool Aid! They pay twice as much for a computer and pay a premium for music from the iTunes store. Guess it’s the price for membership.

  3. There is a major difference in quality between ACC format and WAV. Even those whom don’t have the benefit of working in multiple formats can hear and sense the difference immediately when listening to the two side by side. The generalizations of the above responders indicate to this reader that they haven’t truly paid any attention to either the quality and ambiance a quality recording holds. There is no way, with even the best compression algorithms you can compare something like ACC (bit rate 128kps) to WAV (at 1411kps). Theres just to much data being lost in ACC. Kudo’s to Apple for trying but they are selling to the mindless masses (and why not). MS has done it for a whole generation. Why not Apple?

  4. Funny article. Some of it doesn’t even make sense. It seems like the writer just doesn’t like Apple and Microsoft (AAC and WMA).

    By the way people, AAC does not belong or was invented by Apple. It just happened to be the format they use. Sony and Nintendo are other users of the format. I’m audio and software engineer and have been analyzing compression formats since the 90’s. AAC is more effective than MP3 but obviously not better than uncompressed WAV files.

  5. Funny article. Some of it doesn’t even make sense. It seems like the writer just doesn’t like Apple and Microsoft (AAC and WMA).

    By the way people, AAC does not belong or was invented by Apple. It just happened to be the format they use. Sony and Nintendo are other users of the format. I’m audio and software engineer and have been analyzing compression formats since the 90’s. AAC is more effective than MP3 but obviously not better than uncompressed WAV files.

  6. “Ironic how a whole generation grew up listening to High Fidelity records and cd’s and now the latest generation is growing up listening to lousy sound quality songs from the iTunes store.”

    Not sure of your background, but I grew up listening to music on a crappy Sanyo boombox with a dual tape deck. Before that, it was the radio in my Mom’s ’82 Toyota Corolla. What about people even older than me? Some of their favourite songs they heard in mono on a single speaker radio. Most of the rock music that has been deemed “classic” was heard by kids on a 45rpm single on a department store sourced turntable (which was mono for your information). Since when did the overall fidelity of the recording have anything to do with whether it’s a good song? I can listen to my favourite songs on tape, 8-track, LP, CD, 128 MP3 and it still moves me. I think you should sit back an analyze what it is you actually like about music, if anything at all. Why do you think tape traders could care less if something was recorded direct-to-board or with a handheld $5 mic? They want the music, at all costs, and are prepared to make sacrifices in order to hear it. You probably don’t know what I mean though.

  7. My first radio was a tube radio that took 15 minutes to warm up before I could listen to an AM radio station. I think I’ve got you beat in age by a large margin. I don’t think you get the point that I was trying to make. All I was saying is that after years of moving people to high fidelity sound we are now being spoon fed lower sound quality songs by stores like iTunes. We’re being asked to pay a lot more for a lot less! My post was about the sound quality of the music, not whether some scratchy tape recording of a live Dead show that you recorded in Oakland in ’77 is better listening than the original LP it was recorded on because you made a ‘sacrifice’ to get.

  8. For my portable media player I use flac encoded files, which is a lossless format. For my car stereo I listen to AAC-LC at 420kbps, which is a lossy format. BTW, anyone who claims that a 320kbps mp3 is cd quality is incorrect, I’ve read this claim on plenty of websites out there. Wav, WMA and AAC can be encoded in either lossy or lossless formats. But a lot of portable media players and car stereos likely won’t be capable of playing lossless format. The file size of lossless format is, at the least, ten times bigger than any lossy format which is the main reason the industry hasn’t bothered to make lossless readable by car or portable media players.

    As far as aac versus mp3 is concerned, at 320kbps the aac files have a slight edge in that there is a slightly better separation and definition in the instruments and vocals. Whereas mp3 files result in a slight mudding of the instruments and vocals. Your not likely to notice any difference, however, on lower quality headphones or car speakers. Audio equipment that can more accurately reproduce a signal will expose the differences in file compression formats, as well as a cd quality lossless format. So, if you do have better quality audio equipment I might suggest pairing that equipment with a proper lossy format.

  9. Oh, and 128kbps compression in mp3, or in aac, or in wav, or whatever standard is a horrid sounding bloody format.

  10. Interesting article, but let me inform you about this; All music nowadays is recorded at 440hz which means simply put 440 vibrations per second. Around 70 years ago the music standerd changed from 432Hz to 440Hz! Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels decided in 1939 to set via the “International Standardizing Congress”, but no prominent musician was to agree at that time and were therefore not invited to this conference. 23,000 French musicians signed a referendum for the preservation of 432Hz standard and there is still fighting for this universal and natural frequency to get back in our contemporary music. You can easely change your 440hz music back to 432hz with a free program like audicity, just change the pitch -1,776 and you will have succesfully changed it. Feel the difference yourself and get your mind back in tune! Spread the word, Peace

  11. What i forgot to mention, is that converting mp3 files doesn’t allways give you the disired result and can result in a poor quality conversion. Best way is ;to convert the mp3 to wav, then select this file (ctrl+a) and change the pitch -1,776, and save this file as wav again. After this you can convert it back to mp3 without loss of quality. This is truly worth it and you will notice right away that the music doesn’t hurt your ears anymore like it used to at 440hz. The original Stradivarius violin was designed to resonate at 432hz. More quality: 432Hz has greater resonance, carries the sound further and sounds bigger and warmer
    and truly makes one relax listening to it. Good luck to all who will try this out! Peace

    • Good point! I totally agree. The latest version of iTUnes is so bloated, it’s ridiculous. If you buy a new iPod or iPhone they force you to upgrade to the latest version of iTunes, otherwise you can’t activate them. I can’t believe that they aren’t looking into antitrust issues here.

  12. Richard,

    440hz is the commonly (modern) accepted pitch for the note “A.” Back in Stradivarius’ time, the pitch for an “A” was around 432hz. Many replicas of renaissance and baroque wind instruments are available at the lower pitch.

    That being said, 440hz has nothing to do with the sampling bit rate (i.e.: 128, 190, 256kb/s) that is being discussed here. That’s sort of like people discussing which fruit they like best and someone chiming in to say, “orange is my favorite color!” Totally out of context.

    That being said, can you tell me where you get whatever it is you’re smoking?

  13. Richard,

    Oh, I DO agree with you totally that music performed (whether recorded or not) with a 432hz “A” is much more pleasing and comfortable to the ear. I never thought of changing the pitch on any of my ripped files! I have to try that. Thanks for the great idea!

  14. Just came across this posting while doing a search. I hope the author has since learned that AAC is a superior audio compression format (and the successor to MP3). I won’t argue the universal acceptance of MP3 however that does not make it a better format (this is like arguing beta vs vhs all over again). And I’d note that as AAC is easily playable on any PC as well as the most popular personal music device, the iPod (and the Zune for that matter) it is a good choice.

    I thought it was pretty hilarious that there was a comparison done of waveform displays in Adobe Audition given that it was a useless exercise. Good laugh though for sure.

    Last thing…AAC compresses better than MP3. At any given bit rate AAC will sound better than MP3 given the maturity of the codecs for both formats at this point (early 2009). It simply does a better job on the audio than MP3.

  15. Without debating whether or not AAC, MP3, and WAV really do have noticeable differences in sound quality, I’d like to point out that even if they do have differences, it’s not like most people could hear them. Most people listen to music on crappy iPod headphones or inexpensive computer speakers played through a soundcard that is so-so at best, and don’t really listen closely to the music. So if they can’t hear the difference, should they waste the extra hard drive space with WAV? No. So they go with MP3 or AAC. And those people make up the majority of Apple iTunes Store users, so guess what format the store’ll be using? The one that pleases the greatest # of customers. The smaller filesize also allows people to fit more songs on their harddrive–which Apple believes will translate to people buying more songs from them.

  16. Very good read. I agree with some info and don’t agree on the rest. I did learn a new thing today (440 mhz vs. 432), in which I am going to experiment with. The couple of instances here that bug me are… With the technology that we have today in so many things are incredible! The fact that we can put a ton of music on a 1gb is awesome. But with storage space on these small audio pieces getting bigger and bigger. Why waste that much space on “low quality”, “compressed” music? Then the fact that almost all “car stereos” now will play almost every single format of music, wether it be wav, mp3, wma, or acc. Even stock car radios are on this band wagon. Also depending on the radio you can even hook up a portable hard drive to them. My point is , we all want more music with us at all times, but why settle for a million crappy recordings when we can have a few hundred GREAT recordings? Who is gonna listen to or get bored with more than a hundred songs during a car ride or a jog?
    Thanks for the small rant.

  17. Also I would like to add the fact I used to be a huge nut about being able to put a ton of songs on to a cd. It was so bad I downloaded “anything” above 128. And it wasn’t until recently (past 2 years) I really noticed a difference, and at that point I started caring a lot more of the quality of songs I put on my computer. It was in my CAR that I noticed small imperfections in the music and the pure degradation of songs. And if you are not careful in the selection of quality of the music that you play on any speaker you could risk the possibilty of damaging the speakers. Because in a lot of cases these imperfections in sound can be registered as distortion, and we all know that distortion can f things up including ears.

  18. Ok lets set something straight here. for those of you who have never heard music played on an old Krell CD player or the Old Famour Linn sondek turntable via a decent $200,000 Valve amp or a powerful Class A amplifier, fed to something like a set or martin Logan speakers, then everything you write here is absolute rubbish.

    Millions of dollars are spent by studios to ensure that musical integrity depth width and height is maintained in the music. You simply CANNOT get this from listening to any compressed music through headphones.

    Do you know whay your ear has the shape it does? because sounds emanating from diferent locations in space around your hear bounce off differnt bits of flesh on your ear and this gives them a subtlke and distict “colour” to the sound. This lets your brain identifu that ther sounds are coming from above, below and behind your head.

    Good musical engineering uses these varioations to and fakes them on a recording, so when the sound comes out of speakers your ear can be fooled into developiong a 3D image of the soundstage. These subtle varioations are heavily distorted or losty in a format that uses a lossy codec.

    The cm=mpression algorithms today are designed around the masses, ie, how much data can we lose that wont be noticed by the majority of listeneers, or those who dont care.

    For me I will only listen to REAL recordings on CD or PCM audio for video recordings.

    Everything outside of this scop is a PORTABLE FORMAT, with definite compromises and it is what it is, convenience.

    You can records the intensity and dynamic impact of a concert on a cd with a massive dynamic range, you simply CANNOT do this on a mp3 or aac without losing information.

    Some like to view art in person up close and about a metre away, to view the artists strokes, where pressure was applied, and all the nuances of what they were trying to communicate, others are happy to look at the same artwork as a picture in a magazine. Surely this is not the same thing, and neither is music recorded on a compressed format

    So I hope that puts an end to this conversation,

  19. Herc, in future perhaps you could make more of an effort to understand the topic in discussion so that you don’t waste your time making such an ass of yourself. Everyone here knows that compressed music isn’t as good as the original source. The topic in discussion is which compression format is superior. So thanks for your patronising arrogant tirade, but it’s completely irrelevant

  20. By design, MP3 is not transparent at even its highest bitrate. AAC is a superior algorithm and achieves transparency at around 160kbps. And 128kbps AAC vs 128kbps MP3 – AAC wins hands down.

  21. yes, formats formats formats. yes sir, formats compared with other formats. doodly doo.

  22. So you can spend a couple of extra dollars and get a studio cd that obvious its going to be better its a studio press, that’s like arguing if a tape recording off a turntable is as good as the studio LP. What I’m wondering is if the music it’s self doesn’t have much dynamic range, does it matter so much to download an acc iTune album? Would a garage band with noise anyway loose as much quality as to a symphony that is void of white noise on acc or mp3? Not because one is better in quality I just mean the amount of noise and diffrent pitches. Myself if I really like the artist I always get the CD, sometimes I download from iTunes and I listen on decent equipment and I notice but I still ENJOY the music. I hate the people that get the most crappy bit rate to cram songs but at higher rates it’s not so bad it’s like record to tape recordings. Truth is you can usually order the real CD cheaper used, and sometimes new than you can from iTunes anyway. And yes most people are dumbells that couldn’t give two turds if their music has quality sound as long as they can bob their heads to Justin Beiber and Lady Ga Ga who don’t have a sound to REALLY listen to anyway.

  23. I first prefer wav or flac or alac, then I prefer aac vs mp3 (I enjoy a 160 vbr aac and a 320 mp3 equally) If space is not a problem, wav. If you go portable and have tons of tracks, go aac. And one very important thing: music of iTunes store is NOT the same quality as you’d get compressing the real cd at the bitrate the store uses by yourself. Try it please and don’t say aac sounds bad but music from the store sounds bad (imho)

  24. Wow, quite a lot of ill informed information posted on here.

    Lossy compression does NOT effect the dynamic range of a recording! Dynamic compression and lossy compression are 2 completely different things. Dynamic compression occurs in the studio when the person mastering the audio wants to make the track louder, he/she does so by reducing the differences between the quiet sounds and the louder sounds, which then allows him/her to increase the overall volume of the track without causing any digital clipping.

    Lossy compression on the other hand looks at individual frames of the track and using a set of rules (an algorithm) does it best to remove sounds that it does not expect the human ear to hear because they’re being masked by other sounds.

    Both Mp3 (LAME) and AAC do a spectacular job of this.

    Anybody that tells you that they can spot an obvious difference between a well encoded lossy file and a lossless file because the dynamic range has been altered, is talking absolute nonsense.

  25. Hey,
    I’ve experimented with wav,mp3,AAC ,bit rates etc both studio and live and I reckon mp3 at 320k stereo is as close to WAV through a PA rig as you can get.dint really notice we were missing any tonal qualities although someone mentioned earlier punch…didnt really notice that missing either but I’m not recording major Sub bass etc….
    Don’t use my acoustic guitar stuff as an example of what I’m talking about,I’m talking big full band recording !!

  26. Strange to compare with only a waveform of an audio editing tool.
    Kind of thing easily compensate by a proper plugin.

    If you want to go with an “objective” comparison, the spectrum analysis permit to see some kind of info much more relevant like the frequencies cut.

    Other way, abx is the real thing for a personal collection.

  27. Old post, but it’s funny that he claims the mp3 waveform looks better when in fact the AAC waveform more closely matches the original WAV waveform.

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