Explain It Like I'm Five: Audio data compression

What is audio data compression?

To turn music into a digital file, the sound wave is turned into data. The resulting files often leave out finer audio details but are smaller, which was important when people stored their music on a computer hard drive or MP3 player.

Can I control how much is lost?

“Lossy” formats, like MP3s, have different bitrates — how much data is packed into each second of listening. Back in the day, if you popped a CD into your computer to convert it, the default setting was usually 128 kilobits per second (kbps), but you wanted 320 kbps for high-quality sound. There are also “lossless” formats, like FLAC and MQA, which are more practical now that hard drives are bigger and files can be saved on the cloud or streamed.

What quality am I listening to on streaming services?

Spotify says its “Normal” setting is roughly equivalent to 96 kbps, with “High” matching up to 160 kbps, and “Very High” to 320 kbps. Since 2021, Apple Music has streamed in its own proprietary file format that it claims to be lossless.

So I need lossless files for the best audio quality?

Yes, but you won’t hear a difference if you’re listening on laptop speakers or earbuds. Better headphones, car speakers, or a basic home theatre is when most people notice a difference between bitrates. If you have high-end gear where the difference between 320 kbps and FLAC matters, you’re probably an audiophile who isn’t reading this guide in the first place.

Where can I get lossless formats?

If you can’t use Apple Music, all Tidal memberships come with FLAC streaming. Spotify has been quiet about a “HiFi” subscription tier since announcing it in 2021, but new leaks suggest it is still in the works. Bandcamp lets you download lossless music, though it mostly hosts independent artists. And you can always convert CDs and records to high-quality files yourself.